‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’: this is a slogan which, since the French Revolution, has been seen as foundational to how we think about modern politics.

But while the concepts of liberty and equality have been the traditional focus of political theorists and historians, fraternity has not received as much attention as it deserves. It is this oversight which Dr. Shruti Kapila, fellow of Corpus Christi College and lecturer in History, addresses in her new book on Indian political thought.

Kapila’s historical research is animated by her belief in the autonomy of ideas. “India is seen as one of the most ‘political’ societies in the world, and we have very influential political actors; but what about thinkers?” she says.

“I was convinced that key figures such as Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, and Sardar Patel have to be treated not merely as men of action, but also as political thinkers.”

“Reviving the concept of fraternity is crucial given we now live in an increasingly globalised and connected world.”

“Indian historiography has been very reluctant to look at intellectual history because it often focuses on the social and economic—the materialist. This is why my approach might be seen as counterintuitive in terms of the historiography. But I would argue that ideas are also incredibly material and powerful things. I wanted to give the power of ideas its due,” she says.

For Kapila, reviving the concept of fraternity is crucial given we now live in an increasingly globalised and connected world.

While the language of nationalism in the West has always been about the politics of exclusion against “the foreigner” - or between friend and enemy - this way of thinking about politics is less helpful in a global order within which we are forced to live together and reckon with diversity. In short, where there is no escaping “the Other”.

Kapila argues Indian political thought invites us to rethink our global political order. “India is instructive not only because it is the largest democracy in the world, but also because it is a state with staggering regional, linguistic, and religious diversity: it has the largest minority Muslim population in the world, for instance,” she says.

The concept of fraternity took on a particular significance in India precisely because Indian thinkers were deeply engaged with questions of political coexistence in the face of antagonism, hatred, and violence among diverse groups.

“India is a microcosm of the global,” she stresses, arguing this is what allows her to claim that the political thought of India is consequential for the world.

“Enmity, the idea of the political enemy,” Kapila tells me, “went through a fundamental change in India at the turn of the twentieth century. It turned inwards, towards the known and intimate; in India the notion of intimacy became fundamental to the notion of enmity.”

She explains that this was why in 1947, as India gained its independence, political violence did not take place against former British colonial officials—spared because they were considered “meaningless” in this new conceptual vocabulary—but rather took the form of deadly fratricides between Hindus and Muslims. In this sense, political violence had become internalised and fraternised.

This, continues Kapila, signifies an alternative view of politics that conceives of violence as residing in the realm of the fraternal, rather than in the modern state - and it is a view which is becoming increasingly relevant in recent years.

“It is no longer clear that the modern state holds a monopoly on violence. Although enmity conventionally occurs between states, it has become much more fratricidal: just look at terrorism, civil war, and everyday instances of violence”. Indian political thought offers ideas and concepts which we can use to reassess our new world and which, Kapila warns, we ignore “at our own peril”.

The product of over a decade’s worth of work examining memoirs, letters, speeches, and archives, Kapila’s project represents a broader attempt to construct a new canon of political thought: one that takes global intellectual history seriously.

“Historians of political thought have rarely looked at the non-West. We often assume that all of the original thinking was done in the West, and that ideas spread from the West to the East or to the Global South where there is little originality,” she argues.


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“But I have tried to situate non-Western political thought at the centre of modern life. My work shows that in the case of India, the modern state is not the ‘destination’ of political thought in the way that the history of western political thought is often interpreted.”

What emerges from Shruti’s historical arguments is the subtle claim that if we are to better understand our global age, we might do well to draw upon global sources of our intellectual heritage. To begin from Gandhi’s perspective rather than Hobbes’ is to consider modernity from a potentially more instructive point of view.

Dr. Shruti Kapila’s book, Violent Fraternity in the Indian Age, will be published in May 2021 by Princeton University Press.