Nation and Imagination

Review of Partha Chatterjee's Empire and Nation: Selected Essays. Edited by Nivedita Menon. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 368 pp.

By Ahmad Saidullah

I. Reclaiming The Nationalist Imagination

History may, as Sembene Ousmane alleged, create its own images but the quest is to find who owns these representations.

ScreenHunter_02 Aug. 09 12.11 In the opening essay of Empire and Nation taken from his book The Nation and its Fragments, Partha Chatterjee agrees with Benedict Anderson’s thesis in Imagined Communities that nations, far from being objective entities, imagine themselves into being. However, he questions Anderson’s belief that all nations obey the western rationalist imagination in defining themselves.

Chatterjee asks “if nationalisms in the rest of the world have to choose their imagined community from certain ‘modular’ forms made available to them by Europe and the Americas, what do they have left to imagine?” Postcolonial societies, he argues, have been consigned forever by such views to, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s phrase, “the waiting room of history” as consumers rather than producers of modernity.

Chatterjee suggests frameworks for studying different ways of seeing, knowing, experiencing and mapping India, with its complex past and contradictions and its own specific modalities of “our modernity,” that arise from the local imagination.

Chatterjee’s academic and epistemological aims are to distance Indian historiography from the knowledge generated by the British empirical tradition which places a universalized western subject at the centre of its discourses on India and to challenge establishment historians in Cambridge and Delhi who study the country through the agency and actions of its elite.

By contesting elite, colonial and western versions of events, Chatterjee grounds his work on “the politics of the governed” in “oppositional, negative, resolutely critical” terms. For Chatterjee, history does not belong to the victors; it does not become credible merely because it is written by them according to their rules.

Following Foucauld, Chatterjee believes that the discourses of the enlightenment with their claims to modernity reify regimes of power and need to be problematized and contested. The reading strategies for events, memories and interpretations sometimes include the study of tropes and travesty in the Bakhtinian sense as part of decolonizing the mind, to repeat Ngugi wa Thiong'o’s famous proposal.

Chatterjee states that his “project, then, is to claim for us, the once colonized, our freedom of imagination.” His counternarratives demonstrate that interpretations of “nationalism,” “secularism,” “modernity,” “democracy,” “civil society,” and “political society” have predicated meanings and events specific to Indian history that differ from received ideas in the west.

He identifies “liberal, conservative, rationalist, romantic, westernizing, revivalist, forward-looking, backward-looking” positions staking their imaginary claims on India. In reclaiming indigenous subjectivities through narratives rooted in local tradition and in the troubling concept of an immutable eastern spiritual identity, Chatterjee does not fall back on full-blown nativism or retreat from all forms of modernity like Gandhi and neo-Gandhians. To paraphrase Raymond Williams’ question on modernity, Chatterjee inquiry can be summed as when is India?

These trenchant, sometimes speculative, literate, and often witty essays, articles, commentaries and reviews—a few translated from Bengali into English by the author— are arranged in three sections (Empire and Nation, Democracy, Capital and Community). They map the variety and depth of Chatterjee’s thoughts on colonial and postcolonial history over twenty years (1985-2005), from his early marxist days to the near present.

Chatterjee is professor of anthropology at Columbia and of political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSSS) in Calcutta whose visiting cadre has included Amitav Ghosh. Chatterjee has acknowledged his indebtedness to the Kankurgacchi Hegel Club, “a remarkable reading circle” whose members included Kalyan Sanyal and Anup Sinha, among others. Recently, he was associated with the Subaltern Studies group, an intellectual collective.

Chatterjee pays mock tribute to Ranajit Guha, “the master” of this school, in the form of a fragment “from the Mahabharatha found in a remote village in the Faridpur district in Bangladesh.” In this debate styled on the Indian epic, with tongue-in-cheek self-referentiality, he plays the part of Partha, “the third Pandava” prince, as he and Arjuna question the teachings of their mentor Dronacharya (i.e. Guha) that privilege “two Brahminical epics over all other narrative forms.”

Chatterjee would agree with the author Nayantara Sahgal who, in citing the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma’s claim that India had two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, said that its “third epic was the culture we call Indian,” a “composite, many-faceted culture” which has “remained open and assimilative.”

“Subaltern,” Gramsci’s term for the proletariat, is used now to denote the once-colonized peasants, workers and other peoples, such as Dalits, who were not part of the westernized elite in South Asia. As with subalternists, Chatterjee’s works bear the impresses of marxist historians, postcolonial studies, Fanon, Marx, Edward Said, Foucault, and Gramsci. He claims that “having traveled from Italy to India, the idea of subaltern history has now produced a generally available methodological and stylistic approach to modern historiography that can be used anywhere.”

Subaltern histories entail an archaeological recovery of lost, silenced or unheard Indian voices and perspectives. They are often represented from the vernacular or popular sources in the form of fragments, with specificities that resist totalization and universalization.

Chatterjee examines the subalternists’ progress from their earlier studies of peasant rebellions to “the resistance of other dominated and marginalized groups in colonial society,” namely religious minorities, “lower” castes and women, the last due in part to Gayatri Spivak’s criticisms.

In her famous essay, Spivak had claimed that, as a silenced subject, “the subaltern cannot speak” but can only be represented. Despite some upper-caste appropriations, the emergence of Dalit aesthetics, their social and political mobility and the articulation of Adivasis’ needs signal that their voices and concerns are being heard, negotiated or resisted, sometimes with violence, in India.

II. Colonialism and Conflict

Colonial history is a struggle for power over resources without due regard for sovereignty or peoples. Chatterjee’s focus is on unearthing the “narrative of capital that can turn the violence of mercantilist trade, war, genocide, conquest and colonialism into a story of universal progress, development, modernization and freedom.”

Angus Maddison’s The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (2001) points out that, from the first to eleventh centuries AD, India had the world's largest economy. In 1000 AD, it had 28.9% of the world’s GDP which fell to 24.4% in 1700 AD under Emperor Aurangzeb whose exchequer was still twice that of Europe’s. Later in the eighteenth century under the Mughals, Nizams and Marathas that had risen to a 32.9% share of world GDP.

In the bid to extract revenues and materials for their markets, the English created strategies for the production of inequalities and differences, not just between the ruler and the ruled—where the key marker was race—but among subjugated populations themselves, economic, social and cultural divisions that have persisted to this day.

To create “a capitalist landowning class on the model of the English squirearchy” that would pay annual revenues to the East India Company, the Permanent Settlement Act was passed under Cornwallis in 1793 to dispossess peasants in Bengal.

Aminur Rahim has provided a fuller account of how, as agricultural production became commercialized in Bengal, the landowner (zamindar)/peasant-tenant labour (raiyat)/moneylender-trader (jotdar) relations became tense, complex and dynamic.

Chatterjee notes that exactions of rent, terms of contracts, both often extortionate, the developing market economy, the change from rice to jute cultivation in east Bengal, and the growing role of creditors (jotdars) resulted in the Bengal Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha backing predominantly Hindu rentiers against peasant uprisings often led by tenants with recognized rights (raiyats).

The anti-feudal struggles in east Bengal featuring a largely Muslim or lower-caste Hindu peasantry against upper-caste Hindus led to political demands and eruptions of “cultural/customary” tensions, later styled as age-old expressions of communalism, as religious intolerance is known in South Asia. The Great Famine in Bengal that followed in 1943, arguably caused by deformations to the modes of agricultural production, claimed up to 3 million lives.

The rise of Hindu communalism in the 1940s, fuelled by resentment over the supports given to their Muslim opponents, meant that class antagonisms were also expressed, through the colonial encounter, as communal violence in Noakhali and other areas (cf. Gyanendra Pandey’s accounts of partition atrocities).

These became—aided by the unsavoury antics of the Muslim League and Congress—some of the contexts for the partitions of Bengal and India.

II. The Fields of Locality

Chatterjee looks at the incorporation, uses and effects of imperial history as hegemonic strategies and practices in the development of nationalist discourses in India. James Mill’s History of British India (1817) painted a picture of the defeated Mughal rulers of India as a Muslim people who, by their conquest, had made decadent a once glorious Hindu civilization, now conveniently rescued by the enlightened British suitably armed with science, technology and reason.

Nineteenth-century European orientalist scholarship, by Max Müller for example, on Sanskrit and ancient India was used to buttress these views. (Hardly a coincidence that the philologist William Jones, a complex figure, who had translated a French history of Nadir Shah and founded the Asiatic Society in Calcutta was a Supreme Court judge in Bengal.)

These scholars shaped the languages of discourse. Christian missionaries were also instrumental in the creation of a hierarchy of vernacular dialects, as in the standardization of Calcuttan Bengali as the norm. The more recent Sanskritization of Hindustani into a hieratic form of Hindi and the decline of Urdu and Farsi are outgrowths of this historical encounter.

Macaulay in his infamous Minute on Indian Education (1835) urged the English “do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and intellect.” This approach coloured the new comprador-elite intellectuals’ discourses on the nation, often legitimizing linguistic and other divisions in India while sometimes approving small reforms.

With the exception of the Young Bengalis under Derozio, most Bengali intellectuals repudiated the Great 1857 Insurrection against the English and despised the masses. Even their protests against the crackdown on the indigo rebellion, exemplified in the draconian state actions in support of the plantation owners over the controversial play Neel Darpan, assumed a liberal and benign colonial state.

Indian nationalist discourses are often said to have been formed in nineteenth-century Bengal. Mrityunjay Vidyalankar’s Rajabali (1808), the first printed history of India in Bengali, was a nineteenth-century text commissioned by Fort William College in Calcutta where the author taught Sanskrit. The book was written in the Puranic style as an “innocent” list of divine “Rajas, Badhshahs and Nawabs” of Delhi and Bengal (the Mughals are called “yavanas”).

However, succeeding histories such as Tarinicharan’s 1878 History of India contain the seeds of Hindu nationalism with marked anti-Muslim sentiments and are complicit with the so-called “true historical accounts” gifted by European historical scholarship. Chatterjee notes:

The genealogy of modern historiography in India is deeply implicated in the encounter with British colonialism; these historical claims of political Hinduism are also a product of contestations with the forms of colonial knowledge.

Chatterjee claims “the materials of Hindu political rhetoric today were fashioned from the very birth of nationalist historiography.” The history of the recent Hindu fundamentalism project which oversaw the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, massacres of Muslims in different states, and led to a right-wing national government in the 1990s is a palimpsest; visible underneath are the traces of colonial narratives.

Chatterjee identifies three key moments in the history of Indian nationalism. The moment of departure is led by Bankim, the leading intellectual of the mid-nineteenth century urban middle-class English-educated phenomenon known as the Bengal Renaissance. A positivist, Bankim argued, “within an essentialist typology of cultures,” that India needed to couple its superior otherworldly (vairagya) spirituality to the west’s material advancements.

Bankim’s Hindu revivalism was a modernist-historicist strategy that was imbricated with colonial visions of India. He rehearsed colonialists’ accounts of the glory of Hindu civilizations corrupted by Muslims, legitimation narratives for the British presence in India. Chatterjee notes later that “the direct political disciples of Bankim were the revolutionary terrorists of the early twentieth century.” One of them assassinated Gandhi.

Gandhi is key to the moment of manoeuvre. He affected the symbols of poverty and rurality in a bid to engage but, at the same time, stall the peasantry on the behalf of Congress who would later direct it, as needed, to overthrow the colonial regime. Subalternist historian Shahid Amin has shown how Congress carefully staged campaigns of Gandhi darshan (worship) to advance his image as a political saint who, like early-day religious worthies, had “thaumaturgic powers” and lived a pure life.

Gandhi rejected “rationalism, scienticism, historicism” and dismissed modernity as immoral and irreligious. His strategy was to promote self-sufficiency, village life, cottage industries, moral, chaste living and visions of a coming ramarajya.

Dalit communities were upset by his denial of their rights to political representation. Some Dalit Christians, Joseph Macwan in Gujarat for instance, and religious minorities feared that Gandhi’s vision of independence would mean living in a patriarchy of caste Hindus.

Nehru’s moment of arrival is an étatist development of an independent India whose legitimizing principle is social justice for the poor and religious minorities, with a modern focus on economics, welfare and education. Nehru admitted that Gandhi had “an amazing knack of reaching the heart of the people” but remained uncomfortable with his anti-industrialism and religiosity.

During the central planning phases, which became an instrument of politics, Nehru resisted the Gandhian line. The developmental state encouraged investments in heavy engineering, machine-making and electrical power.

Under Nehru, the newly independent Indian state created a pluralistic form of secular democracy founded on three principles: liberty, equality, and freedom of religion. The Indian Parliament passed personal laws for concrete legal accommodations and collective rights for key religious communities.

Before their passage into law, the state worked with Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh organizational representatives to ensure that excesses and inequalities were removed and that the new orthodoxies would be universally applicable to all the members of their communities.

Critics charge that these adaptations favoured North Indian norms, that diversity was discarded for uniformity, and that some previous reforms were lost, particularly for women. Chatterjee has been unfairly accused of communitarianism for similarly promoting the right to cultural difference based in dialogue and consensus among faith communities. He cautions that recent demands for a uniform civil code may mask a push from the religious right for majoritarian rule.

Of the high-caste opposition to seat reservations and quotas for marginalized castes in education and employment as recommended by the Mandal Commission and other bodies, he points out that this resistance by the dominant minority represents “the first political movement in independent India whose campaign is in English, whose slogans are in English, and whose ideology too, I presume, is articulated in English.”

Reforms relating to the “women’s question” entered the nationalist discourse in the nineteenth century. Rammohun Roy campaigned against the practice of widow immolation (satidaha) and Vidyasagar fought to have widow remarriage legalized and polygamy abolished. In 1870, the Brahmo Samaj held fractious debates over marriage laws, including child- and early-age marriages, and the age of consent.

Chatterjee mentions period texts such as Paribarik Prabhanda (Essays on the Family, 1882) by the indigenist thinker Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, one of the few to question the communalized histories promoted by the British, and refers to satires, parodies, and plays by Amritalal Bose, Upendranath Das, Michael Madhusudhan Dutt, Dinabandhu Mitra and Jyotirindranth Tagore that dealt with the themes of the “women’s question.”

In Chatterjee’s genealogy, Indian nationalism was not merely a political movement. It grew out of the private spiritual-cultural realm that colonialism apparently could not penetrate: “it failed to colonize the inner, essential, identity of the East which lay in its distinctive, and superior, spiritual culture.”

This is an awkward gesture of reliance on Bankim’s notion of a primordial, static identity with its roots in an orientalist stereotype of the eastern character. He fails to specify whose culture and whose spirituality is referred to and the place of minorities and women in this essence.

The emergence of reforms for women in Bengal in nationalist discourses arose from the opposition between the “private” home (ghar) and the outside world (bahir). Chatterjee concludes that the portrait of the ideal modern woman does not derive from western liberalism but is in opposition to it.

In this narrative, the ideal, respectable, middle-class woman (bhadramahila) ought not to exhibit traits found in lower-caste or peasant women but should also shun the ways of a European woman, a begumsahib or memsahib. In the absence of a mass women’s movement, this new orthodoxy that emerged as part of a nationalist ideology subjected women to a new patriarchy.

Chatterjee draws a key distinction in the postcolony between civil and political societies, a metropolitan/periphery opposition that is close to Tönnies’ ideas about communities. Reacting to Charles Taylor who warned against imposing the state-civil society divide on non-European societies that must be studied to deepen scholars’ understanding of the concept, Chatterjee in his bid to provincialize “European social philosophy” chooses to explore the European concept not as a universal norm but simply as one particularity among many.

Although all Indians are formally equal citizens, he notes that “most of the inhabitants of India are only tenuously, and even then ambiguously and contextually, rights-bearing citizens in the sense imagined by the Indian constitution.” He conceives of civil society in hegelian/marxist terms as “an actually existing arena of institutions and practices inhabited by a relatively small section of the people” in society, namely the urban bourgeoisie “in the zone of corporate capital.”

Civil society has “characteristic institutions of modern associational life originating in western societies” and this enumerable population enjoys equality, formal rights and freedoms, a share in modernity and in decision-making, and a contract with the state.

Given India’s tropism and transition to full-fledged capitalism, “the capitalist class has come to acquire a position of moral-political hegemony…priorities for rapid economic growth, led by private investment, both domestic and foreign.” According to Chatterjee, this “enlightened elite is engaged in a pedagogical mission in relation to the rest of society.”

The object of Foucauldian governmentality, political society falls outside the rational consensus of the facially neutral liberal state. Not exactly coincident with the subaltern, political society includes the fuzzy communities of the urban and rural poor, political parties, mass movements, farmers, non-party political formations but excludes others such as Adivasis who rely on forest products.

People in political society live in a “thicket of contestations” and, as citizens, “need to invoke rights, contracts and the discourse of equality” in narratives of continuous self-representation. In this “sphere of pure politics,” as in Saadat Hasan Manto’s Urdu short story Toba Tek Singh where violence meets the madness of the protagonist, they have to “be looked after and controlled by various governmental agencies” using a welfare model or other less rational means, “an immensely flexible braiding of coercion and consent.”

The civil-political divisions of society, which do not seem porous or flexible at first glance, have implications for the future of economics, social development and democratic governance in India. Chatterjee fails to notice that neoliberal states have retreated from their pastoral functions. They often seek to divest themselves of the burden of “dependence” and sometimes actively, even violently, disenfranchise these community groupings.

Chatterjee counters Arjun Appadurai’s arguments that nationalisms are passé and that global citizenship the norm by suggesting that the hankering for identities beyond borders may indicate a similar failure on the part of the host countries to engage and include these marginalized communities in the exercise of democracy.

In a lighter vein, Empire and Nation includes a mischievous review, complete with a generous milkmaid, of Unhappy Consciousness, a book on Bankim by Sudipta Kaviraj, “a pundit of great erudition…a brilliant man, having passed many examinations.” In another piece, Chatterjee is mortified, as many Indians were, by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s remarks at Oxford on his fondness for the raj and its dubious credits.

He is equally scathing on the banning of The Satanic Verses, which he overrates, in my opinion. He dubs the politician Syed Shahabuddin who called for the ban a sniffer of drains. Admittedly, he could not have anticipated Rushdie’s turn as a useful idiot for New Labour and neoliberal hawks after this book that marked his rise as a celebrity and his decline as an artist.

Readers of one-dimensional histories of India may be forgiven for thinking of themselves as the blind men with the elephant. These books herald India’s new economic might with triumphalist sloganeering, or focus on its deepening poverty, declining human development/social health indicators, and eruptions of religious tensions or rural militancies.

On the other hand, fabulous riches await the readers of Empire and Nation who wish to understand India organically in all its contradictions and complexities through Chatterjee’s historical and sometimes open-ended accounts of many imaginary claims on the nation and their various contestations of power.


Ahmad Saidullah is a prizewinning Canadian writer. His book Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories was published in Canada and India in 2008. It was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and longlisted for the Crossword Vodafone Book Award in 2009. The book is being translated into French by the University of Ottawa Press. Ahmad lives in Toronto, Canada.