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Tryst with Postcolonial Destiny

From the Colonial to the Postcolonial: India and Pakistan in Transition edited by Dipesh Chakrabarty


process, and more importantly, on map-

Tryst with Postcolonial Destiny

ping the transition from colonialism to nation-formation onto a larger spatio-tempodebjani ganguli ral zone than conventional accounts are

rom the Colonial to the Postco lonial: India and Pakistan in Transition has the imprimatur of one of the world’s best-known institutions on south Asia research, the University of Chicago. Dedicated to the memory of the late Bernard Cohn, professor of history and anthropology in the department of south Asian languages and civilisations at the same university, the volume showcases research on India and Pakistan at the cusp of colo nialism and nation-making, itself a long historical continuum. The editors, all of them historians from Chicago, have judiciously selected a combination of essays that traverse new terrain and interrogate existing certitudes – both theoretical and historical – about India’s and Pakistan’s transition from colonial to postcolonial societies. The volume is also a commendable intergenerational effort with essays by establi shed scholars such

Economic & Political Weekly

february 16, 2008

From the Colonial to the Postcolonial: India and Pakistan in Transition edited by Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rochona Majumdar and Andrew Sartori; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007; pp x + 369, Rs 675.

as Dipesh Chakrabarty, Faisal Devji, John Kelly, Martha Kaplan, Uday Mehta, Barbara Metcalf and David Washbrook appearing alongside a rich array of archival and theoretical research by emergent historians like Andrew Sartori, Anupama Rao, Rochona Majumdar, Nikhil Rao and Ritu Birla.

Though published in the 68th year of India’s and Pakistan’s independence, this is no “calibrate-losses-and-gains” project alternately celebrating and bemoaning the dynamics of postcolonial nation-making. The focus of the volume is rather on tracing the historical comple xities and the inevitable incompleteness of the decolonising wont to do. Instead of concentrating on the immediate “before” and “after” of 1947, many of the essays trek back to the 19th century to retrieve traces relevant both to the 1947 moment and to the present. National imperatives are offset by regional and diasporic perspectives. “South India” and “Muslim India”, long neglected as sites of paradigmatic nation-making, stage a comeback. New insights into Indian constitutionalism, democracy and election law appear along with incisive analysis of categories of the “minority”, “people”, “capitalist subject” and “propertied subject”. Wry uptakes on the politics of urban housing in a south Indian locality in Mumbai are juxtaposed with a cultural history of cricket and democracy on the subcontinent.

Complexity of Entangled Histories

In setting forth the key arguments of the volume, the book distances itself from the temporal logic of decolonisation that


invests in a future clean of all colonial traces. Yet, it is left to account time and again – as we see shall see below in essays by Mehta, Devji and Anupama Rao – for nationalist imaginaries that will themselves to a “present” wiped of historical traces, that, in fact, wish to be catapulted after independence onto a domain of a pure politics free of the past. Whether it is the Indian Constitution, or the political visions of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Babasaheb Ambedkar, history, or at least its deep temporality, appears to become a casualty. In true postcolonial form, the volume confronts this conundrum by interrogating such “presentist” and “absolutist” political visions through a logic of entanglement and messy encounters, of hybrid temporalities and non-isomorphic spaces, of cultural ruptures and translational mediation. As editor, Dipesh Chakrabarty, writes in his introduction, “it is our hope...[that] these essays will convey something of the complexity and unpredictability of the processes through which the entangled histories of Britain and south Asia made their course through times that were, in any absolute sense, neither colonial nor postcolonial but something in-between” (p 1).

Uday Mehta’s brilliant uptake on the paradoxes inflecting Indian constitutionalism exemplifies the spirit of the book. As a political philosopher he begins with a comparative perspective, revisiting constitutionalism in France and America and sifting through conceptualisations of the political from Hobbes and Locke to Hannah Arendt. The Indian case, he argues, is exceptional for many reasons, the main one being that the constitutional matrix demands a political vision for the new nation that is evacuated of all history and, further, that it is this revolutionary and absolutist form of politics that constitutes the ground of sovereignty and agency. The “political”, in other words, becomes “power absolved from history”. This political vision is informed by three primary concerns: national unity in the face of centrifugal forces pulling India in different directions; social uplift through alleviation of poverty, illiteracy, caste and other forms of discrimination; and recognition of India as an equal player in international affairs. Freedom, which ought to have been the central concern for a decolonising nation, is put on hold as it were, as a secondary concern, “a promissory note” towards a future, a kind of “tryst with destiny”, something towards which the collective nation will journey in the future once it has taken care of unity, social uplift and international recognition (p 17).

As for history, it becomes a “social and political fact on which politics does its work”. For example, in its translation to the idiom of politics, the history of caste discrimination appears as concern for caste injustice and becomes “analogous”, as Mehta puts it, “to that of building industry or large dams” (p 26). History in such a scheme of things is not seen as a burdensome inheritance that sets limits on political agency, but as a repertoire of choices that can be engineered and channelled towards alleviating present exigencies. This is what Chakrabarty has called elsewhere a “decisionist” framework of history, “a disposition that allows the critic to talk about the future and the past as though they were concrete, value-laden choices or decisions…the reformer seeks to bring a (particular) history to nullity in order to build up society from scratch”.1

Unique Interpretation

Two nationalist leaders of note in south Asia, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and B R Ambedkar, appear in the volume as “decisionists” of this type. Their transactions with the past and tradition are disjunctive acts, intent on severing ties with nature and history, and according “minorities” a political universality built on pure will. In a novel reading of Jinnah’s conception of Pakistan, Faisal Devji, unravels the import of the term “faith” in Jinnah’s vocabulary not as conventional religious belief, but as belief in a revolutionary transformation of self, the capacity to shape one’s destiny. Islam becomes the placeholder of such “faith”, an Islam denuded of its heterodox manifestations in everyday practice, an Islam conceived in opposition to its myriad worldly and historical guises. Pakistan, the “land of the pure” is an artifice of “pure” political will. It is no coincidence, Devji argues, that both Pakistan and Israel, offer citizenships respectively to all those who have “faith” in being a pure Muslim or a Jew irrespective of affiliative ties or alternative nationalities in other regions.

Ambedkar’s decisionism is manifest in his rejection of caste Hinduism and his translation of dalit personhood into the idiom of Buddhism. But it is not as radical as Jinnah’s in completely rejecting all traditions of the subcontinent and beginning from a “pure” site. His retrieval of Buddhism as a “forgotten” past of the untouchable castes is an act of allegiance to an idea of “India” that, after independence, needs to reckon with history’s detritus as political subjects. As Anupama Rao notes in her essay, ‘Ambedkar and the Politics of Minority: A Reading’, Ambedkar’s “reflexive appropriation of historicality… [becomes] a potential mode of political redemption” (p 151).

Muslim Leader

Jinnah is a canonical Muslim leader in the subcontinent’s political memory and much has been written about him. A salutary aspect of this book is the portrayal of littleknown or long-forgotten Muslim leaders who contributed to national imaginings in colonial/postcolonial Pakistan and India. Barbara Metcalf retrieves for us a figure antinomian to Jinnah: Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani, the rector of the Deobandi madrasa, Daru’l ‘Ulum. Jinnah was a “lax” Muslim in his daily life, but created the world’s first Islamic nation. In contrast, Madani was a staunch Muslim and a well known Islamic scholar, but was committed to a vision of secular India. In her essay, Metcalf not only meticulously traces Madani’s complex political positioning – as leftist, Muslim, secular, non-Anglo, vernacularist – vis-a-vis dominant nationalist discourses, but also frames her analysis as a critique of contemporary Indian and

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global stereotyping of the “observant Muslim” as a threat to secular democracies, as “backward and untrustworthy” (p 114). Madani, she argues, was exemplary in his anti-colonial stance, in his endorsement of a composite and inclusive nationalism, in his anguish at the creation of Pakistan and the partition that followed, and in his vehement rejection of violence and political fundamentalism. “To end oppression”, Madani exhorted, “is one of the most important parts of the “programme” of Islam. “Indeed”, he continued, “effort on behalf of this principle is the duty of a Muslim…to call this violence and killing ‘Islamic jihad’ is a blasphemous slander and brings derision to [Islamic] teachings” (Metcalf, p 111).

Madani went unheard and uncelebrated, not only because he was fluent only in Urdu and not English, but also because he did not partake of fractious and frenzied nation-making projects in the mid-1940s. Metcalf’s credit lies in projecting his legacy on to present-day India and reminding us that it is his legacy that needs nurturing in late modern India when too many citizens like Madani – good Muslims, loyal to secular and democratic India – live in a state of siege and fear. The analysis would have had more edge had she also offset it against global unease about the role of madrasas in contemporary Pakistan in fostering the Taliban regime. After all, some popular historians have traced a genealogy for such schools back to the Deobandis and their version of a rarefied Wahabism. William Dalrymple, after his visit to one such madrasa, “Haqquiana”, reported the director boasting he would shut down the school and send the boys to war whenever the Taliban put out a call for jihad.2

North versus South India

Dominant readings of nation-making in India and Pakistan are also refracted through regional and diasporic imaginings. Gyanesh Kudaisya’s toponymic, linguistic and geographical tracing of colonial genealogy and postcolonial reconfiguration of current-day Uttar Pradesh provides historical flesh to the common public perception of UP as India’s heartland. His essay also foregrounds the gradual marginalisation since Partition of the region’s

Economic & Political Weekly

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Muslim and Urdu cultural topo graphy. Ian Copland draws our attention to yet another regional reconfiguration in what he calls “middle India” – present-day Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh – with the annexation of the princely states by the new nation. In an exemplification of this book’s central argument about entangled temporalities of postcolonial nation states, Copland unearths a micropolitics of “feudal” or “princely” India’s continuity in other guises. These include advantageous participation in elections, nomination as regional leaders, patronage of Hindutva factions or an alternate display of rajput ethics of ‘sharan’ (royal protection) to embattled minorities.

In a continuation of the theme of the nation’s traction with regions, David Washbrook’s polemic, ‘Towards a History of the Present: Southern Perspectives on the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’, reckons with the consequences of the neglect of southern India in national imaginings. It provides an interesting foil to Kudaisya’s delineation of UP and the northern Hindi-speaking belt as the microcosm of the nation. Washbrook takes issue not just with the excessive historical focus on north/central India and Bengal in nationalist narratives, but also with what he sees as monolithic readings of colonialism and modernity in projects such as subaltern studies. The south, in his reading, is a much more interesting locus of the subcontinent’s negotiations with colonial modernity not least because in more ways than one “it was at the extremities of [Britian’s] Indian empire” – subject to neither “monopolistic British business practices” nor to its “aggressive militarism” in the harsh way that other parts of India were (p 343).

Again, the region had already experienced other modalities of colonial incursion through the French, the Portuguese and the Dutch. Further, as has been documented by historians of late medieval and early modern periods, the south and the west were part of an eclectic and interactive Eurasian culture fashioned by multiple trade routes across the region from Europe to south-east Asia. All of these oriented southern India to European and world contact in ways distinct from the rest of the subcontinent. Washbrook’s urging that scholars should pluralise the history of colonial modernity in south Asia is, of course, valid, but how does one respond to his provocative thesis that today’s confident, techno-savvy, comfortablewith-the-west, globalised India is nothing but a return to its “southern self”? That the “past(s) of Calcutta, Patna and Lucknow have little purchase on the present(s) of Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai”? (p 351). Is his fervent wish that historiography move away from a Bengal-dominated (or Bengali historians-dominated) British/ India conflict, to be now served by a reactive south-India dominated narrative? The volume itself provides a judicious answer to this dilemma, encompassing as it does not only plural histories of the subcontinent’s capacious accommodation of colonial and postcolonial modernities, but also glimpses of the diasporic Indian’s traction with nation-making “not from the top or the bottom, but from the outside in”, as John Kelly and Martha Kaplan aver, in their essay, ‘Diaspora and Swaraj, Swaraj and Diaspora’ (p 329).

Combining the Old and the New

I turn in the final part of this review to three essays that transact with the master narratives of law, capital and democracy to delineate complex histories of subject formation and political sovereignty in postcolonial India. Rochona Majumdar’s ‘Family Values in Transition: Debates around the Hindu Code Bill’ provides a context for understanding the tense relationship between property and personhood that came to the fore during and after independence with regard to the inheritance rights of women. Majumdar sifts through vast amounts of material on parliamentary debates, media coverage and even popular culture to provide us with a thick analysis of not just the legalities of women’s right to property as coded in the bill, but also a history of the modern propertied subject in the subcontinental context. She foregrounds the ubiquity of Hindu Indian cultural understandings of family, especially the joint family, in the myriad conceptions of female subjectivity and citizenship at the time of independence, and takes us through the rough and tumble of the “culture wars” permeating every aspect of the debate.


In the process, she arrives at many insightful conclusions, two of which are especially pertinent to the postcolonial thrust of this volume. One that the pro perty question with regard to women was subsumed under a developmen talist discourse. Since such discourse was coded strongly in economic terms and set against fragmentation of property, the legal promise of equal inheritance for women remained just that, a promise, or in Uday Mehta’s terms, “a promissory note” relegated to secondary importance under more pressing exigencies of a development-oriented present. Majumdar’s second conclusion is the obverse of classic liberalism: that it was the “family rather than the individual” that “emerged as the propertied subject in the Hindu Code debates” (p 233). She captures for us a quintessential postcolonial moment in India’s history so aptly described by Homi Bhabha as the condition of being “almost the same but not quite”.

Ritu Birla’s history of the making of the capitalist subject during India’s transition to postcoloniality is analogous to Majumdar’s history of the propertied subject. Both highlight the vagaries of cultural input in hybridising universal categories, law and capital, that frame canonical narratives of the modern west. Both also build on Bernard Cohn’s incisive analysis of law as the locus colonial/modern subject-making. Birla explicitly invokes Cohn in crafting her key argument: how, she asks, can one “open the history of indigenous capitalism to the problem of the making of the modern and modernising subject?” (p 243). The translation of the historicity of south Asian capital – marked by kinship and caste-based market practices – to the world history of capital demands a problematisation of the oft-heard assertion in south Asian economic histories of the compatibility of cultural difference with the rational logic of political economy; it urges an unravelling of the figure of the corporate supremo who is at once world-oriented in his business dealings and quintessentially “Indian” in his personal life and civic engagements.

Birla demonstrates the need for a deep historical reading of colonial sovereignty as market governance to understand the emergence of postcolonial capitalist subject in India: one who did not just effortlessly combine indigenous practices with economic rationality, but who was actually a product of a new market discipline enabled by the structural logic of colonial law, one that productively played off the tension between economic progress and cultural conservation.

If Ritu Birla navigates the parameters of capital in postcolonial space, Dipesh Chakrabarty, in his contribution to the volume, contends with the parameters of the “political” in postcolonial and democratic India. What purchase, he asks, does an anti-colonial idiom of politics – replete with mass demonstrations and disobedience of colonial law – have in inde pendent India? How does one read Nehru’s disapproval of “indiscipline” and “crowd action” in democratic politics in the 1950s and 1960s against enthused responses in contemporary scholarship to “messy”, “uncivil” and “chaotic” manifestations of political agency in India today? Chakrabarty’s historicisation of the domain of the “poli tical” in contemporary India is enriched by a sophisticated theoretical detour through the question of colonial sovereignty and its relationship with liberal thought. Not only does Chakrabarty demonstrate the unsettling of Hobbes conception of “acquired sovereignty” (sove reignty by conquest where there is voluntary submission to the conqueror’s will) in a colonial context where there is always the possibility of anti-colonial revolt, he also makes a plausible case for a different reading of the Hobbesian “institutional sovereignty” (sovereignty by social contract) in the postcolonial Indian context. Chakrabarty turns to Michel Foucault’s reading of Hobbes wherein the repertoire of power in liberal democratic regimes is seen to be held together by a tense, tripartite balance between discipline, sovereignty and regulation. If the “political” in democratic India is coded as “people power” without necessary disci plinary or regulatory mechanisms – unlike in classic liberal polities – it can well constitute, as Chakrabarty’s brilliant essay demonstrates, yet another exemplary site of postcolonial re-constellation of liberal thought.

In its range of innovative historical and conceptual analysis, From the Colonial to the Postcolonial: India and Pakistan in Transi tion, is a valuable contribution to post colonial scholarship on south Asia and a worthy tribute to the legacy of Bernard Cohn.



1 Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton University Press, N J, 2000, p 247.

2 Cited in Jonathan Power’s ‘There’s Good in Pakistan’s Madrasas’ published in the International Herald Tribune, December 7, 2005, http://ww /a r ticles/2005/12/7/ edpower.php; accessed, November 6, 2007.

Course on Research in Industrial Relations April 21-25, 2008

Applications are invited from research scholars and young teachers from universities/colleges/research Institutions engaged in and/or interested in research in the area of industrial relations to attend a Course on Research in Industrial Relations being jointly organized by V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, Indian Industrial Relations Association and International Management Institute and to be held during April 21-25, 2008 at the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute’s Campus. The Course offers opportunities for rigorous exercises in conceptualizing, designing and operationalising research pertaining to industrial relations. It provides the participants prospects for intensive interaction with renowned scholars and practitioners in the area of industrial relations. There is no programme fee. The selected candidates would be provided to and fro sleeper class rail fare and also free boarding and lodging in the Institute’s campus. Applications along with the C.V. and a brief write up expressing the utility of the course may be forwarded to Dr. S.K. Sasikumar, Course Director, Course on Research in Industrial Relations, V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, Sector – 24, NOIDA-201301 (Fax: 0120-2411471; 2411536; Tel: 0120-2411022, E-mail: on or before April 5, 2008.

february 16, 2008

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