The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

"Science," the Greek word for knowledge, when appended to the word "political," creates what seems like an oxymoron. For who could claim to know politics? More complicated than any game, most people who play it become addicts and die without understanding what they were addicted to. The rest of us suffer under their malpractice as our "leaders." A truer case of the blind leading the blind could not be found. Plumb the depths of confusion here.

The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

Postby admin » Sat Mar 27, 2021 2:37 am

The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories
by Partha Chatterjee
Edited by Sherry B. Ortner, Nicholas B. Dirks, Geoff Eley
© 1993 by Princeton University Press





Part of the importance of the "fragmentary" point of view lies in this, that it resists the drive for a shallow homogenisation and struggles for other, potentially richer definitions of the "nation" and the future political community.

—Gyanendra Pandey, "In Defence of the Fragment"


• Preface and Acknowledgments
• Chapter One: Whose Imagined Community?
• Chapter Two: The Colonial State
• Chapter Three: The Nationalist Elite
• Chapter Four: The Nation and Its Pasts
• Chapter Five: Histories and Nations
• Chapter Six: The Nation and Its Women
• Chapter Seven: Women and the Nation
• Chapter Eight: The Nation and Its Peasants
• Chapter Nine: The Nation and Its Outcasts
• Chapter Ten: The National State
• Chapter Eleven: Communities and the Nation
• Notes
• Bibliography
• Index

I described earlier the way nationalism separated the domain of culture into two spheres—-the material and the spiritual. The claims of Western civilization were the most powerful in the material sphere. Science, technology, rational forms of economic organization, modern methods of statecraft—these had given the European countries the strength to subjugate the non-European people and to impose their dominance over the whole world. To overcome this domination, the colonized people had to learn those superior techniques of organizing material life and incorporate them within their own cultures. This was one aspect of the nationalist project of rationalizing and reforming the traditional culture of their people. But this could not mean the imitation of the West in every aspect of life, for then the very distinction between the West and the East would vanish—the self-identity of national culture would itself be threatened. In fact, as Indian nationalists in the late nineteenth century argued, not only was it undesirable to imitate the West in anything, other than the material aspects of life, it was even unnecessary to do so, because in the spiritual domain, the East was superior to the West. What was necessary was to cultivate the material techniques of modern Western civilization while retaining and strengthening the distinctive spiritual essence of the national culture. This completed the formulation of the nationalist project, and as an ideological justification for the selective appropriation of Western modernity, it continues to hold sway to this day.

The discourse of nationalism shows that the material/spiritual distinction was condensed into an analogous, but ideologically far more powerful, dichotomy: that between the outer and the inner. The material domain, argued nationalist writers, lies outside us—a mere external that influences us, conditions us, and forces us to adjust to it. Ultimately, it is unimportant. The spiritual, which lies within, is our true self; it is that which is genuinely essential. It followed that as long as India took care to retain the spiritual distinctiveness of its culture, it could make all the compromises and adjustments necessary to adapt itself to the requirements of a modern material world without losing its true identity. This was the key that nationalism supplied for resolving the ticklish problems posed by issues of social reform in the nineteenth century.

Applying the inner/outer distinction to the matter of concrete day-to-day living separates the social space into ghar and bahir, the home and the world. The world is the external, the domain of the material; the home represents one's inner spiritual self, one's true identity. The world is a treacherous terrain of the pursuit of material interests, where practical considerations reign supreme. It is also typically the domain of the male. The home in its essence must remain unaffected by the profane activities of the material world—and woman is its representation. And so one gets an identification of social roles by gender to correspond with the separation of the social space into ghar and bahir….

The world was where the European power had challenged the non-European peoples and, by virtue of its superior material culture, had subjugated them. But, the nationalists asserted, it had failed to colonize the inner, essential, identity of the East, which lay in its distinctive, and superior, spiritual culture. Here the East was undominated, sovereign, master of its own fate. For a colonized people, the world was a distressing constraint, forced upon it by the fact of its material weakness. It was a place of oppression and daily humiliation, a place where the norms of the colonizer had perforce to be accepted. It was also the place, as nationalists were soon to argue, where the battle would be waged for national independence. The subjugated must learn the modern sciences and arts of the material world from the West in order to match their strengths and ultimately overthrow the colonizer. But in the entire phase of the national struggle, the crucial need was to protect, preserve, and strengthen the inner core of the national culture, its spiritual essence. No encroachments by the colonizer must be allowed in that inner sanctum. In the world, imitation of and adaptation to Western norms was a necessity; at home, they were tantamount to annihilation of one's very identity…

It is striking how much of the literature on women in the nineteenth century concerns the threatened Westernization of Bengali women. This theme was taken up in virtually every form of written, oral, and visual communication—from the ponderous essays of nineteenth-century moralists, to novels, farces, skits and jingles, to the paintings of the patua (scroll painters)…. To ridicule the idea of a Bengali woman trying to imitate the ways of a memsaheb (and it was very much an idea, for it is hard to find historical evidence that even in the most Westernized families of Calcutta in the mid-nineteenth century there were actually any women who even remotely resembled these gross caricatures) was a sure recipe calculated to evoke raucous laughter and moral condemnation in both male and female audiences. It was, of course, a criticism of manners, of new items of clothing such as the blouse, the petticoat, and shoes (all, curiously, considered vulgar, although they clothed the body far better than the single length of sari that was customary for Bengali women, irrespective of wealth and social status, until the middle of the nineteenth century), of the use of Western cosmetics and jewelry, of the reading of novels, of needlework (considered a useless and expensive pastime), of riding in open carriages. What made the ridicule stronger was the constant suggestion that the Westernized woman was fond of useless luxury and cared little for the well-being of the home….

Yet it was clear that a mere restatement of the old norms of family life would not suffice; they were breaking down because of the inexorable force of circumstance. New norms were needed, which would be more appropriate to the external conditions of the modern world and yet not a mere imitation of the West.

What were the principles by which these new norms could be constructed?

Bhudeb supplies the characteristic nationalist answer.
In an essay entitled "Modesty," he talks of the natural and social principles that provide the basis for the feminine virtues. Modesty, or decorum in manner and conduct, he says, is a specifically human trait; it does not exist in animal nature. It is human aversion to the purely animal traits that gives rise to virtues such as modesty. In this aspect, human beings seek to cultivate in themselves, and in their civilization, spiritual or godlike qualities wholly opposed to the forms of behavior which prevail in animal nature. Further, within the human species, women cultivate and cherish these godlike qualities far more than men. Protected to a certain extent from the purely material pursuits of securing a livelihood in the external world, women express in their appearance and behavior the spiritual qualities that are characteristic of civilized and refined human society…

The point is then hammered home:

Those who laid down our religious codes discovered the inner spiritual quality which resides within even the most animal pursuits which humans must perform, and thus removed the animal qualities from those actions. This has not happened in Europe. Religion there is completely divorced from [material] life. Europeans do not feel inclined to regulate all aspects of their life by the norms of religion; they condemn it as clericalism.'... In the Arya system there is a preponderance of spiritualism, in the European system a preponderance of material pleasure. In the Arya system, the wife is a goddess. In the European system, she is a partner and companion….

The new woman defined in this way was subjected to a new patriarchy. In fact, the social order connecting the home and the world in which nationalists placed the new woman was contrasted not only with that of modern Western society; it was explicitly distinguished from the patriarchy of indigenous tradition, the same tradition that had been put on the dock by colonial interrogators. Sure enough, nationalism adopted several elements from tradition as marks of its native cultural identity, but this was now a "classicized" tradition—reformed, reconstructed, fortified against charges of barbarism and irrationality.

The new patriarchy was also sharply distinguished from the immediate social and cultural condition in which the majority of the people lived, for the "new" woman was quite the reverse of the "common" woman, who was coarse, vulgar, loud, quarrelsome, devoid of superior moral sense, sexually promiscuous, subjected to brutal physical oppression by males. Alongside the parody of the Westernized woman, this other construct is repeatedly emphasized in the literature of the nineteenth century through a host of lower-class female characters who make their appearance in the social milieu of the new middle class—maidservants, washer women, barbers, peddlers, procuresses, prostitutes. It was precisely this degenerate condition of women that nationalism claimed it would reform, and it was through these contrasts that the new woman of nationalist ideology was accorded a status of cultural superiority to the Westernized women of the wealthy parvenu families spawned by the colonial connection as well as to common women of the lower classes. Attainment by her own efforts of a superior national culture was the mark of woman's newly acquired freedom. This was the central ideological strength of the nationalist resolution of the women's question….

Formal education became not only acceptable but, in fact, a requirement for the new bhadramahila (respectable woman) when it was demonstrated that it was possible for a woman to acquire the cultural refinements afforded by modern education without jeopardizing her place at home, that is, without becoming a memsaheb… Indeed, the achievement was marked by claims of cultural superiority in several different aspects: superiority over the Western woman for whom, it was believed, education meant only the acquisition of material skills to compete with men in the outside world and hence a loss of feminine (spiritual) virtues; superiority over the preceding generation of women in their own homes who had been denied the opportunity of freedom by an oppressive and degenerate social tradition; and superiority over women of the lower classes who were culturally incapable of appreciating the virtues of freedom….

Recent historians of a liberal persuasion have often been somewhat embarrassed by the profuse evidence of women writers of the nineteenth century, including those at the forefront of the reform movements in middle-class homes, justifying the importance of the so-called feminine virtues. Radharani Lahiri, for instance, wrote in 1875: "Of all the subjects that women might learn, housework is the most important. . .. Whatever knowledge she may acquire, she cannot claim any reputation unless she is proficient in housework." Others spoke of the need for an educated woman to develop such womanly virtues as chastity, self-sacrifice, submission, devotion, kindness, patience, and the labors of love. The ideological point of view from which such protestations of "femininity" (and hence the acceptance of a new patriarchal order) were made inevitable was given precisely by the nationalist resolution of the problem…

Education then was meant to inculcate in women the virtues—the typically bourgeois virtues characteristic of the new social forms of "disciplining"—of orderliness, thrift, cleanliness, and a personal sense of responsibility, the practical skills of literacy, accounting, hygiene, and the ability to run the household according to the new physical and economic conditions set by the outside world. For this, she would also need to have some idea of the world outside the home, into which she could even venture as long as it did not threaten her femininity. It is this latter criterion, now invested with a characteristically nationalist content, that made possible the displacement of the boundaries of the home from the physical confines earlier defined by the rules of purdah to a more flexible, but nonetheless culturally determinate, domain set by the differences between socially approved male and female conduct. Once the essential femininity of women was fixed in terms of certain culturally visible spiritual qualities, they could go to schools, travel in public conveyances, watch public entertainment programs, and in time even take up employment outside the home. But the "spiritual" signs of her femininity were now clearly marked—in her dress, her eating habits, her social demeanor, her religiosity….

in this as in other aspects of her life, the spirituality of her character had also to be stressed in contrast with the innumerable ways men had to surrender to the pressures of the material world. The need to adjust to the new conditions outside the home had forced upon men a whole series of changes in their dress, food habits, religious observances, and social relations. Each of these capitulations now had to be compensated for by an assertion of spiritual purity on the part of women. They must not eat, drink, or smoke in the same way as men; they must continue the observance of religious rituals that men were finding difficult to carry out; they must maintain the cohesiveness of family life and solidarity with the kin to which men could not now devote much attention. The new patriarchy advocated by nationalism conferred upon women the honor of a new social responsibility, and by associating the task of female emancipation with the historical goal of sovereign nationhood, bound them to a new, and yet entirely legitimate, subordination.

As with all hegemonic forms of exercising dominance, this patriarchy combined coercive authority with the subtle force of persuasion. This was expressed most generally in the inverted ideological form of the relation of power between the sexes: the adulation of woman as goddess or as mother. Whatever its sources in the classical religions of India or in medieval religious practices, the specific ideological form in which we know the "Indian woman" construct in the modern literature and arts of India today is wholly and undeniably a product of the development of a dominant middle-class culture coeval with the era of nationalism. It served to emphasize with all the force of mythological inspiration what had in any case become a dominant characteristic of femininity in the new construct of "woman" standing as a sign for "nation," namely, the spiritual qualities of self-sacrifice, benevolence, devotion, religiosity, and so on. This spirituality did not, as we have seen, impede the chances of the woman moving out of the physical confines of the home; on the contrary, it facilitated it, making it possible for her to go into the world under conditions that would not threaten her femininity. In fact, the image of woman as goddess or mother served to erase her sexuality in the world outside the home.

-- The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, by Partha Chatterjee
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Re: The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

Postby admin » Sat Mar 27, 2021 2:38 am

Preface and Acknowledgments

By now knowledgeable people all over the world have become familiar with the charges leveled against the subject-centered rationality characteristic of post-Enlightenment modernity. This subject-centered reason, we have now been told, claims for itself a singular universality by asserting its epistemic privilege over all other local, plural, and often incommensurable knowledges; it proclaims its own unity and homogeneity by declaring all other subjectivities as inadequate, fragmentary, and subordinate; it declares for the rational subject an epistemic as well as moral sovereignty that is meant to be self-determined, unconditioned, and self-transparent. Against this arrogant, intolerant, self-aggrandizing rational subject of modernity, critics in recent years have been trying to resurrect the virtues of the fragmentary, the local, and the subjugated in order to unmask the will to power that lies at the very heart of modern rationality and to decenter its epistemological and moral subject. In this effort at criticism, materials from colonial and postcolonial situations have figured quite prominently.

However, a persistent difficulty has been that by asserting an inseparable complicity between knowledge and power, this critique has been unable adequately to vindicate its own normative preferences and thus to provide valid grounds for claiming agency on behalf of persons, groups, or movements. I do not propose to offer in this book a general solution to this problem. What I attempt instead is a series of interventions in different disciplinary fields, localized and bound by their own historically produced rules of formation, but thematically connected to one another by their convergence upon the one most untheorized concept of the modern world—the nation.

In this project, the present work carries forward an argument begun in my Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World (1986). All my illustrations come from colonial and postcolonial India, and even more particularly from Bengal. But it must also be remembered that the very form of imagining nations is such that even as one talks about a particular historically formed nation, one is left free to implicate in one's discourse others that have not been so formed or whose forms remain suppressed, and perhaps even some whose forms have still not been imagined.

I thought about and wrote various parts of this book over the past four years but put it together in its present form in an inspired two-week spell in April 1992. Not surprisingly, I have a long list of acknowledgments. My colleagues at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta— Pradip Bose, Amitav Ghosh, Anjan Ghosh, Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Debes Roy, Tapti Roy, Ranabir Samaddar and Asok Sen, in particular— have been a constant source of ideas, criticisms, and encouragement. My colleagues in the Editorial Group of Subaltern Studies—Shahid Amin, David Arnold, Gautam Bhadra, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Ranajit Guha, David Hardiman, Gyan Pandey, and Sumit Sarkar—have been the most active and faithful partners in my intellectual life for more than a decade; they have a share in the production of most of the ideas that have gone into this book. I am also deeply indebted to Raghab Chattopadhyay, Ajit Chaudhuri, Sushil Khanna, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Bhaskar Mukho-padhyay, Kalyan Sanyal, and Anup Sinha (besides, of course, the shadowy presence of Arup Mallik, with whom I participated in that remarkable reading circle which went by the name of the Kankurgachhi Hegel Club and which met every week for three years to make the texts of Hegel the pretext for intense debates on many of the subjects discussed here. Two semesters of teaching at the New School for Social Research, New York, in 1990 and 1991 gave me the respite from my routine obligations to allow me to get on with my writing; I thank Talal Asad, Debbie Poole, Rayna Rapp, Bill Roseberry, and Kamala Visweswaran for reading and commenting on several parts of this book.

I have presented much of the material discussed here in conferences or talks at Calcutta, Shimla, Istanbul, Moscow, Berlin, Tubingen, London, and Sussex, and at universities in the following places in the United States: New York, New Haven, Princeton, Rochester, Philadelphia, Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis, Berkeley, Stanford, Santa Cruz, and Los Angeles. These discussions have all contributed to the present form of this text. I must also express my thanks to the participants of those invigorating meetings in Chicago in 1990 and 1991 of the Forum on Social Theory organized by Benjamin Lee and the Center for Psychosocial Studies.

I am particularly grateful to Craig Calhoun, Nicholas Dirks, Prabha-kara Jha, and Gyan Prakash for their generous and detailed comments, appreciative as well as critical, on the entire manuscript.

I take this opportunity to thank my students in the last few years in Calcutta and New York who were forced to tackle many of the themes dealt with here in their early, half-formed stages.

The research on this book was carried out in Calcutta at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences and at the National Library. Four or five short spells of work at the India Office Library, London, allowed me to find from its Vernacular Tracts collection much material from little-known nineteenth-century Bengali sources. When I was in New York, the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University was kind enough to grant me the status of a Visiting Scholar, which allowed me to use the Butler Library at Columbia. The first draft manuscript of this book was produced during my short stay in April 1992 as Visiting Fellow at the A. E. Havens Center in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison: I thank Allen Hunter and Polly Ericksen for their generous help.

In the matter of finding books, I have to express my deep indebtedness to Nirmalya Acharya, whose native knowledge of the labyrinthine world of College Street publishing continues to be of invaluable help to me. And to Susanta Ghosh I remain indebted for his encouragement as well as criticism, well meant if not always well deserved.

I am grateful to the publishers of the following journals for allowing me to use in this book sections from my previously published articles: "Whose Imagined Community?" Millennium: Journal of International Studies 20, no. 3 (Winter 1991): 521-26; "History and the Nationalization of Hinduism," Social Research 59, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 111-49; "Colonialism, Nationalism, and Colonialized Women: The Contest in India," American Ethnologist 16, no. 4 (November 1989): 622-33; "For an Indian History of Peasant Struggle," Social Scientist 16, no. 11 (November 1988): 3-17; "A Response to Taylor's Modes of Civil Society," Public Culture 3, no. 1 (Fall 1990): 119-32. I am also grateful to Blackwell Publishers for permission to use parts of my article "Their Own Words? An Essay for Edward Said," in Michael Sprinker, ed., Edward Said: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 194-220; and to the School for American Research for permission to use my article "Alternative Histories/Alternative Nations," to be published in the forthcoming conference volume "Making Alternative History," edited by Peter A. Schmidt and Tom Patterson.

Except when otherwise stated, all translations in this book from Bengali sources are my own.

My thanks to Mary Murrell, Beth Gianfagna, and Cindy Crumrine of Princeton University Press for their enthusiasm about this book and the care they have taken over its production.

And finally, as always, my thanks to Gouri.

10 November 1992
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Re: The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

Postby admin » Sat Mar 27, 2021 3:11 am

CHAPTER ONE: Whose Imagined Community?

Nationalism has once more appeared on the agenda of world affairs. Almost every day, state leaders and political analysts in Western countries declare that with "the collapse of communism" (that is the term they use; what they mean is presumably the collapse of Soviet socialism), the principal danger to world peace is now posed by the resurgence of nationalism in different parts of the world. Since in this day and age a phenomenon has first to be recognized as a "problem" before it can claim the attention of people whose business it is to decide what should concern the public, nationalism seems to have regained sufficient notoriety for it to be liberated from the arcane practices of "area specialists" and been made once more a subject of general debate.

However, this very mode of its return to the agenda of world politics has, it seems to me, hopelessly prejudiced the discussion on the subject. In the 1950s and 1960s, nationalism was still regarded as a feature of the victorious anticolonial struggles in Asia and Africa. But simultaneously, as the new institutional practices of economy and polity in the postcolonial states were disciplined and normalized under the conceptual rubrics of "development" and "modernization," nationalism was already being relegated to the domain of the particular histories of this or that colonial empire. And in those specialized histories defined by the unprepossessing contents of colonial archives, the emancipatory aspects of nationalism were undermined by countless revelations of secret deals, manipulations, and the cynical pursuit of private interests. By the 1970s, nationalism had become a matter of ethnic politics, the reason why people in the Third World killed each other—sometimes in wars between regular armies, sometimes, more distressingly, in cruel and often protracted civil wars, and increasingly, it seemed, by technologically sophisticated and virtually unstoppable acts of terrorism. The leaders of the African struggles against colonialism and racism had spoiled their records by becoming heads of corrupt, fractious, and often brutal regimes; Gandhi had been appropriated by such marginal cults as pacifism and vegetarianism; and even Ho Chi Minh in his moment of glory was caught in the unyielding polarities of the Cold War. Nothing, it would seem, was left in the legacy of nationalism to make people in the Western world feel good about it.

This recent genealogy of the idea explains why nationalism is now viewed as a dark, elemental, unpredictable force of primordial nature threatening the orderly calm of civilized life. What had once been successfully relegated to the outer peripheries of the earth is now seen picking its way back toward Europe, through the long-forgotten provinces of the Habsburg, the czarist, and the Ottoman empires. Like drugs, terrorism, and illegal immigration, it is one more product of the Third World that the West dislikes but is powerless to prohibit.

In light of the current discussions on the subject in the media, it is surprising to recall that not many years ago nationalism was generally considered one of Europe's most magnificent gifts to the rest of the world. It is also not often remembered today that the two greatest wars of the twentieth century, engulfing as they did virtually every part of the globe, were brought about by Europe's failure to manage its own ethnic nationalisms. Whether of the "good" variety or the "bad," nationalism was entirely a product of the political history of Europe. Notwithstanding the celebration of the various unifying tendencies in Europe today and of the political consensus in the West as a whole, there may be in the recent amnesia on the origins of nationalism more than a hint of anxiety about whether it has quite been tamed in the land of its birth.

In all this time, the "area specialists," the historians of the colonial world, working their way cheerlessly through musty files of administrative reports and official correspondence in colonial archives in London or Paris or Amsterdam, had of course never forgotten how nationalism arrived in the colonies. Everyone agreed that it was a European import;
the debates in the 1960s and 1970s in the historiographies of Africa or India or Indonesia were about what had become of the idea and who was responsible for it. These debates between a new generation of nationalist historians and those whom they dubbed "colonialists" were vigorous and often acrimonious, but they were largely confined to the specialized territories of "area studies"; no one else took much notice of them.

Ten years ago, it was one such area specialist who managed to raise once more the question of the origin and spread of nationalism in the framework of a universal history. Benedict Anderson demonstrated with much subtlety and originality that nations were not the determinate products of given sociological conditions such as language or race or religion; they had been, in Europe and everywhere else in the world, imagined into existence.1 He also described some of the major institutional forms through which this imagined community came to acquire concrete shape, especially the institutions of what he so ingeniously called "print-capitalism." He then argued that the historical experience of nationalism in Western Europe, in the Americas, and in Russia had supplied for all subsequent nationalisms a set of modular forms from which nationalist elites in Asia and Africa had chosen the ones they liked.

Anderson's book has been, I think, the most influential in the last few years in generating new theoretical ideas on nationalism, an influence that of course, it is needless to add, is confined almost exclusively to academic writings. Contrary to the largely uninformed exoticization of nationalism in the popular media in the West, the theoretical tendency represented by Anderson certainly attempts to treat the phenomenon as part of the universal history of the modern world.

I have one central objection to Anderson's argument. If nationalisms in the rest of the world have to choose their imagined community from certain "modular" forms already made available to them by Europe and the Americas, what do they have left to imagine? History, it would seem, has decreed that we in the postcolonial world shall only be perpetual consumers of modernity. Europe and the Americas, the only true subjects of history, have thought out on our behalf not only the script of colonial enlightenment and exploitation, but also that of our anticolonial resistance and postcolonial misery. Even our imaginations must remain forever-colonized.

I object to this argument not for any sentimental reason, I object because I cannot reconcile it with the evidence on anticolonial nationalism. The most powerful as well as the most creative results of the nationalist imagination in Asia and Africa are posited not on an identity but rather on a difference with the "modular" forms of the national society propagated by the modern West. How can we ignore this without reducing the experience of anticolonial nationalism to a caricature of itself?

To be fair to Anderson, it must be said that he is not alone to blame. The difficulty, I am now convinced, arises because we have all taken the claims of nationalism to be a political movement much too literally and much too seriously.

In India, for instance, any standard nationalist history will tell us that nationalism proper began in 1885 with the formation of the Indian National Congress. It might also tell us that the decade preceding this was a period of preparation, when several provincial political associations were formed. Prior to that, from the 1820s to the 1870s, was the period of "social reform," when colonial enlightenment was beginning to "modernize" the customs and institutions of a traditional society and the political spirit was still very much that of collaboration with the colonial regime: nationalism had still not emerged.

This history, when submitted to a sophisticated sociological analysis, cannot but converge with Anderson's formulations. In fact, since it seeks to replicate in its own history the history of the modern state in Europe, nationalism's self-representation will inevitably corroborate Anderson's decoding of the nationalist myth. I think, however, that as history, nationalism's autobiography is fundamentally flawed.

By my reading, anticolonial nationalism creates its own domain of sovereignty within colonial society well before it begins its political battle with the imperial power. It does this by dividing the world of social institutions and practices into two domains—the material and the spiritual. The material is the domain of the "outside," of the economy and of statecraft, of science and technology, a domain where the West had proved its superiority and the East had succumbed. In this domain, then, Western superiority had to be acknowledged and its accomplishments carefully studied and replicated. The spiritual, on the other hand, is an "inner" domain bearing the "essential" marks of cultural identity. The greater one's success in imitating Western skills in the material domain, therefore, the greater the need to preserve the distinctness of one's spiritual culture. This formula is, I think, a fundamental feature of anticolonial nationalisms in Asia and Africa.2

There are several implications. First, nationalism declares the domain of the spiritual its sovereign territory and refuses to allow the colonial power to intervene in that domain.
If I may return to the Indian example, the period of "social reform" was actually made up of two distinct phases. In the earlier phase, Indian reformers looked to the colonial authorities to bring about by state action the reform of traditional institutions and customs. In the latter phase, although the need for change was not disputed, there was a strong resistance to allowing the colonial state to intervene in matters affecting "national culture." The second phase, in my argument, was already the period of nationalism.

The colonial state, in other words, is kept out of the "inner" domain of national culture; but it is not as though this so-called spiritual domain is left unchanged. In fact, here nationalism launches its most powerful, creative, and historically significant project: to fashion a "modern" national culture that is nevertheless not Western. If the nation is an imagined community, then this is where it is brought into being. In this, its true and essential domain, the nation is already sovereign, even when the state is in the hands of the colonial power. The dynamics of this historical project is completely missed in conventional histories in which the story of nationalism begins with the contest for political power.

In order to define the main argument of this book, let me anticipate a few points that will be discussed more elaborately later. I wish to highlight here several areas within the so-called spiritual domain that nationalism transforms in the course of its journey. I will confine my illustrations to Bengal, with whose history I am most familiar.

The first such area is that of language. Anderson is entirely correct in his suggestion that it is "print-capitalism" which provides the new institutional space for the development of the modern "national" language.3 However, the specificities of the colonial situation do not allow a simple transposition of European patterns of development. In Bengal, for instance, it is at the initiative of the East India Company and the European missionaries that the first printed books are produced in Bengali at the end of the eighteenth century and the first narrative prose compositions commissioned at the beginning of the nineteenth. At the same time, the first half of the nineteenth century is when English completely displaces Persian as the language of bureaucracy and emerges as the most powerful vehicle of intellectual influence on a new Bengali elite. The crucial moment in the development of the modern Bengali language comes, however, in midcentury, when this bilingual elite makes it a cultural project to provide its mother tongue with the necessary linguistic equipment to enable it to become an adequate language for "modern" culture. An entire institutional network of printing presses, publishing houses, newspapers, magazines, and literary societies is created around this time, outside the purview of the state and the European missionaries, through which the new language, modern and standardized, is given shape. The bilingual intelligentsia came to think of its own language as belonging to that inner domain of cultural identity, from which the colonial intruder had to be kept out; language therefore became a zone over which the nation first had to declare its sovereignty and then had to transform in order to make it adequate for the modern world.

Here the modular influences of modern European languages and literatures did not necessarily produce similar consequences. In the case of the new literary genres and aesthetic conventions, for instance, whereas European influences undoubtedly shaped explicit critical discourse, it was also widely believed that European conventions were inappropriate and misleading in judging literary productions in modern Bengali.
To this day there is a clear hiatus in this area between the terms of academic criticism and those of literary practice. To give an example, let me briefly discuss Bengali drama.

Drama is the one modern literary genre that is the least commended on aesthetic grounds by critics of Bengali literature. Yet it is the form in which the bilingual elite has found its largest audience. When it appeared in its modern form in the middle of the nineteenth century, the new Bengali drama had two models available to it: one, the modern European drama as it had developed since Shakespeare and Moliere, and two, the virtually forgotten corpus of Sanskrit drama, now restored to a reputation of classical excellence because of the praises showered on it by Orientalist scholars from Europe. The literary criteria that would presumably direct the new drama into the privileged domain of a modern national culture were therefore clearly set by modular forms provided by Europe. But the performative practices of the new institution of the public theater made it impossible for those criteria to be applied to plays written for the theater. The conventions that would enable a play to succeed on the Calcutta stage were very different from the conventions approved by critics schooled in the traditions of European drama. The tensions have not been resolved to this day. What thrives as mainstream public theater in West Bengal or Bangladesh today is modern urban theater, national and clearly distinguishable from "folk theater." It is produced and largely patronized by the literate urban middle classes. Yet their aesthetic conventions fail to meet the standards set by the modular literary forms adopted from Europe.

Even in the case of the novel, that celebrated artifice of the nationalist imagination in which the community is made to live and love in "homogeneous time,"4 the modular forms do not necessarily have an easy passage. The novel was a principal form through which the bilingual elite in Bengal fashioned a new narrative prose. In the devising of this prose, the influence of the two available models—modern English and classical Sanskrit—was obvious. And yet, as the practice of the form gained greater popularity, it was remarkable how frequently in the course of their narrative Bengali novelists shifted from the disciplined forms of authorial prose to the direct recording of living speech. Looking at the pages of some of the most popular novels in Bengali, it is often difficult to tell whether one is reading a novel or a play. Having created a modern prose language in the fashion of the approved modular forms, the literati, in its search for artistic truthfulness, apparently found it necessary to escape as often as possible the rigidities of that prose.

The desire to construct an aesthetic form that was modern and national, and yet recognizably different from the Western, was shown in perhaps its most exaggerated shape in the efforts in the early twentieth century of the so-called Bengal school of art. It was through these efforts that, on the one hand, an institutional space was created for the modern professional artist in India, as distinct from the traditional craftsman, for the dissemination through exhibition and print of the products of art and for the creation of a public schooled in the new aesthetic norms. Yet this agenda for the construction of a modernized artistic space was accompanied, on the other hand, by a fervent ideological program for an art that was distinctly "Indian," that is, different from the "Western."5 Although the specific style developed by the Bengal school for a new Indian art failed to hold its ground for very long, the fundamental agenda posed by its efforts continues to be pursued to this day, namely, to develop an art that would be modern and at the same time recognizably Indian.

Alongside the institutions of print-capitalism was created a new network of secondary schools. Once again, nationalism sought to bring this area under its jurisdiction long before the domain of the state had become a matter of contention. In Bengal, from the second half of the nineteenth century, it was the new elite that took the lead in mobilizing a "national" effort to start schools in every part of the province and then to produce a suitable educational literature. Coupled with print-capitalism, the institutions of secondary education provided the space where the new language and literature were both generalized and normalized—outside the domain of the state. It was only when this space was opened up, outside the influence of both the colonial state and the European missionaries, that it became legitimate for women, for instance, to be sent to school. It was also in this period, from around the turn of the century, that the University of Calcutta was turned from an institution of colonial education to a distinctly national institution, in its curriculum, its faculty, and its sources of funding.6

Another area in that inner domain of national culture was the family.
The assertion here of autonomy and difference was perhaps the most dramatic. The European criticism of Indian "tradition" as barbaric had focused to a large extent on religious beliefs and practices, especially those relating to the treatment of women. The early phase of "social reform" through the agency of the colonial power had also concentrated on the same issues. In that early phase, therefore, this area had been identified as essential to "Indian tradition." The nationalist move began by disputing the choice of agency. Unlike the early reformers, nationalists were not prepared to allow the colonial state to legislate the reform of "traditional" society. They asserted that only the nation itself could have the right to intervene in such an essential aspect of its cultural identity.

As it happened, the domain of the family and the position of women underwent considerable change in the world of the nationalist middle class. It was undoubtedly a new patriarchy that was brought into existence, different from the "traditional" order but also explicitly claiming to be different from the "Western" family. The "new woman" was to be modern, but she would also have to display the signs of national tradition and therefore would be essentially different from the "Western" woman.

The history of nationalism as a political movement tends to focus primarily on its contest with the colonial power in the domain of the outside, that is, the material domain of the state. This is a different history from the one I have outlined. It is also a history in which nationalism has no option but to choose its forms from the gallery of "models" offered by European and American nation-states: "difference" is not a viable criterion in the domain of the material.

In this outer domain, nationalism begins its journey (after, let us remember, it has already proclaimed its sovereignty in the inner domain) by inserting itself into a new public sphere constituted by the processes and forms of the modern (in this case, colonial) state. In the beginning, nationalism's task is to overcome the subordination of the colonized middle class, that is, to challenge the "rule of colonial difference" in the domain of the state. The colonial state, we must remember, was not just the agency that brought the modular forms of the modern state to the colonies; it was also an agency that was destined never to fulfill the normalizing mission of the modern state because the premise of its power was a rule of colonial difference, namely, the preservation of the alienness of the ruling group.

As the institutions of the modern state were elaborated in the colony, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, the ruling European groups found it necessary to lay down—in lawmaking, in the bureaucracy, in the administration of justice, and in the recognition by the state of a legitimate domain of public opinion—the precise difference between the rulers and the ruled. If Indians had to be admitted into the judiciary, could they be allowed to try Europeans? Was it right that Indians should enter the civil service by taking the same examinations as British graduates? If European newspapers in India were given the right of free speech, could the same apply to native newspapers? Ironically, it became the historical task of nationalism, which insisted on its own marks of cultural difference with the West, to demand that there be no rule of difference in the domain of the state.

In time, with the growing strength of nationalist politics, this domain became more extensive and internally differentiated and finally took on the form of the national, that is, postcolonial, state. The dominant elements of its self-definition, at least in postcolonial India, were drawn from the ideology of the modern liberal-democratic state.

In accordance with liberal ideology, the public was now distinguished from the domain of the private. The state was required to protect the inviolability of the private self in relation to other private selves. The legitimacy of the state in carrying out this function was to be guaranteed by its indifference to concrete differences between private selves—differences, that is, of race, language, religion, class, caste, and so forth.

The trouble was that the moral-intellectual leadership of the nationalist elite operated in a field constituted by a very different set of distinctions—those between the spiritual and the material, the inner and the outer, the essential and the inessential. That contested field over which nationalism had proclaimed its sovereignty and where it had imagined its true community was neither coextensive with nor coincidental to the field constituted by the public/private distinction. In the former field, the hegemonic project of nationalism could hardly make the distinctions of language, religion, caste, or class a matter of indifference to itself. The project was that of cultural "normalization," like, as Anderson suggests, bourgeois hegemonic projects everywhere, but with the all-important difference that it had to choose its site of autonomy from a position of subordination to a colonial regime that had on its side the most universalist justificatory resources produced by post-Enlightenment social thought.

The result is that autonomous forms of imagination of the community were, and continue to be, overwhelmed and swamped by the history of the postcolonial state. Here lies the root of our postcolonial misery: not in our inability to think out new forms of the modern community but in our surrender to the old forms of the modern state.
If the nation is an imagined community and if nations must also take the form of states, then our theoretical language must allow us to talk about community and state at the same time. I do not think our present theoretical language allows us to do this.

Writing just before his death, Bipinchandra Pal (1858-1932), the fiery leader of the Swadeshi movement in Bengal and a principal figure in the pre-Gandhian Congress, described the boardinghouses in which students lived in the Calcutta of his youth:

Students' messes in Calcutta, in my college days, fifty-six years ago, were like small republics and were managed on strictly democratic lines. Everything was decided by the voice of the majority of the members of the mess. At the end of every month a manager was elected by the whole "House," so to say, and he was charged with the collection of the dues of the members, and the general supervision of the food and establishment of the mess.... A successful manager was frequently begged to accept re-election; while the more careless and lazy members, who had often to pay out of their own pockets for their mismanagement, tried to avoid this honour.

... Disputes between one member and another were settled by a "Court" of the whole "House"; and we sat night after night, I remember, in examining these cases; and never was the decision of this "Court" questioned or disobeyed by any member. Nor were the members of the mess at all helpless in the matter of duly enforcing their verdict upon an offending colleague. For they could always threaten the recalcitrant member either with expulsion from the mess, or if he refused to go, with the entire responsibility of the rent being thrown on him. . . . And such was the force of public opinion in these small republics that I have known of cases of this punishment on offending members, which so worked upon him that after a week of their expulsion from a mess, they looked as if they had just come out of some prolonged or serious spell of sickness. . . .

The composition of our mess called for some sort of a compromise between the so-called orthodox and the Brahmo and other heterodox members of our republic. So a rule was passed by the unanimous vote of the whole "House," that no member should bring any food to the house ... which outraged the feelings of Hindu orthodoxy. It was however clearly understood that the members of the mess, as a body and even individually, would not interfere with what any one took outside the house. So we were free to go and have all sorts of forbidden food either at the Great Eastern Hotel, which some of us commenced to occasionally patronise later on, or anywhere else.7

The interesting point in this description is not so much the exaggerated and obviously romanticized portrayal in miniature of the imagined political form of the self-governing nation, but rather the repeated use of the institutional terms of modern European civic and political life (republic, democracy, majority, unanimity, election, House, Court, and so on) to describe a set of activities that had to be performed on material utterly incongruous with that civil society. The question of a "compromise" on the food habits of members is really settled not on a principle of demarcating the "private" from the "public" but of separating the domains of the "inside" and the "outside," the inside being a space where "unanimity" had to prevail, while the outside was a realm of individual freedom. Notwithstanding the "unanimous vote of the whole House," the force that determined the unanimity in the inner domain was not the voting procedure decided upon by individual members coming together in a body but rather the consensus of a community—institutionally novel (because, after all, the Calcutta boardinghouse was unprecedented in "tradition"), internally differentiated, but nevertheless a community whose claims preceded those of its individual members.

But Bipinchandra's use of the terms of parliamentary procedure to describe the "communitarian" activities of a boardinghouse standing in place of the nation must not be dismissed as a mere anomaly. His language is indicative of the very real imbrication of two discourses, and correspondingly of two domains, of politics. The attempt has been made in recent Indian historiography to talk of these as the domains of "elite" and "subaltern" [of lower status] politics.8 But one of the important results of this historiographical approach has been precisely the demonstration that each domain has not only acted in opposition to and as a limit upon the other but, through this process of struggle, has also shaped the emergent form of the other. Thus, the presence of populist or communitarian elements in the liberal constitutional order of the postcolonial state ought not to be read as a sign of the inauthenticity or disingenuousness of elite politics; it is rather a recognition in the elite domain of the very real presence of an arena of subaltern politics over which it must dominate and yet which also had to be negotiated on its own terms for the purposes of producing consent. On the other hand, the domain of subaltern politics has increasingly become familiar with, and even adapted itself to, the institutional forms characteristic of the elite domain. The point, therefore, is no longer one of simply demarcating and identifying the two domains in their separateness, which is what was required in order first to break down the totalizing claims of a nationalist historiography. Now the task is to trace in their mutually conditioned historicities the specific forms that have appeared, on the one hand, in the domain defined by the hegemonic project of nationalist modernity, and on the other, in the numerous fragmented resistances to that normalizing project.

This is the exercise I wish to carry out in this book. Since the problem will be directly posed of the limits to the supposed universality of the modern regime of power and with it of the post-Enlightenment disciplines of knowledge, it might appear as though the exercise is meant to emphasize once more an "Indian" (or an "Oriental") exceptionalism. In fact, however, the objective of my exercise is rather more complicated, and considerably more ambitious. It includes not only an identification of the discursive conditions that make such theories of Indian exceptionalism possible, but also a demonstration that the alleged exceptions actually inhere as forcibly suppressed elements even in the supposedly universal forms of the modern regime of power.

The latter demonstration enables us to make the argument that the universalist claims of modern Western social philosophy are themselves limited by the contingencies of global power. In other words, "Western universalism" no less than "Oriental exceptionalism" can be shown to be only a particular form of a richer, more diverse, and differentiated conceptualization of a new universal idea. This might allow us the possibility not only to think of new forms of the modern community, which, as I argue, the nationalist experience in Asia and Africa has done from its birth, but, much more decisively, to think of new forms of the modern state.

The project then is to claim for us, the once-colonized, our freedom of imagination. Claims, we know only too well, can be made only as contestations in a field of power. The studies in this book will necessarily bear, for each specific disciplinary field, the imprint of an unresolved contest. To make a claim on behalf of the fragment is also, not surprisingly, to produce a discourse that is itself fragmentary. It is redundant to make apologies for this.
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Re: The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

Postby admin » Sat Mar 27, 2021 4:44 am

Part 1 of 2

CHAPTER TWO: The Colonial State


I will begin by asking the following question: Does it serve any useful analytical purpose to make a distinction between the colonial state and the forms of the modern state? Or should we regard the colonial state as simply another specific form in which the modern state has generalized itself across the globe? If the latter is the case, then of course the specifically colonial form of the emergence of the institutions of the modern state would be of only incidental, or at best episodic, interest; it would not be a necessary part of the larger, and more important, historical narrative of modernity.

The idea that colonialism was only incidental to the history of the development of the modern institutions and technologies of power in the countries of Asia and Africa is now very much with us.
In some ways, this is not surprising, because we now tend to think of the period of colonialism as something we have managed to put behind us, whereas the progress of modernity is a project in which we are all, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, still deeply implicated.

Curiously though, the notion that colonial rule was not really about colonial rule but something else was a persistent theme in the rhetoric of colonial rule itself. As late as ten years before Indian independence, a British historian of the development of state institutions in colonial India began his book with the following words: "It was the aim of the greatest among the early British administrators in India to train the people of India to govern and protect themselves . . . rather than to establish the rule of a British bureaucracy."1 And at about the same time, Edward Thompson and G. T. Garratt, two liberal British historians sympathetic toward the aspirations of Indian nationalism, closed their book with the following assessment:

Whatever the future may hold, the direct influence of the West upon India is likely to decrease. But it would be absurd to imagine that the British connection will not leave a permanent mark upon Indian life. On the merely material side the new Federal Government [the Government of India reorganized under the 1935 constitutional arrangements] will take over the largest irrigation system in the world, with thousands of miles of canals and water-cuts fertilising between thirty and forty million acres; some 60,000 miles of metalled roads; over 42,000 miles of railway, of which three-quarters are State-owned; 230,000 scholastic institutions with over twelve million scholars; and, a great number of buildings, including government offices, inspection bungalows, provincial and central legislatures. The vast area of India has been completely surveyed, most of its lands assessed, and a regular census taken of its population and its productivity. An effective defensive system has been built up on its vulnerable North-East frontier, it has an Indian army with century-old traditions, and a police force which compares favourably with any outside a few Western countries. The postal department handles nearly 1500 million articles yearly, the Forestry Department not only prevents the denudation of immense areas, but makes a net profit of between two and three crores. These great State activities are managed by a trained bureaucracy, which is to-day almost entirely Indian.2[/size]

Having read our Michel Foucault, we can now recognize in this account a fairly accurate description of the advance of the modern regime of power, a regime in which power is meant not to prohibit but to facilitate, to produce. It is not without significance, therefore, that Thompson and Garratt should mention this as the "permanent mark" left by the colonial presence in India. It is also significant that they entitle their history the Rise and Fulfilment of British Rule in India.

Indian nationalists are not, of course, quite so generous in attributing benevolent intentions to the colonial mission. But their judgment on the historical value of the state institutions created under British rule is not fundamentally different. The postcolonial state in India has after all only expanded and not transformed the basic institutional arrangements of colonial law and administration, of the courts, the bureaucracy, the police, the army, and the various technical services of government. M. V. Pylee, the constitutional historian, describes the discursive constraints with disarming simplicity. "India," he says, "inherited the British system of government and administration in its original form. The framers of the new Constitution could not think of an altogether new system."3

As a matter of fact, the criticism Indian nationalists have made in the postcolonial period is that the colonial institutions of power were not modern enough, that the conditions of colonial rule necessarily limited and corrupted the application of the true principles of a modern administration.
B. B. Misra, the nationalist historian of colonial bureaucracy, identified these limits as proceeding

from two premises. The first was the Indian social system which was governed by irrational and prescriptive customs rather than a well-regulated rational system of law and a common code of morality. The second . . . was the British Imperial interest, which bred discrimination in the Services on racial grounds as well as differentiation in respect of social status and conditions of service.

Yet, despite these limits, "the degree of administrative rationalization during this period of bureaucratic despotism was far ahead of the country's Brahmanic social order, which knew of no rule of law in the contractual sense."4

Whether imperialist or colonialist, all seem to share a belief in the self-evident legitimacy of the principles that are supposed universally to govern the modern regime of power. It is something of a surprise, therefore, to discover that a persistent theme in colonial discourse until the earlier half of this century was the steadfast refusal to admit the universality of those principles.


Although Vincent Smith was not the most distinguished imperial historian of India, he was probably the most widely known in India because of the success of his textbooks on Indian history. In 1919, Smith published a rejoinder to the Montagu-Chelmsford constitutional proposals seeking to placate nationalist demands by conceding a certain measure of "responsible government" to Indians. The proposals, Smith said, were based on two propositions: "(1) that a policy, assumed to have been successful in Western communities, can be applied to India; and (2) that such a policy ought to be applied to India, even at the request of an admittedly small body of Indians, because Englishmen believe it to be intrinsically the best."5 His argument was that both propositions were false.

The policy of responsible and democratic government, "supposed to be of universal application," could not be applied to India because it went against "a deep stream of Indian tradition which has been flowing for thousands of years.... The ordinary men and women of India do not understand impersonal government.... They crave for government by a person to whom they can render loyal homage." The reason for the legitimacy of British rule in India lay in the fact that the King-Emperor was regarded by the Indian people as "the successor of Rama, Asoka and Akbar. Their heartfelt loyalty should not be quenched by the cold water of democratic theory."6 In terms of social divisions, "India has been the battle-ground of races and religions from time immemorial," and the anticipation of a common political identity was "not justified either by the facts of history or by observation of present conditions." The fundamental principle of social organization in India was caste, which was incompatible with any form of democratic government. More importantly, the spread of modern institutions or technologies had not weakened the hold of caste in any way.

The necessities of cheap railway travelling compel people to crowd into carriages and touch one another closely for many hours.... The immense practical advantages of a copious supply of good water from stand-pipes in the larger towns are permitted to outweigh the ceremonial pollution which undoubtedly takes place.... But such merely superficial modifications of caste regulations ... do not touch the essence of the institution.... The Brahman who rides in a third-class carriage or drinks pipe-water does not think any better of his low-caste neighbour than when he travelled on foot and drank from a dirty well.... So long as Hindus continue to be Hindus, caste cannot be destroyed or even materially modified.7

Smith then went on to argue that contrary to the plea of the reformers, the policy of promoting responsible government in India was bad even as a practical strategy of power. It would produce not consent for authority but its very opposite.

Contentment, so far as it exists, is to be deliberately disturbed by the rulers of India in order to promote the ideal of Indian nationhood, the formation of a genuine electorate, and the development of the faculty of self-help. Do the high officials charged with the government of India, who propose deliberately to disturb the contentment of three hundred millions of Asiatic people, mostly ignorant, superstitious, fanatical, and intensely suspicious, realize what they are doing? Have they counted the cost? Once the disturbance of content has been fairly started among the untutored masses, no man can tell how far the fire may spread. Discontent will not be directed to the political objects so dear to Mr. Montagu and Mr. Curtis. It will be turned fiercely upon the casteless, impure foreigner, and, inflamed by the cry of "religion in danger," will attract every disorderly element and renew the horrors of 1857 or the great anarchy of the eighteenth century. The lesson of history cannot be mistaken.8

Our reaction today would be to dismiss these arguments as coming from a diehard conservative imperialist putting up what was even then a quixotic defense of old-style paternalistic colonialism. Yet Smith's rejection of the claims to universality of the modern institutions of self-government raises, I think, an important question.

Let me put this plainly, even at the risk of oversimplification. If the principal justification for the modern regime of power is that by making social regulations an aspect of the self-disciplining of normalized individuals, power is made more productive, effective, and humane, then there are three possible positions with regard to the universality of this argument. One is that this must apply in principle to all societies irrespective of historical or cultural specificities. The second is that the principle is inescapably tied to the specific history and culture of Western societies and cannot be exported elsewhere; this implies a rejection of the universality of the principle. The third is that the historical and cultural differences, although an impediment in the beginning, can be eventually overcome by a suitable process of training and education. The third position, therefore, while admitting the objection raised by the second, nevertheless seeks to restore the universality of the principle.

While these three positions have been associated with distinct ideological formations, they are produced, however, in the same discursive field. My argument is, first, that all three remain available today; second, that it is possible easily to slide from one to the other, because, third, all three adopt the same tactic of employing what I will call the rule of colonial difference. The implication of this argument is that if a rule of colonial difference is part of a common strategy for the deployment of the modern forms of disciplinary power, then the history of the colonial state, far from being incidental, is of crucial interest to the study of the past, present, and future of the modern state.

I will first demonstrate the application of this rule in two well-known colonial debates over bureaucratic rationality, rule of law, and freedom of speech. I will then show that the same rule is effective in contemporary debates over colonial history.


It is in the fitness of things that it took an event such as the suppression of a rebellion of the scale and intensity of the Great Revolt of 1857 for the various pieces of the colonial order properly to fall into place. The rebels ripped the veil off the face of the colonial power and, for the first time, it was visible in its true form: a modern regime of power destined never to fulfill its normalizing mission because the premise of its power was the preservation of the alienness of the ruling group.

The debates over colonial policy in the decades following the revolt are instructive. Historians generally characterize this period as an era of conservatism. Metcalf's well-known study traces this shift to a decline in the enthusiasm for Benthamism and evangelism in Britain. Strengthening this reluctance to embark upon any further reform in India was the suspicion that the earlier attack upon "immoral" native customs might have had something to do with the rebellion. Official opinion was now virtually unanimous in thinking that local customs were best left to themselves. "Radical reform," says Metcalf, "was not just dangerous, it had ceased to be fashionable."9

In keeping with this move away from liberal reform was the hardening of a certain intellectual opinion in Britain that was particularly influential in the making of colonial policy. Distressed by the extension of suffrage and of the politics of Gladstonian liberalism at home, this school of opinion sought to reestablish the precepts of property and order upon unashamedly authoritarian foundations and increasingly turned to British India as the ground where these theories could be demonstrated. James Fitzjames Stephen and Henry Maine were two leading figures in this campaign to unmask the "sentimentality" of all reformist postures in matters of colonial policy. The Indian people, Stephen reminded his countrymen, were "ignorant to the last degree" and "steeped in idolatrous superstition." The British were under no obligation to fit such people for representative institutions. All they were expected to do was administer the country and look after the welfare of the people. The empire, he said,

is essentially an absolute Government, founded, not on consent, but on conquest. It does not represent the native principles of life or of government, and it can never do so until it represents heathenism and barbarism. It represents a belligerent civilization, and no anomaly can be so striking or so dangerous as its administration by men who, being at the head of a Government . .. having no justification for its existence except [the] superiority [of the conquering race], shrink from the open, uncompromising, straightforward assertion of it, seek to apologize for their own position, and refuse, from whatever cause, to uphold and support it.10

The merit of hard-nosed arguments such as this was to point unambiguously to the one factor that united the ruling bloc and separated it from those over whom it ruled. Marking this difference was race. As officials in India attempted, under directions from London, to install the processes of an orderly government, the question of race gave rise to the most acerbic debates. Indeed, the more the logic of a modern regime of power pushed the processes of government in the direction of a rationalization of administration and the normalization of the objects of its rule, the more insistently did the issue of race come up to emphasize the specifically colonial character of British dominance in India.

It seems something of a paradox that the racial difference between ruler and ruled should become most prominent precisely in that period in the last quarter of the nineteenth century when the technologies of disciplinary power were being put in place by the colonial state. Recent historians have shown that during this period there was a concerted attempt to create the institutional procedures for systematically objectifying and normalizing the colonized terrain, that is, the land and the people of India. Not only was the law codified and the bureaucracy rationalized, but a whole apparatus of specialized technical services was instituted in order to scientifically survey, classify, and enumerate the geographical, geological, botanical, zoological, and meteorological properties of the natural environment and the archaeological, historical, anthropological, linguistic, economic, demographic, and epidemiological characteristics of the people. Yet, a social historian of the period notes that "racial feeling among the British became more explicit and more aggressive in the course of the nineteenth century and reached its peak during Lord Curzon's vice-royalty, between 1899 and 1905."11

There is, however, no paradox in this development if we remember that to the extent this complex of power and knowledge was colonial, the forms of objectification and normalization of the colonized had to reproduce, within the framework of a universal knowledge, the truth of the colonial difference. The difference could be marked by many signs, and varying with the context, one could displace another as the most practicable application of the rule. But of all these signs, race was perhaps the most obvious mark of colonial difference.

In the case of bureaucratic rationalization, for instance, which had proceeded through the middle decades of the century, the most difficult political problem arose when it became apparent that the system of nonarbitrary recruitment through competitive academic examinations would mean the entry of Indians into the civil service. Several attempts were made in the 1870s to tamper with recruitment and service regulations in order first to keep out Indians, and then to split the bureaucracy into an elite corps primarily reserved for the British and a subordinate service for Indians.12

But it was the so-called Ilbert Bill Affair that brought up most dramatically the question of whether a central claim of the modern state could be allowed to transgress the line of racial division. The claim was that of administering an impersonal, nonarbitrary system of rule of law. In 1882 Behari Lai Gupta, an Indian member of the civil service, pointed out the anomaly that under the existing regulations, Indian judicial officers did not have the same right as their British counterparts to try cases in which Europeans were involved.
Gupta's note was forwarded to the Government of India with a comment from the Bengal government that there was "no sufficient reason why Covenanted Native Civilians, with the position and training of District Magistrate or Sessions Judge, should not exercise the same jurisdiction over Europeans as is exercised by other members of the service."13 The viceroy at this time was Ripon, a liberal, appointed by Gladstone's Liberal government. But it did not require much liberalism to see that the anomaly was indeed an anomaly, and after more or less routine consultations, Ilbert, the law member, introduced in 1883 a bill to straighten out the regulations.

Some historians have suggested that if Ripon had had even an inkling of the storm that was to break out, he would not have allowed such a minor issue to jeopardize the entire liberal project in India.14 As it happened, it was the force of public opinion of the dominant race that organized itself to remind the government what colonial rule was all about. The nonofficial Europeans—planters, traders, and lawyers in particular, and in Bengal more than anywhere else—rose in "almost mutinous opposition."15 The agitation reached a fever pitch in Calcutta. Meetings were held to denounce the bill that sought to take away "a much-valued and prized and time-honoured privilege of European British subjects" and aroused "a feeling of insecurity as to the liberties and safety of the European British subjects employed in the mufassal and also of their wives and daughters."16 The British Indian press, with the Englishman of Calcutta at its head, declared a call to arms by claiming that the Europeans were "fighting against their own ruin and the destruction of British rule in India."17 A European and Anglo-Indian Defence Association was formed, functions at Government House were boycotted, and there was even a conspiracy "to overpower the sentries at Government House, put the Viceroy on board a steamer at Chandpal ghat, and send him to England via the Cape."18

Gladstone, surveying the fracas from the vantage point of the metropolitan capital, was in a better position than most to see how this episode fitted into a longer story. "There is a question," he said,

to be answered: where, in a country like India, lies the ultimate power, and if it lies for the present on one side but for the future on the other, a problem has to be solved as to preparation for that future, and it may become right and needful to chasten the saucy pride so apt to grow in the English mind toward foreigners, and especially toward foreigners whose position has been subordinate.19

Ripon, on the other hand, chose to see his move as "an error in tactics" and decided to beat a retreat. The provisions of the bill were so watered down that the earlier anomalies were not only reinstated but made even more cumbrous.

The question was not, as some historians have supposed, whether Ripon was "too weak a man" to carry out the liberal mission of making Indians fit for modern government. What his "failure" signaled was the inherent impossibility of completing the project of the modern state without superseding the conditions of colonial rule. When George Couper, lieutenant governor of the Northwestern Provinces, said in 1878 that the time had come to stop "shouting that black is white," he was not being metaphorical. "We all know that in point of fact black is not white. . . . That there should be one law alike for the European and Native is an excellent thing in theory, but if it could really be introduced in practice we should have no business in the country."20

The argument, in other words, was not that the "theory" of responsible government was false, nor that its truth was merely relative and contingent. Rather, the point was to lay down in "practice" a rule of colonial difference, to mark the points and the instances where the colony had to become an exception precisely to vindicate the universal truth of the theory.


Another question on which the Ilbert Bill Affair threw light was the relation between the state and those relatively autonomous institutions of public life that are supposed to constitute the domain of civil society. The interesting feature of this relation as it developed in colonial Calcutta, for instance, in the nineteenth century was that the "public" which was seen to deserve the recognition due from a properly constituted state was formed exclusively by the European residents of the country. Their opinion counted as public opinion, and the question of the appropriate relationship between government and the public came to be defined primarily around the freedoms of the British Indian press.

English-language newspapers began to be published in Calcutta from the 1780s. In those early days of empire, when power was restrained by little more than brute force and intrigue and commerce was driven by the lust for a quick fortune, the press not unexpectedly provided yet another means for carrying out personal and factional feuds within the small European community in Bengal. Governors-general were quick to use legal means to "tranquilize" newspaper editors and even deport those who refused to be subdued. By the 1820s a more stable relation had been established and the censorship laws were lifted.

India.—For a considerable period under the rule of the East India Company the Indian press was very unimportant both in character and influence. It was permitted to shape its course and to gain a position as it could, under the potent checks of the deportation power and the libel law, without any direct censorship. Nor was it found difficult to inflict exemplary punishment on the writers of “offensive paragraphs.”

Prior to Lord Wellesley's administration the most considerable newspapers published at Calcutta were the World, the Bengal Journal, the Hurkaru, the Calcutta Gazette (the organ of the Bengal government), the Telegraph, the Calcutta Courier, the Asiatic Mirror and the Indian Gazette. Mr Duane, the editor of the World, was sent to Europe in 1794 for “an inflammatory address to the army,” as was Mr Charles Maclean, four years afterwards for animadverting in the Telegraph on the official conduct of a local magistrate.

The Calcutta Englishman dates from 1821. Lord Wellesley was the first governor-general who created a censorship (April 1799). His press-code was abolished by the Marquis of Hastings in 1818. The power of transporting obnoxious editors to Europe of course remained. Perhaps the most conspicuous instance of its exercise was the removal of the editor of the Calcutta Journal (Silk Buckingham), which occurred immediately after Lord Hastings's departure from India and during the government of his temporary successor, Mr John Adam. Buckingham's departure was followed closely (14th March 1823) by a new licensing act, far exceeding in stringency that, of Lord Wellesley, and (5th April 1823) by an elaborate “Regulation for preventing the Establishment of Printing-Presses without Licence, and for restraining under certain circumstances the Circulation of Printed Books and Papers.” The first application of it was to suppress the Calcutta Journal.

In the course of the elaborate inquiry into the administration of India which occupied both Houses of Parliament in 1832, prior to the renewal of the Company's charter, it was stated that there were, besides 5 native journals, 6 European newspapers: three daily, the Bengal Hurkaru, John Bull and the Indian Gazette; one published twice a week, the Government Gazette; and two weekly the Bengal Herald and the Oriental Observer. At this period every paper was published under a licence, revocable at pleasure, with or without previous inquiry or notice. At Madras, on the other hand, the press remained under rigid restriction. The Madras censorship was removed whilst the parliamentary inquiry of 1832 was still pending.

One question only, and that but for a brief interval, disturbed Lord William Bentinck's love of free discussion. The too famous “Half-Batta” measure led him to think that a resolute persistence in an unwise policy by the home government against the known convictions of the men actually at the helm in India and an unfettered press were two things that could scarcely co-exist. It was on this occasion that Sir Charles Metcalfe recorded his minute of September 1830, the reasoning of which fully justifies the assertion—“I have, for my own part, always advocated the liberty of the press, believing its benefits to outweigh its mischiefs; and I continue of the same opinion.” This opinion was amply carried out in the memorable law (drafted by Macaulay and enacted by Metcalfe as governor-general in 1835), which totally abrogated the licensing system. It left all men at liberty to express their sentiments on public affairs, under the legal and moral responsibilities of ordinary life, and remained in force until the outbreak of the mutiny of 1857.

In 1853 Garcin de Tassy, when opening at Paris his annual course of lectures on the Hindustani language, enumerated and gave some interesting details concerning twenty-seven journals (of all sorts) in Hindustani. In 1860 he made mention of seventeen additional ones. Of course the circulation and the literary merits of all of them were relatively small. One, however, he said, had reached a sale of 4000 copies.[1]

In 1857 Lord Canning's law, like that of 1823, on which it was closely modelled, absolutely prohibited the keeping or using of printing-presses, types or other materials for printing, in any part of the territories in the possession and under the government of the East Indian Company, except with the previous sanction and licence of government, and also gave full powers for the seizure and prohibition from circulation of all books and papers, whether printed within the Indian territories or elsewhere.

In 1878 an act was passed, which long remained in force, regulating the vernacular press of India: “Printers or publishers of journals in Oriental languages must, upon demand by the due officer, give bond not to print or publish in such newspapers anything likely to excite feelings of disaffection to the government or antipathy between persons of different castes or religions, or for purposes of extortion. Notification of warning is to be made in the official gazette if these regulations be infringed (whether there be bond or not); on repetition, a warrant is to issue for seizure of plant, &c.; if a deposit have been made, forfeiture is to ensue. Provision is made not to exact a deposit if there be an agreement to submit to a government officer proofs before publication.” After the disturbances of 1908-1909 further and more stringent regulations were made.

The Indian Daily Mirror (1863) was the first Indian daily in English edited by natives.

-- Progress of British Newspapers in the 19th Century, Published by Simpkin, Marshall & Co.

But the events of 1857, when the very future of British rule seemed to be at stake, forced the issue once more into the open. "Public opinion" was now defined explicitly as the opinion of the "nonofficial" European community, and the English-language press of Calcutta, crazed by panic, directed its wrath at a government that, in its eyes, seemed too soft and indecisive in punishing the "d-d niggers." Canning, the governor-general, was a special target of vituperation, and in June 1857 he imposed the censorship laws once again, for a period of one year.21

The contours of state-civil society relations in the new context of the Raj were revealed in interesting ways in the so-called Nil Durpan Affair. The origin of the case lay, curiously enough, in an effort by officials in Bengal to find out a little more about "native" public opinion. In 1861, when the agitations in the Bengal countryside over the cultivation of indigo had begun to subside, John Peter Grant, the governor, came to hear about Dinabandhu Mitra's (1830-73) play. Thinking this would be a good way "of knowing how natives spoke of the indigo question among themselves when they had no European to please or to displease by opening their minds," he asked for a translation to be prepared of Nildarpan. Grant's intentions were laudable.

I have always been of opinion that, considering our state of more than semi-isolation from all classes of native society, public functionaries in India have been habitually too regardless of those depths of native feeling which do not show upon the surface, and too habitually careless of all means of information which are available to us for ascertaining them. Popular songs everywhere, and, in Bengal, popular native plays, are amongst the most potent, and most neglected, of those means.22

Seton-Karr, the secretary to the Government of Bengal, arranged for James Long, an Irish missionary later to become a pioneering historian of Calcutta, to supervise the translation "by a native" of the play. He then had it printed and circulated, along with a preface by Dinabandhu and an introduction by Long, to several persons "to whom copies of official documents about the indigo crisis had been sent."23
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Re: The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

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Part 2 of 2

The planters were immediately up in arms. They charged the government with having circulated "a foul and malicious libel on indigo planters." When it was clarified that circulation of the play did not mean the government's approval of its contents and that in any case the circulation had not been expressly authorized by the governor, the planters' association went to court. An "extraordinary" summing up by the judge, which is said "not to have erred on the side of impartiality," influenced the jury at the Supreme Court into pronouncing James Long guilty of libel. He was sentenced to a fine and a month's imprisonment. Long became a cause celebre among the Indian literati of Calcutta: his fine, for instance, was paid by Kaliprasanna Sinha (1840-70), and a public meeting presided over by Radhakanta Deb (1783-1867) demanded the recall of the judge for his "frequent and indiscriminate attacks on the characters of the natives of the country with an intemperance . . . not compatible with the impartial administration of justice." But, more interestingly, Long also attracted a good deal of sympathy from Europeans, particularly officials and missionaries. They felt he had been punished for no offense at all. The bishop of Calcutta remarked that the passages "which the Judge described as foul and disgusting, are in no way more gross than many an English story or play turning on the ruin of a simple hunted rustic which people read and talk about without scruple."24 At the same time, Canning, the viceroy, rebuked Grant for having allowed things to go this far and Seton-Karr, despite an apology, was removed from his posts both in the Bengal government and in the legislative council. The planters, it would seem, won an unqualified victory.

Nevertheless, it is worth considering what really was on trial in this curious case. It was to all intents and purposes a conflict between government and the public, the "public" being constituted by "nonofficial" Europeans. The charge against the government was that by circulating the play, it had libeled an important section of this public. Long was a scapegoat; in fact, neither he nor the play was on trial. Or rather, to put it more precisely, although Long was an ostensible culprit in the circulation of a libelous tract, the play itself and the body of opinion it represented were not recognized elements in this discourse about free speech. Such in fact was the confusion about where this principle of freedom of expression was supposed to apply that when one of Long's supporters remarked that his punishment was "exactly as if the French clergy had prosecuted Moliere,"15 it did not strike him that Dinabandhu Mitra, the author of the play, had hot even been deemed worthy of being named in a suit of libel and that Long was neither the author nor even the translator of the impugned material. Within these assumptions, of course, there really was no confusion. The real target of attack was clearly the government itself, and Canning, in trying to appease "public opinion," recognized this when he moved against Grant and Seton-Karr.

The original intent of the Bengal officials, however, had been to familiarize themselves and members of the European community with the state of "native" public opinion—a perfectly reasonable tactic for a modern administrative apparatus to adopt. What incensed the planters was the implicit suggestion that the government could treat "native" public opinion on the same footing as European opinion. A native play, circulated under a government imprint, seemed to give it the same status of "information" as other official papers. This the planters were not prepared to countenance. The only civil society that the government could recognize was theirs; colonized subjects could never be its equal members. Freedom of opinion, which even they accepted as an essential element of responsible government, could apply only to the organs of this civil society; Indians, needless to add, were not fit subjects of responsible government.


The question of native public opinion came up once again in the 1870s. In 1878, when the government felt it necessary to devise legal means to curb "seditious" writings in the native press, the law made an explicit distinction between the English-language and the vernacular press. An official pointed out that this would be "class legislation of the most striking and invidious description, at variance with the whole tenour of our policy,"26 but the objection was overruled on the ground that in this instance the exception to the general rule was palpable. The presumed difficulty, said Ashley Eden, the Bengal governor, was "imaginary rather than real." That is to say, the notion of an undifferentiated body of public opinion that the government was supposed to treat impartially was only a theoretical idea; in practice, it was the duty of a colonial government to differentiate, and language was a simple and practical sign of difference.

The papers published in this country in the English language are written by a class of writers for a class of readers whose education and interests would make them naturally intolerant of sedition; they are written under a sense of responsibility and under a restraint of public opinion which do not and cannot exist in the case of the ordinary Native newspapers. It is quite easy and practicable to draw a distinction between papers published in English and papers published in the vernacular, and it is a distinction which really meets all the requirements of the case, and should not be disregarded merely because some evil-disposed persons may choose to say that the Government has desired to show undue favour to papers written in the language of the ruling power.

. . . On the whole the English Press of India, whether conducted by Europeans or Natives, bears evidence of being influenced by a proper sense of responsibility and by a general desire to discuss public events in a moderate and reasonable spirit. There is no occasion to subject that Press to restraint, and therefore, naturally enough, it is exempted. It would be a sign of great weakness on the part of Government to bring it within the scope of this measure merely to meet a possible charge of partiality.27

The Vernacular Press Act of 1878 was enacted in great haste so as to forestall long debates over principles, especially in Britain. Lytton, the viceroy, himself described it as "a sort of coup d'etat to pass a very stringent gagging Bill."28 The provisions were indeed stringent, since local officers were given the power to demand bonds and deposits of money from printers and publishers, and the printing of objectionable material could lead to confiscation of the deposit as well as the machinery of the press, with no right of appeal in the courts. Four years later, Ripon in his liberalism repealed the act, and "a bitter feeling obtained among officials that they were denied proper and reasonable protection against immoderate Press criticism."25 In the 1890s, when the question of "sedition" acquired a new gravity, provisions were included in the regular penal law to allow the government to move against statements "conducing to public mischief" and "promoting enmity between classes." The distinction by language had by then ceased to be a practical index of difference because native publications in English could no longer be said to be confined in their influence to a class "naturally intolerant of sedition." Other, more practical, means emerged to distinguish between proper members of civil society and those whom the state could recognize only as subjects, not citizens. And in any case, a contrary movement of nationalism was then well on its way to constituting its own domain of sovereignty, rejecting the dubious promise of being granted membership of a second-rate "civil society of subjects."


This domain of sovereignty, which nationalism thought of as the "spiritual" or "inner" aspects of culture, such as language or religion or the elements of personal and family life, was of course premised upon a difference between the cultures of the colonizer and the colonized. The more nationalism engaged in its contest with the colonial power in the outer domain of politics, the more it insisted on displaying the marks of "essential" cultural difference so as to keep out the colonizer from that inner domain of national life and to proclaim its sovereignty over it.

But in the outer domain of the state, the supposedly "material" domain of law, administration, economy, and statecraft, nationalism fought relentlessly to erase the marks of colonial difference. Difference could not be justified in that domain. In this, it seemed to be reasserting precisely the claims to universality of the modern regime of power. And in the end, by successfully terminating the life of the colonial state, nationalism demonstrated that the project of that modern regime could be carried forward only by superseding the conditions of colonial rule.

Nevertheless, the insistence on difference, begun in the so-called spiritual domain of culture, has continued, especially in the matter of claiming agency in history,30 Rival conceptions of collective identity have become implicated in rival claims to autonomous subjectivity. Many of these are a part of contemporary postcolonial politics and have to do with the fact that the consolidation of the power of the national state has meant the marking of a new set of differences within postcolonial society. But the origin of the project of modernity in the workings of the colonial state has meant that every such historical claim has had to negotiate its relationship with the history of colonialism. The writing of the history of British India continues to this day to be a matter of political struggle.

In this contemporary battle, the case for a history of subordinated groups has often been stated by pointing out the continuities between the colonial and the postcolonial phases of the imposition of the institutions of the modern state and by asserting the autonomous subjectivity of the oppressed.31 But since the modern discourse of power always has available a position for the colonizer, the case on behalf of the colonizing mission can now also be stated in these new terms. To show the continued relevance of the question of the universality of the modern regime of power and of the rule of colonial difference, I will end this chapter by reviewing a recent attempt to revise the history of colonialism in India.


This revisionist history begins by challenging the assumption, shared by both colonialist and nationalist historiographies, that colonial rule represented a fundamental break in Indian history. There are two parts to this argument.

The first part of the argument has been advanced by Burton Stein.32 He disputes the assumption in both imperialist and nationalist historiographies that the British regime in India was "completely different from all prior states." The recent work of Christopher Bayly, David Washbrook, and Frank Perlin shows, he says, that "early colonial regimes" were "continuations of prior indigenous regimes," that the eighteenth century was a time of "economic vigour, even development," and not of chaos and decline and that the period from 1750 to 1850 was a "period of transition" from extant old regimes to the colonial regimes. The continuations were marked in two ways.

One "structural contradiction" in pre-British state formations was between "centralizing, militaristic regimes" and numerous local lordships. The British inserted themselves into these formations, "not as outsiders with new procedural principles and purposes (as yet), but, contingently, as part of the political system of the subcontinent, but possessed of substantially more resources to deploy for conquest than others." The colonial state resolved the contradiction in favor of the centralizing tendency of "military-fiscalism" inherited from previous regimes. Here lay the continuity of the colonial state with its predecessors.

The other contradiction was between "sultanism" (Max Weber's term), which implied a patrimonial order based on personal loyalty of subordination to the ruler, and the existence of ideological discontinuities between ruler and local lordships, which made such patrimonial loyalties hard to sustain. Patrimonial sultanism was incompatible with the economic tendencies inherent in military-fiscalism. After initial hesitations, the colonial state in the second half of the nineteenth century broke entirely with the sultanist forms and founded a regime based not on patrimonial loyalties but on modern European principles, different both from the old regimes and the early colonial regimes. Here lay the discontinuity of the later colonial state with its predecessors.

Although Stein appeals, inter alia, to the work of Perlin,33 the latter actually makes a much more qualified argument,34 a qualification important for the revisionist position as well as for our judgment on it. Perlin argues that the process of centralization that characterized colonial rule "possessed roots in the earlier period." But in accelerating this process, colonial rule gave it "a new, more powerful form deriving from its location in the agency of a conquest regime possessing sources of fiat external to the subcontinent, from its radical concentration of decision making, and from the surplus of new knowledge in the instruments of rule." This produced "a substantial break" between the early colonial polity and its predecessors, despite the colonial use of "old-order institutions and its social underpinnings." Moreover, whereas in the indigenous regimes of the eighteenth century the attempt to centralize produced large areas of "quasi-autonomy," where contrary forces and contrary principles of rights and social organization could emerge to resist the larger order, colonial rule up to the early nineteenth century was marked by a substantial loss of this "intermediary ground." "Beneath the carapace of old terms and institutional shells, there has occurred a fundamental alteration of both State and state. This is bound up with the European origins and international character of the new colonial polity."

Notwithstanding Perlin's qualification, the idea of continuity from the precolonial to the early colonial period dominates this part of the revisionist argument. Since the later phase of colonialism is specifically distinguished from its early phase, one is justified in wondering if the revision is merely a matter of dates. Is the question one of identifying when the decisive break of colonialism took place? Earlier historians, whether imperialist or nationalist, with their simple faith in the proclamations of political rulers, had assumed that this occurred in the middle of the eighteenth century; are the revisionist historians, more skeptical of legal fictions and more sensitive to underlying social processes, now Telling us that the date must be pushed forward by a hundred years?

If this is all there is to the debate, the matter is easily settled. For if the period from the middle of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth is to be seen as a period of "transition," then it must reveal not only the traces of continuity from the earlier period, as claimed by our recent historians, but surely also the signs of emergence of all of those elements that would make the late colonial period structurally different from the precolonial. In terms of periodization, then, the hundred years of transition must be seen as constituting the "moment" of break, the "event" that marks the separation of the precolonial from the colonial. The apparent conundrum of continuity and discontinuity then becomes one more example of the familiar historiographical problem of combining, and at the same time separating, structure and process. One might then react to the revisionist argument in the manner of the student radical in a Calcutta university in the early 1970s who, when asked in a history test whether Rammohan Roy was born in 1772 or 1774, replied, "I don't know. But I do know that he grew up to be a comprador."

But it would be unfair to our revisionist historians to judge them on what is only one part of their argument. In its stronger version, the revisionist argument contains another part in which the continuity from the precolonial to the early colonial period is given a new construction. Not only was it the case, the argument runs, that the Europeans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries achieved "on a larger and more ominous scale what Indian local rulers had been doing for the last century," but in responding to this conquering thrust Indians too "became active agents and not simply passive bystanders and victims in the creation of colonial India." This, says Chris Bayly in a recent book-length survey of the early colonial period, gives us a "more enduring perspective" on modern Indian history than do the earlier debates about the success or failure of the "progressive" impact of colonialism,35

This perspective reveals, first of all, the economic history of India from the eighteenth century to the present as a history of "Indian capitalism," born prior to the colonial incursion and growing to its present form by responding to the forces generated by the European world economy. Most of the economic institutions of capitalism in India today, such as commodity production, trading and banking capital, methods of accounting, a stock of educated expertise and of mercantile groups that would ultimately become industrial entrepreneurs, emerged in the precolonial period. So did many of the political and cultural movements, including the rise of intermediary groups between townsmen and the countryside, the formation of regional cultures, movements for cultural reform and self-respect among disprivileged groups, and even the politics of "communalism."36

Second, such a perspective on Indian history also shows the resilience of both townspeople and country people in resisting the onslaughts on their means of survival and ways of life, especially in the period of colonialism. Indigenous propertied groups frustrated the "more grandiose economic plans" of both the colonial state and European businessmen to extract Indian wealth, while peasants overcame the pressures of war, taxation, and repression "to adapt in a creative way to their environment." By recovering these connections, Bayly says, the new perspective enables one to construct a narrative running from the precolonial past to the post-colonial present in which the Indian people are the subjects of history.

What, then, of colonialism? Surprisingly, there is no clear answer to this question. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to read the implication of the argument. At the time of their entry, the European trading companies were merely so many indigenous players in the struggle for economic and political power in eighteenth-century India, striving for the same goals and playing by the same rules. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the British appear to have achieved complete dominance at the apex of the formal structure of power, their ability to reach into the depths of Indian social life was still severely restricted. By the early twentieth century, even this hold at the top was seriously challenged, and of course by the middle of the century the colonial power was forced to leave. Looked at from the "more enduring" perspective of Indian history, then, colonialism appears as a rather brief interlude, merging with the longer narrative only when its protagonists manage to disguise themselves as Indian characters but falling hopelessly out of place and dooming itself to failure when it aspires to carry out projects that have not already taken root in the native soil.

We have a more detailed presentation of this stronger version of the revisionist argument in Washbrook. Once again, the claim is made that by tracing the continuities from precolonial to early colonial processes, one can restore the "Indianness" of this historical narrative and "recover the subject from European history." Further, and this is Washbrook's contribution to the argument, "historical theory" "is put on a rather more objective, or at least less ethnocentric, footing." It is on this high ground of "historical theory," then, that the revisionist flag is finally hoisted.37

What is this theory? It is the familiar theme of capitalist development, which in one form or another has framed all discussions of modern history. The new twist on this theme has as its vortex the claim that not all forms of development of capital necessarily lead to modern industrialism. The development of industrial capital in England, or in Western Europe and North America, was the result of a very specific history. It is the perversity of Eurocentric historical theories that has led to the search for similar developments everywhere else in the world; whenever that search has proved fruitless, the society has been declared incapable of producing a true historical dynamic. Instead of tracing the particular course of the indigenous history, therefore, the practice has been to see the history of "backward" countries as a history of "lack," a history that always falls short of true history.

The perspective can be reversed, says Washbrook, by taking more seriously the similarities rather than the differences between the development of capitalism in Europe and, in this case, in India. We will then see that the similarities are indeed striking. Contrary to the earlier judgment of imperialist, nationalist, and even Marxist historians, recent researches show that the economic and social institutions of precolonial India, far from impeding the growth of capitalism, actually accommodated and encouraged most of the forms associated with early modern capital. Not only did trading and banking capital grow as a result of long-distance trade, but large-scale exchange took place even in the subsistence sector. The legal-political institutions too acquired the characteristic early modern forms of military fiscalism, centralization of state authority, destruction of community practices, and the conversion of privileged entitlements into personal rights over property. Despite the cultural differences with Europe in the early capitalist era, India too produced institutions that were "capable of supplying broadly similar economic functions." The East India Company entered the scene as one more player capable of pursuing the same functions: "rather than representing a set of governing principles imported from a foreign and 'more advanced' culture, the early East India Company state might be seen as a logical extension of processes with distinctively 'indigenous' origins." And if one is not to disregard the "preponderant evidence" of early capitalist groups in India subverting indigenous regimes in order to seek support from the Company, one must accept the conclusion that "colonialism was the logical outcome of South Asia's own history of capitalist development."38

The tables have been turned! Once colonialism as an economic and political formation is shown to have been produced by an indigenous history of capitalist development, everything that followed from colonial rule becomes, by the ineluctable logic of "historical theory," an integral part of that same indigenous history. Thus, the restructuring of the Indian economy in the period between 1820 and 1850, when all of the principal features of colonial underdevelopment emerged to preclude once and for all the possibilities of transition to modern industrialization, must be seen not as a process carried out by an external extractive force but as one integral to the peculiar history of Indian capitalism. The colonial state, responding as it did to the historical demands of Indian capital, offered the necessary legal and political protection to the propertied classes and their attempts to enrich themselves: "rarely in history," says Washbrook, "can capital and property have secured such rewards and such prestige for so little risk and so little responsibility as in the society crystallizing in South Asia in the Victorian Age." The result was a process in which not only the British but all owners of property—"capital in general"—secured the benefits of colonial rule. The specific conditions of capitalism in India had, of course, already defined a path in which the forms of extractive relations between capital and labor did not favor a transition to industrialism. The late colonial regime, by upholding the privileges of capital, destroying the viability of petty manufacturers, pulling down the remnants of already decrepit community institutions, and consolidating the formation of a mass of overexploited peasants constantly reduced to lower and lower levels of subsistence, made the transition more or less impossible. On the cultural side, the colonial regime instituted a "traditionalization" of Indian society by its rigid codification of "custom" and "tradition," its freezing of the categories of social classification such as caste, and its privileging of "scriptural" interpretations of social law at the expense of the fluidity of local community practices. The result was the creation by colonial rule of a social order that bore a striking resemblance to its own caricature of "traditional India": late colonial society was "nearer to the ideal-type of Asiatic Despotism than anything South Asia had seen before." All this can now be seen as India's own history, a history made by Indian peoples, Indian classes, and Indian powers.


There is something magical about a "historical theory" that can with such ease spirit away the violent intrusion of colonialism and make all of its features the innate property of an indigenous history. Indeed, the argument seems to run in a direction so utterly contrary to all received ideas that one might be tempted to grant that the revisionist historians have turned the tables on both imperialist and nationalist histories and struck out on a radically new path.

Like all feats of magic, however, this achievement of "historical theory" is also an illusion. If the revisionist account of Indian history makes one suspicious that this is one more attempt to take the sting out of anti-colonial politics, this time by appropriating the nationalist argument about colonialism's role in producing underdevelopment in India and then turning the argument around to situate the origins of colonialism in India's own precolonial history, then one's suspicion would not be unjustified. There is much in this new historiographic strategy that is reminiscent of the debates I cited at the beginning of this chapter between conservative and liberal imperialists and their nationalist opponents. Like those earlier debates, this account shows a continued effort to produce a rule of colonial difference within a universal theory of the modern regime of power.

Washbrook argues, for instance, that Eurocentrism and the denial of subjectivity to Indians were the result of the emphasis on difference; emphasizing similarity restores to Indian history its authenticity. It is obvious, of course, though not always noticed, that the difference which produces India (or the Orient) as the "other" of Europe also requires as its condition an identity of Europe and India; otherwise they would be mutually unintelligible. By "emphasizing" either identity or difference, however, it is possible to produce varied meanings; in this case, the effects noticed by Washbrook are those of Indian authenticity on the one hand and Eurocentrism on the other. What he does not recognize is that the , two histories are produced within the same discursive conditions. All that Washbrook is doing by emphasizing "similarity" is restating the condition of discursive unity.

This condition is nothing other than the assumption that the history of Europe and the history of India are united within the same framework of universal history, the assumption that made possible the incorporation of the history of India into the history of Britain in the nineteenth century: Europe became the active subject of Indian history because Indian history was now a part of "world history." The same assumption has characterized the "modern" historiography of India for at least the last hundred years, although the principal task of this nationalist historiography has been to claim for Indians the privilege of making their own history.

There have been many ways of conceptualizing this universal history. Washbrook chooses the one most favored in the rational, scientific discussions of academic social theory, namely, the universality of the analytical categories of the modern disciplines of the social sciences. In his version, this takes the form of assuming the universality of the categories of political economy. Thus, although the history of Indian capitalism, in his argument, is different from that of European capitalism, it is nonetheless a history of "capitalism." The distinctness, and hence the authenticity, of Indian capitalism is produced at the level of Indian history by first asserting the universality of capitalism at the level of world history. Instead of saying, as do his predecessors in the discipline of political economy, that India was so different that it was incapable of capitalism and therefore required British colonialism to bring it into the orbit of world history, Washbrook has simply inverted the order of similarity and difference within the same discursive framework. In the process, he has also managed to erase colonialism out of existence.

What he has produced instead is a way of talking about postcolonial backwardness as the consequence entirely of an indigenous history. Indian capitalism today, his argument seems to say, looks so backward because it has been, from its birth, different from Western capitalism. It was ridiculous for anyone to have believed that it could be made to look like Western capitalism; if it ever did, it would stop being itself. Fitzjames Stephen or Vincent Smith would have understood the argument perfectly.

It is possible to give many instances of how the rule of colonial difference—of representing the "other" as inferior and radically different, and hence incorrigibly inferior—can be employed in situations that are not, in the strict terms of political history, colonial.39 These instances come up not only in relations between countries or nations, but even within populations that the modern institutions of power presume to have normalized into a body of citizens endowed with equal and nonarbitrary rights. Indeed, invoking such differences are, we might say, commonplaces in the politics of discrimination, and hence also in the many contemporary struggles for identity. This reason makes it necessary to study the specific history of the colonial state, because it reveals what is only hidden in the universal history of the modern regime of power.

Having said this, we need to move on to the next, and more substantial, part of our agenda, which is to look at the ways in which nationalism responded to the colonial intervention. That will be my task in the rest of this book. This, then, will be the last time that we will talk about Gladstone and Curzon, Lytton and Ripon, and pretend that the history of India can be written as a footnote to the history of Britain. Leaving such exiguous projects behind us, let us move on to a consideration of the history of India as a nation.
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Re: The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

Postby admin » Sun Mar 28, 2021 3:41 am

Part 1 of 3

CHAPTER THREE: The Nationalist Elite

The terms middle class, literati, and intelligentsia all have been used to describe it. Marxists have called it a petty bourgeoisie, the English rendering of petit marking its character with the unmistakable taint of historical insufficiency. A favorite target of the colonizer's ridicule, it was once famously described as "an oligarchy of caste tempered by matriculation." More recently, historians inspired by the well-meaning dogmas of American cultural anthropology called it by the name the class had given to itself—the bhadralok, "respectable folk"; the latter interpreted the attempt as a sinister plot to malign its character. Whichever the name, the object of description has, however, rarely been misunderstood: in the curious context of colonial Bengal, all of these terms meant more or less the same thing.

Needless to say, much has been written about the sociological characteristics of the new middle class in colonial Bengal.1 I do not wish to intervene in that discussion. My concern in this book is with social agency. In this particular chapter, my problem is that of mediation, in the sense of the action of a subject who stands "in the middle," working upon and transforming one term of a relation into the other. It is more than simply a problem of "leadership," for I will be talking about social agents who are preoccupied not only with leading their followers but who are also conscious of doing so as a "middle term" in a social relationship. In fact, it is this "middleness" and the consciousness of middleness that I wish to problematize. Of all its appellations, therefore, I will mostly use the term middle class to describe the principal agents of nationalism in colonial Bengal.


Like middle classes elsewhere in their relation to the rise of nationalist ideologies and politics, the Calcutta middle class too has been generally acknowledged as having played a pre-eminent role in the last century and a half in creating the dominant forms of nationalist culture and social institutions in Bengal. It was this class that constructed through a modern vernacular the new forms of public discourse, laid down new criteria of social respectability, set new aesthetic and moral standards of judgment, and, suffused with its spirit of nationalism, fashioned the new forms of political mobilization that were to have such a decisive impact on the political history of the province in the twentieth century.

All this has also been written about at length. But this literature adopts, albeit necessarily, a standpoint external to the object of its inquiry. It does not let us into that vital zone of belief and practice that straddles the domains of the individual and the collective, the private and the public, the home and the world, where the new disciplinary culture of a modernizing elite has to turn itself into an exercise in self-discipline. This, however, is the investigation we need to make.

I propose to do this by taking up the question of middle-class religion.2 As a point of entry, I will consider the phenomenon of Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86), which will afford us an access into a discursive domain where "middleness" can be talked about, explored, problematized, lived out, and, in keeping with the role of cultural leadership that the middle class gave to itself, normalized.

The colonial middle class, in Calcutta no less than in other centers of colonial power, was simultaneously placed in a position of subordination in one relation and a position of dominance in another. The construction of hegemonic ideologies typically involves the cultural efforts of classes placed precisely in such situations. To identify the possibilities and limits of nationalism as a hegemonic movement, therefore, we need to look into this specific process of ideological construction and disentangle the web in which the experiences of simultaneous subordination and domination are apparently reconciled.

For the Calcutta middle class of the late nineteenth century, political and economic domination by a British colonial elite was a fact. The class was created in a relation of subordination. But its contestation of this relation was to be premised upon its cultural leadership of the indigenous colonized people. The nationalist project was in principle a hegemonic project. Our task is to probe into the history of this project, to assess its historical possibility or impossibility, to identify its origins, extent, and limits. The method, in other words, is the method of critique.

I will concentrate on a single text, the Ramkrsna kathamrta,3 and look specifically at the construction there of a new religion for urban domestic life. The biographical question of Ramakrishna in relation to the middle class of Bengal has been studied from new historiographical premises by Sumit Sarkar:4 I will not address this question. Rather, I will read the Kathamrta not so much as a text that tells us about Ramakrishna as one that tells us a great deal about the Bengali middle class. The Kathamrta, it seems to me, is a document of the fears and anxieties of a class aspiring to hegemony. It is, if I may put this in a somewhat paradoxical form, a text that reveals to us the subalternity of an elite.

But before we turn to the Kathamrta, it will be useful to recount the story of how Ramakrishna quite suddenly entered the spiritual life of the Calcutta, middle class. It is an interesting episode in the secret history of nationalism and modernity.


At the time, Belgharia was little more than a village five miles north of Calcutta. Today it is an indistinguishable part of the northern industrial belt of the city, gloomy and dilapidated, its days of vigor well behind it. But in 1875, it was beginning to enter the industrial age as British entrepreneurs, many of them from the Scottish town of Dundee, set up jute factories along the banks of the Hooghly.5 Nevertheless, Belgharia, like the other townships of northern 24-Parganas, still retained a largely rural character. However, since it was close to Calcutta and not far from the riverside, it contained, besides the large houses of the local landed families, several garden houses owned by wealthy residents of Calcutta who used them as holiday retreats and pleasure spots.

It was one such house that Keshabchandra Sen (1838-84), the Brahmo leader, had converted into his sadhan kanan, a place where he often retired with his followers to engage in spiritual exercises. Sibnath Sastri (1847-1919), once a close associate of Keshab but now becoming increasingly critical of the new turn in his leader's spiritual views, later described the place as one given to asceticism, where everyone cooked his own food, sat under trees on tiger hides in imitation of Hindu mendicants, and spent long hours in meditation.6 Keshab had begun to come here only a few months before, and the move marked both his own inner turmoil regarding the course of the religious reformation in which he had engaged since his youth and the trouble he was having with his critics within the Brahmo movement in Calcutta.

Keshab had, however, made up his mind about the general direction in which he and his movement needed to go. In his youth he had been a fiery reformer, working tirelessly within the Brahmo Samaj as the younger associate of Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905) and becoming perhaps the most charismatic figure among the college-going young men of Calcutta in the 1860s. Grandson of Ramkamal Sen (1783-1844), who was a senior official of the Calcutta Mint and treasurer of the Bank of Bengal, Keshab had been born into one of the leading families of the new Bengali elite of Calcutta. Ramkamal had not only become wealthy; he was also a leading figure in the Asiatic Society, one of the founders of Hindu College, Sanskrit College, and the Horticultural Society, and the author of a Bengali-English dictionary. But he belonged to what later historians would call the "conservative" faction among the Bengali notables of the city, and his home was run according to the canons of Vaishnav orthodoxy.

The grandson, however, went to Hindu College, took to Western learning, joined the followers of Rammohan Roy, and wrote and lectured exclusively in English. In 1865 he led the campaign in the Brahmo Samaj against Debendranath Tagore, accusing the old guard of compromising with Hindu ritualism and custom. He traveled extensively through India, organizing the Brahmo Samaj principally among the middle-class Bengali diaspora that had fanned out into the cities and towns of British India and performed its role as loyal underlings of the colonial power. In 1870 he made a trip to England that his followers regarded as triumphant. He addressed numerous meetings, had breakfast with Prime Minister Gladstone and an audience with Queen Victoria, and was noticed in all the major newspapers. His visit even elicited the following doggerel in Punch:

Who on earth of living men,
Is Baboo Keshub Chunder Sen?
I doubt if even one in ten
Knows Baboo Keshub Chunder Sen?

Let's beard this "lion" in his den—
This Baboo Keshub Chunder Sen.
So come to tea and muffins, then,
With Baboo Keshub Chunder Sen.7

Keshab was a man of too keen an intelligence to look at everything he saw in England with starry-eyed admiration; he was also sufficiently self-assured not to hide his feelings. In his farewell address in London he expressed his surprise at the "vast amount of poverty and pauperism" in the streets of the city and at "so much moral and spiritual dissolution and physical suffering, caused by intemperance." He had been astonished to discover in England an institution he "certainly did not expect to find in this country—I mean caste. Your rich people are really Brahmins, and your poor people are Sudras."8

He also realized that he had taken too literally the claims made on behalf of modern Christian civilization. Of course, the representatives of colonial power in India did not usually measure up to the models of Christian humility. Four years ago, in an electrifying lecture in Calcutta, he had said:

I regard every European settler in India as a missionary of Christ, and I have a right to demand that he should always remember and act up to his high responsibilities. (Applause) But alas! owing to the reckless conduct of a number of pseudo-Christians, Christianity has failed to produce any wholesome moral influence on my countrymen. ("Hear! hear!" "They are only nominal Christians!") Yes, their muscular Christianity has led many a Native to identify the religion of Jesus with the power and privilege of inflicting blows and kicks with impunity. (Deafening. cheers) And thus has Jesus been dishonoured in India.9

But now in England he saw that the defect lay in European Christianity itself. "English Christianity appears too muscular and hard," he told his English audience.

It is not soft enough for the purposes of the human heart. ... Christian life in England is more materialistic and outward than spiritual and inward. . . . In England there is hardly anything like meditation and solitary contemplation. Englishmen seek their God in society; why do they not, now and then, go up to the heights of the mountains in order to realize the sweetness of solitary communion with God?10

Returning to India, Keshab began to introduce changes in the organizational practices of the Brahmo Samaj. Many of his Brahmo followers were puzzled and dismayed, some outraged. On the one hand, he opened a communal boarding house called the Bharat Asram, "a modern apostolic organization," as Keshab himself described it, in which "a number of Brahmo families were invited to live together, boarding together in the fashion of a joint family, each bearing its portion of the expenses and sharing in common the spiritual and educational advantages of the institution."11 The idea was to train a group of Brahmo families who were most active in the organization "to ideas of neatness, order, punctuality and domestic devotions, which form such striking features in a well-regulated middle-class English home." On the other hand, Keshab experimented with new, or rather newly revived, methods of popular communication. He introduced into Brahmo worship the Vaishnav forms of collective singing and processions through the streets, accompanied by instruments such as the khol and the kartal, typical symbols of popular bostam religion regarded with much scorn by urban people of enlightened sensibilities. Even in his personal life, Keshab began to cultivate a certain asceticism: he replaced the metal drinking cups he used with earthen cups and cooked his own food in a little thatched room on the terrace of his house. More significantly, as Sibnath Sastri notes, "Mr Sen no longer spoke in English, except once a year on the occasion of the anniversary festival."12

Keshab was certain that a new direction was needed, and he was keen to find it. Half a century after Rammohan Roy's campaigns to change a tradition steeped in what he saw as superstition, degeneracy, and unthinking allegiance to religious ritual, Keshab had come face-to-face with the limits of rationalist reform. The Brahmo religion, influential as it had been in the social life of urban Bengal, was undoubtedly restricted in its appeal to a very small section of the new middle class. In the 1870s there were scarcely more than a hundred Brahmo families in Calcutta; fewer than a thousand persons in the city declared themselves as Brahmos in the 1881 census.13 Keshab was beginning to feel that there was something inherently limiting in the strict rationalism of the new faith. In his writings and speeches of the mid-1870s, Keshab talked frequently of the importance of a faith that was not shackled by the debilitating doubts of cold reason. Indeed, he was pleading for a little madness.

By madness I mean heavenly enthusiasm, the highest and most intense spirituality of character, in which faith rules supreme over all sentiments and faculties of the mind. . . . The difference between philosophy and madness is the difference between science and faith, between cold dialectics and fiery earnestness, between the logical deductions of the human understanding and the living force of inspiration, such as that which cometh direct from heaven. . . . Philosophy is divine, and madness too is divine. . . . The question naturally suggests itself—why should not men be equally mad for God?14

Of course, Keshab was too much of a modernist not to anticipate the obvious objection to his plea and was quick to make the necessary qualification.

I admit that both Hinduism and Buddhism, whose chief principle was meditation, have done incalculable mischief by teaching their votaries to forsake the world and become dreamy devotees and hermits. But there is no reason why if the mischief has been once perpetrated it must be wrought again. In these days of scientific thought, and within the citadel of true philosophy, there is no possibility of the reign of quietism being revived. Gentlemen, we are going to combine meditation and science, madness and philosophy, and there is no fear of India relapsing into ancient mysticism.15

There was something else in Keshab's search for a new path. He was deeply concerned that the rationalist ideal which he and his predecessors had pursued was alien to the traditions of his country and its people. When in England, he had remarked: "Truth is not European, and it would be a mistake to force European institutions upon the Hindus, who would resist any attempt to denationalize them."16 He seemed to suggest that the ideals of reason and rational religion that may have been suitable for Europe were not so for India. Something else, something different, was needed for an authentic Indian religion of modernity. Indeed, far more than the strength of British arms, it was this alien moral force which British rule had brought with it which was holding India in subjection.

Who rules India? ... You are mistaken if you think that it is the ability of Lord Lytton in the Cabinet, or the military genius of Sir Frederick Haines in the field that rules India. It is not politics, it is not diplomacy that has laid a firm hold of the Indian heart. It is not the glittering bayonet, nor the fiery cannon of the British army that can make our people loyal. No, none of these can hold India, in subjection.... That power—need I tell you?—is Christ. It is Christ who rules British India, and not the British Government. England has sent out a tremendous moral force, in the life and character of that mighty prophet, to conquer and hold this vast empire.

And it was the very alienness of this moral power, its lack of conformity with the beliefs and practices of the people of India, that made it inadequate for its purpose.

It is true that the people of India have been satisfied in some measure with what they have read and heard of Jesus, but they have been disappointed in a far greater measure. For England has sent unto us, after all, a Western Christ. This is indeed to be regretted. Our countrymen find that in this Christ, sent by England, there is something that is not quite congenial to the native mind, not quite acceptable to the genius of the nation. It seems that the Christ that has come to us is an Englishman, with English manners and customs about him. Hence is it that the Hindu people shrink back and say— who is this revolutionary reformer who is trying to sap the very foundations of native society, and establish here an outlandish faith and civilization quite incompatible with oriental instincts and ideas? Why must we submit to one who is of a different nationality? Why must we bow before a foreign product? . . . Hundreds upon hundreds, thousands upon thousands, even among the most intelligent in the land, stand back in moral recoil from this picture of a foreign Christianity trying to invade and subvert Hindu society; and this repugnance unquestionably hinders the progress of the true spirit of Christianity in this country.

But there was no reason why this "true spirit of Christianity" should remain hidden under an English, or even a European, mask. After all, was not Christianity itself born in the East? "Why should you Hindus go to England to learn Jesus Christ? Is not his native land nearer to India than to England? Is he not, and are not his apostles and immediate followers, more akin to Indian nationality than Englishmen?" Why could not one, then, recover Christ for India? To Europeans, he had this to say: "if you wish to regenerate us Hindus, present Christ to us in his Hindu character. When you bring Christ to us, bring him to us, not as a civilized European, but as an Asiatic ascetic, whose wealth is communion, and whose riches prayers."17

It is also significant that in his search for a path of reform in consonance with Eastern spirituality, Keshab was looking for an inspired messenger through whom God makes his appearance in human history. The idea was repugnant to many enlightened Brahmos, for it smacked of the age-old Hindu belief in the avatara (divine incarnation); Debendranath Tagore is said to have remarked that in a country where even fish and turtles were regarded as incarnations of God, he found it strange that Keshab should aspire to be one.18 But Keshab's doubts were of a different sort: he had become skeptical about the powers of the human intellect and will. The soul, he said,

wants godly life, and this can never be had by the most rigid tension of mental discipline, or the highest effort of human will.... It is God's free gift, not man's acquisition. It comes not through our calculation or reasoning, not through industry or struggle, but through prayerful reliance upon God's mercy.... It keeps man in a state of holy excitement.... He is then seized with the frenzy of devotion, and is not only above sin, but also above temptation; for nothing is then attractive to him except holiness.19

This was roughly Keshab Sen's frame of mind when, one day in the middle of March 1875, he retired as usual to the quiet of the garden house in Belgharia and had a visitor.


Ramakrishna, it is said, had seen Keshabchandra once, in 1864.21) Led by his insatiable curiosity about every variety of religious experience, the saint of Dakshineswar, then a relatively young man of twenty-eight, had gone to watch a prayer meeting in the Brahmo Samaj in Calcutta. Keshab and Ramakrishna did not speak to each other on that occasion, although Ramakrishna later said that of all the people assembled on the stage, he thought Keshab was the one most advanced in spiritual qualities. But Ramakrishna maintained his interest in the activities of the Brahmos. Once he had been to see Debendranath Tagore, in the company of Ma-thuranath Biswas, son-in-law of his patron Rani Rasmani (1793-1861). The social distance between Debendranath and Ramakrishna was virtually unbridgeable, but Mathuranath had been to Hindu College with Debendranath and, seeing Ramakrishna's eagerness to visit the eminent religious leader, had agreed to take him to the Tagore house in Jora-sanko. The meeting apparently passed unremarkably and ended with Debendranath inviting Ramakrishna to the anniversary ceremony at the Brahmo Samaj. Ramakrishna pointed to his clothes and expressed doubts about whether he would be entirely presentable at such a gentlemanly gathering. Debendranath laughed off the objection, but the next morning wrote to Mathuranath withdrawing the invitation.

Ramakrishna was at this time entirely unknown among the Calcutta middle class. True, he had been patronized by Rani Rasmani of Janbazar, and she along with several members of her family regarded Ramakrishna with much veneration. But Rasmani's family, largely because of its lower-caste background, was not a part of the culturally dominant elite of Calcutta, although she herself was well known as a spirited and philanthropic woman. The only other prominent person close to Ramakrishna before 1875 was Sambhucharan Mallik, a wealthy and generous landlord and trader—and he died in 1876. And there was also Captain Viswanath Upadhyay, a businessman from Nepal who did not belong to Calcutta.

On this particular day in the middle of March 1875, Ramakrishna was in Calcutta when he had a great urge to meet Keshabchandra. Accompanied by his nephew Hriday and Captain Viswanath, he went to Keshab's house in Kolutola only to be told that Keshab was in Belgharia. Ramakrishna declared that he had to go there straightaway. There was, of course, the small matter of finding the fare for the long carriage ride, but Captain Viswanath agreed to pay it.

Thus it was that in order to meet Keshab, Ramakrishna had to take a carriage all the way from Calcutta past Dakshineswar to a garden house in Belgharia. For it is a fact of history that when Ramakrishna went looking for him in Calcutta, Keshab Sen had already made his way to his spiritual retreat somewhere in the vicinity of Dakshineswar.

Hriday got off the carriage and went looking for Keshabchandra. He found the leader sitting with his companions on the steps of a pool in front of the house. Hriday walked up to him and said that his uncle, who was sitting outside in the carriage, would like to see him. When asked who his uncle was, he explained that he was the Paramahamsa of Dakshineswar. Keshabchandra immediately asked Hriday to bring him in.

Pratap Mozoomdar (1840-1905), a childhood friend and close associate of Keshab who was present on the occasion, later described the scene:

There came one morning in a ricketty ticca gari, a disorderly-looking young man, insufficiently clad, and with manners less than insufficient. . . . His appearance was so unpretending and simple, and he spoke so little at his introduction, that we did not take much notice of him at first.21

Mozoomdar, of course, gives the date of this meeting as March 1876, although all later historians agree that it took place in March 1875. It is also curious that twelve years after the incident he remembered Ramakrishna as a "young man," although the latter was then thirty-nine years old, two years older than Keshab Sen and four years older than Mozoomdar himself.

What might be called the official biography of Ramakrishna, the Ramkrsna lilaprasanga, describes Ramakrishna on this day as clothed in "a dhoti with a red border, one end thrown across the left shoulder." On being introduced, he said, "Babu, I am told that you people have seen God. I have come to hear what you have seen." This is how the conversation began. After some time, Ramakrishna began to sing one of his favorite songs—a composition by Ramprasad Sen—"Who Knows What Kali Is Like?" As he sang, he swooned and went into a trance. Hriday began to whisper in his ears, "Had Om! Hari Om!" Slowly, Ramakrishna recovered consciousness.22

The same incident is described by Pratap Mozoomdar from the point of view of Keshab's followers. "Soon he began to discourse in a sort of half-delirious state, becoming now and then quite unconscious. What he said, however, was so profound and beautiful that we soon perceived he was no ordinary man."23

Ramakrishna was talking about the nature of God, telling his half-skeptical audience some of the stories that two decades later would be familiar to all of literate Bengal.

A man who had seen a chameleon under a tree returned and said, "I have seen a beautiful red chameleon under the tree." Another said, "I was there before you. The chameleon is not red, but green. I have seen it with my own eyes." A third said, "I too know it well. I saw it before either of you, and it was neither red nor green, but—and I saw with my own eyes—it was blue." Others declared it was yellow, or grey, and so on. Soon they began to quarrel among themselves as to who was correct. A man passing by asked what the trouble was. When he was told he said, "I live under that very tree, and I know the chameleon well. All of you are right, every one. The chameleon is sometimes green, sometimes blue, it is all colours by turn, and sometimes it is absolutely colourless."24

Ramakrishna was beginning to enjoy himself. "When a strange animal comes into a herd of cattle," he said, "the cows go after it with their horns. But when they see another cow, they lick its hide. That's what has happened to me here." Suddenly, he turned to Keshab and said, "Yes, your tail has dropped off." Undoubtedly Keshab and his followers were taken aback by this remark. Ramakrishna quickly explained himself, however. "You must have seen tadpoles. As long as they have tails, they must live in water; but when the tail falls away they can live on land as well as in water.... Your mind, Keshab, is in such a state now. You can live in the world, and enjoy divine bliss as well."25


Keshab Sen ran two newspapers. The English paper, the Indian Mirror, began as a weekly and in 1871 became a daily. The Bengali weekly, Sulabh samacar, was started in November 1870 and in three months reached a peak circulation of twenty-seven thousand. Even in 1877 when its circulation had dropped somewhat because of competition from other publications it was still the most widely circulated paper in Bengali.26

Two weeks after the meeting between Keshab Sen and Ramakrishna, the Indian Mirror published an article entitled "A Hindu Saint." After describing the great Hindu devotees talked about in the religious literature of India and still revered in popular memory, it continued:

We met one not long ago, and were charmed by the depth, penetration and simplicity of his spirit. The never-ceasing metaphors and analogies in which he indulged are, most of them, as apt as they are beautiful. The characteristics of the mind are the very opposite of those of Pandit Dayanand Saraswati, the former being gentle, tender and contemplative as the latter is sturdy, masculine and polemical. Hinduism must have in it a deep source of beauty, truth and goodness to inspire such m6n as these.27

It is more than likely that the article was written by Keshab himself and a few weeks later something along the same lines appeared in Sulabh samacar, the first of several articles on Ramakrishna published in that paper.

Suddenly Ramakrishna became an object of great curiosity among the educated young men of Calcutta. Ramchandra Datta, a doctor at the Calcutta Medical College, and his cousin Manomohan Mitra, a businessman, read about Ramakrishna in Sulabh samacar and came to Dakshine-swar in 1879 to see him.28 Surendranath Mitra, a friend of Ramchandra and a fairly wealthy man with a job in a British firm, was troubled by his incurable weakness for liquor and women and began visiting Dak-shines war. Ramakrishna told him, "But, Suren, when you drink, why do you think of it as ordinary wine? Offer it first to the Mother and drink it as her prasad [sanctified food]. Then you will never get drunk." Henceforth, before Surendranath drank, he offered some wine to Kali. This action filled him with devotion, and he began to cry like a child. He never became intoxicated again.29

Balaram Bose, who came from a wealthy family of landlords and was one of Ramakrishna's principal patrons in the last years of his life, first read about him in Keshab Sen's newspapers.30 So did Girishchandra Ghosh, the foremost personality in the Calcutta theater at this time.31 By the early years of the 1880s, when most of the men who would form the closest circle of disciples around Ramakrishna had gathered in Dakshine-swar,32 he was a frequently discussed personality in the schools, colleges, and newspapers of Calcutta.

Remarkably, the enormous legend that would be built around Ramakrishna's name in the words and thoughts of the Calcutta middle class was the result of a fairly short acquaintance, beginning only eleven years before his death. Only in those last years of his life did he cast his spell over so many distinguished men, who would make his name a household word among educated Bengalis.

The followers of Keshabchandra and Ramakrishna have, of course, never managed to agree on which of the two great leaders influenced the other. The hagiographers of Ramakrishna write as though Keshab, a determined seeker after truth who roamed aimlessly for the greater part of his life, finally found salvation at the feet of the Master. Saradananda, for instance, writes of Keshab's break with the Brahmo Samaj and his founding of a new order: "As this faith came into existence shortly after Kesav's acquaintance with the Master, it is probable that it was a partial acceptance and propagation of the Master's final conclusion." Saradananda nevertheless remains skeptical about Keshab's ability to accept Ramakrishna in the true spirit of the devotee: "Although he was dearly loved by the Master and had many opportunities to see and hear him, it is doubtful whether Kesav, inspired with Western ideas and ideals as he was, understood him perfectly" (GM, p. 314). A biographer of Keshab, on the other hand, complains: "It is sad to contemplate that such friendship should be misunderstood, misinterpreted. It has even been suggested that Keshub borrowed his religion of Harmony, the New Dispensation, from Ramakrishna."33

With the advantage of a hundred years of hindsight, we have no need to take sides in this quarrel. But for precisely that reason—the fact that we are prisoners of an incorrigibly historical vision of our selves and the world—we had to begin our story with the meeting in Belgharia on a spring afternoon in 1875.


This, however, is not how the story is supposed to begin. Those who tell the story of Ramakrishna remind us that the Master's life was not the life of any ordinary man, not even that of an extraordinary man. The Absolute Being, in one of his inscrutable, playful decisions, appears on earth from time to time in the guise of a human being to act out an exemplary life for the edification of the world. According to the authorized version, therefore, the story of Ramakrishna's life must be told as one more episode in an eternal lila.

The story, in fact, is supposed to begin with a dream. In the winter of 1835, Kshudiram Chattopadhyay of Kamarpukur in Hugli, then already a man of sixty, went to Gaya to offer worship to his forefathers. There he dreamed of himself in the temple, surrounded by his forefathers, who appeared before him "in luminous celestial bodies," accepting the pinda he offered to them. He then saw the temple fill "with divine light," and there in front of him was "a wonderful divine being"—Visnu himself in the form of Gadadhar—"seated happily on a beautiful throne." Then the divine being spoke to him. "I bless you and will be born as your son and will receive your loving care" (GM, pp. 31-32).

Soon after this, Kshudiram's wife, Chandra, then forty-five years old, conceived. Saradananda, Ramakrishna's biographer, tells us that "one peculiar characteristic of divine and subtle origin was shared by every one of Kshudiram's pious household": they all had a predilection for unusual spiritual experiences (GM, p. 29). Chandra's visions became more numerous after she had conceived (GM, p, 37). The birth of the son was again followed by something of a miracle, because the child disappeared from the place where Dhani, the midwife, had kept it. Looking around in panic, she found it lying in a hollow fireplace "with its body adorned with ashes, and still not crying." Everyone marveled at the beauty and size of the child, for it was as large as a six-month-old infant. The astrologers agreed that Kshudiram's son had been born at an especially auspicious moment (GM, p. 40).
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Re: The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

Postby admin » Sun Mar 28, 2021 3:42 am

Part 2 of 3

In the Lilaprasanga, Saradananda takes great pains to explain to what he presumes will be a skeptical readership the significance of these extraordinary and miraculous happenings surrounding Ramakrishna's birth.34 He argues, for instance, that such events are common to the life stories of all great souls "who sanctify the earth by their birth," stories that "are recorded in the religious books of all races." Similar events portray "the unique spiritual experiences and visions" of the parents of Rama, Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus, Sarikara and Caitanya (GM, p. 33). Again, he suggests that there must be some significance to the fact that with the exceptions of Rama and the Buddha, "all the great souls who are to this day worshipped as the incarnations of the Divine," such as Krishna, Jesus, Sahkara, Caitanya or Muhammad, were born "in poverty and hardship" (L 1:24; GM, p. 17). Miraculousness, it would seem, is the aura that surrounds the life histories of those who are the incarnations of God and marks out their lives as different from history itself.

But Saradananda also has other arguments to offer. India, he thinks, has been particularly blessed by the Almighty Being in the matter of incarnations. This explains the spirituality of Indian culture.

When we make a comparative study of the spiritual beliefs and ideals of India and of other countries, we notice a vast difference between them. From very ancient times India has taken entities beyond the senses, namely, God, the self, the next world, etc., to be real, and has employed all its efforts towards their direct realization.... All its activities have accordingly been coloured by intense spirituality throughout the ages. . . . The source of this absorbing interest in things beyond the senses is due to the frequent birth in India of men possessing a direct knowledge of these things and endowed with divine qualities. (GM, p. 5)

Knowledge of a similar kind, Saradananda is sure, is denied to the West, for the procedures of Western knowledge are "attracted only by external objects."

Although capable of achieving great progress in physical science, the [Western] procedure . . . could not lead men to the knowledge of the Atman. For the only way to attain that knowledge is through self-control, selflessness and introspection, and the only instrument for attaining it is the mind, with all its functions brought under absolute control.

Western knowledge could not accomplish this. Consequently, Western people "missed the path to Self-knowledge and became materialists, identifying themselves with the body" (GM, p. 13).

We have here the familiar nationalist problematic of the material and the spiritual, the identification of an incompleteness in the claims of the modern West to a superior culture and asserting the sovereignty of the nation over the domain of spirituality. In itself, this is not surprising because Saradananda himself was very much a part of the middle-class culture of Bengal that had, by the turn of the century, come to accept these criteria as fundamental in the framing of questions of cultural choice. What is curious is that instead of "cleaning up" the layers of myth and legend from the life story of someone like Ramakrishna and presenting it as the rational history of human exemplariness, as in Bankim's Krsnaca-ritra, for instance, Saradananda seeks to do the very opposite: he authenticates the myth by declaring that the life of Ramakrishna is not to be read as human history but as divine play.35

Indeed, Saradananda is forthright in stating his purpose. Why does he feel called upon to write the story of Ramakrishna's life for his educated readership? The reason has to do with "the occupation of India by the West."

Coming more and more under the spell of the West, India rejected the ideal of renunciation and self-control and began to run after worldly pleasures. This attitude brought with it the decay of the ancient system of education and training, and there arose atheism, love of imitation and lack of self-confidence. Thus the nation lost its backbone. People came to believe that their long-cherished beliefs and practices were erroneous, and they felt that perhaps their traditions were crude and semi-civilized, as the West with its wonderful knowledge of science said them to be. . . . Finding that, even for worldly enjoyment, she had to depend upon others, India was overcome with a sense of frustration. Having thus lost the way both to enjoyment and to liberation, and yet being bent on imitating others, the nation was now buffeted by waves of desires, like a boat drifting without a helmsman. . .. Prostrate India was made to listen to lectures—delivered at public meetings held in the Western manner—oil politics, sociology, the freedom of women and widow-marriage. But the feeling of frustration and despair, instead of lessening, grew stronger. . .. The influence of the West had brought about its fall. Would it not be futile, then, to look to the atheistic West for its resurrection? Being itself imperfect, how could the West make another part of the world perfect? (GM, p. 15)

The conditions of the problem were clear. The assertion of spirituality would have to rest on an essential difference between East and West, and the domain of autonomy thus defined would have to be ordered on one's own terms, not on those set by the conqueror in the material world. If myth is the form in which the truth is miraculously revealed in the domain of Eastern spirituality, then it is myth that must be affirmed and the quibbles of a skeptical rationalism declared out of bounds.

Saradananda thus goes on to talk about many extraordinary events from Ramakrishna's childhood, all of which showed him, even at an early age, as a person with a touch of divinity in him. Thus, there are stories about his "remarkable memory and intelligence" and about his "remarkable courage" (GM, pp. 44, 47). There is also the story about how young Gadadhar, at the age of nine, resolved a scriptural dispute at a scholarly gathering (GM, p. 55). Of course, there were spiritual experiences too—meditation, ecstasy, and visions.

Ramakrishna's marriage at the age of twenty-two puts Saradananda into something of a quandary, Ramakrishna never consummated the marriage, and although he had his wife Sarada come and live in Dak-shineswar, it could never have been his intention to lead the life of a family man. Why then did Ramakrishna agree to marry? Saradananda finds an answer.

At the present time we have almost forgotten that, besides the satisfaction of the senses, there is a very sacred and high purpose of marriage and this is why we are reducing ourselves to being worse than beasts. It is only in order to destroy this beastliness of men and women of modern India that the Master, the teacher of his people, was married. Like all the other acts of his life the act of marriage also was performed for the good of all. (GM, p. 409)

The youth of Ramakrishna is recounted by Saradananda as a narrative of the great soul in his "attitude of the devotee" [sadhaka-bkava). During this time Ramakrishna goes through a series of spiritual exercises: in Tantra with the Bhairavi, in the forms of nondualistic Vedantic sadhana (spiritual exercise) with Totapuri, and in certain forms of Sufi meditation with Govinda Ray, besides his meetings with various religious personalities during his trip to Varanasi and Vrindavan. Ramakrishna is said to have attained mastery (siddhi) in each of these forms of religious practice. Saradananda even has a short section on "the extraordinary way in which the Master attained proficiency in the religion founded by Sri Sri Isa" (L 2:370-73). The method was a mystical encounter with Christ himself. During one of his conversations with his disciples many years later, Ramakrishna asked them what the Bible said about Christ's physical appearance. The disciples reasoned that being Jewish, he must have been "very fair, with long eyes and an aquiline nose."

The Master said, "But I saw that the tip of his nose was a little flat. I don't know why I saw him like that." ...

But we came to know, shortly after the Master passed away, that there were three different descriptions of Jesus' physical features; and according to one of them the tip of his nose was a little flat. (GM, p. 297)

All this time, until Ramakrishna took up "the attitude of the teacher" (guru-bhava), he lived his life "free from the influence of Western ideas and ideals" (GM, p. 707). Only when he came into contact with Keshabchandra and the Brahmos did he become aware of the spiritual state of the educated sections of society. What he saw was a state of crisis.

He saw that, although [the Brahmos] were making efforts to realize God, they had deviated from the ancient national ideal of renunciation. His mind, therefore, engaged itself in finding out its cause. It was thus that he became acquainted for the first time with the mass of exotic ideas entering the lives of the people of India because of Western education and training. (GM, p. 708)

Ramakrishna decided that behind all this lay some shrewd purpose of the divine will.

The Master, therefore, perfectly comprehended that it was only owing to the Divine Mother's will that Western ideas and ideals had entered India and that by Her will alone had the Brahmos and other educated communities become mere toys in their hands----The Master said, "Let them accept as much of the immediate knowledge of the seers as is possible for them; the Mother of the universe will bring forward in future such persons as will fully accept that knowledge." (GM, p. 709)

Thus it was that Ramakrishna decided to gather around him a circle of young disciples and to initiate them into his religion. In each case, the Master had a yogic vision of the disciple before he actually arrived in Dakshineswar (GM, p. 811). From the beginning of 1881, "the all-renouncing devotees, the eternal playmates of the Master in his Lila, began coming to him one by one" (GM, p. 711). By 1884, they had all arrived. It was only then that Ramakrishna finally took up his divya-bhava, "the attitude of the divine."

The purpose of all this is clear to Saradananda. Had not the Divine Lord promised in the Gita that whenever religion declines, he would assume a human body and manifest his powers? (GM, p. 16). Now, when the. nation lay enslaved and its brightest minds confused and frustrated, had not such a time arrived?

Did India, shorn of its glory and reduced to an object of contempt to foreigners, once again arouse the compassion of the Lord to incarnate Himself? That this did happen will become clear on a perusal of the life-story of the great soul, possessed of an infinite urge to do good, which is here recorded, India was once more blessed by the coming, in response to the need of the age, of One who, incarnating Himself as Sri Rama, Sri Krishna and others, renewed the eternal religion again and again. (GM, pp. 9-10)

To explain this "purpose of his advent" (GM, p. 3), Saradananda recounts the story of Ramakrishna's life as an episode in an eternal play—a story that begins with a dream.

But although the Lildprasanga claims to be something like an official biography, it is not the text that is most familiar to generations of avid readers of Ramakrishna literature. That honor is reserved for the Rsmkrsna kathamrta. Circulated now in several editions and virtually annual reprints, it is a collection of the Master's "sayings." Ever since its publication in the early years of this century, its five volumes have acted as the principal sourcebook on Ramakrishna.


Sumit Sarkar has noted the stylistic peculiarity of the Kathamrta in the way it combines two radically different linguistic idioms—one, the rustic colloquial idiom spoken by Ramakrishna, and the other, the chaste formality of the new written prose of nineteenth-century Calcutta." The former, for all its rusticity (a "rusticity," we must remember, itself produced by the difference created in the nineteenth century between the new high culture of urban sophistication and everything else that became marked as coarse, rustic, or merely local), was by no means a language that any villager in nineteenth-century Bengal would have spoken, for its use by Ramakrishna shows great conceptual richness, metaphoric power, and dialectical skill. It was the language of preachers and poets in pre-colonial Bengal, and even when used by someone without much formal learning (such as Ramakrishna), it was able to draw upon the conceptual and rhetorical resources of a vast body of literate tradition. By contrast, the new written prose of late nineteenth-century Calcutta, in what may be called its post-Bankim phase, was distinct not so much as a "development" of earlier narrative forms but fundamentally by virtue of its adoption of a wholly different, that is, modern European, discursive framework. Recent studies have identified the ways in which grammatical models borrowed from the modern European languages shaped the "standard" syntactic forms of modern Bengali prose; other studies have shown similar "modular" influences of rhetorical forms borrowed from English in particular.37

The appearance of these formal differences" between the two idioms was of course intricately tied to another difference—a difference in the very conceptual and logical apparatus articulated in language. The users of the new Bengali prose not only said things in a new way, they also had new things to say. This was the principal intellectual impetus that led to the rapid flourishing of the modern Bengali prose literature; by the 1880s, when Mahendranath Gupta (1854-1932) was recording his diary entries of Ramakrishna's sayings for what was to become the Kathamrta, a considerable printing and publishing industry operated in Calcutta (in fact, one of the more important industrial activities in the city), testifying to the creation of both a modern "high culture" and a "print-capitalism," the two sociological conditions that are supposed to activate the nationalist imagination.38 What is nevertheless intriguing is the quite rapid "standardization" of this prose. The 1850s was still a time when a "standard" form had not appeared; by the 1880s, the "standard" form had come to stay. It is worth speculating whether the sheer proximity of European discursive models—available, palpable, already standardized by more momentous historical processes and hence unquestionably worthy of emulation—had something to do with the astonishing speed with which the entirely new form of narrative prose came to be accepted as "normal" by the English-educated Bengali middle class.

The modular influence was strongest when written prose was employed to discuss subjects that were explicitly theoretical or philosophical. The Kathamrta is marked not only by the divergence between the "rustic" and the "urban" idioms in Bengali; it is an even more explicitly bilingual text in its repeated employment of English terms, phrases, and quotations. It is remarkable how often Mahendranath introduces with a heading in English sections in which Ramakrishna discusses questions of a philosophical nature: there must be some fifty sections with titles such as "Reconciliation of Free Will and God's Will—of Liberty and Necessity" or "Identity of the Absolute or Universal Ego and the Phenomenal World" or "Problems of Evil and the Immortality of the Soul" or "Philosophy and Scepticism," and so on. Each heading of this kind is followed by a recording of Ramakrishna's own words or a conversation, directly reported, between him and his disciples. Mahendranath, in his self-appointed role of narrator, does not attempt to explicate the sayings of his preceptor, and yet this form of introducing sections serves to create the impression that Ramakrishna is dealing with the same questions that are discussed in European philosophy. Mahendranath also repeatedly translates various philosophical concepts used by Ramakrishna with English terms and inserts them into the text in parentheses or in footnotes. Thus, for instance, when Ramakrishna describes his state of trance as one in which he is unable to count things—ek duier par (literally, "beyond ones and twos")—Mahendranath adds a footnote in English: "The absolute as distinguished from the relative." He explains Kali us "God in His relations with the conditioned" or Brahma as "the Unconditioned, the Absolute." When Ramakrishna says pratyaksa, Mahendranath adds in parentheses "perception"; when Ramakrishna says that in a trance isvara does not appear as a vyakti, Mahendranath adds "person." A section entitled "Perception of the Infinite" has a footnote saying, "Compare discussion about the order of perception of the Infinite and of the Finite in Max Müller's Hibbert Lectures and Gifford Lectures."

This bilingual dialogue runs through the text, translating the terms of an Indian philosophical discourse into those of nineteenth-century European logic and metaphysics. It is as though the wisdom of an ancient speculative tradition of the East, sustained for centuries not only in philosophical texts composed by the learned but through debates and disquisitions among preachers and mystics, is being made available to minds shaped by the modes of European speculative philosophy. (The invocation of Max Müller is significant.) This dialogue also expresses the desire to assert that the "common" philosophy of "rustic" Indian preachers is no less sophisticated, no less "classical" in its intellectual heritage, than the learned speculations of modern European philosophers: in fact, the former is shown as providing different, and perhaps better, answers to the same philosophical problems posed in European philosophy.39 (Mahendranath also embellishes some of Ramakrishna's words with quotations in Sanskrit from texts such as the Upanisads and the GM; Ramakrishna himself almost never used Sanskrit aphorisms in his conversations.) But for both narrator and reader of the Kathamrta, the terrain of European thought is familiar ground—familiar, yet foreign—from which they set out to discover (or perhaps, rediscover) the terrain of the indigenous and the popular, a home from which they have been wrenched. The bilingual discourse takes place within the same consciousness, where both lord and bondsman reside. Contestation and mediation have taken root within the new middle-class mind, a mind split in two.


The internal arrangement of each volume of the Kathamrta is strictly chronological. The book was not originally planned to run into five volumes. The first volume consequently is composed of selections from Mahendranath's diaries in the period from 26 February 1882 to 27 December 1885, beginning with an account of his first meeting with Ramakrishna. The later volumes contain other selections, but covering roughly the same period (vol. 2, 17 October 1882 to 24 April 1886; vol. 3,5 August 1882 to 13 April 1886; vol. 4,1 April 1883 to 21 April 1886; vol. 5,11 March 1882 to 24 September 1885). Each volume has appendixes; those added to volume 5 record some events of 1881 while those in the other volumes deal with conversations between Ramakrishna's disciples after the Master's death in August 1886.

Mahendranath is scrupulous not only in maintaining a chronological order within each volume but also in meticulously recording the date, time, and place of each conversation. He also adds wherever possible a description of the physical surroundings and invariably notes the names of those present at the time. Mahendranath is clearly conscious of the requirements of authentic documentation. And yet, as soon as he passes to the reporting of the Master's sayings, he not only abandons the formal structure of a rational narrative prose, he surrenders himself completely in his journey with Ramakrishna through the fluid space of mythic time, from Rama, Hanumána, Bhisma, and Yudhisthira to the ancient sages Nárada, Vašistha, or Višvámitra, to the apocryphal stories of folklore to Ramakrishna's own spiritual mentors Totapurl or the Bhairavi to contemporary figures like Keshab Sen or Vidyasagar or Bankimchandra, jumping from one to another, equating, contrasting, connecting, with complete disregard for historical specifics. Mahendranath's careful construction of a narrative grid was designed to authenticate the historical truth of his master's sayings; yet the truth is seized only after it has escaped the grid of historical time.

It is possible, of course, to use the narrative arrangement of materials in the Kathamrta for a historical-biographical study of Ramakrishna. But as far as the "message" of the Kathamrta is concerned, the arrangement of the materials does not matter in the least. The chronological arrangement completely defeats any attempt at indicating a progression or thematization. What it produces instead is a repetitiousness: the same arguments, the same stories, even the same jokes, repeated over and over again. Redundancy is, of course, a characteristic element of the structure of self-evidence of mythic truth.


For the colonized middle-class mind, caught in its "middleness," the discourse of Reason was not unequivocally liberating. The invariable implication it carried of the historical necessity of colonial rule and its condemnation of indigenous culture as the storehouse of unreason, or (in a stage-of-civilization argument) of reason yet unborn, which only colonial rule would bring to birth (as father, mother, or midwife—which?), made the discourse of Reason oppressive. It was an oppression that the middle-class mind often sought to escape. Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838-94), unquestionably the most brilliant rationalist essayist of the time, escaped into the world not of mythic time but of imaginary history, sliding imperceptibly from the past-as-it-might-have-been to the past-as-it-should-have-been to an invocation of the past-as-it-will-be.40 So did the most brilliant rationalist defender of "orthodox" tradition—Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay (1827-94), in that remarkable piece of Utopian history Svapnalabdha bharatbarser itihas (The history of India as revealed in a dream). More common was the escape from the oppressive rigidities of the new discursive prose into the semantic richness and polyphony of ordinary, uncolonized speech. It would be an interesting project to study the ways in which Bengali prose writers have found it so compelling to adopt the device of shifting from an authorial narrative prose to the dramatic forms of direct dialogue. Even more striking is the communicative power of the modern Bengali drama, the least commended on aesthetic grounds by the critics of modern Bengali literature (certainly so in comparison with the novel or the short story or poetry) and yet arguably the most effective cultural form through which the English-educated literati of Calcutta commanded a popular audience (and the one cultural form subjected to the most rigorous and sustained police censorship by the colonial government). Reborn in the middle of the nineteenth century in the shapes prescribed by European theater, the modern Bengali drama found its strength not so much in the carefully structured directedness of dramatic action and conflict as in the rhetorical power of speech. Where written prose marked a domain already surrendered to the colonizer, common speech thrived within its zealously guarded zone of autonomy and freedom.


It is important to note that the subordination of the Bengali middle class to the colonial power was based on much more than a mental construct. Hegemonic power is always a combination of force and the persuasive self-evidence of ideology. To the extent that the persuasive apparatus of colonial ideology necessarily and invariably fails to match the requirements of justifying direct political domination, colonial rule is always marked by the palpable, indeed openly demonstrated, presence of physical force.

For the middle-class Bengali babu of late nineteenth-century Calcutta, the figures of the white boss in a mercantile office or a jute mill, the magistrate in court, the officer in the district, the police sergeant or uniformed soldiers and sailors roaming the streets of Calcutta (invariably, it seems, in a state of drunkenness) were not objects of respect and emulation: they were objects of fear.

Consider the following episode from a skit written by Girishchan-dra Ghosh (1844-1912), the most eminent playwright and producer on the nineteenth-century Calcutta stage and a close disciple of Rama-krishna. This minor farce, Bellik-bajar, was first performed at the Star Theater on Christmas Eve of 1886, only a few months after Ramakrish-na's death.41

The opening scene is set, not without reason, in the Death Registration office at the Nimtala cremation ground in Calcutta. We meet first a doctor and then a lawyer inquiring from a murdapharas (whose business it is to burn dead bodies) about recent cremations. They are practitioners of the new arts of commercialization of death: the first works upon bodies in a state of sickness, prolonging the disease while holding death at bay; the second begins his work after death, entangling surviving relatives in an endless chain of litigation. The colonial city is where people come to make money out of death. The sole official representative here— the registration clerk (who, when we meet him, is, suitably enough, asleep)—has the job of putting into the official accounts the details of every death.

Enter Dokari, himself a recent and lowly entrant into the world of the Calcutta babus, learning to survive by his wits in a city of worldly opportunities. He tells the two gentlemen about the death of a wealthy trader whose only son, Lalit, would be an easy prey for all of them. The three strike a deal and proceed to lure the moneyed young man into the path of expensive living, dubious property deals, and lawsuits. In time, Dokari is predictably outmaneuvered by his more accomplished partners and, thrown out by his wealthy patron, finds himself back on the street. It is Christmas Eve, and the lawyer and doctor have arranged a lavish party, at Lalit's expense, of course, where they are to deliver upon their unsuspecting victim the coup de grace. Dokari, roaming the streets, suddenly comes upon three Englishmen and, instinctively, turns around and runs. (The italicized words in the following extracts are in English in the original.)

Eng 1: Nor so fast, not so fast. . .

They catch hold of Dokari.

Dokari: Please, saheb! Poor man'.... License have, thief not.

Eng 1: Hold the ankle, Dick. Darkee wants a swing ...

They lift him up and swing him in the air.

Dokari: My bones all another place, my insides up down, head making thus thus. [Falls]


Eng 2: Grog-shop?

Dokari: Curse in English as much as you please. I don't understand it, so it doesn't touch me.

Eng 2: A good ale house?

Dokari: Let me give it back to you in Bengali, My great-grandson is married to your sister, I'm married to your sister, I'm her bastard. ...

Eng 3: Wine shop ... sharab ghar ...

Dokari now realizes what the Englishmen want and remembers the party in Lalit's gardenhouse.

Dokari: Yes, sir, your servant, sir. Wine shop here not. Master eat wine} Come garden, very near.... Brandy, whiskey, champagne, all, all, fowl, cutlet... free, free, come garden, come my back, back me, not beat, come from my back.

The party is a travesty of "enlightened" sociability, with a couple of hired dancing girls posing as the liberated wives of our friends the lawyer and the doctor. A social reformer delivers an impassioned speech on the ignorance and irrationality of his countrymen. As he ends his speech with the words "Oh! Poor India, where art thou, come to your own country " Dokari enters with the three Englishmen. The sight of the white men causes immediate panic, the party breaks up in confusion, and the Englishmen settle down to a hearty meal.

A mortal fear of the Englishman and of the world over which he dominated was a constituent element in the consciousness of the Calcutta middle class—in its obsequious homages in pidgin English and foul-mouthed denunciations in Bengali no less than in the measured rhetoric of enlightened social reformers. But fear can also be the source of new strategies of survival and resistance.


Master (to Keshab and other Brahmo admirers): You people speak of doing good to the world. Is the world such a small thing? And who are you, pray, to do good to the world? First realize God, see Him by means of spiritual discipline. If He imparts power, then you can do good to others; otherwise not.

A Brahmo Devotee: Then must we give up our activities [karma] until we realize God?

Master: No. Why should you? You must engage in such activities as contemplation, singing His praises, and other daily devotions.

Brahmo: But what about our worldly duties—duties associated with our earning money, and so on?

Master: Yes, you can perform them too, but only as much as you need for your livelihood. At the same time, you must pray to God in solitude with tears in your eyes, that you may be able to perform those duties in an unselfish manner. You should say to Him: "O God, make my worldly duties fewer and fewer; otherwise, O Lord, I find that I forget Thee when I am involved in too many activities. I may think I am doing unselfish work [niskdma karma], but it turns out to be selfish." ... Sambhu Mallik once talked about establishing hospitals, dispensaries, and schools, making roads, digging public reservoirs, and so forth. I said to him: "Don't go out of your way to look for such works. Undertake only those works that present themselves to you and are of pressing necessity—and those also in a spirit of detachment." It is not good to become involved in too many activities. That makes one forget God. . . . Therefore I said to Sambhu, "Suppose God appears before you; then will you ask Him to build hospitals and dispensaries for you?" {Laughter) A lover of God never says that. He will rather say: "O Lord, give me a place at Thy Lotus Feet. Keep me always in Thy company. Give me sincere and pure love [bhakti] for Thee."

Karmayoga is very hard indeed. In the Kaliyuga it is extremely difficult to perform the rites enjoined in the scriptures.... In the Kaliyuga the best way is bhaktiyoga, the path of devotion—singing the praises of the Lord, and prayer. The path of devotion is the religion [dharma] of this age. (K, pp. 41-42)42

This recurrent message runs through the Kathamrta. Worldly pursuits occupy a domain of selfish and particular interests. It is a domain of conflict, of domination and submission, of social norms, legal regulations, disciplinary rules enforced by the institutions of power. It is a domain of constant flux, ups and downs of fortune, a domain of greed and of humiliation. It is a domain that the worldly householder cannot do without, but it is one he has to enter because of the force of circumstances over which he has no control. But he can always escape into his own world of consciousness, where worldly pursuits are forgotten, where they have no essential existence. This is the inner world of devotion, a personal relation of bhakti (devotion) with the Supreme Being.

The strategy of survival in a world that is dominated by the rich and the powerful is withdrawal. Do not attempt to intervene in the world, do not engage in futile conflict, do not try to reform the world. Those who involve themselves in such activities do so not because they wish to change the world for the better but because they too pursue their particular interests—fame, popularity, power. This is a strong element operating in that part of the middle-class consciousness in which it is submissive, weak, afraid of its fate in the world.


Ramakrishna asks Narendranath (later Swami Vivekananda, 1863-1902) and Girish Ghosh to do vicara (debate) in English. The debate starts, not quite in English, but in Bengali interspersed with English words. Narendra talks about the infinite form of God and the incapacity of thought to conceive of that form. Girish suggests that God might also appear in a finite, phenomenal, form. Narendra disagrees.

radually Narendra and Girish become involved in a heated discussion. If God is Infinity, how can He have parts? What did Hamilton say? What were the views of Herbert Spencer, of Tyndall, of Huxley? And so forth and so on.

Master (to M.); I don't enjoy these discussions. Why should I argue at all? I clearly see that God is everything; He Himself has become all. I see that whatever is, is God. He is everything; again, He is beyond everything. (K, pp. 160-61; G, p. 733)

Later, calling Narendra aside, Ramakrishna says,

As long as a man argues about God, he has not realized Him. You two were arguing. I didn't like it....

The nearer you approach God, the less you reason and argue. When you attain Him, then all sounds—all reasoning and disputing—come to an end. (K, p. 163; G, p. 735)

Ramakrishna is heard repeating the argument several times in the Kathamrta. Learning is futile: it produces no true knowledge, only the pride of the learned. While acknowledging the pursuit of knowledge by the Vedantic scholar, he pronounces this an impossible project for the ordinary man in the present age. He is curious about the forms of logical argument in European philosophy and often inquires from his learned disciples about this (including staging the absurd theater of European-style vicara mentioned above), but his impatience soon gets the better of his curiosity.

This attitude strikes a sympathetic chord in his disciples. They are convinced of the limits of science and rational knowledge, of their failure to grasp the truth in its eternal, unchanging essence. Trained in the new schools of colonialism—some, like Narendranath, are in fact highly proficient in several branches of modern European knowledge—they feel oppressed in the prisonhouse of Reason and clamor to escape into the vicara-less freedom of bhaktl.
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Re: The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

Postby admin » Sun Mar 28, 2021 3:42 am

Part 3 of 3

Mahendranath closes the first volume of the Kathamrta with a long section on the disputations between Dr. Mahendralal Sarkar (1833-1904) and Ramakrishna's disciples. Dr. Sarkar, the most eminent practitioner in his time of Western medicine in Calcutta and founder of the first Indian institution for modern scientific research, was the only one of those close to Ramakrishna to openly voice his skepticism about Ramakrishna's preaching. (The italicized words in the following extract are in English in the original.)

Doctor: Just because some fisherman [the reference is to Mathuranath Biswas, Ramakrishna's erstwhile patron, who came from a caste of fishermen] accepted all that you say, do you think I will accept you too? Yes, I respect you, I have regard for you, as I have regard for human beings....

Master: Have I asked you to accept?

Girish: Has he asked you to accept?

Doctor (to the Master): So, you say it's all God's will?

Master: That is all that I say....

Doctor: If it is God's will, why do you talk so much? Why do you try to preach so much?

Master: I talk because He makes me talk. I am the instrument, He is the player.

Doctor: Then say you are only an instrument, or else keep quiet. Let God speak.

Girish: Think what you will. He makes me do what I do. Can one take a single step against the Almighty Wilt!

Doctor: He has given me free will. I can contemplate God if I so decide. I can also forget him if I feel like it.... I don't say it is completely free. It is like a cow tied to a leash. It is free as far as the rope will let it go.

Master: Jadu Mallik gave me the same analogy. Is it an English analogy? ...

Girish: How do you know it is free will!

Doctor: Not by reason, I feel it.

Girish: Then I and others feel it to be the reverse.

... The Master and another devotee ask the doctor, "Will you listen to some songs?"

Doctor: But then you will start to jump about. You have to keep your bhava under control....

The doctor tells Mahendranath, "It is dangerous to him." ...

Master: ... If someone eats the flesh of pigs and still retains bhakti for God, he is a worthy man, and if someone eats the purest food but remains attached to the world ...

Doctor: He is unworthy! But let me say this. The Buddha used to eat pork. Pork causes colic pain, for which the Buddha took opium. Do you know what nirvana is? Drugged by opium, drugged senseless-—that's nirvana. ... {to Girish) Do what you wish, but do not worship him [Ramakrishna] as God. Why are you spoiling this good man?

Girish: What else can we do? He has helped us cross the oceans of worldly living and scepticism....

Narendra (to the doctor): We regard him as god... . There is a zone between the man-world and the god-world, where it is difficult to say whether a person is man or god....

Doctor: One has to control these feelings. It is not proper to express them in public. No one understands my feelings. My best friends think I am devoid of compassion. . . . My son, my wife, even they think I am hardhearted, because my fault is that I don't express my feelings to anyone.. .. My feelings get worked up even more than yours do. I shed tears in solitude....

Narendra: Think of this. You have devoted your life to the cause of scientific discovery. You risk your health. The knowledge of God is the grandest of all sciences. Why should he [Ramakrishna] not risk his health for it?

Doctor: All religious reformers—Jesus, Chaitanya, Buddha, Muhammad—each one in the end comes out as self-opinionated: "This I have said, this is the final truth!" What sort of attitude is that?

Girish: Sir, you are guilty of the same crime. When you say they are self-opinionated, you make the same error.

The Doctor stays silent.

Narendra: We offer him worship bordering on divine worship.

The Master laughs like a child. (K, pp. 193-205)43

Skeptical rationalism, which had strayed into the hostile territory of "feelings" and unquestioning devotion, has been tamed and conquered. Mahendranath can now close his book.


What is it that stands between the family man and his quest for God? It is a double impediment, fused into one. Kämini-käňcan, "woman and gold," "woman-gold": one stands for the other. Together they represent maya, man's attachment to and greed for things particular and transient7 the fickle pursuit of immediate worldly interest. Together they stand as figures of the bondage of man.

Master: It is woman-and-gold that binds man [jiva] and robs him of his freedom. It is woman that creates the need for gold. For woman one man becomes the slave of another, and so loses his freedom. Then he cannot act as he likes. . . . You can see for yourself the condition in which you live, working for others. All these learned men who have learnt English, passed so many examinations, all they do now is serve their masters who kick them with their boots everyday. The one cause of all this is woman. You marry and settle down in the marketplace; now you cannot get out of the market. You suffer humiliation, the pain of bondage, (ŕí, pp. 58-59; G, pp. 166-67)44

Master: How can a man living in the midst of woman-and-gold realize God? It is very hard for him to lead an unattached life. First, he is the slave of his wife, second, of money, and third, of the master whom he serves. (K, p. 374; G, p. 710)

This woman who stands as a sign of man's bondage in the world is the woman of flesh and blood, woman in the immediacy of everyday life, with a fearsome sexuality that lures, ensnares, and imprisons the true self of man. It binds him to a pursuit of worldly interests that can only destroy him. The figure of this woman is typically that of the seductress.

Master: Just see the bewitching power of women! I mean women who are the embodiment of avidyä, the power of delusion. They fool men. They reduce their men into stupid useless creatures. When I see a man and woman sitting together, I say to myself, "There, they are done for!" (Looking at M.) Haru, such a nice boy, is possessed by a witch [petni, pretini = a female malignant spirit, presumed in popular demonology to live in trees]. People ask: "Where is Haru? Where is he?" But where do you expect him to be?

They all go to the banyan and find him sitting quietly under it. He no longer has his beauty, power or joy. Ah! He is possessed by the witch that lives in the banyan!

If a woman says to her husband, "Go there," he at once stands up, ready to go. If she says, "Sit down here," immediately he sits down.

A job-seeker got tired of visiting the manager [head babu] in an office. He couldn't get the job. The manager said to him, "There is no vacancy now, but come and see me now and then." This went on for a long time, and the candidate lost all hope. One day he told his tale of woe to a friend. The friend said, "How stupid you are! Why are you wearing away the soles of your feet going to that fellow? Go to Golap. You will get the job tomorrow." "Is that so?" said the candidate. "I am going right away." Golap was the manager's mistress. The candidate called on her and said: "Mother, I am in great distress. You must help me out. I am the son of a poor brahmin. Where else shall I go for help? Mother, I have been, out of work for many days. My children are about to starve to death. I can get a job if you but say the word." Golap said to him, "Child, whom should I speak to?" And she said to herself, "Ah! this poor brahmin boy! He has been suffering so much." The candidate said to her, "I am sure to get the job if you just put in a word about it to the manager." Golap said, "I shall speak to him today and settle the matter." The very next morning a man called on the candidate and said, "You are to work in the manager's office, beginning today." The manager said to his English boss: "This man is very competent. I have appointed him. He will do credit to the firm."

All are deluded by woman-and-gold. (K, pp. 524-25; G, p. 748)

Master: Haripada has fallen into the clutches of a woman of the Gho-shpara sect. He can't get rid of her. He says that she takes him on her lap and feeds him. She claims that she looks on him as the Baby Krishna. I have warned him a great many times. She says that she thinks of him as a child. But this maternal affection soon degenerates into something dangerous.

You see, you should keep far away from woman; then you may realize God. It is extremely harmful to have anything to do with women who have bad motives, or to eat food from their hands. They rob a man of his true being [satta]...

You must be extremely careful about women. Gopala bbava! Pay no attention to such things. The proverb says: "Woman devours the three worlds." Many women, when they see handsome and healthy young men, lay snares for them. That's gopala bhava! (K, pp. 334-35; G, p. 603)

The female body is here a representation of the prison of worldly interests, in which the family man is trapped and led to a daily existence of subordination, anxiety, pain, and humiliation, whose only culmination is decay and destruction. The female body hides with the allurements of maya its true nature, which is nothing but dirt and filth.

Master: What is there in the body of a woman? Blood, flesh, fat, gut, worms, urine, shit, all this. Why do you feel attracted to a body like this? (K, p. 426, my translation; G, p. 113)

The only path for survival for the householder is to reduce one's attachments in the world, to sever oneself and withdraw from the ties of worldly interest, escape into the freedom of a personal relationship of devotion to an absolute power that stands above all temporal and transient powers.

Master: The "I" that makes one a worldly person and attaches one to woman-and-gold is the "wicked I." There is a separation between jiva and atman because this "I" stands in between....

Who is this "wicked I"? The "I" which says, "Don't you know who I am? I have so much money! Who is richer than me?"If a thief steals ten rupees, he first snatches the money back, then beats up the thief, then he calls the police and has the thief arrested, sent to prison. The "wicked I" says, "What? Steal ten rupees from me? What insolence!"

... if the "I" must remain, let the rascal remain as the "servant I." As long as you live, you should say, "O God, you are the master and I am your servant." Let it stay that way. [K, p. 62; G, p. 170)

The "wicked I" that works, schemes, oppresses, does violence to others in order to gain a fragmented, transitory power in the world is an "I" that also subjects a part of itself. For every act of domination, there is a corresponding subjection, within the same consciousness. The "servant I," paradoxically, becomes the figure of the free householder, who stoically reduces his subjection in the world to an inessential part of his life.

Master: . . . you must practise discrimination. Woman-and-gold is impermanent. God is the only eternal substance. What does a man get with money? Food, clothes, a dwelling-place—nothing more. It does not get you God. Therefore money can never be the goal of life. This is discrimination. Do you understand?

M.: Yes. I have just read a Sanskrit play called Probodbacandrodaya. There it is called discrimination among things [vastuvicara].

Master: Yes, discrimination among things. Consider—what is there in money, or in a beautiful body? Discriminate and you will find that even the body of a beautiful woman consists of bones, flesh, fat, and other disagreeable things. Why should men set their minds on such things and forget God? (K, p. 19; G, p. 82)

The creation of this autonomous domain of freedom in consciousness impels the family man to an everyday routine of nonattached performance of worldly activities, guided by duty (kartavya) and compassion (daya), not by the sensual pursuit of kama (desire) or the interested pursuit of artha (wealth).

Trailokya: Where do they have the time? They have to serve the English.

Master: Give God your power of attorney. If you place your trust in a good man, does he do you harm? Give Him the responsibility and stop worrying. Do what He has asked you to do....

Of course you have duties. Bring up your children, support your wife, make arrangements for her maintenance in your absence. If you don't do all this, you have no compassion. ... He who has no compassion is no man.

Sub-judge: How long is one to look after one's children?

Master: Until they become self-sufficient....

Sub-judge: What is one's duty towards one's wife?

Master: Give her advice on dharma, support her while you are alive. If she is chaste, you will have to provide for her after your death. (K, p. 123; G, p. 628)

M.: Is it right to make efforts to earn more money?

Master: It is alright in a home where there is truth. Earn more money but by proper means. The aim is not to earn, the aim is to serve god. If money can be used to serve god, then there is nothing wrong in that money. [K, p. 427; G,P. 114)

Master: When one has true love for God [ragabhakti], there are no ties of attachment with one's wife or child or kin. There is only compassion. The world becomes a foreign land, a land where one comes to work. Just as one's home is in the village, Calcutta is only a place where one works. (K, pp. 64-65; G, p. 173)

Absolute freedom in spirit while accepting bondage in a transient world: the strategy is explained through the analogy of the servant-woman.

Master: I tell people that there is nothing wrong in the life of the world. But they must live in the world as a maidservant lives in her master's house. Referring to her master's house, she says, "That is our house." But her real home is perhaps in a far-away village. Pointing out her master's house to others, she says, no doubt, "This is our house," but in her heart she knows very well that it doesn't belong to her and that her own home is in a far-away village. She brings up her master's son and says, "My Hari has grown very naughty," or "My Hari doesn't like sweets." Though she repeats "My Hari" with her lips, yet she knows in her heart that Hari doesn't belong to her, that he is her master's son.

So I say to those who visit me: "Live in the world by all means. There is no harm in that. But always keep your mind on God. Know for certain that this house, family and property are not yours. They are God's. Your real home is beside God." (K, pp. 104-5; G, pp. 456-57)

In fact, with an attitude of nonattachment, the family man can turn his home into a haven for his spiritual pursuits.

Master: When you have to fight a war, it is best to fight it from your own fort. You have to fight a war against your senses [indriya] and against hunger and thirst. It is best to do all this while remaining in the world. Again, in this age, life depends on food. Suppose you have no food. Then all your thoughts of God will go haywire....

Why should you leave the world? In fact, there are advantages at home. You don't have to worry about food. Live with your wife—nothing wrong in that. Whatever you need for your physical comforts, you have them at home. If you are ill, you have people to look after you. (K, p. 122; G, p. 627)

But if others in the family deliberately create obstacles in the way of one's spiritual quest, those obstacles would have to be removed.

A Devotee: Suppose someone's mother says to him, "Don't go to Dakshineswar." Suppose she curses him and says, "If you do, you will drink my blood," What then?

Master: A mother who says that is no mother. She is the embodiment of avidyá. It is not wrong to disobey such a mother. She obstructs the way to God. (K,p. 510; G, p. 722)

M.: What should one do if one's wife says: "You are neglecting me. I shall commit suicide." What does one do?

Master (in a grave voice): Give up such a wife. She is an obstacle in the path to God. Let her commit suicide or anything else she likes. A woman who puts obstacles in the way of God is a woman of avidyä.

M. moves to one side of the room and stands, leaning against the wall, deep in thought. Narendra and the other devotees remain speechless for a while. (K, p. 215; G, p. 126)

This, however, is extreme. For the most part, the life of a householder can be ordered by means of a suitable ašramadharma.

Master: The renunciation of woman-and-gold is meant for the sannyasi ... [It] is not meant for householders like you ... As for you, live with woman in an unattached way, as far as possible. From time to time, go away to a quiet place and think of God. Women must not be present there. If you acquire faith and devotion in God, you can remain unattached. After the birth of one or two children, husband and wife must live like brother and sister, and constantly think of God, so that their minds do not turn to sensual pleasure, so that they do not have any more children. (K, p. 177; G, p. 866)

For a domestic life of true nonattachment, the figure of woman as temptress, with a threatening sexuality, is turned into the safe, comforting figure of the mother, erased of sexuality.

Master: He who has found God does not look upon woman with lust; so he is not afraid of her. He looks at women as so many aspects of the Divine Mother. He worships all women as the Mother herself. (K, p. 59; G, p. 168)

Master: Man forgets God if he is entangled in the world of maya through woman. It is the Mother of the Universe who has assumed the form of maya, the form of woman. One who knows this rightly does not feel like leading the life of maya in the world. But he who realizes that all women are manifestations of the Divine Mother may lead a spiritual life in the world. Without realizing God one cannot truly know what woman is. (K, p. 400; G, p. 965)

Indeed, this true knowledge of the essence of womanhood would transcend all the distinctions between women in the immediate world and bring out that which is universally true in them. It would enable man to relate to woman without either lust and attachment or fear and disgust.

Master: Do I feel disgust for them? No. I appeal to the Knowledge of Brahman. He has become everything; all is Narayana. All yoni is yoni of the Mother. Then I see no distinctions between a whore and a chaste woman. (K, p. 374; G, p. 710)

With this knowledge, the family man can live up to a new ideal of masculinity.

The Master is very anxious about Bhabanath who has just got married. Bhabanath is about twenty-three or twenty-four years old.

Master {to Narendra): Give him a lot of courage.

Narendra and Bhabanath look at the Master and smile. Sri Ramakrishna says to Bhabanath, "Be a hero. Don't forget yourself when you see her weeping behind her veil. Oh, women cry so much—even when they blow their noses! (Narendra, Bhabanath and M. laugh.)

"Keep your mind firm on God. He who is a hero lives with woman [ramani] but does not engage in sexual relations [raman]." (K, p. 401; G, pp. 965-66)

There is, in fact, another figure whom Ramakrishna often invokes to describe this state beyond sexuality—the androgynous figure of the female-in-the-male—a transcendence of sexuality achieved by the mystical (or magical) transposition of the attributes of femininity in the male.

Master (to the young man): A man can change his nature by imitating another's character. By transposing on to yourself the attributes of woman, you gradually destroy lust and the other sensual drives. You begin to behave like women. I have noticed that men who play female parts in the theater speak like women or brush their teeth while bathing—exactly like women. (K, p. 623; G, p. 176)

Master: How can a man conquer the senses? He should assume the attitude of a woman. I spent many days as the handmaid of God. I dressed myself in women's clothes, put on ornaments.... Otherwise, how could I have kept my wife with me for eight months? Both of us behaved as if we were the handmaids of the Divine Mother.

I could not call myself "pu " [male]. One day I was in an ecstatic mood. My wife asked me, "Who am I to you?" I said, "The Blissful Mother." (K, p. 335; G, p. 603)


The figure of woman often acts as a sign in discursive formations, standing for concepts or entities that have little to do with women in actuality. Each signification of this kind also implies a corresponding sign in which the figure of man is made to stand for other concepts or entities, opposed to and contrasted with the first. However, signs can be operated upon— connected to, transposed with, differentiated from other signs in a semantic field where new meanings are produced.

The figure of woman as kamini and the identification of this figure with kancan (gold) produced a combination that signified a social world of everyday transactions in which the family man was held in bondage. In terms of genealogy, the specific semantic content of this idea in Ra-makrishna's sayings could well be traced to a very influential lineage in popular religious beliefs in Bengal, in which the female, in her essence of prakrti, the principle of motion or change, is conceived of as unleashing the forces of pravrtti, or desire, to bring about degeneration and death in the male, whose essence of purusa represents the principle of stasis or rest.45 (One must, however, be careful, first, not to attribute to this any essentialist meaning characteristic of "Hindu tradition" or "Indian tradition" or even "popular tradition," for it is only one strand in precolonial religious and philosophical thought. Second, we must bear in mind that even this idea of the male and female principles operated within a rich semantic field and was capable of producing in religious doctrines and literary traditions a wide variety of specific meanings.)

But in the particular context of the Kathamrta in relation to middle-class culture, the figure of woman-and-gold could acquire the status of a much more specific sign: the sign of the economic and political subordination of the respectable male householder in colonial Calcutta. It connoted humiliation and fear, the constant troubles and anxieties of maintaining a life of respectability and dignity, the sense of intellectual confusion and spiritual crisis in which neither the traditional prescriptions of ritual practice nor the unconcretized principles of enlightened rationality could provide adequate guidance in regulating one's daily life in a situation that, after all, was unprecedented in "tradition." The sign, therefore, was loaded with negative meanings: greed, venality, deception, immorality, aggression, violence—the qualifications of success in the worlds both of commerce and of statecraft. The signification, in other words, could work toward a moral condemnation of the wealthy and the powerful. It would also produce a searing condemnation in nationalist mythography of the British imperialist—the unscrupulous trader turned ruthless conqueror.

The figure of woman-and-gold also signified the enemy within: that part of one's own self which was susceptible to the temptations of an ever-unreliable worldly success. From this signification stemmed a strategy of survival, of the stoical defense of the autonomy of the weak encountered in the "message" of Ramakrishna. It involved, as we have seen, an essentialization of the "inner" self of the man-in-the-world and an essentialization of womanhood in the protective and nurturing figure of the mother. This inner sanctum was to be valorized as a haven of mental peace, spiritual security, and emotional comfort: woman as mother, safe, comforting, indulgent, playful, and man as child, innocent, vulnerable, ever in need of care and protection.

But we are dealing here with a middle class whose "middleness" would never let its consciousness rest in stoical passivity. The "hypermasculinity" of imperialist ideology made the figure of the weak, irresolute, effeminate babu a special target of contempt and ridicule.46 The colonized literati reacted with rage and indignation, inflicting upon itself a fierce assault of self-ridicule and self-irony. No one was more unsparing in this than Bankimchandra.47

By the grace of the Almighty, an extraordinary species of animal has been found on earth in the nineteenth century: it is known as the modern Bengali. After careful investigation, zoologists have concluded that this species displays all the external features of homo sapiens. It has five fingers on its hands and feet; it has no tail, and its bones and cranial structure are identical with those of bimanous mammals. As yet, there is no comparable certainty about its inner nature. Some believe that in its inner nature too it resembles humans; others hold that it is only externally human, in its inner nature it is closer to beasts....

Which side do we support in this controversy? We believe in the theory which asserts the bestiality of Bengalis. We have learnt this theory from writers in English newspapers. According to some of these copper-bearded savants, just as the creator took grains of beauty from all of the world's beautiful women to create Tilottama, in exactly the same way, by taking grains of bestiality from all animals, he has created the extraordinary character of the modern Bengali. Slyness from the fox, sycophancy and supplication from the dog, cowardliness from sheep, imitativeness from the ape and volubility from the ass—by a combination of these qualities he has caused the modern Bengali to shine in the firmament of society, lighting up the horizon, kindling the future hopes of India and attracting the particular affection of the sage Max Müller.48

And if this passage strikes one as being too indecisive in choosing between the babu and his European critics as its target of irony, then consider the following, purportedly a prediction by the sage Vaisampäyana, the all-seeing reciter of the Mahäbhärata:

The word "babu" will have many meanings. Those who will rule India in the Kali age and be known as Englishmen will understand by the word a common clerk or superintendent of provisions; to the poor it will mean those wealthier than themselves, to servants the master. . . . Like Visnu the babu will always lie on an eternal bed. Like Visnu again, he will have ten incarnations: clerk, teacher, Brahmo, broker, doctor, lawyer, judge, landlord, newspaper editor and idler. Like Visnu, in every incarnation, he will destroy fearful demons. In his incarnation as clerk, he will destroy his attendant, as teacher he will destroy the student, as station master the ticketless traveller, as Brahmo the poor priest, as broker the English merchant, as doctor his patient, as lawyer his client, as judge the litigant, as landlord his tenants, as editor the innocent gentleman, as idler the fish in the pond. ... He who has one word in his mind, which becomes ten when he speaks, hundred when he writes and thousands when he quarrels is a babu. He whose strength is onetime in his hands, ten-times in his mouth, a hundred times behind the back and absent at the time of action is a babu. He whose deity is the Englishman, preceptor the Brahmo preacher, scriptures the newspapers and pilgrimage the National Theater is a babu. He who declares himself a Christian to missionaries, a Brahmo to Keshabchandra, a Hindu to his father and an atheist to the Brahman beggar is a babu. One who drinks water at home, alcohol at his friend's, receives abuse from the prostitute and kicks from his boss is a babu. He who hates oil when he bathes, his own fingers when he eats and his mother tongue when he speaks is indeed a babu....

O King, the people whose virtues I have recited to you will come to believe that by chewing pan, lying prone on the bed, making bilingual conversation and smoking tobacco, they will reconquer India. (BR 2:11-12)

The mode of self-ridicule became a major literary form of expressing the bhadralok's view of himself. And once the moral premises of the auto-critique had been stated publicly—the valorization, that is to say, of courage, achievement, control, and just power as the essence of true manliness—the critique of babu effeminacy could be legitimately voiced even by the babu's indigenous "others," that is, by the women in their families and by both men and women of the lower classes. Fiction and drama in late nineteenth-century Bengal are replete with instances of women, from "respectable" families as well as from the urban poor, showing up the pretentiousness, cowardice, and effeminacy of the educated male.

We have then, simultaneously with the enchantment of the middle class with Ramakrishna's mystical play upon the theme of the feminization of the male, an invocation of physical strength as the true history of the nation, an exhortation to educated men to live up to their responsibilities as leaders of the nation, as courageous sons of a-mother humiliated by a foreign intruder. Narendranath transformed into Swami Viveka-nanda is the most dramatic example of this switching of signs, converting Ramakrishna's message of inner devotion into a passionate plea for moral action in the world, turning the attitude of defensive stoicism into a call for vanguardist social and, by implication, political activism. Bankim too used the inherently polysemic possibilities of the construction of social entities as gendered categories by classicizing, in an entirely "modern" way, the ideal of masculinity as standing for the virtues of self-respect, justice, ethical conduct, responsibility, and enlightened leadership and of femininity as courage, sacrifice, inspiration, and source of strength.

Ramakrishna was hardly appreciative of these exhortations of hyper-masculinity in the male or of the supposed activization of the masculine-in-the-female. The Kathamrta has a reference to a meeting between Ramakrishna and Bankim. Ramakrishna had asked Bankim what he thought were the true duties of human beings. Feigning a crass materialism, Bankim replied, "To eat, sleep and have sex." Ramakrishna was scandalized. He said, "What kind of talk is this? You are a real rogue! That's all you think of day and night, and that's what comes out of your mouth" (K, p. 191; G, p. 891). More interesting is a report on Mahen-dranath's reading passages from Bankim's novel Debi Caudhurani to Ramakrishna.

M. said: "A young girl—the heroine—fell into the hands of a robber named Bhabani Pathak. Her name had been Praphulla, but the robber changed it to Devi Choudhurani. At heart Bhabani was a good man. He made Praphulla go through many spiritual disciplines; he also taught her how to perform selfless action. He robbed wicked people and with that money fed the poor and helpless. He said to Praphulla, 'I put down the wicked and protect the virtuous.'"

Master: But that is the duty of the king!

Mahendranath then read from the novel the section on Praphulla's education, on how she read grammar, poetry, Sahkhya, Vedanta, logic.

Master: Do you know what this means? That you cannot have knowledge without learning. This writer and people like him think, "Learning first, God later. To find God you must first have knowledge of books!"

Ramakrishna was thoroughly unconvinced by the emerging middle-class ideal of the "new" woman who would fulfill her vocation as daughter, wife, or mother in respectable urban homes precisely by means of an education that had been denied to "traditional" women or to women of the lower classes.

M. continued to read: "To provide for all, one has to organize a great deal of labour. One needs a little display, an imposing appearance, a graciousness of living. Therefore Bhabani said, 'A little shopkeeping is necessary.'"

Master [sharply): Shopkeeping! One speaks as one thinks. Nothing but worldly thoughts, deceiving people—even their words become like that! If one eats radish, one belches radish. Instead of saying "shopkeeping," he could have said, "Act as subject while knowing one is not the subject." (K, pp. 362-66; G, pp. 683-86)

What is rational and realistic to Bankim becomes immoral worldliness to Ramakrishna; what is true devotion to Ramakrishna becomes hypocrisy to Bankim. Both attitudes were, however, parts of the same consciousness. They came to be reconciled in curious ways, most importantly by an ingenious and not always comfortable separation between, on one plane, the outer and the inner selves, and on another plane, the public and the private selves. The public self of the intelligentsia was its political self—rationalist, modern, expressing itself within the hegemonic discursive domain of enlightened nationalism. The private self was where it retreated from the humiliation of a failed hegemony. Dr. Mahendralal Sarkar was not untypical: the story of his encounter with Ramakrishna tells us a great deal about why, in the public postures of the Bengali intelligentsia to this day, its relationship to Ramakrishna has been both uneasy and shamefaced.


There are three themes in this reading of the Kathamrta that I will pursue in the rest of this book. All of them have to do with nationalism as a project of mediation.

First is the appropriation of the popular. Mahendranath's favorite description of Ramakrishna is that of the child—laughing, innocent, mischievous, playful. This innocence is not quite pre-adult, but an innocence that has passed through the anxieties and misfortunes of adulthood to return to itself. It is an innocence that contains within itself a wisdom far richer and more resilient than the worldly cunning of worldly adults.

We know this to be the preferred form in which middle-class consciousness desires to appropriate the popular. The popular becomes the repository of natural truth, naturally self-sustaining and therefore timeless. It has to be approached not by the calculating analytic of rational reasoning but by "feelings of the heart," by lyrical compassion. The popular is also the timeless truth of the national culture, uncontaminated by colonial reason. In poetry, music, drama, painting, and now in film and the commercial arts of decorative design, this is the form in which a middle-class culture, constantly seeking to "nationalize" itself, finds nourishment in the popular.

The popular is also appropriated in a sanitized form, carefully erased of all marks of vulgarity, coarseness, localism, and sectarian identity. The very timelessness of its "structure" opens itself to normalization.

The popular enters hegemonic national discourse as a gendered category. In its immediate being, it is made to carry the negative marks of concrete sexualized femininity. Immediately, therefore, what is popular is unthinking, ignorant, superstitious, scheming, quarrelsome, and also potentially dangerous and uncontrollable. But with the mediation of enlightened leadership, its true essence is made to shine forth in its natural strength and beauty: its capacity for resolute endurance and sacrifice and its ability to protect and nourish.

The second theme is that of the classicization of tradition. A nation, or so at least the nationalist believes, must have a past. If nineteenth-century Englishmen could claim, with scant regard for the particularities of geography or anthropology, a cultural ancestry in classical Greece, there was no reason why nineteenth-century Bengalis could not claim one in the Vedic age. All that was necessary was a classicization of tradition. Orientalist scholarship had already done the groundwork for this. A classicization of modern Bengali high culture—its language, literature, aesthetics, religion, philosophy—preceded the birth of political nationalism and worked alongside it well into the present century.

A mode of classicization could comfortably incorporate as particulars the diverse identities in "Indian tradition," including such overtly anti-Brahmanical movements as Buddhism, Jainism, and the various deviant popular sects. A classicization of tradition was, in any case, a prior requirement for the vertical appropriation of sanitized popular traditions.

The real difficulty was with Islam in India, which could claim, within the same classicizing mode, an alternative classical tradition. The national past had been constructed by the early generation of the Bengali intelligentsia as a "Hindu" past, regardless of the fact that the appellation itself was of recent vintage and that the revivalism chose to define itself by a name given to it by "others." This history of the nation could accommodate Islam only as a foreign element, domesticated by shearing its own lineages of a classical past. Popular Islam could then be incorporated in the national culture in the doubly sanitized form of syncretism.

The middle-class culture we have spoken of here was, and still is, in its overwhelming cultural content, "Hindu." Its ability and willingness tp extend its hegemonic boundaries to include what was distinctly Islamic became a matter of much contention in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Bengal, giving rise to alternative hegemonic efforts at both the classicization of the Islamic tradition and the appropriation of a sanitized popular Islam.

The third theme concerns the structure of the hegemonic domain of nationalism. Nationalism inserted itself into a new public sphere where it sought to overcome the subordination of the colonized middle class. In that sphere, nationalism insisted on eradicating all signs of colonial difference by which the colonized people had been marked as incorrigibly inferior and therefore undeserving of the status of self-governing citizens of a modern society. Thus, the legal-institutional forms of political authority that nationalists subscribed to were entirely in conformity with the principles of a modern regime of power and were often modeled on specific examples supplied by Western Europe and North America. In this public sphere created by the political processes of the colonial state, therefore, the nationalist criticism was not that colonial rule was imposing alien institutions of state on indigenous society but rather that it was restricting and even violating the true principles of modern government. Through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, accompanied by the spread of the institutions of capitalist production and exchange, these legal and administrative institutions of the modern state penetrated deeper and deeper into colonial society and touched upon the lives of greater and greater sections of the people. In this aspect of the political domain, therefore, the project of nationalist hegemony was, and in its postcolonial phase, continues to be, to institute and ramify the characteristically modern forms of disciplinary power.

But there was another aspect of the new political domain in which this hegemonic project involved an entirely contrary movement. Here, unlike in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the public sphere in the political domain, and its literary precursors in the debating societies and learned bodies, did not emerge out of the discursive construction of a social world peopled by "individuals." Nor was there an "audience-oriented subjectivity," by which the new conjugal family's intimate domain became publicly transparent and thus consistent with and amenable to the discursive controls of the public sphere in the political domain.49 In Europe, even as the distinction was drawn between the spheres of the private and the public, of "man" and "bourgeois" and later of "man" and "citizen," the two spheres were nevertheless united within a single political domain and made entirely consistent with its universalist discourse. In colonial society, the political domain was under alien control and the colonized excluded from its decisive zones by a rule of colonial difference. Here for the colonized to allow the intimate domain of the family to become amenable to the discursive regulations of the political domain inevitably meant a surrender of autonomy. The nationalist response was to constitute a new sphere of the private in a domain marked by cultural difference: the domain of the "national" was defined as one that was different from the "Western." The new subjectivity that was constructed here was premised not on a conception of universal humanity, but rather on particularity and difference: the identity of the "national" community as against other communities.50 In this aspect of the political domain, then, the hegemonic movement of nationalism was not to promote but rather, in a quite fundamental sense, to resist the sway of the modern institutions of disciplinary power.

The contradictory implications of these two movements in the hegemonic domain of nationalism have been active right through its career and continue to affect the course of postcolonial politics. The process could be described/in Gramscian terms, as "passive revolution" and contains, I think, a demonstration of both the relevance and the insurmountable limits of a Foucauldian notion of the modern regime of disciplinary power.51 The search for a postcolonial modernity has been tied, from its very birth, with its struggle against modernity.

I will, in the rest of this book, follow these three themes, beginning with the theme of classicization and the imagining of the nation as endowed with a past.  
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Re: The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

Postby admin » Sun Mar 28, 2021 5:32 am

Part 1 of 2

CHAPTER FOUR: The Nation and Its Pasts


In a series of lectures delivered in Calcutta in 1988, Ranajit Guha discussed the conditions and limits of the agenda developed in the second half of the nineteenth century for "an Indian historiography of India."1 It was an agenda for self-representation, for setting out to claim for the nation a past that was not distorted by foreign interpreters. Reviewing the development of historiography in Bengal in the nineteenth century, Guha shows how the call sent out by Bankimchandra—"We have no history! We must have a history!"—implied in effect an exhortation to launch the struggle for power, because in this mode of recalling the past, the power to represent oneself is nothing other than political power itself.2

Of course, Bankim's observation that "Bengalis have no history" was, strictly speaking, incorrect. In 1880, when he began to write his essays on the history of Bengal,3 there was a fair amount of historical ["historical"] writing in Bengali. Even Bankim refers, in the book review in which he first sets out his agenda, to "the books in the Bengali language which are being written everyday for the instruction of schoolboys...." His objection was, of course, that these books did not contain the true history of Bengal. What he meant by true history was also clear: it was the memory of the glorious deeds of one's ancestors. "There are a few godforsaken jati in this world who are unaware of the glorious deeds of their forefathers. The foremost among them is the Bengali." And to emphasize the depth of this shame, Bankim adds, "Even the Oriyas have their history." It is hardly necessary to remind ourselves of the pretensions to cultural superiority of the English-educated intelligentsia of Bengal to realize that for Bankim's readers this would have been a stinging condemnation.

His reason for this reproach was that there was no history of Bengal written by Bengalis themselves. "In our judgment, there is not a single English book which contains the true history of Bengal." Why? Because the English had based their histories of Bengal on the testimonies of foreign Muslim chroniclers; there was no Bengali testimony reflected in those histories. Consequently, Bengalis could not accept them as their own history. "Anyone who uncritically accepts as history the testimony of these lying, Hindu-hating Musalman zealots is not a Bengali."

It is, needless to say, a primary sign of the nationalist consciousness that it will not find its own voice in histories written by foreign rulers and that it will set out to write for itself the account of its own past. What is noteworthy in Bankim's nationalist call to history writing is, first, that whereas he identifies his subject nation sometimes as "Bengali" and at other times as "Indian" (bharatavarsiya), in both cases he names the foreign ruler and aggressor as the Muslim.4 Second, the historical consciousness he is seeking to invoke is in no way an "indigenous" consciousness, because the preferred discursive form of his historiography is modern European. Third, in 1880, when Bankim was making his exhortation— "Bengal must have a history, or else there is no hope for it. Who will write it? You will write it, I will write it, all of us will write it. Every Bengali will have to write it"—the numerous books that were being written in Bengali on the history of Bengal and of India, although dismissed by Bankim as "adolescent literature," were actually informed by a historiographic practice that was in no way different from his own. When compared with many other, admittedly less talented, Bengali writers of history of his time, Bankim's views on history were not exceptional.5

Some of these writings are contained mainly in school textbooks.6 None of these books was written by major historians, and none claimed any great originality in historical interpretation. But for that very reason, they are good indicators of the main features of a commonly shared discursive formation within which Indian nationalist historiography made its appearance.

But before I present this material from the middle and late nineteenth century, let me begin with a text from the very early years of the century that demonstrates how a radical transformation was effected in the forms of recounting the political events of the past.


The first three books of narrative prose in Bengali commissioned by the Fort William College in Calcutta for use by young Company officials learning the local vernacular were books of history. Of these, Rajabali (1808) by Mrityunjay Vidyalankar was a history of India—the first history of India in the Bengali language that we have in print.7 Mrityunjay (ca. 1762-1819) taught Sanskrit at Fort William College and was the author of some of the first printed books in Bengali. When he decided to set down in writing the story of "the Rajas and Badshahs and Nawabs who have occupied the throne in Delhi and Bengal," he did not need to undertake any fresh "research" into the subject; he was only writing down an account that was in circulation at the time among the Brahman literati and their landowning patrons.8 His book was; we might say, a good example of the historical memory of elite Bengali society as exemplified in contemporary scholarship.

The book starts with a precise reckoning of the time at which it is being written.

In course of the circular motion of time, like the hands of a clock, passing through the thirty kalpa such as Pitrkalpa etc., we are now situated in the Svetavaraha kalpa. Each kalpa consists of fourteen manu; accordingly, we are now in the seventh manu of Svetavaraha kalpa called Valvasvata. Each manu consists of 284 yuga; we are now passing through the one hundred and twelfth yuga of Vaivasvata manu called Kaliyuga. This yuga consists of 432,000 years. Of these, up to the present year 1726 of the Saka era, 4,905 years have passed; 427,095 years are left. (R, pp. 3-4)

The calendrical system is also precisely noted. For the first 3,044 years of Kaliyuga, the prevailing era (saka) was that of King Yudhisthira. The next 135 years comprised the era of King Vikramaditya. These two eras are now past.

Now we are passing through the era of the King called Salivahana who lived on the southern banks of the river Narmada. This saka will last for 18,000 years after the end of the Vikramaditya era. After this there will be a king called Vijayabhinandana who will rule in the region of the Citrakuta mountains. His saka will last for 10,000 years after the end of the Salivahana era.

After this there will be a king called Parinagarjuna whose era will last until 821 years are left in the Kaliyuga, at which time will be born in the family of Gautabrahmana in the Sambhala country an avatara of Kalkideva. Accordingly, of the six eras named after six kings, two are past, one is present and three are in the future. (R, p. 8)

Whatever one might say of this system of chronology, lack of certitude is not one of its faults.

Mrityunjay is equally certain about identifying the geographical space where the historical events in his narrative take place.

Of the five elements—space [akasa], air, fire, water and earth—the earth occupies eight ana [half] while the other four occupy two ana [one-eighth] each.... Half of the earth is taken up by the seas, north of which is Jambudvipa.... There are seven islands on earth of which ours is called Jambudvipa. Jambudvipa is divided into nine varsa of which Bharatavarsa is one. Bharatavarsa in turn is divided into nine parts [khaifda] which are called Aindra, Kaseru, Tamraparna, Gavastimata, Naga, Saumya, Varuna, Gandharva and Kumarika. Of these, the part in which the varnasrama [caste] system exists is the Kumarikakhanda. The other parts [of Bharatavarsa] are inhabited by the antyaja people [those outside caste]. (R, pp. 4-6)

The Lamas have no special term for their form of Buddhism. They simply call it "The religion" or "Buddha's religion"; and its professors are "Insiders," or "within the fold" (nan-pa), in contradistinction to the non-Buddhists or "Outsiders" (chi-pa or pyi-'lin), the so-called "pe-ling" or foreigners of English writers.

-- The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism With Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology, and in its Relation to Indian Buddhism, by Laurence Austine Waddell, M.B., F.L.S., F.R.G.S.

Thus Rajabali is the history of those who ruled over the earth, in which there are seven islands, of which the one called Jambudvipa has nine parts, of which Bharatavarsa is one, and so forth, and so on.

This, our human, world is only one of a series (the others being fabulous) which together form a universe or chiliocosm, of which there are many.

Each universe, set in unfathomable space, rests upon a warp and woof of "blue air" or wind, liked crossed thunderbolts (vajra), hard and imperishable as diamonds (vajra?), upon which is set "the body of the waters," upon which is a foundation of gold, on which is set the earth, from the axis of which towers up the great Olympus— Mt. Meru (Su-meru, Tib., Ri-rab) 84,000 miles a high, surmounted by the heavens, and overlying the hills.

In the ocean around this central mountain, the axis of the universe, are set (see figures) the four great continental worlds with their satellites, all with bases of solid gold in the form of a tortoise — as this is a familiar instance to the Hindu mind of a solid floating on the waters. And the continents are separated from Mt. Meru by seven concentric rings of golden mountains, the inmost being 40,000 miles high, and named "The Yoke" (Yugandara), alternating with seven oceans, of fragrant milk, curds, butter, blood or sugar-cane juice, poison or wine, fresh water and salt water. These oceans diminish in width and depth from within outwards from 20,000 to 625 miles, and in the outer ocean lie the so-called continental worlds. And the whole system is girdled externally by a double iron-wall (Cakravata) 312-1/2 miles high and 3,602,625 miles in circumference, — for the oriental mythologist is nothing if not precise. This wall shuts out the light of the sun and moon, whose orbit is the summit of the inmost ring of mountains, along which the sun, composed of "glazed fire" enshrined in a crystal palace, is driven in a chariot with ten (seven) horses; and the moon, of "glazed water," in a silver shrine drawn by seven horses, and between these two hang the jewelled umbrella of royalty and the banner of victory, as shown in the figure. And inhabiting the air, on a level with these, are the eight angelic or fairy mothers. Outside the investing wall of the universe all is void and in perpetual darkness until another universe is reached.

Of the four "continents" all except "Jambudvipa" are fabulous. They are placed exactly one in each of the four directions, and each has a smaller satellite on either side, thus bringing the total up to twelve. And the shapes given to these continents, namely, crescentic, triangular, round, and square, are evidently symbolic of the four elements.

These continents, shown in the annexed figure, are thus described: —...

On the South is Jamudvip (F), or our own world, and its centre is the Bodhi-tree at Budh Gaya. It is shaped like the shoulder-blade of a sheep, this idea being evidently suggested by the shape of the Indian peninsula which was the prototype of Jambudvipa, as Mt. Kailas in the Himalayas and N.E. of India was that of Mt. Meru. It is blue in colour; and it is the smallest of all, being only 7,000 miles in diameter. Here abound riches and sin as well as virtue. The inhabitants have faces of similar shape to that of their continent, i.e., somewhat triangular....

In the very centre of this cosmic system stands ''The king of mountains," Mount Meru, towering erect "like the handle of a mill-stone," while half-way up its side is the great wishing tree, the prototype of our "Christmas tree," and the object of contention between the gods and the Titans. Meru has square sides of gold and jewels. Its eastern face is crystal (or silver), the south is sapphire or lapis lazuli (vaidurya) stone, the west is ruby (padmaraga), and the north is gold, and it is clothed with fragrant flowers and shrubs. It has four lower compartments before the heavens are reached. The lowest of these is inhabited by the Yaksha genii — holding wooden plates. Above this is "the region of the wreath-holders" (Skt., Srag-dhara), which seems to be a title of the bird-like, or angelic winged Garudas. Above this dwell the "eternally exalted ones," above whom are the Titans.

-- The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism With Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology, and in its Relation to Indian Buddhism, by Laurence Austine Waddell, M.B., F.L.S., F.R.G.S.

Where does this history begin?

In the Satyayuga, the Supreme Lord [paramesvara] had planted in the form of an Asvathva tree a king called Iksaku to rule over the earth. The two main branches of this tree became the Surya and the Candra vanisa. The kings born in these two lineages have ruled the earth in the four yuga. Of these, some were able to acquire the greatest powers of dharma and thus ruled over the entire earth consisting of the seven islands. Others had lesser powers and thus ruled over only Jambudvipa or only Bharatavarsa or, in some cases, only the Kumarikakhanda. If a king from one lineage became the emperor [samrata], then the king of the other lineage would become the lord of a mandala. The accounts of these kings are recorded in the branches of knowledge [sastra] called the Purana and the Itihasa. (R, pp. 6-7)

A few things may be clarified at this point. In Mrityunjay's scheme of history, the rulers on earth are, as it were, appointed by divine will. They enjoy that position to the extent, and as long as, they acquire and retain the powers of dharma. By attaining the highest levels of dharma, one could even become the ruler of the entire earth. In order to distinguish this variety of history writing from that we are more familiar with today, Mrityunjay's narrative can be called a Puranic history. Mrityunjay would not have quarreled with this description, not because he was aware of the distinction, but because puranatihasa was for him the valid form of retelling the political history of Bharatavarsa.

The discipline of Puranic history cannot be accused of being sloppy in its counting of dynasties and kings. "In the 4,267 years since the beginning of the Kaliyuga, there have been 119 Hindus of different jati who have become samrat on the throne of Delhi" (R, p. 10). The count begins with King Yudhisthira of the Mababharata, who heads a list of twenty-eight Ksatriya kings who ruled for a total of 1,812 years. "After this the actual reign of the Ksatriya jati ended." Then came fourteen kings of the Nanda dynasty, starting with "one called Mahananda born of a Ksatriya father and a Sudra mother," who ruled for a total of 500 years. "The Rajput jati started with this Nanda."

After this came the Buddhist kings: "Fifteen kings of the Nastika faith, from Viravahu to Aditya, all of the Gautama lineage, ruled for four hundred years. At this time the Nastika views enjoyed such currency that the Vaidika religion was almost eradicated."

We then have a curious list of dynasties—nine rulers of the Maytira dynasty, sixteen of the Yogi dynasty, four of the Bairagi dynasty, and so on. Of course, there are "the Vikramadityas, father and son, who ruled for ninety-three years." We are also told of "thirteen kings, from Dhi Sena to Damodara Sena, of the Vaidya jati of Bengal who ruled for 137 years and one month"—from, let us remember, "the throne in Delhi"! The rule of the "Chohan Rajput jati" ends with

Prthoray who ruled for fourteen years and seven months. . . . This is as far as the empire [samrajya] of the Hindu kings lasted.

After this began the samrajya of the Musalman. From the beginning of the empire of the Yavanas to the present year 1726 of the Saka era, fifty-one kings have ruled for 651 years three months and twenty-eight days. (R, pp. 12-13)

What is interesting about this chronology is the way in which its dynastic sequence passes ever so smoothly from the kings of the Mahabharata to the kings of Magadha and ends with the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, "of the lineage of Amir Taimur," occupying the throne in Delhi at the time of Mrityunjay's writing. Myth, history, and the contemporary—all become part of the same chronological sequence; one is not distinguished from another; the passage from one to another, consequently, is entirely unproblematical.9 There is not even an inkling in Mrityunjay's prose of any of the knotty questions about the value of Puranic accounts in constructing a "proper" historical chronology of Indian dynasties, which would so exercise Indian historians a few decades later. Although Mrityunjay wrote at the behest of his colonial masters, his historiographic allegiances are entirely precolonial.

It would therefore be of some interest to us to discover how a Brahman scholar such as Mrityunjay describes the end of "the Hindu dynasties" and the accession to the throne at Delhi of "the Yavana emperors." Curiously, the story of the defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan at the hands of Shihabuddin Muhammad Ghuri takes the form of a Puranic tale.

Prithviraj's father had two wives, one of whom was a demoness (raksasi) who ate human flesh. She had also introduced her husband into this evil practice. One day the raksasi ate the son of the other queen who, taken by fright, ran away to her brother. There she gave birth to a son who was called Prthu. On growing up, Prthu met his father. At his request, Prthu cut off his father's head and fed the flesh to twenty-one women belonging to his jati. Later, when Prthu became king, the sons of those twenty-one women became his feudatories (samanta). "Because Prthu had killed his father, the story of his infamy spread far and wide. Kings who paid tribute to him stopped doing so." In other words, Prithviraj was not a ruler who enjoyed much respect among his subjects.

It was at this time that Shihabuddin Ghuri threatened to attack Prithviraj.

When the King heard of the threatening moves of the Yavanas, he called a number of scholars learned in the Vedas and said, "Oh learned men! Arrange a sacrifice which will dissipate the prowess and the threats of the Yavanas." The learned men said, "Oh King! There is such a sacrifice and we can perform it. And if the sacrificial block [yupa] can be laid at the prescribed moment, then the Yavanas can never enter this land." The King was greatly reassured by these words and arranged for the sacrifice to be performed with much pomp. When the learned men declared that the time had come to lay the block, much efforts were made but no one could move the sacrificial block to its assigned place. Then the learned men said, "Oh King!- What Isvara desires, happens. Men cannot override his wishes, but can only act in accordance with them. So, desist in your efforts. It seems this throne will be attacked by the Yavanas."

Hearing these words, Prithviraj was greatly disheartened and "slackened his efforts at war." His armies were defeated by Shihabuddin, who arrived triumphantly at Delhi. Then Prithviraj

emerged from his quarters and engaged Sahabuddin in a ferocious battle. But by the grace of Isvara, the Yavana Sahabuddin made a prisoner of Prthuraja. On being reminded that Prthuraja was son-in-law of King Jayacandra [Jaichand, ruler of a neighboring kingdom, had already collaborated with Muhammad Ghuri], he did not execute him but sent him as a prisoner to his own country of Ghaznin. (R, pp. 109-10)

Let us remember that in Mrityunjay's scheme of history, dynasties are founded by the grace of the divine power, and kingdoms are retained only as long as the ruler is true to dharma. The Chauhan dynasty was guilty of such heinous offenses as cannibalism and patricide. That Prithviraj had lost divine favor was already revealed at the sacrificial ceremony. His defeat and the establishment of "Yavana rule" by Muhammad Ghuri were, therefore, acts of divine will.

In a temple close by among the sand is a celebrated chamber of horrors, built of large boulders, and containing gigantic figures of the twenty-five Gon-po demons. The images are made of incense, and are about twenty feet high, of the fiercest expression, and represented as dancing upon mangled human corpses, which they are also devouring. And great stains of blood are pointed out by the attendants as the fresh stains of bodies which the demons have dragged to the place during the previous night.

-- The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism With Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology, and in its Relation to Indian Buddhism, by Laurence Austine Waddell, M.B., F.L.S., F.R.G.S.

Half a century later, when Puranic history would be abandoned in favor of rational historiography, this account of the battle of Thanesar would undergo a complete transformation. English-educated Brahman scholars would not accept with such equanimity the dictates of a divine will.

Mrityunjay has a few more things to say about the reasons for the downfall of the Chauhan dynasty. These remarks are prefaced by the following statement: "I will now write what the Yavanas say about the capture of the throne of Delhi by the Yavana Sahabuddin" (R, pp. 112-13). Mrityunjay then goes back to the earlier raids into various Indian kingdoms by Nasruddin Sabuktagin, father of Mahmud Ghaznavi.

When Nasruddin came to Hindustan, there was no harmony among the kings of Hindustan. Each thought of himself as the emperor [badsah]; none owed fealty to anyone else and none was strong enough to subjugate the others. On discovering this, the Yavanas entered Hindustan. The main reason for the fall of kingdoms and the success of the enemy is mutual disunity and the tendency of each to regard itself as supreme. When Sekandar Shah [Alexander] had become emperor in the land of the Yavanas, he had once come to Hindustan, but seeing the religiosity and learning of the Brahmans, he had declared that a land whose kings had such advisers [hakim] could never be conquered by others. Saying this, he had returned to his country and had never come back to Hindustan. Now there were no more such Brahmans and, bereft of their advice, the kings of this country lost divine grace and were all defeated by the Yavanas. (R, pp. 121-22)

Mrityunjay's accounts of the Sultanate and the Mughal periods were very likely based on the Persian histories in circulation among the literati in late eighteenth-century Bengal. It is possible that some of these texts contained comments on the disunity among Indian kings and perhaps even the statement attributed to Alexander. But the argument that it was because of the failings of the Brahmans that the kings strayed from the path of dharma and thus lost the blessings of god was undoubtedly one formulated by Mrityunjay the Brahman scholar. It was the duty of the Brahmans to guide the king along the path of dharma. They had failed in that duty and had brought about the divine wrath which ended the rule of the Hindu kings and established the rule of the Yavanas. Later, as the role of divine intervention in history becomes less credible, this story of the fall acquires in the modern writings the form of a general decay of society and polity.

But this is anticipating. Note, for purposes of comparison, Mrityunjay's account of the destruction by Mahmud Ghaznavi of the temple at Somnath. The main details of the story are the same as those which would appear in later histories, for they all come from Persian sources such as the Tarikh-i-Firishta. But Mrityunjay mentions one "fact" about the idol at Somnath that is never to be mentioned again. "There was a very large sacred idol called Somnath which was once in Mecca. Four thousand years after the time when the Yavanas say the human race was born, this idol was brought by a king of Hindustan from Mecca to its present place" (R, p. 129). Mrityunjay's source for this information is uncertain, but it is never to be mentioned again by any Bengali historian.

Two Mughal emperors are subjects of much controversy in nationalist historiography, and Mrityunjay has written about them both. On Akbar, Mrityunjay is effusive. "Since Sri Vikramaditya, there has never been in Hindustan an emperor with merits equal to those of Akbar Shah" (R, p. 195). Apart from having a deep sense of righteousness and performing all his duties in protecting his subjects, Akbar also had, according to Mrityunjay, an additional merit:

Because of his knowledge of many sastra, his spiritual views were skeptical of the doctrines of Muhammad and were closer to those of the Hindus. The kings of Iran and Turan often complained about this. ... He did not eat beef and forbid the slaughter of cows within his fort. To this day, cow-slaughter is prohibited in his fort. (R, pp. 191, 194)

On Aurangzeb, on the other hand, Mrityunjay has this to say:

He became very active in spreading the Muhammad faith. And he destroyed many great temples. Many ceremonies of the Hindus such as the worship of the sun and of Ganesa had been performed in the fort of the Badshah since the time of Akbar; [Aurangzeb] discontinued these practices and issued new rules invented by himself.

He then adds:

Although he destroyed many great temples, he was favored by the divine powers at Jvalamukhi and Lachmanbala and made sizable grants of land for the maintenance of those temples. He later lived at Aurangabad for twelve years and, on being cursed by a Brahman, died uttering horrible cries of pain. (R, p. 221)

Where kings acquire kingdoms and hold power by divine grace, the business of arriving at a verdict on the character of rulers has to be negotiated between kings and gods. The only role that the ordinary praja (subject) has in all this is in bearing the consequences of the actions of these superior entities. Of course, the praja knows the difference between a good king and a bad one, which is why he praises a ruler such as Akbar. And when Aurangzeb dies "uttering horrible cries of pain," perhaps the praja shudders a little at the ferocity of divine retribution, but is reassured in the end by the victory of dharma. In all this, however, the praja never implicates himself in the business of ruling; he never puts himself in the place of the ruler. In recalling the history of kingdoms, he does not look for a history of himself.

If it was ever suggested to Mrityunjay that in the story of the deeds and fortunes of the kings of Delhi might lie the history of a nation, it is doubtful that he would have understood. His own position in relation to his narrative is fixed—it is the position of the praja, the ordinary subject, who is most often only the sufferer and sometimes the beneficiary of acts of government.
It is from that position that he tells the story of Prithviraj's misdeeds or of Akbar's righteousness. But the thought would never have occurred to him that because of the associations of "nationality," he, Mrityunjay Vidyalankar, a Brahman scholar in the employment of the East India Company in Calcutta in the early nineteenth century, might in some way become responsible for the acts of Prithviraj or Akbar. Rajabali is not a national history because its protagonists are gods and kings, not peoples. The bonds of "nation-ness" have not yet been imagined that would justify the identification of the historian with the consciousness of a solidarity that is supposed to act itself out in history.
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Re: The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

Postby admin » Wed Mar 31, 2021 3:08 am

Part 2 of 2


It is in his telling of the recent history of Bengal that Mrityunjay's position becomes the clearest. Mrityunjay was born only a few years after the battle of Plassey. The history of those times must have been fresh in popular memory in the years of his boyhood and youth. His condemnation of the misrule of Siraj-ud-daulah is severe: "The violations of dharma multiplied when [the Nawab] abducted the wives, daughters-in-law and daughters of prominent people, or amused himself by cutting open the stomachs of pregnant women or by overturning boats full of passengers" (R, pp. 268-69).

To Mr. Warren Hastings.

Calcutta, June 13, 1760.


By express yesterday from Dacca we have advice that the Suba has taken off Allyverdee and Shaw Amet Khan's Begums. -- He sent a Jammautdaar and 100 horse, with orders to Jesseraut Khan to carry this bloody scheme into execution, with separate orders to the Jemmautdaar, in case Jesseraut Khan refused obedience: he refused acting any part in the tragedy, and left it to the other; who carried them out by night about two miles above the city in a boat, tied weights to their legs, and threw them over-board: they struggled for some time, and held by the gunwall of the boat, but by strokes on their heads with Latties, and cutting of their hands, they sunk. These are the acts of the Tyger we are supporting and fighting for. I am,

Your obedient humble servant,

J. Z. H.

To the Hon. John Zeph. Holwell, Esquire.

Maraud-baag, June 21, 1760.


THE relation transmitted to me in your letter of the 13th, of the murder of the two Begums, filled me with horror and astonishment; but how were those sensations increased, when upon inquiry I was told, that not only the two wretched sufferers above-mentioned, but the whole family, to the number of nine persons, had undergone the same fate. I will not mention their names, till I have undoubted proofs of the truth of my intelligence, which I wish (though I cannot expect it) I may find not so bad at last as it has been represented to me. -- How this circumstance escaped my knowledge, I know not. It was not indeed an event to be learned from inquiry, and possibly the infamy of the fact might have made my friends, who were in the secret, neglect to speak to me upon a subject which, from our particular connections with the Nabob, and his entire dependence on our power, could not but reflect dishonor upon the English name. I have hitherto been generally an advocate for the Nabob, whose extortions and oppressions I imputed to the necessity of the times, and want of economy in his revenues; -- but, if this charge against him be true, no argument can excuse or palliate so atrocious and complicated a villainy, nor (forgive me, Sir, if I add) our supporting such a tyrant.

I have the honor to be, Sir,

Your most obedient, most faithful servant,


The advices sent from Dacca touching these murders, were dispatched immediately after the first rumor of the deed; and from thence, as usual, imperfect: subsequent advices brought the true state of that execution, as follows:

Gosseta Begum, widow of Shaw Amet Jung;

Emna Begum, mother to the Nabob Surajud Dowla, and widow to Geynde Amet Khan;

Morad Dowla, the son of Patsha Kooly Khan, adopted by the Shaw Amet Jung;

Lutsen Nessa Begum, widow of Surajud Dowla;

Her infant daughters by Nabob Surajud Dowla.

These unhappy sufferers perished all in one night at Dacca, in the manner before-recited, with about twenty of their women of inferior note. -- It was said Alleverdy Khan's Begum by some means escaped this massacre of her whole family.

A conceived though groundless jealousy of Morad Dowla's making his escape from his confinement in Dacca, was the cause of this infernal carnage.

In the list of the Subah's assassination given in the Memorial, these were omitted:

Abdel Ohab Khan, waylaid and murdered by the Subah's order, on the Ramna, on pretence of a conspiracy, in March 1760.

Yar Mahomet, a favorite of Surajah Dowla, assassinated in presence of Mhiran, April 1760.

-- India Tracts, by Mr. J. Z. Holwell, and Friends.

-- The Black Hole -- The Question of Holwell's Veracity, by J. H. Little, Bengal, Past & Present, Journal of the Calcutta Historical Society, Vol. XI, Part 1, July-Sept., 1915

-- Full Proceedings of the Black Hole Debate, Bengal, Past & Present, Journal of the Calcutta Historical Society, Vol. XII. Jan – June, 1916

-- Interesting Historical Events, Relative to the Provinces of Bengal, and the Empire of Indostan. With a Seasonable Hint and Persuasive to the Honourable The Court of Directors of the East India Company. As Also The Mythology and Cosmogony, Facts and Festivals of the Gentoo's, followers of the Shastah. And a Dissertation on the Metempsychosis, commonly, though erroneously, called the Pythagorean Doctrine. Part II. By J.Z. Holwell, Esq.

-- Fort William-India House Correspondence and Other Contemporary Papers Relating Thereto, Vol. I: 1748-1756, Edited by K. K. Datta, M.A., Ph.D., Professor of History, Patna University, Patna

-- Lord Clive, by Thomas Babington Macaulay

When Siraj "attempted to destroy the clan" of Raja Rajballabh, the Raja sought the protection of the English in Calcutta. The English refused to hand him over to the nawab.

Rajballabh played a prominent role during the years (1756-63) when the political situation of Bengal was a fluid one. An accomplice of Mir Jafar and Ghaseti Begum, Rajballabh incurred the displeasure of Nawab Sirajuddaula for the misappropriation of a huge fund during his tenure as the diwan of Dhaka. At his behest his son Krishnadas fled to Calcutta with the embezzled amount and took shelter with the English -- a factor that subsequently became one of the causes of Siraj's armed conflict with the English East India Company. Nawab Mir Qasim suspected him of conspiring with the English and put him to death by drowning (1763).

-- Raja Rajballabh, by Banglapedia

During the last days of his grandfather, Sirajud Daulah protested against certain acts of the English in Bengal as likely to prejudice the authority of the Nawab’s government. He justly accused them of conspiring with the rival party which, under the leadership of Shahamat Jang’s [Shaw Amet Jung] widow, Ghasiti Begam, and her chief diwan, Raj Ballabh [Raagbullob], was opposing his claims to the subahdarship. According to M. Jean Law, they, like some others, were “led away by the idea that he could not have sufficient influence to get himself recognised as Subahdar’’. [Hill op. cit., III, p. 16.] They were even suspected of having “an understanding" with Shaukat Jang [Shoucutjun, Nabob of Purranea], Nawab of Purnea -- another rival of Sirajud Daulah. [Ibid, pp. 163-64.] Counting on the success of Sirajud Daulah’s rivals and with a view to securing the favour of Raj Ballabh [Raagbullob], one of their leaders, the Council in Calcutta, at the request of Watts, Chief of the English factory at Kasimbazar, gave shelter to Raj Ballabh’s son Krishnadas (Krishna Ballabh) [Kissendass], who had fled to Calcutta in March 1756 with his family and wealth on the pretext of a pilgrimage to Jagannath [Jaggernaut] at Puri. [Letter to Court from Becher and some others, 18 July 1756; Holwell’s Letter to Court, 30 November 1756.]

All this strengthened Sirajud Daulah’s suspicions and he reported to Alivardi about a fortnight before his death in the presence of Dr. Forth, surgeon of the Kasimbazar factory, who was attending on the Nawab, that the English intended to support Ghasiti Begam. Questioned by the Nawab regarding this charge, Dr. Forth described it as a ‘malicious report’ on the part of their enemies and disclaimed any intention on the part of the Company to interfere in political matters. [Hill, op, cit., II, pp. 65-66.]...

[ I]t is not really “difficult to understand” [Hill, op. cit., LV.] Sirajud Daulah’s point of view. There is clear reference in the account of David Rannie (August 1756) that the English Company gave protection to the “Nabob’s subjects”, though they were neither their ‘servants’ nor their ‘merchants’. Further, the affair of Krishnadas (Krishna Ballabh) was a sufficiently provocative one. For certain reasons, particularly on account of Raj Ballabh’s [Raagbullob] leadership of a hostile party, there was no love lost between him and Sirajud Daulah. Sirajud Daulah demanded from him an account of the administration of the finances of Dacca for several years. [Hill op, cit,, I, pp. 250 and 278.] Raj Ballabh [Raagbullob], who happened to be then at Murshidabad, was placed in confinement in March 1756, and some persons were deputed to Dacca to attach his property and arrest his family. There is no doubt that Raj Ballabh’s [Raagbullob] family fled to Calcutta, and that the Council in Calcutta continued to shelter the son and the family of an ex-officer of the government, who had incurred the subahdar's displeasure, even after he had demanded their dismissal. Richard Becher wrote that to harbour Krishnadas [Kissendass] in Calcutta in defiance of the Nawab’s demand was a ‘‘wrong step”. [Ibid. III, p, 338.] Other Englishmen considered it to be a risky course. On the eve of Alivardi’s death, Watts himself suggested to the President in Calcutta that it would be ‘‘expedient’’ that ‘‘Kissendass and the rest of Rhagbullub’s [Raagbullob] family should have no longer protection in Calcutta”. Deeming this to be a ‘‘salutary advice” and fearing that the continuance of protection to them till the death of Alivardi ‘‘might be productive of troublesome consequences”, Holwell ‘‘pressed more than once for the dismission of this family”. He admitted, however, that it would have been dangerous to dismiss them, ‘‘the more especially as for some days advices from all quarters were in favour of the Begum’s [Ghasiti Begam’s] party”. [Holwell's Letter to Court, 30 November 1756. para 4.]

-- Fort William-India House Correspondence and Other Contemporary Papers Relating Thereto, Vol. I: 1748-1756, Edited by K. K. Datta, M.A., Ph.D., Professor of History, Patna University, Patna

"Then Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah sowed the seeds of his own destruction by plundering the kuthi of the Company Bahadur and the town of Calcutta" {R, p. 270). The English were forced temporarily to leave Calcutta. After some time,

[the sahibs] returned to Calcutta and, accepting without a question the estimates of damages suffered in the raid by traders, shopkeepers and residents, compensated all of them. Then, after consulting through Khwaja Petrus the Armenian with leading men such as Maharaj Durlabhram, Bakshi Jafarali Khan, Jagat Seth Mahatabray and his brother Maharaj Swarupchandra, and collecting money and some soldiers, [the English], intending to defend their protege and holding aloft the flag of dharma, marched to battle at Palasi. (R, p. 271)

What happened in the battle is common knowledge. Siraj tried to flee, but was captured.

Then Miran Sahib, son of Jafarali Khan, without informing Maharaj Durlabhram or anyone else and ignoring the pleas of mercy from a terrified Siraj-ud-daulah, carved up the body of the Nawab with his own hands, and putting the dismembered body on top of an elephant, displayed it around the town. Thus, by the will of god, was demonstrated the consequences of such misdeeds as . . . the treacherous murder of Nawab Sarfraz Khan and the secret executions of Alibhaskar and other Maharashtrian sardars and the raping of women by Siraj-ud-daulah. (R, p. 276)

Thus, Miran acted in accordance with the divine will and Siraj faced the consequences of his misdeeds. But what happened to Miran in the end? "Thereafter, Nawab Miran was once coming from Azimabad to Murshi-dabad when at Rajmahal, as a consequence of his having betrayed Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah, he was struck by lightning. Even after his death, lightning struck twice on Nawab Miran's grave." And Mir Jafar? "Nawab Jafarali Khan, on resuming his subahdari for two years, died of leprosy after much suffering" (R, pp. 281, 289).

It is the force of divine will that acts in history, and in the end it is dharma that is vindicated. This belief frames Mrityunjay's description of the most recent events in the history of Bengal. At the conclusion of his story, he locates himself unhesitatingly as someone seeking the protection of the Company—the same Company that, flying the flag of dharma, had gone to battle with the promise to defend those under its protection.

When, because of the evil deeds of certain emperors and kings and nawabs, from Visarad of the Nanda dynasty to Shah Alam and from Nawab Munaim Khan to Nawab Kasemali Khan, this land of Hindustan was facing utter destruction, the Supreme Lord willed that the rule of the Company Bahadur be established. Thus ends this book called Rajataranga composed in the Gaudiya language by Sri Mrtyunjay Sarma, pandit in the school established by the bada saheb [governor-general] who is like the flower and the fruit of the tree which is the Company Bahadur. (R, pp. 294-95)

Let us remember, the Company rules by divine will in order to protect its subjects. It remains a constant implication that if that object is not fulfilled and if the subjects are oppressed, then, by divine intervention, the kingdom would pass to someone else and the truth of dharma would be vindicated once again.


This was the form of historical memory before the modern European modes were implanted in the mind of the educated Bengali. In Mrityunjay, the specific form of this memory was one that was prevalent among the Brahman literati in eighteenth-century Bengal. What, then, was the form followed by Bengali Muslim writers? The court chronicles of the Afghan or the Mughal nobility are not of concern here because these were never written in Bengali. The examples of dynastic history written by Bengali Muslim writers show that notions of divine intervention, punishment for misdeeds, and the victory of righteousness are as prominent in them as they were in Mrityunjay. The following text is from 1875, a much later date than those of the Fort William College histories. But it is so prominently marked by the features of the puthi literature of the village poets of eastern Bengal and so completely devoid of the influence of modern historical education that we should have no difficulty in assuming that this poet from Barisal was in fact following a form that had been conventional for some time.10 The dynastic history begins thus:

How the name of Delhi became Hindustan
Can be learnt from its kings, from beginning to end.

However, Hindu writers cannot tell the full story.

The Hindus believe in the four yuga;
They cannot grasp the full significance.
Satya, Treta, Dvapar and Kali: these are the four yuga
In which the Hindus ruled with pleasure.

That, presumably, is the story that Hindu writers are best qualified to tell. This poet then gives his list of fifty-nine Muslim kings of Delhi ending with "Shah Alam Bahadur," the last Mughal emperor. It is only a list, composed in verse, with no descriptions of events and no comments on the rulers. Then comes a miraculous event.

Suddenly by a miracle [daiva], the English came to this land
And defeated the Nawab in battle.
The English occupied most of the kingdom:
Since then there is the rule of Maharani Victoria.
Putting to death Kumar Singh, the Company
Abolished all ijara and made the land khas of the Maharani.

It is curious that the only event of the Revolt of 1857 that is mentioned is the suppression of Kunwar Singh's rebellion. Then there is a panegyric to Queen Victoria and a list of the marvels of modern technology.

The people are governed with full justice.
In her reign, the praja have no complaints.
Cowries have been abolished; now
People buy what they need with coins.
People exchange news through the mail.
The towns are now lit with gaslights.
The steamer has vanquished the pinnace and the sailboat.
The railway has reduced a week's journey to hours.
In Calcutta they can find out what's happening in England
In a matter of moments—with the help of the wire.
If in court an injustice is done,
Then it is corrected in another court.

But even such a well-ruled kingdom as the Maharani's cannot last forever.

The praja is fortunate that the Maharani rules now.
What happens after this, I do not know.

In particular, if the British occupy Turkey, then all hell will break loose.

If the Queen comes to rule over Rum [Turkey],
Then only Mecca and Medina will be left.
There will be despair and anarchy in the land,
And all will lose jdt and become one jat.

And then, after a series of cataclysmic events, the day of judgment will arrive.

The Prophet Isa [Jesus] will come down from the sky,
And again the Musalmani faith will appear.
From the east to the west, and from north to south,
The world will be shattered by a terrible storm.
This is how it has been written in the Ayat Kudria
And explained clearly in the Hadis.
When the sun rises in the west,
All the doors of tauba will be closed thereafter.
The sun will rise only a few cubits
And will set soon after, and the night will be long.
Each night will stretch for six or seven nights,
And the people will rise only to sleep again. . . .
From the year 1300 Hijri,
And before 1400 is past, let it be known,
Those who are still alive
Will see many unnatural things in this world.

We might compare this with Mrityunjay's prediction: "After this there will be a king called Parinagarjuna whose era will last until 821 years are left in the Kaliyuga, at which time there will be born in the family of Gautabrahmana in the Sambhala country an avatara of Kalkideva" [R, p. 8). There does not seem to be much difference in the mode of historical thinking.


This framework changed radically as the Bengali literati was schooled in the new colonial education. Now Indians were taught the principles of European history, statecraft, and social philosophy. They were also taught the history of India as it came to be written from the standpoint of modern European scholarship. The Orientalists had, from the last years of the eighteenth century, begun to "recover" and reconstruct for modern historical consciousness the materials for an understanding of Indian history and society. The English-educated class in Bengal, from its birth in the early decades of the nineteenth century, became deeply interested in this new discipline of Indology.

But, curiously enough, the new Indian literati, while it enthusiastically embraced the modern rational principles of European historiography, did not accept the history of India as it was written by British historians. The political loyalty of the early generation of English-educated Bengalis toward the East India Company was unquestioned, and in 1857, when most of northern India was in revolt, they were especially demonstrative in their protestations of loyalty. And yet, by the next decade, they were engaged in open contestation with the colonialist interpretation of Indian history. By the 1870s, the principal elements were already in place for the writing of a nationalist history of India. It is interesting to trace the genealogy of this new history of "the nation."

In 1857-58, with the inauguration of the University of Calcutta, a set of translations was produced in Bengali, for use in schools, of histories of India and of Bengal written by British historians. By then, fifty years had passed after the publication of Rajabali, written in Bengali for the instruction of English officers in the history of India. The new translations were meant for the instruction of Bengali students in the history of their country as written by the colonizer.

One volume of J. C. Marshman's History of Bengal was translated by Iswarchandra Vidyasagar (1820-91)." The other volume was translated at Vidyasagar's request by Ramgati Nyayaratna (1831-94).11 The latter contains sentences like "Sultan Suja arrived as the gabbarnar of Bengal" or "Murshid sent his son-in-law to Orissa as his deputi" betraying in its use of administrative terminology its source in an English history of Bengal. And at the point where the book ends with the Maratha raids on Bengal in the period of Alivardi Khan, Ramgati feels it necessary to indicate the miraculous transformation that was about to take place.

At that time the influence of the Marathas was so strong that everyone thought they would become the rulers of the country. But how ineffable is the greatness of the divine will! Those who had come to this country only as ordinary traders, those who were often on the verge of leaving this country for ever, those who had never even dreamed of becoming rulers of this country—they, the English, ousted Siraj-ud-daulah from the throne of Alivardi and have now become the virtual sovereign of all of India.13

Only ten years later, however, in 1869, a book of questions and answers based on the same English textbooks had the following entry:

Q: How did Clive win?

A: If the treacherous Mir Jafar had not tricked the Nawab [Siraj-ud-daulah], Clive could not have won so easily.

Or, the following question about the ethics of English officials:

Q: Was Nandakumar's execution carried out in accordance with justice?

A: His offenses did not in any way deserve the death sentence. It was at the request of the unscrupulous Hastings that Chief Justice Elijah Impey conducted this gross misdeed.14

A Bengali textbook of 1872 tells the story of the betrayal of Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah in much greater detail. Siraj, says Kshetranath Ban-dyopadhyay, was a tyrant, but, contrary to the canard spread by the English, he was not responsible for the "black hole of Calcutta." Yet it was against him that the English conspired. Siraj was suspicious of the loyalties of his genera] Mir Jafar and made him swear on the Koran. But Mir Jafar betrayed him at Plassey, although his other generals fought valiantly. "If this battle had continued for some time, then Clive would surely have lost. But fortune favored the English, and weakened by the betrayal of Mir Jafar, the Nawab was defeated and Clive was victorious." Kshetranath's hatred is directed particularly against Mir Jafar and Miran. "Mir Jafar was cruel, stupid, greedy and indolent. On becoming the Nawab, he sought to plunder the wealth of prominent Hindus." "Miran was stupid and cruel, a beast among men. He was such an evil character that his oppressions made people forget all the misdeeds of Siraj."15

Nawab Mir Kasim too was a victim of betrayal:

[Mir Kasim] scrapped the duties on all goods. Thus all traders, English or Bengali, were treated on an equal footing, and unlike before, when all except the English were discriminated against, now others began to prosper. This angered the English. They began to prepare for war. .. . Mir Kasim's army was undoubtedly the best in Bengal, and yet it never won a single battle. There was a hidden reason for this, which was the treachery of Gargin [Mir Kasim's Armenian general].16

Kshetranath also describes the condition of the emperor in Delhi:

The emperor at this time was in a pitiable condition. Even his capital was under the control of others. He had no throne to sit on. The table at which the English dined became his throne, from which the emperor of all of India offered to the English the diwani of three provinces and thirty million subjects. The Emperor of Delhi, whose pomp was once without limit and at whose power the whole of India trembled, was now reduced to a condition^ that was truly sad.17

Not only in gaining an empire, but even in administering one, the English resorted to conspiracy and force. In the period before and after Clive, says Kshetranath, "the English committed such atrocities on the people of this country that all Bengalis hated the name of the English." Because of his intrigues, Hastings "is despised by all and is condemned in history." In 1857, just as the soldiers committed atrocities, so did the English: "At the time of the suppression of the revolt, the English who are so proud of their Christian religion wreaked vengeance upon their enemies by cutting out the livers from the bodies of hanged rebels and throwing them into the fire." Even the end of the mutiny did not bring peace.

In no age do the poor and the weak have anyone to protect them. When the disorder died down at other places, a huge commotion began in Bengal. In the areas of Bengal where indigo is grown, the English planters became truculent. The cruelties they perpetrated on the poor tenants will prevent them for all time from being counted among human beings.18

It was in fact in the course of writing the history of British rule in India that English-educated Bengalis abandoned the criteria of divine intervention, religious value, and the norms of right conduct in judging the rise and fall of kingdoms. The recent history of Bengal demonstrated that kingdoms could be won and, what was more, held by resorting to the grossest acts of immorality. The modern historiography seemed to validate a view of political history as simply the amoral pursuit of raison d'etat.

The popular textbook of Krishnachandra Ray portrayed the political success of the British in India as the result of a cynical pursuit of power devoid of all moral principles. On Clive's intrigues, he said, "Most people criticize Clive for these heinous acts, but according to him there is nothing wrong in committing villainy when dealing with villains." The new revenue arrangements of 1772 are described as follows:

"The land belongs to him who has force on his side." It is from this time that the Company stopped being a revenue collector and really became the ruler. If the Emperor [in Delhi] had been strong, there would have been a huge incident over this. But there was nothing left [to the Empire]. Whatever Hastings decided, happened.

The deep hatred we saw in Mrityunjay of Siraj's misrule has disappeared completely in Krishnachandra. In its place, there is a political explanation of his actions. For instance, when the English strengthened their fortifications in Calcutta, Siraj ordered the new constructions demolished. "Which ruler can allow foreigners to build forts within his territory? . . . [Siraj] could not accept any longer that this bunch of traders should suddenly arrive in his kingdom and defy his commands. Humiliated, his anger was now boiling over." Or his role in the so-called black hole incident is explained as follows:

It must have been an inauspicious moment when Siraj-ud-daulah entered Calcutta. He knew nothing of the black hole deaths and did not order the imprisonment of the English captives. Yet, that became the source of his downfall. Intoxicated by power, he had stepped on a tiger thinking it was only a cat. In the end, it was this error of judgment which led to the loss of his kingdom, his death and the endless misery of his family. Indeed, it was the black hole deaths which created the opportunity for the rise of the English power in India.

The downfall of Siraj is not seen any more as the consequence of immoral acts. It is now the result of an error of judgment: mistaking a tiger for a cat.19

History was no longer the play of divine will or the fight of right against wrong; it had become merely the struggle for power. The advent of British rule was no longer a blessing of Providence. English-educated Bengalis were now speculating on the political conditions that might have made the British success impossible.

If this country had been under the dominion of one powerful ruler, or if the different rulers had been united and friendly towards one another, then the English would never have become so powerful here and this country would have remained under the Musalman kings. Perhaps no one in this country would have ever heard of the English.

The book ends with a list of the benefits of British rule. And yet it is clearly implied that this does not establish its claims to legitimacy: "In any case, whatever be the means by which the English have come to acquire this sprawling kingdom, it must be admitted that infinite benefits have been effected by them to this country."20 We have almost reached the threshold of nationalist history.

Kshirodchandra Raychaudhuri's book, published in 1876, had this announcement by its author in the preface: "I have written this book for those who have been misled by translations of histories written in English." The extent to which European historiography had made inroads into the consciousness of the Bengali literati can be judged from the following comment on relations between the European colonial powers:

The English and the French have always been hostile towards each other. Just as the conflict between the Mughals and the Pathans is proverbial in India, so is the hostility between the English and the French in Europe. Thus it was beyond belief that in India they would not attack each other and instead drink from the same water.

The book ends with the following sentences:

Having come to India as a mere trader, the East India Company became through the tide of events the overlord of two hundred million subjects, and the shareholders of the Company, having become millionaires and billionaires, began to institute the laws and customs of foreign peoples. In no other country of the world has such an unnatural event taken place.21


Earlier I spoke of Mrityunjay's position with respect to the political events he was describing as that of an ordinary subject. The same could be said of the authors of the textbooks 1 have just mentioned. But these "subjects" were very different entities. In the seventy years that had passed, the creature known as the educated Bengali had been transmuted. Now he had grown used to referring to himself, like the educated European, as a member of "the middle class." Not only was he in the middle in terms of income, but he had also assumed, in the sphere of social authority, the role of a mediator. On the one hand, he was claiming that those who had wealth and property were unfit to wield the power they had traditionally enjoyed. On the other hand, he was taking upon himself the responsibility of speaking on behalf of those who were poor and oppressed. To be in the middle now meant to oppose the rulers and to lead the subjects. Our textbook historians, while they may have thought of themselves as ordinary subjects, had acquired a consciousness in which they were already exercising the arts of politics and statecraft.

Simultaneously, the modern European principles of social and political organization were now deeply implanted in their minds. The English-educated middle class of Bengal was by the 1870s unanimous in its belief that the old institutions and practices of society needed to be fundamentally changed. It is useful to remind ourselves of this fact, because we often tend to forget that those who are called "conservative" or "traditionalist" and who are associated with the movements of Hindu revivalism were also vigorous advocates of the reform and modernization of Hindu society. Whatever the differences between "progressives" and "conservatives" among the new intellectuals in the nineteenth century, they were all convinced that the old society had to be reformed in order to make it adequate for coping with the modern world.

This becomes clear from reading the most commonplace writings of minor writers in the second half of the nineteenth century. A completely new criterion of political judgment employed in these writings is, for instance, the notion of "impartiality." An 1866 text by an author who is undoubtedly a "traditionalist Hindu" recommends in a chapter titled "The Treatment of Young Women" that "whether indoors or out, no young woman should at any time be left alone and unwatched." Yet, he is opposed to polygamy and the practice of dowry. In another chapter, "The Subject of Political Loyalty," this traditionalist, Tarakrishna Haldar, writes:

In the days when this country was under the rule of the Hindu jati, the arbitrariness of kings led to the complete domination by a particular jati over all the others. That jati wielded the power to send others to heaven or hell. . . . When the kingdom was in the hands of the Yavanas, they treated all Hindus as infidels. In all respects they favored subjects belonging to their own jati and oppressed those who were Hindu. . . . The principles of government followed by the British jati do not have any of these defects. When administering justice, they treat a priest of their own jati as equal to someone of the lowest occupation in this country, such as a sweeper. . . . No praise is too great for the quality of impartiality of this jati.22

One step further and we get the next argument in nationalist history: the reason Hindu society was corrupt and decadent was the long period of Muslim rule. The following is an extract from a lecture by a certain Bholanath Chakravarti at an Adi Brahmo Samaj meeting in 1876:

The misfortunes and decline of this country began on the day the Yavana flag entered the territory of Bengal. The cruelty of Yavana rule turned this land to waste. Just as a storm wreaks destruction and disorder to a garden, so did the unscrupulous and tyrannical Yavana jati destroy the happiness and good fortune of Bengal, this land of our birth. Ravaged by endless waves of oppression, the people of Bengal became disabled and timid. Their religion took distorted forms. The education of women was completely stopped. In order to protect women from the attacks of Yavanas, they were locked up inside their homes. The country was reduced to such a state that the wealth of the prosperous, the honor of the genteel and the chastity of the virtuous were in grave peril.23

Half of nationalist history has been already thought out here. In the beginning, the history of the nation was glorious; in wealth, power, learning, and religion, it had reached the pinnacle of civilization. This nation was sometimes called Bengali, sometimes Hindu, sometimes Arya, sometimes Indian, but the form of the history remained the same. After this came the age of decline. The cause of the decline was Muslim rule, that is to say, the subjection of the nation. We do not get the rest of nationalist history in this lecture I have just cited, because although Bholanach Chakravarti talks about the need for the regeneration of national society, he also thinks that its possibility lies entirely in the existence of British rule.

There are limits to everything. When the oppressions of the Musalman became intolerable, the Lord of the Universe provided a means of escape. . .. The resumption of good fortune was initiated on the day the British flag was first planted on this land. Tell me, if Yavana rule had continued, what would the condition of this country have been today? It must be loudly declared that it is to bless us that Isvara has brought the English to this country. British rule has ended the atrocities of the Yavanas.... There can be no comparison between Yavana rule and British rule: the difference seems greater than that between darkness and light or between misery and bliss.24

However, even if Bholanath Chakravarti did not subscribe to it, the remainder of the argument of nationalist history was already fairly current. Take, for example, the eighteenth edition, published in 1878, of "The History of India," by Tarinicharan Chattopadhyay.25 Tarinicharan (1833-97) was a product of colonial education, a professor at Sanskrit College, and a social reformer. His textbooks on history and geography were extremely popular and were the basis for many other lesser-known textbooks. His History of India was probably the most influential textbook read in Bengali schools in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In the next chapter, I will recount some of the stories from Tarinicharan's history in order to point out how the materials of Hindu-extremist political rhetoric current in postcolonial India were fashioned from the very birth of nationalist historiography.  
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