Cover image for Decolonizing Democracy: Transforming the Social Contract in India By Christine Keating

Decolonizing Democracy

Transforming the Social Contract in India

Christine Keating


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Decolonizing Democracy

Transforming the Social Contract in India

Christine Keating

“Christine Keating has made me think afresh about not only Locke and Hobbes but even Pateman. This rich exploration of the deals made and resisted as British colonial elites and Indian nationalists and feminists crafted the new Indian state will be valuable for anyone interested in democracy, postcolonial politics, and the gendering of both.”


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Most democratic theorists have taken Western political traditions as their primary point of reference, although the growing field of comparative political theory has shifted this focus. In Decolonizing Democracy, comparative theorist Christine Keating interprets the formation of Indian democracy as a progressive example of a “postcolonial social contract.” In doing so, she highlights the significance of reconfigurations of democracy in postcolonial polities like India and sheds new light on the social contract, a central concept within democratic theory from Locke to Rawls and beyond. Keating’s analysis builds on the literature developed by feminists like Carole Pateman and critical race theorists like Charles Mills that examines the social contract’s egalitarian potential. By analyzing the ways in which the framers of the Indian constitution sought to address injustices of gender, race, religion, and caste, as well as present-day struggles over women’s legal and political status, Keating demonstrates that democracy’s social contract continues to be challenged and reworked in innovative and potentially more just ways.
“Christine Keating has made me think afresh about not only Locke and Hobbes but even Pateman. This rich exploration of the deals made and resisted as British colonial elites and Indian nationalists and feminists crafted the new Indian state will be valuable for anyone interested in democracy, postcolonial politics, and the gendering of both.”
“If you think you’ve seen every variation of social contract theory, think again. In this innovative work—which both draws upon and goes beyond Carole Pateman’s ‘sexual contract’ and my ‘racial contract’—Christine Keating shows what illuminating insights can be generated when the classic contract model is critically revised to theorize gender, caste, and religious domination in colonial and postcolonial India. The result is a book that should be of interest not just to comparativists but to all those political theorists seeking to develop a contractarianism more relevant to and useful for the world we actually live in.”
“[Decolonizing Democracy] is a rich exploration of British colonial legacies in India. . . . Keating’s call for political action and constitutional reforms [is] certainly progressive and this book can contribute towards the rise of such movements in India. This is a recommendable book for many reasons and students of Indian history and Asian colonialism can find it an interesting piece of historical examination.”
“This book is a clearly written, thought-provoking inquiry into India’s democracy. . . . Decolonizing Democracy makes one think. It offers a refreshing framework for understanding power, and it raises many questions. For anyone interested in the complex nature of India’s contemporary democracy and its swelling resistance movements, this is an important and fascinating book.”

Christine Keating is Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at The Ohio State University.



Introduction: Decolonizing Democracy

1 Fraternalist and Paternalist Approaches to Colonial Rule

2 Resistant Convergences: Anticolonial Feminist Nationalism

3 Framing the Postcolonial Social Contract

4 Challenging Political Marginalization: The Women’s Reservation Bill

5 Legal Pluralism and Gender Justice

Conclusion: Building a Nondomination Contract





Decolonizing Democracy

December 9, 1946, was an extraordinary day in the history of democracy. On that day, Indian delegates to the Constituent Assembly, the body convened to frame a new constitution for an India free from British colonial rule, met for the first time. The task before the Constituent Assembly, as the future prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared in his opening speech, was the forging of a new, more egalitarian model of democracy, what he called the “fullest democracy,” which would abolish discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, and sex. Despite this pledge, however, the Assembly produced a deeply ambiguous constitution that perpetuated the legal subordination of women and the political marginalization of both women and minority groups, even while it asserted gender, racial, caste, and religious equality as a fundamental right.

Why, when the framers were intent on building an inclusive, egalitarian democracy, did they produce a constitution that so compromised justice for women and minority groups? In this book, I argue that this contradictory outcome is in part linked to what could be called a politics of compensatory domination in which political authorities seek to build consent to their rule by consolidating and/or enabling forms of intergroup and intragroup rule. The central normative argument of this book is that the ongoing project of making our political relations more democratic requires challenging this politics of compensatory domination.

In making this argument, I analyze the reconfiguration of what Carole Pateman and Charles Mills call, respectively, the sexual and racial contracts underpinning liberal democratic theory in the transition to independence in India. I suggest that the racialized fraternal democratic order Pateman and Mills describe was significantly challenged by the nationalist and feminist struggles against British colonialism in India but was reshaped into what I call a postcolonial social contract by the framers of the new Indian constitution. I explore contemporary struggles that link struggles for gender and minority group justice in ways that challenge the contradictions embedded in the contract and point the way to more just configurations of democratic solidarity.

Approach: Critical Contract Theory

As an approach to understanding political life, social contract theory focuses on the terms and conditions of consent to political authority. Social contract theorists address a central question: Why, if we are all free and equal, would a person accept being ruled by others? The urgency of this question arose in part when political and social upheavals debunked distinctions such as noble birth, the divine right of kings, or the natural rule of the father as adequate justification for political authority. Instead, political theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, in The Leviathan, and John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government, argued that legitimate political authority is grounded in an agreement among equals—a social contract—in which citizens consent to exchange their natural freedom for the order and protection a government supposedly can provide.

This project is written in the methodological vein of what might be called critical social contract theory, a subset of social contract theory. While Hobbes and Locke suggest that it is in our best interests to submit to political authority, theorists more critical of such an agreement use a social contract approach to point to less benign reasons why supposedly free and equal people might agree to obey the state. For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Carole Pateman in The Sexual Contract, and Charles Mills in The Racial Contract retell contract stories in order to uncover the operative power relations in the polity and the values that justify them. Instead of seeking to legitimate political authority, these critical social contract theorists ask the following kinds of questions: What are the terms and conditions of the social contract? What groups are included or excluded as signatories of such a contract? Does the social contract benefit some groups over others? These questions help to elucidate, in the words of Charles Mills, the “non-ideal contract at the heart of the ideal contract.” According to Rousseau, for example, the social contract generates a political order that protects the property of the rich. In contemporary political theory, Pateman and Mills argue that the often hidden motivations for the transference of political sovereignty from self to state include the consolidation of gender and racial power. For Pateman and Mills, respectively, the social contract is both a sexual and a racial contract.

In Pateman’s framing, a sexual contract that organizes men’s exploitive access to women’s sexuality and labor underlies the social contract. For Pateman, although the social contract disrupted the paternal patriarchal rule of the father in Western political theory by holding that all men should be considered equal, it reaffirmed the rule of the sons—the brothers—over women and thus heralded a new, specifically fraternal patriarchal order. In The Racial Contract, Charles Mills underscores the limited membership of this fraternity—it is restricted to whites. He asserts that the social contract is not only a sexual but also a racial contract in that it “establishes a racial polity, a racial state, and a racial juridical system, where the status of whites and non-whites is clearly demarcated, whether by law or custom.”

Social contract theorists have used a variety of narrative devices to make their arguments. These often involve telling social contract stories, stories that describe an agreement that establishes the terms and conditions of political association in a polity. These can be real events or they can be conjectural. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, for example, all ask us to imagine a state of nature out of which people agree to come together in political community. In his influential book A Theory of Justice, John Rawls describes a hypothetical situation in which participants are ignorant of their particularities as they seek to agree on terms of justice that will link them in their political solidarity. In The Sexual Contract, Carole Pateman analyzes the work of political theorists in her narrative of the origins of a sexual contract in Western liberal political thought. Charles Mills takes a different approach in The Racial Contract and combines both theoretical and historical analysis to trace the development of a racial contract. The social contract story told in this book has its roots in historical and contemporary events and is drawn from primary and secondary accounts of these events, with a particular focus on the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly and parliamentary debates in India. In using documents such as these to tell the story of the postcolonial social contract, I follow the example of Jane Flax, who, in The American Dream in Black and White, analyzes the transcripts of the Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings in order to examine the interplay of race and gender in American democracy. Flax argues that these hearings should be understood as “political dramas” whose “characters, story lines, and dialogue, both overt and covert,” illuminate the tremendous amount of work involved in maintaining the racial and sexual contracts that underlie U.S. democracy. My own approach traces historical events in India such as the consolidation of British colonial rule, the struggle for independence, the framing of the new constitution, and contemporary debates over women’s legal and political status as crucial scenes in a social contract drama in which the actors negotiate and rewrite the terms and conditions of democratic governance.

The stories embedded within social contract theory are not meant to be either literal or fictional—indeed, Pateman refers to them as “conjectural histories”—instead, the stories provide a conceptual framework for understanding political relations. Charles Mills explains that the contract “provides an iconography, a set of images, that is immensely powerful and appealing, in large measure because it makes most salient, in simplified and abstract form, the modern idea of society and all its various institutions and practices (the state, the legal system) as human creations. . . . [It provides,] at the basic level of a conceptual framework, a picture, a story, an overarching optic for thinking about the socio-political.” In my own argument, for example, I do not hold that the Indian Constituent Assembly convened in order to draw up a postcolonial social contract, but I do suggest that the postcolonial social contract is “real” in that it structures political and social relations among people. In writing conjectural histories, critical contract theory shares with a genealogical approach an interest in generating what Michel Foucault calls “counter-memories.” Whereas genealogy distances itself from a search for origins, however, critical contract theory constructs origin stories in order to elucidate power relations.

Taking inspiration from the insights of feminists like Kimberlé Crenshaw, who emphasizes that processes of race and gender (and of group subordination in general) cannot be understood in isolation from one another, as well as from Pateman and Mills themselves, who argue that the racial and sexual contracts must be considered together, this study analyzes the close links between the racial and sexual contracts in a postcolonial context. This project thus highlights ways in which relations of intra- and intergroup subordination often constitute or buttress political authority.

As important as the ways in which racial and sexual contracts function together are the ways in which people resist the power inequities engendered by these intersecting sexual and racial contracts. Critical contract theory has been very useful in elucidating how concepts such as “freedom” and “equality” have been compatible with subordination in democratic polities. The emphasis on exposing the deep-rooted nature of racism and sexism in democratic theory and practice, however, has generally come at the expense of attention to questions of resistance. Although both Pateman and Mills acknowledge the presence—and thus the possibility—of resistance, they do not substantially address oppositional practices and movements and their effects on the contracts in their theories; the contracts, as Nancy Fraser observed in her review of The Sexual Contract, thus seem “impervious to resistance and change.” By analyzing the reworking of democracy’s racial and sexual contracts in Indian independence, this study centers on questions of resistance by asking the following questions: In what ways did challenges to the racial contract in the struggle against colonialism in India engender challenges to the sexual contract, and vice versa? How did the Constituent Assembly consolidate or compromise these challenges to the racial and sexual contracts in the new postcolonial democracy they forged? How are the struggles against gender, caste, and minority group subordination linked in contemporary politics? Exploring these questions can point to ways in which the racial and sexual contracts are open to challenge and contestation.

By reconfiguring the racialized and gendered terms and conditions of rule, the postcolonial social contract that emerged during the transition to independence in India can be thought of as both a postcolonial racial contract and a postcolonial sexual contract. Whereas the sexual and racial contracts that Pateman and Mills describe are primarily domination contracts, however, the postcolonial racial and sexual contracts are both liberation and domination contracts. On the one hand, for example, the very act of writing the Indian constitution in 1946 constituted a radical rejection of the racialized logic of colonial rule, which held that Indians were not “ready” for democratic self-rule. Further marking the postcolonial racial contract in India as a liberation contract, the Indian constitution expressly forbids discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or caste. On the other hand, however, the framers consolidated Hindu political hegemony by rejecting measures that would have ensured adequate political representation for minority groups, in particular for Muslims, thus reinscribing the racial contract as, in part, a domination contract. The postcolonial sexual contract embedded in the Indian postcolonial social contract has similarly contradictory impulses. On the one hand, it is liberating, in that it removes formal restrictions to public political life for women and enshrines equality on the basis of sex as a fundamental right. On the other hand, it functions as a domination contract in that it affirms and consolidates women’s legal subordination in the areas of property ownership, inheritance, marriage, and divorce.

In contrast to the ways that sexual and racial contracts submerge the contradiction between democracy’s ethos of equality and the reality of gender and racial subordination, the clauses in the Indian constitution that assert gender, race, religious, and caste equality leave these contradictions exposed and thus open to challenge by subordinate groups pressing for justice. I explore such challenges in this book and suggest that they point the way toward an expressively egalitarian reformulation of the social contract that enables and fosters the participatory construction of social and political solidarity.

Compensatory Domination

In Contract and Domination, Pateman notes that “the point of the social contract is that in the modern state individuals give up their right of self-government to another or a few others.” In her earlier work, Pateman notes that the paradigmatic agreement in social contract theory is quite particular (and peculiar): it is a promise to obey. One of the strengths of radical or critical contract theory is that it helps to explain why people in positions of power and privilege along lines of class, gender, and race might agree to be ruled by others—it is in their interest to do so insofar as the state backs up that power and privilege. But why would those who lack such advantages submit to that rule? For Pateman and Mills, women and people of color, respectively, do not agree to be ruled, because they are in fact excluded from the contract—they are subject to it but not subjects of it. The submission of subordinate groups to the terms and conditions of exclusionary contracts is achieved by force and by ideological conditioning, not by free consent. Rousseau points to an additional possibility—that marginalized groups (the poor and propertyless) acquiesce in the authority of a law that shackles their freedom because “looking more below them than above them, domination becomes more dear to them than independence, and they consent to wear chains in order to be able to give them in turn to others.” In Rousseau’s view, in other words, subordinate groups allow themselves to be ruled by those above them so as to rule those below them (whether in the present or in the future hope of such rule).

While Rousseau’s formulation is helpful in directing attention to substate relations of rule, its explanatory power rests in part on the implicit assumption that the desire to dominate is inherent in human beings and that the ruling classes can “trick” the poor into submitting to class rule by exploiting this desire. I argue, by contrast, that the impulse to rule is constructed and that state actors often use ideological conditioning (and sometimes force) to pressure or entice dominant members of a structurally subordinate group to exercise command as part of the process of manufacturing consent, or at least of establishing acquiescence. In colonial India, for example, where customs and practices related to gender were extremely heterogeneous and plural—some more egalitarian than others—the British actively shaped and imposed as law particularly inegalitarian gender relations. The British could thus present the racial contract as a fraternal bargain: what colonized men lost in political power they could regain in masculinist control over the family. Note, however, that this is not by any means a “natural” or “traditional” form of control but rather one that was coercively imposed. In this configuration of racial rule, gains in masculinist power compensated (however inadequately) for loss of political power along ethnic and racial lines. I call this the politics of “compensatory domination.”

I would suggest that in addition to ideology and force, compensatory domination is a third component that promotes submission to inequitable social contracts. According to James Scott, we have to differentiate between settings in which a thick version of hegemony (grounded in consent) might obtain and those in which a thin version, or even, in his words, a “paper-thin” version, of hegemony (grounded in resignation or resignation only under certain conditions) might obtain. I argue that the logic of compensatory domination acts as a “thickening agent” for conservative social and political formations by generating investments in hegemonic configurations of rule.

The notion of compensatory domination provides three linked lines of inquiry to pursue toward the goal of challenging inequitable forms of rule. The first focuses on the state: In what ways have state actors supported or consolidated relations of domination within and between groups in order to secure the state’s authority? The second line of inquiry is closely related to the first but focuses on subordinated groups’ own stakes in a social contract that sets the terms and conditions for their own marginalization or oppression: In what ways have oppressed groups allowed themselves to be ruled in exchange for ruling over others? The third line of inquiry focuses on the possibilities of resistance: In what ways have challenges to compensatory domination destabilized inequitable relations of rule?

While the concept of compensatory domination implies complicity on the part of subordinate groups in their own domination (albeit highly coerced complicity), it also suggests the possibility of resistance (albeit highly constrained): If one has consented to inequitable rule, one can refuse that rule as well. Indeed, as a corollary to his assertion that people agree to be ruled in order to rule others, Rousseau notes that “it is very difficult to reduce to obedience someone who does not seek to command.” As I show in this book, the struggle for Indian independence is one illustration of the tremendous power of collective refusal of the politics of compensatory domination; as we shall see, the nationalist and feminist refusal of masculinist control over women played an important role in the success of the struggle against British colonialism.

Learning from Indian Politics

This book looks at India from the early eighteenth century to the present, analyzing through the lens of critical contract theory the politics of colonialism, nationalism, and contemporary struggles for gender, caste, and communal justice. It makes sense, for several reasons, to focus on India in a study of postcolonial democracy and the reconfiguration of the racial and sexual contracts. First, the successful struggle against colonial rule in India—a direct challenge to the racial contract that held that people of color were not fit for self-rule—has inspired and continues to inspire liberation struggles across the globe. Second, in addition to being the largest democracy in the world, India is also one of the most complex and diverse democracies in the world, with a polity that is structured, often hierarchically, along gender, caste, class, religious/communal, and tribal lines. Finally, India has extremely vigorous and vital movements for social justice that continue to challenge and rework both the meaning and practice of democracy in innovative and potentially more just ways.

The study of Indian politics can extend and develop critical contract theory. First, it contributes to our understanding of the colonial contract as an important subset of the racial contract. Charles Mills writes that the racial contract is made up of three “subcontracts”: the expropriation contract, the slave contract, and the colonial contract. It is the colonial contract, Mills argues, that legitimated “rule over the nations in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific” and that established the modern world as a “racial polity, globally dominated by the Europeans.” Rather than justify colonial expansion by force, status, or divine right, European colonists justified their rule by positing the tacit agreement of the colonized. Of course, the notion that colonial rule was based on the free agreement of the colonized was a fiction, and the colonial contract, like the other racial subcontracts, had to be enforced though violence, ideological conditioning, and, as this study suggests, compensatory domination. In this book I explore the shifting justificatory logic and enabling collaborations on which colonial projections of “consent” depended.

In telling the story of the postcolonial social contract in India, this book extends the critical contract tradition by paying close attention to the ways in which actors in postcolonial democratic contexts deploy and negotiate various iterations of the social contract, and thus contributes to the field of comparative political theory. While scholars of political theory in the United States and Europe have focused predominantly on Western political thought, members of a growing subgroup in the discipline assert the importance of comparative political theory. One of the strengths of comparative political theory as a subfield is its challenge to institutional structures and modes of theorizing that exclude or marginalize non-Western political thought. In Unthinking Eurocentrism, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam write that Eurocentrism elides non-European political traditions while at the same time it masks the West’s role in subverting those traditions, particularly democratic ones. Eurocentric theories that suppress, or at the very least fail to stimulate curiosity about, democratic innovation in non-Western contexts are not only congruent with neocolonial interventions abroad in the name of democracy; they also impoverish the political imaginations of those in the West by neglecting the exciting and transformative work that is recasting democracy in more egalitarian and inclusive terms in postcolonial polities. For example, Rajeev Bhargava notes that “for all talk of the fact of pluralism and multiculturalism, the mention of how such issues arise or are tackled in India is astoundingly infrequent. . . . Debates around the world on issues such as group rights, secession, differentiated citizenship, affirmative action, and gender-equality are bound to be considerably enriched by the Indian experience.” Given that social contract is in many respects the lingua franca of political theory, interpreting Indian political innovations through the lens of social contract enables the translation of these developments across contexts. By highlighting Indian independence as a significant moment of transition in which nationalists and feminists challenged and reworked the racial and sexual contracts upon which liberal democratic theory rests, I am arguing for the centrality of the Indian political tradition in the history of democratic theory. The study of India’s successes and setbacks in establishing the Constituent Assembly’s proclaimed goal of building an inclusive and egalitarian democracy promotes a fuller understanding of democracy’s history and future possibilities.

In addition to extending the critical contract approach, this study makes several contributions to understanding gendered colonial and postcolonial politics in India. First, it unpacks two distinct but interrelated approaches to colonial governance: colonial paternalism and colonial fraternalism. In the colonial paternalist framing of colonial rule, control over women is justificatory: The supposed illegitimate exercise of masculinist power by Indian men over Indian women is considered justification for colonial intervention, what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak refers to as the colonial rhetoric of “white men saving brown women from brown men.” In contrast, the colonial fraternalist approach to colonial rule seeks to foster close alliances with elite men and to pursue policies that were either “hands off” with respect to gender relations or tended to enhance masculinist control over women (e.g., the restrictions placed upon women’s ability to own property). While scholars have focused primarily on the colonial paternalist approach, I suggest that the fraternalist approach also played a crucially important role in the consolidation of colonial rule.

Second, attention to the politics of compensatory domination helps to flesh out an understanding of the various components of resistance to colonial rule. The story of how the nationalist movement disarmed the relations of force that underlie colonial rule through nonviolent resistance is well known. So, too, is the story of how the nationalist movement discredited the colonial ideology that Indians were not ready for self-rule. The story of how the nationalist movement worked with the feminist movement to challenge relations of compensatory domination, however, is less well known. In this book, I highlight resistance to the gendered and racialized logic of both colonial paternalism and colonial fraternalism as an important component of the anticolonial struggle, in that it undercut both the justificatory rhetoric and the enabling alliances upon which British rule depended.

This argument about the centrality of gender resistance to British rule expands on Partha Chatterjee’s influential reading of the relationship between nationalism and the “woman question” in India in The Nation and Its Fragments. Chatterjee notes that in the mid-nineteenth century nationalists refused to debate the “woman question” with the British after decades of acrimony over the question. He argues that this refusal was an important component of resistance to imperial rule, because “to allow the intimate domain of the family to become amenable to the discursive regulations of the political domain [would have] meant a surrender of autonomy.” I argue that the nationalist approach did not end simply in the reassertion of indigenous masculinist control over women. Instead, challenging British rule also involved resisting the inequitable gender relations that the British fostered during their rule. I trace the emergence of what could be called a “resistant convergence” of the women’s and nationalist movements in the anticolonial struggle, a convergence marked by overlapping leadership and participation in each other’s campaigns. Working together for women’s suffrage and the reform of personal law, Indian feminist and nationalist groups in the early twentieth century exposed the hollowness of British paternalist claims that they were protectors of Indian womanhood and refused fraternalist control over women as compensation for continued colonial rule. Together, these groups destabilized—if only briefly—the logic of compensatory domination so central to colonial rule.

Howard Winant has argued that the end of World War II heralded a “worldwide rupture of the racial status quo,” a momentous break with patterns of worldwide racial domination that marked the modern world so deeply. He explains that movements against colonization and antiracist and civil rights struggles combined “to problematize the forms of rule and cultural norms for states and social systems where hegemony was organized (as it almost universally was) along racial lines.” Taking different forms in different places, these movements won reforms ranging from “decolonization to belated enfranchisement and the granting of formal citizenship rights.” Winant notes, however, that the rupture of the racial status quo, though decisive, was not conclusive and that patterns of racial inequality, hierarchy, and domination not only survived but “adapted and modernized to post-colonial conditions.” One aspect of this adaptation, he suggests, is that race, both as a concept and as a practice, has become diffused and transformed, such that a variety of differences are undergoing what he calls a “racialized articulation,” even in places, such as South Asia and East Asia, that are often thought of as free from racial conflict. For example, Zaheer Baber argues that in India “communal identities have been ‘racialized’ and recurring conflicts share striking structural and ideological similarities with racial conflicts in other parts of the world.” Baber suggests that particularly with respect to the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in India, there is “racism without race.” “Provided one accepts the idea that racial differences are not directly derived from phenotypical characteristics but are indeed socially constructed,” he writes, “one can see that the logic at work in India is similar to the logic of racial conflict, with its attendant conflicts over resources, residential segregation, violently enforced endogamy, armory of stereotypes, myth-making and invented histories.” Focusing on the racial dimension of the postcolonial social contract highlights the transformation of colonial racial hierarchy—the dramatic rupture of democracy’s “color line” in independent India—to a more complex rearticulation of racialized rule, one that mandates racial, communal/religious, and caste equality yet nonetheless structures hierarchies within and between these groups.

Decolonization and Democracy

This study aims to both document and contribute to the long and ongoing struggle to reclaim democracy on behalf of struggles for decolonization when both colonial and neocolonial interventions are so often made in its name. In the introduction to their influential collection Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty suggest the need for “a working definition of feminist democracy which is anti-capitalist and centered on the project of decolonization.” This book takes up Alexander and Mohanty’s challenge to move toward a decolonial feminist democratic politics by focusing on the colonial history of the relationship between authority and consent in democratic theory and practice and its links to inter- and intragroup subordination. I suggest that the project of reclaiming democracy on behalf of decolonization struggles involves a critical examination of the ways in which the terms and conditions of democracy itself have been articulated in relation to the politics of compensatory domination—a politics that is deeply implicated in the history of colonial rule worldwide—such that what we understand and practice as democracy needs to be subjected to a process of decolonization. In Alexander and Mohanty’s terms, decolonization involves the everyday processes of making “sense of the world in relationship to hegemonic power” and of “engagement with democratic collectivities which are premised on the ideas of autonomy and self determination.” In terms of the process of decolonizing democracy, I argue that a critical task involves an analysis of how democratic concepts and practices have been shaped in relation to the politics of compensatory domination; an interrogation of one’s own and others’ insertion in practices that are interwoven in the politics of compensatory domination; an exploration of alternative modes of democratic solidarity, some of which may need to be recovered, some of which are still being practiced and may need to be amplified more widely, and some of which may need to be developed; and, finally, the everyday work of enacting those alternatives.

From a decolonial feminist perspective, the ways in which control over women became a term of exchange in the process of consolidating colonial rule in India, and the challenge to that strategy in the anticolonial struggle, are particularly significant. Understanding this process and this challenge is important not only for historical analyses but also for contemporary political struggles, given that the politics of compensatory domination as a means of gaining the consent of the dominated obstinately echoes colonial relations of rule in present-day democratic politics. Indeed, although this book focuses on Indian politics, a postcolonial social contract that guarantees equality to women and minority groups, on the one hand, while instituting measures that legally subordinate and marginalize women and minority groups, on the other, is applicable to other contexts as well. Close consideration of the ways in which sexual and racial contracts were contested and reconfigured in the transition to independence in India can help us understand the interplay of gender and minority rights in multicultural democracies more generally. The 1996 South African constitution, for example, one of the most progressive democratic constitutions in the world, simultaneously asserts gender equality as a fundamental right and recognizes customary laws, many of which discriminate deeply against women. The 2005 Iraqi constitution enshrines gender equality and facilitates women’s participation in politics (for example, it mandates that 25 percent of seats in the legislature be filled by women), but it also establishes Iraqis’ right to be “free in their personal status according to their religions, sects, beliefs, or choices,” which in practice translates into heavy discrimination against women. In both cases, the relationship between the equality clause and the discriminatory customary laws is ambiguous, leaving open to negotiation the question of how to resolve the tension between them. Study of the ways in which consent to inequitable relations of rule in both the colonial and postcolonial contexts has been enabled by intra- or intergroup domination reveals the tragic cost of investments in such so-called privileges, as oppressed groups become complicit in their own subordination. Such attention can, I suggest, be an important part of the process of what Spivak calls “unlearning one’s privilege as loss.”

While examining the politics of compensatory domination is the central analytic work of this book, exploring alternative modes of egalitarian political solidarity is its primary normative goal. To this end, struggles against subordination on the basis of gender, caste, and minority status in India suggest possibilities for challenging the politics of compensatory domination on the subjective, group, and state levels. In thinking about how to apply the lessons of India more widely, I draw on the examples of these struggles to call for a politics geared to building and fostering egalitarian relations within often highly constrained settings.

On Domination and Resistance

In its focus on relationships of domination and resistance, this book pays particular attention to the power relations among and within groups. By “group” I mean a social collectivity that is marked or in some way designated as distinct, whether that marking is imposed from without or articulated internally, on the basis of race, gender, caste, class, religion, among other characteristics. Although I am interested in all of these criteria for group membership, this study focuses on processes of racial and gender differentiation and stratification that were challenged and reconfigured in the transition to independence in India and mapped onto identity formations such as those based on caste, religion, and ethnicity in postcolonial India.

I understand gender and race as constructed social categories that have been invented and elaborated in order to serve power but can also serve as potential sources of solidarity and resistance. Following the work of María Lugones, Uma Chakravarti, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Nivedita Menon, and others, I look at the ways in which the interplay of multiple lines of oppression differentiate and stratify these groupings internally. Lugones, for example, argues that colonialism “imposed a new gender system that created very different arrangements for colonized males and females than for white bourgeois colonizers.” I suggest that differentiation and internal stratification within a social group can serve as a source of cooptation and acquiescence—a white bourgeois colonizing woman, for example, might submit to relations of subordination because she is invested in the dominance that her membership in the white bourgeois class allows her to exercise over the colonized. At the same time, however, such differentiation and internal stratification can illuminate the contradictions inherent in the politics of compensatory domination by underscoring the links between one’s own and another’s subordination.

Several assumptions about our place in relations of domination and subordination and our ability to maneuver and resist these relations support the analysis that follows. First, I assume that most of us are located in positions that enforce both our dominance (that is, we are enticed or compelled to set rules that others must follow) and our subordination (that is, we are enticed or compelled to obey rules that others have set) within a complex set of social, economic, and political relations. Next, I emphasize that the desire to dominate others is not self-generating; there is nothing inherent in human nature that drives us to dominate. Rather, I assume that dominance has both rewards and costs and that those who are powerful in some ways (but structurally subordinate in others) are often subjected to enormous pressure to engage in dominating others. I am particularly interesting in investigating how oppressed groups are enticed or pressured to dominate others, whether within their group or outside it, for the purpose of consolidating the power and authority of the state.

Fundamental to this project is the idea that we are not passive in relation to the structures of power that we are inserted into and that both dominant and subordinate positionings can be resisted or refused. In making this assumption, I follow the work of James Scott and others who have argued for attention to a variety of forms of resistance to domination, resistances that may be small or large, organized or spontaneous, easily understood as resistance or obscured by readings of them as trivial (or criminal), public or very circumspect.

Finally, I assume that specific forms of domination and subordination are deeply contingent on one another. According to Elsa Barkley Brown, in order to build effective and inclusive feminist coalitions, “we need to recognize not only differences but also the relational nature of those differences. . . . White women and women of color not only live different lives but white women live the lives they do in large part because women of color live the ones they do.” In Brown’s account, building feminist solidarity requires critical reflection on one’s own insertion into structures of power. For her, women are closely linked across difference, but not innocently so. Our “unity” lies in the fact that we are all connected because of our relational insertion into hierarchies of domination and subordination, hierarchies that we also can resist and transform. It is toward such transformations that this book is geared.

Overview of the Book

Chapter 1 analyzes the shifting discourses of race and gender in British colonial rule in India. Recent works on the justificatory strategies of colonial rule in India have focused primarily on the logic of paternalism and its linked tropes of “saving” women in the empire and of racial and cultural difference. I argue that it is important to pay close attention to fraternalism as a justificatory strategy of colonial rule as well. The fraternalist approach to colonial rule emphasized a racial kinship between the colonizers and the colonized elite and was characterized by policies that consolidated control over women in the family. I examine both paternalism and fraternalism as components of a larger politics of compensatory domination in which consent to colonial authority was engendered by countenancing, structuring, and enabling forms of inter- and intragroup rule.

Chapter 2 looks at the “resistant convergence” of the women’s and nationalist movements in the struggle to end colonial rule in India. I argue that the relationship between these movements, though often fraught and uneven, was marked by overlapping leadership and by the participation of people in both movements in critical, mutually reinforcing ways. Through an analysis of the campaigns for women’s suffrage in India in the early twentieth century, I suggest that these movements rejected the logic of both colonial paternalism and colonial fraternalism and effectively challenged the politics of compensatory domination. This chapter argues that women’s and nationalist groups thus challenged colonial authority in part by destabilizing the equation of control over women with cultural autonomy that was central to both the fraternal and the paternal approaches to colonial rule in India.

Chapter 3 focuses on the Constituent Assembly’s framing of the new Indian constitution (1946–50). I examine the challenges and opportunities the framers faced in their goal of forging a model of democracy that would abolish discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, and caste. In building such a new democracy, I suggest, the framers struggled to reconcile their commitment to an egalitarian polity founded on caste, minority group, and gender equality with their efforts to generate consent for the political authority of the new government. I argue that the Assembly settled on a compromise to resolve this dilemma: they established equality in the public sphere as a fundamental right for women, low-caste groups, and minority groups, but at the same time consolidated the legal subordination of women in the family and the political marginalization of both women and religious minority groups in the new Indian polity. I see this compromise as a central component of a postcolonial social contract, a new form of the social contract that both advances and compromises gender, caste, and minority group rights.

Chapters 4 and 5 analyze challenges to the postcolonial social contract in contemporary Indian politics. In chapter 4, I examine the debate over the Women’s Reservation Bill, a bill that amended the constitution to provide for 33 percent representation for women in the Indian parliament. I look especially closely at the tensions between women’s groups and underrepresented caste and minority groups on this issue, and I suggest that adding “subquotas” to the bill would productively link women’s empowerment to lower-caste and minority group empowerment, thus challenging the politics of compensatory domination. In chapter 5, I direct attention to the fierce political controversies regarding personal law in present-day Indian politics. I distinguish between two forms of legal pluralism—fraternalist and egalitarian—and argue that the latter holds promise in linking struggles for minority group and gender rights.

Taking the lessons from struggles against women’s legal subordination as a starting point, the Conclusion argues that the principles undergirding these struggles suggest possibilities for challenging the politics of compensatory domination on the intersubjective, group, and democratic-collective or state level. The Conclusion suggests possible directions for a politics geared to both the exploration and the enactment of alternative modes of democratic solidarity. In particular, it asserts that struggles against gender, caste, and minority group subordination and political marginalization in the Indian polity can point us toward a new social contract, what I call a “nondomination contract,” an expressively egalitarian reformulation of the social contract that promotes the participatory construction of social and political solidarity.

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