ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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States That Might Have Been

Lost Political Vitalities of Independent India

Different Nationalisms: Bengal, 1905–1947 by Semanti Ghosh, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp xiv + 425, ₹995.

Some lacunae in the historiography of modern South Asia are quite old. For instance, there has long been a need for studies of the final stages of decolonisation, which go beyond a focus on the emergence of either “India” or “Pakistan,” and examine other options and imaginaries. These other imaginaries include Bangladesh, which emerged belatedly, as well as states that “might have been.” We have not searched adequately for these unborn and aborted states of mind, and have lost sight of their decayed roots, despite their vitality in the past. Likewise, the attention that has been paid to the tension between sectarian and secular ideologies of nationalism—sometimes described crudely as a tension between the communal and the national—has tended to occlude the productive interpenetration of sectarian and secular agendas within the same political forces. Semanti Ghosh’s monograph Different Nationalisms: Bengal, 1905–1947, addresses these lacunae, and does so very well indeed. It illuminates the history of independence in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and in the process provides an accounting of a vitality that apparently fizzled out in 1947.

Different Nationalisms takes on the regional politics of Bengal between the two partitions of the province. It is, appropriately, a study of partitioned subjectivities and institutions, which questions the degree, content and contingencies of partitioning. It fits most closely alongside a short but seminal set of books with which it engages continuously: Sumit Sarkar’s The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, 1903–1908, Joya Chatterji’s Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932–1947, Partha Chatterjee’s The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, and Ayesha Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan. It argues that by the time of the first partition, regional sentiment, that is, attachment to the region as a nation in its own right, was widespread and strong, overlapping communal lines, even as it was contested and negotiated within and across communities. By the time of the second partition, this sentiment was more highly developed, thanks to considerable cultural and political work, but could no longer find a viable space within the politics of the subcontinent. It was effectively stifled from the outside, by India, primarily in the form of the Congress, and secondarily in that of the All-India Muslim League. Ghosh suggests that communal polarisation has been overemphasised by historians of late-colonial Bengal (Chatterji is the most direct target), to the exclusion of the politics and culture of “Bengaliness,” within which difference would not dissolve, but remain in a state of manageable and productive tension. Regional sentiment, she argues, promised a way of resolving the problem of difference, even as the production of difference was intensified by mass mobilisation and electoral politics.

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Updated On : 27th Feb, 2018
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