Book review: Subrata K. Mitra, Governance by Stealth: The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Making of the Indian State

Published date01 June 2023
AuthorShivani Kapoor
Date01 June 2023
Subject MatterBook Reviews
152 Book Reviews
Ankur Tamuli Phukan
Ankur Tamuli Phukan
Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Harvard University
New Delhi, India
Subrata K. Mitra, Governance by Stealth: The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Making of the Indian State.
Delhi: Oxford University Press. 2021. 481 pages. `476.
DOI: 10.1177/23210230231166198
How to govern effectively has been a persistent concern for philosophers, scholars, activists and policymakers.
Accordingly, there have been various conceptions of governance and the state has been at the centre of such
theorizations. There have been many studies on the nature of the state in the Indian context: its structure,
components and processes. Comparatively, there is lesser work on the ministries of the state, especially the
key ones such as the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). This is to be expected, given the obvious methodological
problems of accessing archives, documents and other sources concerning these institutions.
It is in this context that Subrata K. Mitra’s book is a new and important contribution to examining
governance through the omnipresent institution of the Indian state—the MHA, which Mitra characterizes
(citing Peter Hennessy) as the ‘charlady’ of the government. Mitra’s interest in examining, what he refers to
as ‘Home’ throughout, seems to stem from the transition of the colonial Home Department to the postcolonial
MHA. The ‘Home’, Mitra argues, played a crucial role in facilitating a relatively smooth and less violent
transition of a colony into a ‘noisy but effective’ postcolonial democracy. Mitra’s central argument is that
‘Home’ uses ‘minimum force to generate maximum order’ and that constitutes ‘governance by stealth’.
The postcolonial transition has been studied extensively. The significant contribution of this book is
in examining this question from the perspective of the MHA and providing a detailed account of the
processes and deliberations required to hold the society together in troubled times. Through archival
sources, memoirs, annual reports and interviews with ministry officials, the book enables the reader to
understand how the bureaucracy and the political establishment work in tandem (and what happens when
they do not); how the language of politics shifts away from rights and demands to norms, laws and often
force when one shifts the perspective to ‘politics within the system’. The book covers an immense range
of issues, including the Emergency (of 1975–76); the anti-Sikh riots (of 1984); the status of Jammu and
Kashmir and the Maoist movements. This scope enables the author to demonstrate how the MHA
provides continuity beneath a tumultuous political surface. This is particularly evident in the discussion
of its role in the national language policy debates and in sections that deal with the failure of elite
consensus, leading to the Home being bereft of clear instructions to prevent the Babri Masjid demolition.
These sections are well argued. It is particularly interesting to read about what Mitra terms as ‘elite
consensus between the triad of the Prime Minister, Home Minister and the Home Secretary’, in the
operation of the MHA. Mitra effectively demonstrates—through extensive example of the deliberations
between Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel for instance—the careful balance that these
three offices have had to strike between political demands and adherence to norms.
The book opens new questions for other researchers and the inclusion of archival excerpts as appendices
may also facilitate further research. A more robust methodological section about the nature of these archives

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