Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Realist's Utopia and the Fight for India

When I came to South Korea I brought about a dozen books. I have already read some of them twice. But I finally just dove into Partha Chatterjee’s Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse, published in 1986 by the University of Minnesota Press, a couple days ago. This book deserved its place in my small ensemble of academic reads in my luggage. In it, Chatterjee outlines the course of an anti-colonial movement through the three most influential writers and politicians of India from the late nineteenth century to political independence.

I took the book apart in an unusual order beginning with its three theoretical chapters. Its first two chapters and the last outline what he calls the thematic and the problematic. Where he describes the thematic of an anti-colonial discourse and those who desire it as justifying from the vantage of what’s best for the people and the problematic the actual and possible routes for achieving the desired outcome. Here I have overly reduced his theoretical platform, no doubt. He also discusses the nature of the analysis. He notes, I think correctly, that sociologically deterministic theorists consider the framework of independence struggles but fail to calculate the realities on the ground or content which forms the material of the struggle. This becomes the book's project. He aims at outlining the thematic and problematic through the content of the struggle for independence in the political ideology of India.

He outlines the content of the struggle in three stages or moments. In the moment of departure the initial drive is produced towards assessing the drive for independence of the foreign body. In the moment of maneuver the people are made aware of their place in the struggle. Finally, in the moment of arrival the struggle is brought to its apex and its bones given flesh. He takes for his first moment the writings and thoughts of Bankimchandra. At the time of his writing in the late nineteenth century Bankimchandra ably took from the traditions of India’s oppressors what he saw as valuable while critiquing it and offering the ‘perfect man.’ This man, in Bankimchandra’s assessment would imitate the science of Western Europe while maintaining the spirit of Indian history and civilization. I fear too much of the British tradition of liberalism was taken at face value but Chatterjee breaks this apart and examines British theory and British practice. Sadly, no meaningful critique is given for the inherent faults of this liberalism.

In the moment of maneuver the person of Gandhi catalyzed the people of India around the struggle to unleash India from the grip of British political domination. Gandhi, who Chatterjee describes as an anarchist, carried the banner of what began to the peasantry and created enough unity among the disparate elements of the Indian sub-continent’s inhabitants to mobilize its human resources towards the aim of political sovereignty. Without the charm and charisma of Gandhi, this second moment may not have produced the requisite will to national self empowerment.

Finally, in the moment of arrival, Nehru built a workable political apparatus and cut away the excess of ideology he believed impossible to produce a ‘realist's utopia’ in the schema of Indian nationalist thought. These elements served as the foundational content of India’s successful movement to loosen itself from foreign rule. These people, their ideas, and their actions fill these pages and the moments of Indian independence.

Many of the concepts within this book help bring abstract concepts about post-colonialism to their counterpart: their actualization. How can we possibly understand how these movements work by assuming history proceeds automatically and without effort? Although Chatterjee pushes a bit too hard on the line of religion in the chapter on Bankimchandra, the idea of a content driven historical set of moments in nationalism or even of independence itself reveals new vantages. Furthermore Chatterjee seems, in my reading, a little too enamored by British liberalism. Hegel’s assumptions about the natural course of history still need to be broken down. Nonetheless, Chatterjee still leans heavily on Marxist notions of equality, which I might add were and still are a part of Indian political thought and this is true of Nehru to be sure. The point being that people and specific actions produce outcomes not abstract ideas.


Devin Z. Shaw said...

Jason, you might want to check out The Wretched of the Earth if you haven't already. Fanon, who also talks about the transformations of national consciousness, is certainly not "a little too enamored by British liberalism."

Jason R. B. Smith said...

Yeah, its a good read. I almost brought it with me. I've only read it once for a graduate seminar but I remember it well.