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.

Re: The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

Postby admin » Tue May 25, 2021 1:35 am

Part 1 of 2

CHAPTER FIVE: Histories and Nations


The first sentence of Bharatbarser itihás is striking: "India [bharatavarsa] has been ruled in turn by Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Accordingly, the history of this country [des] is divided into the periods of Hindu, Muslim and Christian rule [rájatva]" (BI, p. 1).

This sentence marks the passage from the "history of kings" to the "history of this country." Never again will Rájábali be written; from now on, everything will be the "history of this deš." This history, now, is periodized according to the distinctive character of rule, and this character, in turn, is determined by the religion of the rulers. The identification here of country (deš) and realm (rájatva) is permanent and indivisible. This means that although there may be at times several kingdoms and kings, there is in truth always only one realm which is coextensive with the country and which is symbolized by the capital or the throne. The rájatva, in other words, constitutes the generic sovereignty of the country, whereas the capital or the throne represents the center of sovereign statehood. Since the country is bharatavarsa, there can be only one true sovereignty that is coextensive with it, represented by a single capital or throne as its center. Otherwise, why should the defeat of Prithviraj and the capture of Delhi by Muhammad Ghuri signal the end of a whole period of Indian history and the beginning of a new one? Or why should the battle of Plassey mark the end of Muslim rule and the beginning of Christian rule? The identification in European historiography between the notions of country or people, sovereignty, and statehood is now lodged firmly in the mind of the English-educated Bengali.

On the next page follows another example of the modernity of this historioghaphic practice. "All Sanskrit sources that are now available are full of legends and fabulous tales; apart from the Rajataraitgini [Rajatarangini] there is not a single true historical account" (BI, p. 2). The criteria of the "true historical account" had been, of course, set by then by European historical scholarship. That India has no true historical account was a singular discovery of European Indology. The thought had never occurred to Mri-tyunjay. But to Tarinicharan, it seems self-evident.

We then have a description of the inhabitants of India:

In very ancient times, there lived in India two very distinct communities [sampraday] of people. Of them, one resembled us in height and other aspects of physical appearance. The descendants of this community are now called Hindu. The people of the other community were short, dark and extremely uncivilized. Their descendants are now known as Khas, Bhilla, Pulinda, Saontal and other primitive [jangla, "of the bush"] jati. (BI, p. 2).

There were others who were the products of the mixing of sampraday. Thus, the first three varna among the Hindus are said to be twice-born, but the Sudra are not entitled to that status. "This shows that in the beginning the former were a separate sampraday from the latter. The latter were subsequently included in the former community, but were given the status of the most inferior class" (BI, p. 4).

The notion of the gradual spread of "the Hindu religion" from the north of the country to the south is also introduced. This spread is the result of the expansion of the realm.

The south of the country was in the beginning covered by forests and inhabited by non-Hindu and uncivilized jati. Ramacandra was the first to hoist the Hindu flag in that part of India. ... To this day there are many popular tales of the ancient colonization of the south by the Hindus. (BI, p. 27)

The image of the hero of the Ramayana holding aloft the modern symbol of national sovereignty came easily to the mind of this English-educated Bengali Brahman a hundred years ago, although the votaries of political Hinduism today would probably be embarrassed by the suggestion that Rama had subdued the inhabitants of southern India and established a colonial rule.

Since there is a lack of authentic sources, the narrative of ancient Indian history is necessarily fragmentary. Gone is the certitude of Mrityunjay's dynastic lists; Tarinicharan states quite clearly the limits to a rational reconstruction of the ancient past.

European historians have proved by various arguments that the battle of Kuruksetra took place before the fourteenth century B.C. For a long period after the battle of Kuruksetra, the historical accounts of India are so uncertain, partial and contradictory that it is impossible to construct from them a narrative. (BI, pp. 16-17)

The narrative he does construct is not particularly remarkable, because he follows without much amendment the history of ancient India as current among British writers on the subject. The only interesting comment in these chapters of Tarinicharan's book is the one he makes on Buddhism:

[The Buddha] became a great enemy of the Hindu religion, which is why Hindus describe him as an atheist and the destroyer of dharma. Nevertheless, the religion founded by him contains much advice of the highest spiritual value. He did not admit anything that was devoid of reason [yukti]. No matter how ancient the customs of a jati, if stronger reasons can be presented against the traditional views, then the opinions of at least some people are likely to change. (BI, p. 17)

The reasonableness of the religious views of Buddhism is not denied. On the contrary, Buddhism is presented as a rationalist critique from within "the Hindu religion." Otherwise, in accordance with the criterion of periodization, the period of the Buddhist rulers would have had to be classified as a separate period of ancient Indian history. Now it is given a place within the "Hindu period."

Although the historical sources for the ancient period are said to be fragmentary and unreliable, on one subject there seems to be no dearth of evidence: "the civilization and learning of the ancient Indians." This is the title of chapter 6 of Tarinicharan's book. The main argument is as follows:

What distinguishes the giant from the dwarf or the mighty from the frail is nothing compared to the difference between the ancient and the modern Hindu. In earlier times, foreign travellers in India marvelled at the courage, truthfulness and modesty of the people of the Arya vamsa; now they remark mainly on the absence of those qualities. In those days Hindus would set out on conquest and hoist their flags in Tatar, China and other countries; now a few soldiers from a tiny island far away are lording it over the land of India. In those days Hindus would regard all except their own jati as mleccha and treat them with contempt; now those same mleccha shower contempt on the descendants of Aryans. Then the Hindus would sail to Sumatra and other islands, evidence of which is still available in plenty in the adjacent island of Bali. Now the thought of a sea voyage strikes terror in the heart of a Hindu, and if anyone manages to go, he is immediately ostracized from society. (BI, p. 32)

Ancient glory, present misery: the subject of this entire story is "us." The mighty heroes of ancient India were "our" ancestors, and the feeble inhabitants of India today are "ourselves." That ancient Indians conquered other countries or traded across the seas or treated other people "with contempt" is a matter of pride for "us." And it is "our" shame that "the descendants of Aryans" are today subordinated to others and are the objects of the latter's contempt. There is a certain scale of power among the different peoples of the world; earlier, the people of India were high on that scale, while today they are near the bottom.

Not only physical prowess but the achievements of ancient Indians in the field of learning were also universally recognized.

In ancient times, when virtually the whole world was shrouded in the darkness of ignorance, the pure light of learning shone brightly in India. The discoveries in philosophy which emanated from the keen intellects of ancient Hindus are arousing the enthusiasm of European scholars even today. (BI, p. 33)

Note that the opinion of European scholars in this matter is extremely important to Tarinicharan. In fact, all the examples he cites on the excellence of ancient Indian learning—In the fields of astronomy, mathematics, logic, and linguistics—were discoveries of nineteenth-century Orientalists. By bringing forward this evidence, Tarinicharan seems to be suggesting that although Europeans today treat Indians with contempt because of their degraded condition, Indians were not always like this, because even European scholars admit that the arts and sciences of ancient India were of the highest standard. This evidence from Orientalist scholarship was extremely important for the construction of the full narrative of nationalist history.

That Tarinicharan's history is nationalist is signified by something else. His story of ancient glory and subsequent decline has a moral at the end: reform society, remove all of these superstitions that are the marks of decadence, and revive the true ideals of the past. These false beliefs and practices for which Indians are today the objects of contempt did not exist in the past because even Europeans admit that in ancient times "we" were highly civilized.

Today we find Hindu women treated like slaves, enclosed like prisoners and as ignorant as beasts. But if we look a millennium and a quarter earlier, we will find that women were respected, educated and largely unconstrained. Where was child marriage then? No one married before the age of twenty-four. (BI, p. 33)

Ancient India became for the nationalist the classical age, while the period between the ancient and the contemporary was the dark age of medievalism. Needless to say, this pattern was heartily approved by European historiography. If the nineteenth-century Englishman could claim ancient Greece as his classical heritage, why should not the English-educated Bengali feel proud of the achievements of the so-called Vedic civilization?


The chapter "The Civilization and Learning of the Ancient Indians" closes Tarinicharan's history of ancient India. He then takes the reader outside India—to Arabia in the seventh century. Why should it be necessary, in discussing a change of historical periods in twelfth-century India, to begin the description from seventh-century Arabia? The answer to this question is, of course, obvious. But implicit in that answer is an entire ensemble of assumptions and prejudices of nineteenth-century European historiography.

Muhammad gave to his followers the name musalman, that is, the faithful, and to all other humans the name kafir or infidel. . , . Directing his followers to take the sword in order to destroy the kafir, he said that God had ordained that those Muslims who die in the war against false religion will go to paradise and live in eternal pleasure in the company of doe-eyed nymphs. But if they run away from battle, they will burn in hell. The Arab jati is by nature fearless and warlike. Now, aroused by the lust for plunder in this world and for eternal pleasure in the next, their swords became irresistible everywhere. All of Arabia came under Muhammad's control and only a few years after his death the Muslim flag was flying in every country between Kabul and Spain. Never before in history had one kingdom after another, one land after another, fallen to a conqueror with the speed at which they fell to the Muslims. It was impossible that such people, always delirious at the prospect of conquest, would not covet the riches of India. (BI, pp. 36-37)

The ground is being prepared here for the next episode that will result from the clash of this distinct history of the Muslims with the history of Indians. This distinct history originates in, and acquires its identity from, the life of Muhammad. In other words, the dynasty that will be founded in Delhi at the beginning of the thirteenth century and the many political changes that will take place in the subsequent five centuries are not to be described merely as the periods of Turko-Afghan or Mughal rule in India; they are integral parts of the political history of Islam.

The actors in this history are also given certain behavioral characteristics. They are warlike and believe that it is their religious duty to kill infidels. Driven by the lust for plunder and the visions of cohabiting with the nymphs of paradise, they are even prepared to die in battle. They are not merely conquerors, but "delirious at the prospect of conquest" (dvijayonmatta), and consequently are by their innate nature covetous of the riches of India.

It is important for us at this point to note the complex relation of this new nationalist historiography to the histories of India produced by British writers in the nineteenth century. While James Mill's History of British India, completed in 1817, may have been "the hegemonic textbook of Indian history" for European Indology,1 for the first nationalist historians of India it represented precisely what they had to fight against. Mill did not share any of the enthusiasm of Orientalists such as William Jones for the philosophical and literary achievements of ancient India. His condemnation of the despotism and immorality of Indian civilization was total, and even his recognition of "the comparative superiority of Islamic civilisation" did not in any significant way affect his judgment that until the arrival of British rule, India had always been "condemned to semi-barbarism and the miseries of despotic power."2 Nationalist history in India could be born only by challenging such an absolute and comprehensive denial of all claims to historical subjectivity.3

Far more directly influential for the nationalist school texts we are looking at was Elphinstone's History of India (1841). This standard textbook in Indian universities was the most widely read British history of India until Vincent Smith's books were published in the early twentieth century. The reason why nationalist readers found Elphinstone more palatable than Mill is not far to seek. As E. B. Cowell, who taught in Calcutta and added notes to the later editions of Elphinstone's History, explained in a preface in 1866, a "charm of the book is the spirit of genuine hearty sympathy with and appreciation of the native character which runs though the whole, and the absence of which is one of the main blemishes in Mr. Mill's eloquent work."4 In this spirit of sympathy, Elphinstone wrote entire chapters in his volume called "Hindus" on "Philosophy," "Astronomy and Mathematical Science," "Medicine," "Language," "Literature," "Fine Arts," and "Commerce." He also began his volume on "Mahometans" with a chapter called "Arab Conquests A.D. 632, A.H. 11-A.D. 753, A.H. 136," whose first section was "Rise of the Mahometan Religion."

Another source often acknowledged in the Bengali textbooks is the series called The History of India as Told by Its Own Historians.5 Compiled by Henry Elliot, and edited and published after his death by John Dowson between 1867 and 1877, these eight volumes comprise translated extracts from over 150 works, principally in Persian, covering a period from the ninth to the eighteenth centuries. It was a gigantic example of the privilege claimed by modern European scholarship to process the writings of a people supposedly devoid of historical consciousness and render into useful sources of history what otherwise could "scarcely claim to rank higher than Annals." The technical qualities of the scholarship of Elliot and Dowson were to be questioned in subsequent decades,6 but with the substitution of English for Persian as the language of the state, it was through their mediation that the Persian sources of Indian history would now become available to the modern literati in Bengal.

The assumptions which regulated the selection and translation of these sources were quite explicitly stated by Elliot:7

In Indian Histories there is little which enables us to penetrate below the glittering surface, and observe the practical operation of a despotic Government. ... If, however, we turn our eyes to the present Muhammadan kingdoms of India, and examine the character of the princes, ... we may fairly draw a parallel between ancient and modern times. ... We behold kings, even of our own creation, slunk in sloth and debauchery, and emulating the vices of a Caligula or a Commodus.... Had the authors whom we are compelled to consult, pourtrayed their Caesars with the fidelity of Suetonius, instead of the more congenial sycophancy of Paterculus, we should not, as now, have to extort from unwilling witnesses, testimony to the truth of these assertions. . . . The few glimpses we have, even among the short Extracts in this single volume, of Hindus slain for disputing with Muhammadans, of general prohibitions against processions, worship, and ablutions, and of other intolerant measures, of idols mutilated, of temples razed, of forcible conversions and marriages, of proscriptions and confiscations, of murders and massacres, and of the sensuality and drunkenness of the tyrants who enjoined them, show us that this picture is not overcharged, and it is much to be regretted that we are left to draw it for ourselves from out of the mass of ordinary occurrences.

The fact that even Hindu writers wrote "to flatter the vanity of an imperious Muhammadan patron" was, Elliot thought, "lamentable": "there is not one of this slavish crew who treats the history of his native country subjectively, or presents us with the thoughts, emotions and raptures which a long oppressed race might be supposed to give vent to." Elliot also drew for his readers the conclusions from his presentation of these extracts:

They will make our native subjects more sensible of the immense advantages accruing to them under the mildness and equity of our rule.... We should no longer hear bombastic Babus, enjoying under our Government the highest degree of personal liberty, and many more political privileges than were ever conceded to a conquered nation, rant about patriotism, and the degradation of their present position. If they would dive into any of the volumes mentioned herein, it would take these young Brutuses and Phocions a very short time to learn, that in the days of that dark period for whose return they sigh, even the bare utterance of their ridiculous fantasies would have been attended, not with silence and contempt, but with the severer discipline of molten lead or empalement.

Ironically, when the young Brutuses and Phocions did learn Elliot's lessons on Muhammadan rule, their newly acquired consciousness of being "a long oppressed race" did not stop with a condemnation of Islamic despotism; it also turned against British rule itself.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, European Indological scholarship seemed to have agreed that the history of Hinduism was one of a classical age—for some the Vedic civilization, for others the so-called Gupta revival in the fourth to the seventh centuries—followed by a medieval decline from the eighth to the eighteenth centuries.8 For some, this decline was itself the reason why the country fell so quickly to the Muslim invaders. In any case, the theory of medieval decline fitted in nicely with the overall judgment of nineteenth-century British historians that "Muslim rule in India" was a period of despotism, misrule, and anarchy9—this, needless to say, being the historical justification for colonial intervention.

For Indian nationalists in the late nineteenth century, the pattern of classical glory, medieval decline, and modern renaissance appeared as one that was not only proclaimed by the modern historiography of Europe but also approved for India by at least some sections of European scholarship. What was needed was to claim for the Indian nation the historical agency for completing the project of modernity. To make that claim, ancient India had to become the classical source of Indian modernity, while "the Muslim period" would become the night of medieval darkness. Contributing to that description would be all the prejudices of the European Enlightenment about Islam. Dominating the chapters from the twelfth century onward in the new nationalist history of India would be a stereotypical figure of "the Muslim," endowed with a "national character": fanatical, bigoted, warlike, dissolute, and cruel.


The story that begins with the birth of Islam in Arabia does, of course, shift to India, but this happens in stages. Tarinicharan gives long descriptions of the Arab invasions of Sind and the successive raids by Mahmud Ghaznavi into different Indian kingdoms, all of which take place well before the establishment of the so-called Slave dynasty in Delhi in the early thirteenth century. These descriptions trace a common pattern that can be clarified by looking at three examples: Tarinicharan's accounts of the invasion of Sind by Muhammad Ibn Kasim, of Mahmud Ghaznavi's attack on Punjab, and of the victory of Muhammad Ghuri at Thanesar.

Muhammad Kasim began his war on Dahir, the king of Sind, in 712.

Fortune favored him. A ball of fire thrown by his soldiers struck King Dahir's elephant which panicked and fled from the battlefield. Dahir's troops, thinking that their king had given up the battle, fell into disarray. Later it will be seen that even when Indians had every chance of victory, similar misfortunes often led to their defeat at the hands of the Muslims. (BI, p. 38)10

It must be noted that what Tarinicharan calls "fortune" (daiva) and "misfortune" (durddaiva) are not the same as the daiva that was divine intervention in Mrityunjay's narrative. Misfortune here is mere accident, a matter of chance. There is no suggestion at all of retribution for immoral conduct. It is the misfortune not of kings, but of "Indians" that despite deserving to win, they have repeatedly lost because of accidents.

Finally, after displaying much heroism, [King Dahir] was killed at the hands of the enemy. His capital was besieged, but Dahir's wife, displaying a courage similar to her husband's, continued to defend the city. In the end, food supplies ran out. Deciding that it was preferable to die rather than submit to the enemy, she instructed the inhabitants of the city to make necessary arrangements. Everyone agreed; everywhere, pyres were lit. After the immolations [of the women], the men, completing their ablutions, went out sword in hand and were soon killed by the Muslims. (BI, p. 38)11

Similar stories of defeat in battle appear later. Two features are worth notice: one, the courage of Hindu women in resisting aggression, and the other, the death in battle of Hindu men as a ritualized form of self-sacrifice. Thus appear such narrative indexes as "everywhere, pyres were lit" and "completing their ablutions . . . killed by the Muslims." The corresponding index for Muslim soldiers is "driven by the prospect of cohabiting with doe-eyed nymphs . . . etc." The contrast is significant.

Tarinicharan tells another story about Kasim that is part of the same narrative structure.

On completing his conquest of Sind, Kasim was preparing to drive further into India when the resourcefulness of a woman became his undoing. Among the women who were captured in war in Sind were two daughters of King Dahir. They were not only of high birth but were also outstandingly beautiful. Kasim thought they would make appropriate presents for the Khalifa and accordingly sent them to his master. The ruler of the Muslims was bewitched by the beauty of the elder daughter and began to look upon her with desire. At this, she burst into tears and said, "It is a pity that I am not worthy of receiving the affections of someone like you, because Kasim has already sullied my dharma." Hearing of this act of his servant, the Khalifa was enraged and ordered that Kasim be sown in hide and brought before him. When this order was carried our, the Khalifa showed Kasim's corpse to the princess. Eyes sparkling with delight, she said, "Kasim was entirely innocent. I had made the allegation only in order to avenge the deaths of my parents and the humiliation of their subjects." (BI, p. 39)12

The punishments are pretty drastic but they seem to suit the mentality of the population. I was told of a man who had stolen a golden butter-lamp from one of the temples in Kyirong. He was convicted of the offence, and what we would think an inhuman sentence was carried out. His hands were publicly cut off and he was then sewn up in a wet yak-skin. After this had been allowed to dry, he was thrown over a precipice.

-- Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

Capital punishment is carried out solely by immersion in water. There are two modes of this execution: one by putting a criminal into a bag made of hides and throwing the bag with its live contents into the water; and the other by tying the criminal’s hands and feet and throwing him into a river with a heavy stone tied to his body. The executioners lift him out after about ten minutes, and if he is judged to be still alive, down they plunge him again, and this lifting up and down is repeated till the criminal expires. The lifeless body is then cut to pieces, the head alone being kept, and all the rest of the severed members are thrown into the river. The head is deposited in a head vase, either at once, or after it has been exposed in public for three or seven days, and the vase is carried to a building established for this sole purpose, which bears a horrible name signifying “Perpetual Damnation.” This practice comes from a superstition of the people that those whose heads are kept in that edifice will forever be precluded from being reborn in this world.

-- Three Years in Tibet, by Shramana Ekai Kawaguchi

To the courage of Hindu women is added another element: intelligence. And parallel to the story of self-sacrifice is created another story: vengeance on the enemy for the death of one's kin.

Let us move to the beginning of the eleventh century and the period of Mahmud of Ghazna. "Of all Muslims, it was his aggressions which first brought devastation and disarray to India, and from that time the freedom of the Hindus has diminished and faded like the phases of the moon" (BI, p. 41). Tarinicharan mentions some of Mahmud's qualities such as courage, foresight, strategic skill, and perseverance, but ignores the fact, discussed in Elphinstone, that Mahmud was also a great patron of arts and letters. "Although he was endowed with these qualities, he was also a great adherent, at least in public, of the Musalman religion, a bitter opponent of the worship of idols and an unyielding pursuer of wealth and fame" (BI, p. 42). This was another alleged trait of the Muslim character: where faith in Islam was a reason for war, it was not true faith but only an apparent adherence to religion.

Mahmud moved against King Anandapal of the Shahiya dynasty.

"The Muslims are determined to destroy the independence of all of India and to eradicate the Hindu religion. If they conquer Lahore, they will attack other parts of the country. It is therefore a grave necessity for all to unite in suppressing the mleccha forces." Saying this, the King [Elphinstone writes the name as Anang Pal, as does Tarinicharan] sent emissaries to all the principal Hindu kings. His appeal did not go unheeded. The kings of Delhi, Kanauj, Ujjain, Gwalior, Kalinjar and other places joined with Anangapal. Masses of troops arrived in Punjab. Worried by this sudden increase in the strength of the opposition, Mahmud decided, for reasons of safety, to halt near Peshawar. The Hindu forces increased daily. Hindu women from far away sold their diamonds, melted down their gold ornaments and sent supplies for war. (BI, pp. 43-44)13

King Anandapal is unlikely to have had the historical foresight to anticipate that the fall of Lahore to Mahmud would lead to "the destruction of the independence of all of India." Needless to say, these are Tarinicharan's words. But by putting them on the lips of the ruler of Punjab, he turns this story into a war of the Hindu jati: "the kings joined with Anangapal," "the Hindu forces increased daily," "Hindu women from far away sent supplies," and so forth. But then came the inevitable stroke of misfortune. "A fire-ball or a sharp arrow flung from the Musalman camp struck the elephant of the Hindu commander Anangapal. The elephant, with the king on its back, fled from the field of battle. At this, the Hindu soldiers fell into disarray" (BI, p. 44).

This episode too ends with a story of vengeance, but this time of another variety: "The king of Kanauj, who had collaborated with Mahmud, became an object of hatred and contempt in the community of Hindu kings. Hearing this, the ruler of Ghazni entered India for the tenth time to help his protege. But well before his arrival, the king of Kalinjar performed the execution of the king of Kanauj" (BI, p. 46). Needless to say, this too was a ritual; hence, it was not just an execution, but the "performance of an execution."

On Muhammad Ghuri, Tarinicharan says that his soldiers were

inhabitants of the hills, hardy and skilled in warfare. By comparison, the Hindu kings were disunited and their soldiers relatively docile and undisciplined. Consequently, it was only to be expected that Muhammad would win easily. But that is not what happened. Virtually no Hindu ruler surrendered his freedom without a mighty struggle. In particular, the Rajahputa were never defeated. The rise, consolidation and collapse of Muslim rule have been completed, but the Rajahputa remain free to this day. (BI, p. 53)

Not only did the Hindu kings not submit without resistance, but after the first attack by Muhammad, they even "chased the Muslims away for twenty kros [forty miles]" (BI, p. 54). On his second attack, the treachery of Jaichand and the unscrupulousness of Muhammad led to the defeat of Prithviraj. This account by Tarinicharan bears no resemblance at all to the narratives of Mrityunjay. There is also a story of revenge at the end. A hill tribe Tarinicharan calls "Goksur" (Elphinstone calls them "a band of Gakkars") had been defeated by Muhammad; one night, some of them managed to enter his tent and kill the Sultan in revenge.

With the establishment of the Sultanate, the story of the oppression of Hindus by intolerant rulers will be repeated a number of times. For instance, Sikandar Lodi:

Sekendar prohibited pilgrimage and ritual bathing in the Ganga and other sacred rivers. He also destroyed temples at many places. A Brahman who had declared that "The Lord recognizes every religion if followed sincerely" was called before Sekendar, and when he refused to discard his tolerant views was executed by the cruel ruler. When a Musalman holy man criticized the ban on pilgrimage, the king was enraged and shouted, "Rascal! So you support the idolaters?" The holy man replied, "No, that is not what I am doing. All I am saying is that the oppression by rulers of their subjects is unjust." (BI, p. 83)14

Tarinicharan's barbs are the sharpest when they are directed against Aurangzeb. "Aranjib was deceitful, murderous and plundered the wealth of others" (BI, p. 220). "His declaration of faith in the Musalman religion only facilitated the securing of his interests. ... In truth, Aranjib would never forsake his interests for reasons of religion or justice" (BI, p. 173). On the other hand, Tarinicharan has praise for Akbar, although his reasons are interesting,

Akbar attempted to eradicate some irrational practices prescribed in the Musalman religion. He also tried to stop several irrational practices of the Hindus. He prohibited the ordeal by fire, the burning of widows against their wishes and child-marriage. He also allowed the remarriage of widows. . . . Orthodox Muslims were strongly opposed to him because of his liberal views on religion. Many called him an atheist. [BI, p. 141)

Thus, it was not his impartiality in matters of religion but his use of the powers of the state to reform both the Hindu and the Muslim religions that makes Akbar worthy of praise.

The issue of the alliance of certain Hindu kings with Muslim rulers comes up again in the context of Akbar's policy. Thus, on the subject of the marriages of Rajput princesses with Mughals:

The Rajahputa who consented to such marriages became particular favorites of the emperor. Far from regarding such marriages as humiliating and destructive of jati, all Rajahputa kings, with the exception of the ruler of Udaipur, felt themselves gratified and honored by them. But the king of Udaipur broke off all ties with these Yavana-loving kings. For this reason, the lineage of Udaipur is today honored as the purest in caste among the Rajahputa. Other kings consider it a great privilege to have social transactions with him. (BI, pp. 125-26)
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Re: The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

Postby admin » Tue May 25, 2021 1:36 am

Part 2 of 2


Not only was Tarinicharan's book reprinted every year, it also served as a model for many other textbooks.15 One such is called "Questions and Answers on the History of India." "Written by Saiyad Abdul Rahim of Barisal, it follows Tarinicharan very closely, but with a few significant amendments.

First, Abdul Rahim writes the story of the Aryans differently: "The Hindus are not the original inhabitants of India. They came from the west of the river Sindhu and became inhabitants of India by the force of arms."16 Where Tarinicharan had written "the non-Aryans were included in the Arya sampraday," or "the Aryans established colonies" or "planted the Hindu flag," the description is now changed to "became inhabitants of India by the force of arms."

In the remaining part of the historical narrative, Abdul Rahim does not deviate from Tarinicharan. Thus: "Between Muhammad Ghaznavi and Muhammad Ghori, the latter caused greater harm to the Hindus, because whereas Muhammad Ghaznavi only looted and plundered, Muhammad Ghori robbed the Hindus of the precious treasure of independence." Or, "The benevolent [mahatma] Akbar had scrapped the jiziya tax; the wicked [duratma] Aranjib reinstated it." Indeed, in answer to a question, there is even an explanation, echoing Tarinicharan, that "the reason for the collapse of the Mughal empire was the bigotry and oppression of Aranjib."17

The change comes with the very last question in the book.

Teacher: What lesson have you drawn from your reading of the history of Musalman rule?

Student: Arya! This is what I have learnt for certain by reading the history of Musalman rule. To rule a kingdom is to destroy one's life both in this world and in the next. To rule, one must give up for all time the god-given gifts of forgiveness and mercy. How lamentable it is that one must, for the sake of a kingdom, redden the earth with the blood of one's own brother in whose company one has spent so many years of one's childhood. Oh kingdom! I have learnt well from the history of Musalman rule how you turn the human heart into stone. For your sake, to kill one's parents or one's brothers and sisters, or even to sacrifice the great treasure of religion, seems a matter of little concern. Oh kingdom, how bewitching are your powers of seduction!

In spite of having plowed through his book, this student of Tarinicharan has clearly developed little appreciation for the charms of raison d'etat. Where Saiyad Abdul Rahim writes in his own words, we can still hear the voice of Mrityunjay's praja.

But we will not hear it for much longer. If there is no place for Islam in the classical heritage of Indian culture, then, in the new mode of historiography, it is going to be thought of as constituting an alternative and different classical tradition. Writing a biography of the Prophet in 1886, Sheikh Abdar Rahim cites, like Tarinicharan, the authority of European scholars to make his claim: "Islam has been far more beneficial to the human jati than the Christian religion. Philosophy and science were first taken to the European continent from the Musalman of Asia and the Moors of Spain. ... The Musalman of Spain were the founders of philosophy in Europe." He also refutes the false accusations against Islam by Europeans:

All the biographies of the Prophet Muhammad which hitherto have been written in the Bengali language are incomplete. Especially since they have followed English books on the subject, they are in many respects unsuitable for Musalman readers. People of other religions have falsely accused Muhammad of spreading his religion by the sword; a perusal of this book will show how little truth there is in that charge.

Further, the assessment made by Hindu authors on the history of Muslim rule in India is denied: "Although some Musalman rulers have oppressed people on grounds of religion, these were acts contrary to religion and must not lead to a charge against Islam itself."19

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the journal Mihir o sudhakar, edited by the same Abdar Rahim, would call for, using almost the same rhetoric as Bankim's Bangadarsan in the previous decade, the writing of "a national history appropriate for the Musalman of Bengal." Responding to that call, Abdul Karim (1863-1943) would write the history of Muslim rule in India,20 and Ismail Husain Siraji (1880-1931) the historical ballad Anal prabdha." These writers were clearly imbued with the ideas of a modern English-educated middle class. They were highly conscious of their role as leaders of the people, in this case of the Muslim praja of Bengal. They would not end their books with the lament "Oh kingdom, how bewitching are your powers of seduction!"

On the contrary, Abdul Karim chose to write his history of Muslim rule in India in the belief that a true account of the glorious achievements of the Muslims in India would produce a better appreciation of their heroism, generosity, and love of learning and create greater amity between Hindus and Muslims (BMRI, preface). The narrative structure he adopts is, however, exactly the same as that used by the British historians he condemns. The story of Muslim rule in India begins with the birth of Muhammad, the conversion of Arabs to the new monotheistic religion, their "abandonment of false beliefs, false customs and superstition" and their "acceptance of true religion and morality," and the new feelings among them of fraternity and unity. All this enabled the Arabs to become "a jati of unprecedented power" (BMRI, p. 11).

However, beginning with the accounts of the early Arab incursions into Sind, Abdul Karim takes great care to point out that the Arab military commanders were punctilious in following the codes of honor and justice in warfare.

[Muhammad Kasim] captured the fort and killed all men bearing arms, but spared all merchants, artisans and ordinary people. . . . Muhammad then wrote to Hejaz to ask whether the Hindus should be allowed to follow their own religion. Hejaz wrote back to say: "Now that they have accepted our suzerainty and agreed to pay taxes to the Khalifa, they must be protected by us and their life and property secured. They are hereby allowed to worship their own gods." [BMRI, pp. 40-41)

On the account of Mahmud Ghaznavi's destruction of the Somnath idol, Abdul Karim comments: "Modern historians think that this account is completely fictitious. . . . Since Mahmud adopted the honorific title of 'The Destroyer of Idols,' the Persian historians decided to turn Mahmud's raid of the Somnath temple into a story of his religious fervor" (BMRI, p. 59).

Abdul Karim is scrupulous in distinguishing between just and honorable conduct of the affairs of state, as approved by Islam, and religious bigotry, to be condemned at all times. Thus Sikandar Lodi, he says, had an extremely narrow and intolerant view of religion and was oppressive toward Hindus (BMRI, p. 151). In all this, his concern clearly was to repudiate the slander that it was a characteristic of Islam as a religion and of Muslims as rulers to be violent, intolerant, and oppressive toward others. This, he suggests, is a calumny spread by European historians; if one were only to listen to Muslim historians telling the story of their own past, it would promote the self-esteem of Muslims as a people and elicit the respect of others toward Islamic civilization and tradition. The structure of this historiographic response was, of course, no different from what Bankim had suggested for the nationalist past.


Discussing the identification in Bankim's agenda of the national past with a Hindu past, Ranajit Guha has suggested that there is an inconsistency here.22 Although Bankim urged that one must reclaim one's own history which, moreover, was a history of power (bahubal), he confined the memory of that struggle for power entirely to the pre-British past. In spite of enumerating the conditions for the historical liberation of a subject nation from colonial rule, he refrained from announcing that the struggle for power be launched against British colonialism. All he tells his readers are stories of the struggle of the Hindu jati against its Muslim rulers. "The excision of colonial rule from the history of bahubol, hence the exclusion of bahubol from the history of colonial rule, prevented the agenda for an alternative historiography from being put into effect even as it was formulated and urged with such fervour."23

If we read Bankim alongside the other less notable history writers of his time, we find, first, that although much less sophisticated, the other writers held more or less the same views on historiography. Second, their writings are also marked by the same inconsistency referred to by Guha. Third, to explain this inconsistency, even if we say in the case of Bankim that the real struggle for power had already been posed against the British although it could not be declared openly,24 we cannot say the same for the other writers. Because in the 1880s, a number of Bengali writers were announcing quite openly that the struggle for an independent historiography and the struggle for independent nationhood were both to be waged against colonialism. The difficulty is that by colonial rule, they meant both British rule and Muslim rule. In both cases, the object of national freedom was the end of colonial rule; in both cases, the means was a struggle for power. There was no inconsistency in their agenda.

It is remarkable how pervasive this framework of nationalist history became in the consciousness of the English-educated Hindu middle class in Bengal in the late nineteenth century. In their literary and dramatic productions as well as in their schools and colleges, this narrative of national history went virtually unchallenged until the early decades of the twentieth century.

The idea that "Indian nationalism" is synonymous with "Hindu nationalism" is not the vestige of some premodern religious conception. It is an entirely modern, rationalist, and historicist idea. Like other modern ideologies, it allows for a central role of the state in the modernization of society and strongly defends the state's unity and sovereignty. Its appeal is not religious but political. In this sense, the framework of its reasoning is entirely secular.
A little examination will show that compared to Mri-tyunjay's historiography, which revolved around the forces of the divine and sacred, Tarinicharan's is a wholly secular historiography.

In fact, the notion of "Hindu-ness" in this historical conception cannot be, and does not need to be, defined by any religious criteria at all. There are no specific beliefs or practices that characterize this "Hindu," and the many doctrinal and sectarian differences among Hindus are irrelevant to its concept. Indeed, even such anti-Vedic and anti-Brahmanical religions as Buddhism and Jainism count here as Hindu. Similarly, people outside the Brahmanical religion and outside caste society are also claimed as part of the Hindu jati. But clearly excluded from this jati are religions like Christianity and Islam.

What then is the criterion for inclusion or exclusion? It is one of historical origin. Buddhism or Jainism are Hindu because they originate in India, out of debates and critiques that are internal to Hinduism. Islam or Christianity come from outside and are therefore foreign. And "India" here is the generic entity, with fixed territorial definitions, that acts as the permanent arena for the history of the jati.

Jati, also spelled jat, caste, in Hindu society. The term is derived from the Sanskrit jāta, “born” or “brought into existence,” and indicates a form of existence determined by birth. In Indian philosophy, jati (genus) describes any group of things that have generic characteristics in common. Sociologically, jati has come to be used universally to indicate a caste group among Hindus.

-- Jati (Hindu caste), by

What, we may ask, is the place of those inhabitants of India who are excluded from this nation? There are several answers suggested in this historiography. One, which assumes the centrality of the modern state in the life of the nation, is frankly majoritarian. The majority "community" is Hindu; the others are minorities. State policy must therefore reflect this preponderance, and the minorities must accept the leadership and protection of the majority. This view, which today is being propagated with such vehemence in postcolonial India by Hindu-extremist politics, actually originated more than a hundred years ago, at the same time Indian nationalism was born.

Consider the Utopian history of Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay, written in 1876.25 The army of Ahmad Shah Abdali is engaged in battle with the Maratha forces in the fields of Panipat. A messenger from the Maratha commander comes to Ahmad Shah and says that although the Muslims had always mistreated the Hindus, the Hindus were prepared to forgive. "'You may return home unhindered with all your troops. If any Musalman living in India wishes to go with you, he may do so, but he may not return within five years.'"

This is, of course, "the history of India as revealed in a dream": Ahmad Shah therefore says:

"Go to the Maharashtrian commander and tell him that ... I will never attack India again."

Hearing this, the messenger saluted [Ahmad Shah] and said, "... I have been instructed to deliver another message. All Musalman nawabs, subahdars, zamindars, jagirdars, etc. of this country who choose not to accompany you may return immediately to their own estates and residences. The Maharashtrian commander has declared, 'All previous offenses of these people have been condoned.'"

There is then held a grand council of all the kings of India in which the following proposal is made:

Although India is the true motherland only of those who belong to the Hindu jati and although only they have been born from her womb, the Muslims are not unrelated to her any longer. She has held them at her breast and reared them. The Muslims are therefore her adopted children.

Can there be no bonds of fraternity between two children of the same mother, one a natural child and the other adopted? There certainly can; the laws of every religion admit this. There has now been born a bond of brotherhood between Hindus and Muslims living in India. . . .

Now all will have to unite in taking care of our Mother. But without a head, no union can function. Who among us will be our leader? By divine grace, there is no room left for debate in this matter. This throne which has been prepared for Raja Ramchandra ... will never be destroyed. There, behold the wise Badshah Shah Alam coming forward to hand over of his own accord his crown, and with it the responsibility of ruling over his empire, to Raja Ramchandra.

Thus, the Mughal emperor hands over his throne to the Maratha ruler Ramchandra. "As soon as the assembly was dissolved and everyone rose from their seats, no one was able to see Shah Alam again. Seated on the throne of Delhi was Raja Ramchandra of the dynasty of Shivaji, on his head the crown given to him by Shah Alam."

It may be mentioned that in this imaginary council a constitution is then promulgated more or less along the lines of the German Reich, with strongly protectionist economic policies that succeed, in this anticolonial Utopia, in keeping the European economic powers firmly in check.

The second answer, which also made the distinction between majority and minority "communities," is associated with what is called the politics of "secularism" in India. This view holds that in order to prevent the oppression of minorities by the majority, the state must enact legal measures to protect the rights and the separate identities of the minorities. The difficulty is that the formal institutions of the state, based on an undifferentiated concept of citizenship, cannot allow for the separate representation of minorities. Consequently, the question of who represents minorities necessarily remains problematic, and constantly threatens the tenuous identity of nation and state.

There was a third answer in this early nationalist historiography. This denied the centrality of the state in the life of the nation and instead pointed to the many institutions and practices in the everyday lives of the people through which they had evolved a way of living with their differences. The writings of Rabindranath Tagore in his post-Swadeshi phase are particularly significant in this respect. The argument here is that the true history of India lay not in the battles of kings and the rise and fall of empires but in this everyday world of popular life whose innate flexibility, untouched by conflicts in the domain of the state, allowed for the coexistence of all religious beliefs.

The principal difficulty with this view, which has many affinities with the later politics of Gandhism, is its inherent vulnerability to the overwhelming sway of the modern state. Its only defense against the historicist conception of the nation is to claim for the everyday life of the people an essential and transhistorical truth. But such a defense remains vulnerable even within the grounds laid by its own premises, as is shown rather interestingly in Rabindranath's hesitation in this matter. Reviewing Abdul Karim's history of Muslim rule in India, Rabindranath remarks on the reluctance of Hindus to aspire to an achievement of power and glory which would lead them to intervene in the lives of other people and on their inability to cope with those who do.26 The political history of Islam and, more recently, the history of European conquests in the rest of the world show, he says, that people who have world-conquering ambitions hide under the edifice of civilized life a secret dungeon of ferocious beastliness and unbridled greed. Compared to this, it often seems preferable to lie in peace in a stagnant pool, free from the restlessness of adventure and ambition.

But the fortifications put up by the sastra have failed to protect India and conflicts with other peoples have become inevitable. We are now obliged to defend our interests against the greed of others and our lives against the violence of others. It would seem to be advisable then to feed a few pieces of flesh to the beast which lies within us and to have it stand guard outside our doors. At the very least, that would arouse the respect of people who are powerful.27

None of these answers, however, can admit that the Indian nation as a whole might have a claim on the historical legacy of Islam. The idea of the singularity of national history has inevitably led to a single source of Indian tradition, namely, ancient Hindu civilization. Islam here is either the history of foreign conquest or a domesticated element of everyday popular life. The classical heritage of Islam remains external to Indian history.

The curious fact is, of course, that this historicist conception of Hindu nationalism has had few qualms in claiming for itself the modern heritage of Europe. It is as rightful participants in that globalized domain of the modern state that today's contestants in postcolonial India fight each other in the name of history.


There was a fourth answer, so unclear and fragmented that it is better to call it only the possibility of an answer. It raises doubts about the singularity of a history of India and also renders uncertain the question of classical origins. This history does not necessarily assume the sovereignty of a single state; it is more confederal in its political assumptions.

Surprisingly, there is a hint of this answer in Bankim's own writings.28 "Just because the ruler is of a different jati does not mean that a country is under subjection." Indeed, it was Bengal under the independent sultans that Bankim regarded as the birthplace of the renaissance in Bengali culture.

History tells us that a principal consequence of subjection is that the intellectual creativity of a subject jati is extinguished. Yet the intellect of the Bengali shone more brightly during the reign of the Pathans ... Never before and never after has the face of Bengal lit up more brightly than in these two hundred years. (BR, p. 332)

How did we come upon this renaissance? Where did this sudden enlightenment in the intellectual life of the jati come from?... How was this light extinguished? (BR, p. 339)29

It was Emperor Akbar, upon whom we shower praises, who became Bengal's nemesis. He was the first to make Bengal a truly subject country. . . . The Mughal is our enemy, the Pathan our ally. (BR, p. 332)

There is a great disjuncture here between the history of India and the history of Bengal. The putative center of a generically sovereign state, coextensive with the nation, also becomes uncertainly located. Bankim notes that the Aryans appeared in Bengal at a much later date; does this weaken the claims of the Bengali upon the classical heritage of the Aryans?

Many will think that the claims of Bengal and Bengalis have now become less formidable, and that we have been slandered as a jati of recent origin. We who flaunt our ancient origins before the modern English have now been reduced to a modern jati.

But it is hard to see why there should be anything dishonorable in all this. We still remain descendants of the ancient Arya jati: no matter when we may have come to Bengal, our ancestors are still the glorious Aryans. (BR, p. 326)

But, on the other hand, the question is raised: who of the Bengalis are Aryans? What is the origin of the Bengali jati? Bankim looked for answers to these questions in a long essay, "The Origins of the Bengalis." The "scientific" evidence he accumulated in support of his arguments will now seem extremely dubious, and this is now one of his least remembered essays. But its conclusion was not very comfortable for the writing of a singular history of the Indian nation.

The English are one jati, the Bengalis are many jati. In fact, among those whom we now call Bengali can be found four kinds of Bengalis: one, Aryan; two, non-Aryan Hindu; three, Hindu of mixed Aryan and non-Aryan origin; and four, Bengali Musalman. The four live separately from one another. At the bottom of Bengali society are the Bengali non-Aryans, mixed Aryans and Bengali Muslims; the top is almost exclusively Aryan. It is for this reason that, looked from the outside, the Bengali jati seems a pure Aryan jati and the history of Bengal is written as the history of an Aryan jati. (BR, p. 363)

Elements of this alternative history can be found not only in Bankim but in other writers as well. Rajkrishna Mukhopadhyay, whose book provided the occasion for Bankim's first comments on the history of Bengal, observed that unlike in other parts of India, Islam did not spread in Bengal by the sword.30 Krishnachandra Ray compares the British period with that of Sultáni or Nawabi rule and notes that in the latter "there was no hindrance to the employment in high office of people of this country."31 And the process of "nationalization" of the last nawab of Bengal, which reached its culmination in Akshaykumar Maitreya's Sirájuddaulá (1898), has already been noted.

The question is whether these two alternative forms of "national" history—one, a history of the bharatavarsiya, assuming a classical Aryan past and centered in northern India, and the other of Bengalis of many jati, derived from uncertain origins—contained in the divergences in their trajectories and rhythms the possibility of a different imagining of nationhood. It is difficult now to explore this possibility in positive terms, because the second alternative in the pair has been submerged in the last hundred years by the tidal wave of historical memory about Arya-Hindu-Bháratavarsa. But the few examples considered here show that it would be impossible, according to this line of thinking, to club Pathan and Mughal rule together and call it the Muslim period, or to begin the story of the spread of Islam in Bengal with "Muhammad instructed his followers to take up the sword and destroy the infidels."

It might be speculated that if there were many such alternative histories for the different regions of India, then the center of Indian history would not need to remain confined to Aryavarta or, more specifically, to "the throne of Delhi." Indeed, the very centrality of Indian history would then become largely uncertain. The question would no longer be one of "national" and "regional" histories: the very relation between parts and the whole would be open for negotiation. If there is any unity in these alternative histories, it is not national but confederal.

But we do not yet have the wherewithal to write these other histories. Until such time that we accept that it is the very singularity of the idea of a national history of India which divides Indians from one another, we will not create the conditions for writing these alternative histories.  
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Re: The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

Postby admin » Tue May 25, 2021 6:05 am

Part 1 of 2

CHAPTER SIX: The Nation and Its Women


The "women's question" was a central issue in the most controversial debates over social reform in early and mid-nineteenth-century Bengal— the period of its so-called renaissance. Rammohan Roy's historical fame is largely built around his campaign against the practice of the immolation of widows, Vidyasagar's around his efforts to legalize widow remarriage and abolish Kulin polygamy; the Brahmo Samaj was split twice in the 1870s over questions of marriage laws and the "age of consent." What has perplexed historians is the rather sudden disappearance of such issues from the agenda of public debate toward the close of the century. From then onward, questions regarding the position of women in society do not arouse the same degree of public passion and acrimony as they did only a few decades before. The overwhelming issues now are directly political ones—concerning the politics of nationalism.

How are we to interpret this change? Ghulam Murshid states the problem in its most obvious, straightforward form.1 If one takes seriously, that is to say, in their liberal, rationalist and egalitarian content, the mid-nineteenth-century attempts in Bengal to "modernize" the condition of women, then what follows in the period of nationalism must be regarded as a clear retrogression. Modernization began in the first half of the nineteenth century because of the penetration of Western ideas. After some limited success, there was a perceptible decline in the reform movements as popular attitudes toward them hardened. The new politics of nationalism "glorified India's past and tended to defend everything traditional"; all attempts to change customs and life-styles began to be seen as the aping of Western manners and were thereby regarded with suspicion. Consequently, nationalism fostered a distinctly conservative attitude toward social beliefs and practices. The movement toward modernization was stalled by nationalist politics.

This critique of the social implications of nationalism follows from rather simple and linear historicist assumptions. Murshid not only accepts that the early attempts at social reform were impelled by the new nationalist and progressive ideas imported from Europe, he also presumes that the necessary historical culmination of such reforms in India ought to have been, as in the West, the full articulation of liberal values in social institutions and practices. From these assumptions, a critique of nationalist ideology and practices is inevitable, the same sort of critique as that of the colonialist historians who argue that Indian nationalism was nothing but a scramble for sharing political power with the colonial rulers; its mass following only the successful activization of traditional patron-client relationships; its internal debates the squabbles of parochial factions; and its ideology a garb for xenophobia and racial exclusiveness.

Clearly, the problem of the diminished importance of the women's question in the period of nationalism deserves a different answer from the one given by Murshid. Sumit Sarkar has argued that the limitations of nationalist ideology in pushing forward a campaign for liberal and egalitarian social change cannot be seen as a retrogression from an earlier radical reformist phase.2 Those limitations were in fact present in the earlier phase as well. The renaissance reformers, he shows, were highly selective in their acceptance of liberal ideas from Europe. Fundamental elements of social conservatism such as the maintenance of caste distinctions and patriarchal forms of authority in the family, acceptance of the sanctity of the šástra (scriptures), preference for symbolic rather than substantive changes in social practices—all these were conspicuous in the reform movements of the early and mid-nineteenth century.

Following from this, we could ask: How did the reformers select what they wanted? What, in other words, was the ideological sieve through which they put the newly imported ideas from Europe? If we can reconstruct this framework of the nationalist ideology, we will be in a far better position to locate where exactly the women's question fitted in with the claims of nationalism. We will find, if I may anticipate my argument in this chapter, that nationalism did in fact provide an answer to the new social and cultural problems concerning the position of women in "modern" society, and that this answer was posited not on an identity but on a difference with the perceived forms of cultural modernity in the West. I will argue, therefore, that the relative unimportance of the women's question in the last decades of the nineteenth century is to be explained not by the fact that it had been censored out of the reform agenda or overtaken by the more pressing and emotive issues of political struggle. The reason lies in nationalism's success in situating the "women's question" in an inner domain of sovereignty, far removed from the arena of political contest with the colonial state. This inner domain of national culture was constituted in the light of the discovery of "tradition."


Apart from the characterization of the political condition of India preceding the British conquest as a state of anarchy, lawlessness, and arbitrary despotism, a central element in the ideological justification of British colonial rule was the criticism of the "degenerate and barbaric" social customs of the Indian people, sanctioned, or so it was believed, by the religious tradition. Alongside the project of instituting orderly, lawful, and rational procedures of governance, therefore, colonialism also saw itself as performing a "civilizing mission." In identifying this tradition as "degenerate and barbaric," colonialist critics invariably repeated a long list of atrocities perpetrated on Indian women, not so much by men or certain classes of men, but by an entire body of scriptural canons and ritual practices that, they said, by rationalizing such atrocities within a complete framework of religious doctrine, made them appear to perpetrators and sufferers alike as the necessary marks of right conduct. By assuming a position of sympathy with the unfree and oppressed womanhood of India, the colonial mind was able to transform this figure of the Indian woman into a sign of the inherently oppressive and unfree nature of the entire cultural tradition of a country.

Take, for example, the following account by an early nineteenth-century British traveler in India:

at no period of life, in no condition of society, should a woman do any thing at her mere pleasure. Their fathers, their husbands, their sons, are verily called her protectors; but it is such protection! Day and night must women be held by their protectors in a state of absolute dependence. A woman, it is affirmed, is never fit for independence, or to be trusted with liberty . . . their deity has allotted to women a love of their bed, of their seat, and of ornaments, impure appetites, wrath, flexibility, desire of mischief and bad conduct. Though her husband be devoid of all good qualities, yet, such is the estimate they form of her moral discrimination and sensibilities, that they bind the wife to revere him as a god, and to submit to his corporeal chastisements, whenever he chooses to inflict them, by a cane or a rope, on the back parts. ... A state of dependence more strict, contemptuous, and humiliating, than that which is ordained for the weaker sex among the Hindoos, cannot easily be conceived; and to consummate the stigma, to fill up the cup of bitter waters assigned to woman, as if she deserved to be excluded from immortality as well as from justice, from hope as well as from enjoyment, it is ruled that a female has no business with the texts of the Veda—that having no knowledge of expiatory texts, and no evidence of law, sinful woman must be foul as falsehood itself, and incompetent to bear witness. To them the fountain of wisdom is sealed, the streams of knowledge are dried up; the springs of individual consolation, as promised in their religion, are guarded and barred against women in their hour of desolate sorrow and parching anguish; and cast out, as she is, upon the wilderness of bereavement and affliction, with her impoverished resources, her water may well be spent in the bottle; and, left as she is, will it be a matter of wonder that, in the moment of despair, she will embrace the burning pile and its scorching flames, instead of lengthening solitude and degradation, of dark and humiliating suffering and sorrow?3

An effervescent sympathy for the oppressed is combined in this breathless prose with a total moral condemnation of a tradition that was seen to produce and sanctify these barbarous customs. And of course it was suttee that came to provide the most clinching example in this rhetoric of condemnation—"the first and most criminal of their customs," as William Bentinck, the governor-general who legislated its abolition, described it. Indeed, the practical implication of the criticism of Indian tradition was necessarily a project of "civilizing" the Indian people: the entire edifice of colonialist discourse was fundamentally constituted around this project.

CHAP. XX. Of what concerns Women.

A Man, both Day and Night, must keep his Wife so much in Subjection, that she by no Means be Mistress of her own Actions: If the Wife have her own Free-Will, notwithstanding she be sprung from a superior Cast, she will yet behave amiss.

So long as a Woman remains unmarried, her Father shall take care of her; and so long as a Wife remains young, her Husband shall take care of her; and in her old Age, her Son shall take care of her; and if, before a Woman's Marriage, her Father should die, the Brother, or Brother's Son, or such other near Relations of the Father shall take care of her; if, after Marriage, her Husband should die, and the Wife has not brought forth a Son, the Brothers, and Brothers Sons, and such other near Relations of her Husband shall take care of her: If there are no Brothers, Brothers Sons, or such other near Relations of her Husband, the Brothers, or Sons of the Brothers of her Father shall take care of her: If there are none of those, the Magistrate shall take care of her; and in every Stage of Life, if the Persons who have been allotted to take care of a Woman do not take care of her, each in his respective Stage accordingly, the Magistrate shall fine them.

If a Husband be abject: and weak, he shall nevertheless endeavour to guard his Wife with Caution, that she may not be unchaste, and learn bad Habits.

If a Man, by Confinement and Threats, cannot guard his Wife, he shall give her a large Sum of Money, and make her Mistress of her Income and Expences, and appoint her to dress Victuals for the Dewtah (i. e.) the Deity.

A Woman is never satisfied with the Copulation of Man, no more than Fire is satisfied with burning Fuel, or the main Ocean with receiving the Rivers, or the Empire of Death with the dying of Men and Animals; in this Case therefore, a Woman is not to be relied on.

Women have Six Qualities; the First, an inordinate Desire for Jewels and fine Furniture, handsome Cloaths, and nice Victuals; the Second, immoderate Lust; the Third, violent Anger; the Fourth, deep Resentment (i. e.) no Person knows the Sentiments concealed in their Heart; the Fifth, another Person's Good appears Evil in their Eyes; the Sixth, they commit bad Actions.

If a Woman is pregnant, they must give her the Sadheh (the Sadheh is, to give a pregnant Woman, in the Ninth Month, Rice, Milk, and Sweetmeats, and other Eatables of the same Kind for her to eat, and to dress her in handsome Cloaths.

If a Husband is going a Journey, he must give his Wife enough to furnish her with Victuals and Cloaths, until the promised Period of his Return; if he goes without leaving such Provision, and his Wife is reduced to great Necessity for want of Victuals and Cloaths, then, if the Wife be naturally well principled, she yet becomes unchaste, for want of Victuals and Cloaths.

In every Family where there is a good Understanding between the Husband and Wife, and where the Wife is not unchaste, and the Husband also commits no bad Practices, it is an excellent Example.

The Creator formed Woman for this Purpose, viz. That Man might copulate with her, and that Children might be born from thence.

A Woman, who always acts according to her Husband's Pleasure, and speaks no ill of any Person, and who can herself do all such Things as are proper for a Woman, and who is of good Principles, and who produces a Son, and who rises from Sleep before her Husband, such a Woman is found only by much and many religious Works, and by a peculiarly happy Destiny, such a Woman, if any Man forsakes of his own accord, the Magistrate shall inflict upon that Man the Punishment of a Thief.

A Woman, who always abuses her Husband, shall be treated with good Advice, for the Space of One Year; if she does not amend with One Year's Advice, and does not leave off abusing her Husband, he shall no longer hold any Communication with her, nor keep her any longer near him, but shall provide her with Food and Cloaths.

A Woman, who dissipates or spoils her own Property, or who procures Abortion, or who has an Intention to murder her Husband, and is always quarrelling with every Body, and who eats before her Husband eats, such Woman shall be turned out of the House.

A Husband, at his own Pleasure, shall cease to copulate with his Wife who is barren, or who always brings forth Daughters.

If a Woman, after her monthly Courses, while her Husband continues in the House, conceiving her Husband to be a weak, low, and contemptible Object, goes no more to him, the Husband, informing People of this, shall turn her out of his House.

If a Woman, following her own Inclination, goes whithersoever she chooses, and does not regard the Words of her Master, such a Woman also shall be turned away.

A Woman, who is of a good Disposition, and who puts on her Jewels and Cloaths with Decorum, and is of good Principles, whenever the Husband is cheerful, the Wife also is cheerful, and if the Husband is sorrowful, the Wife also is sorrowful, and whenever the Husband undertakes a Journey, the Wife puts on a careless Dress, and lays aside her Jewels and other Ornaments, and abuses no Person, and will not expend a single Dam without her Husband's Consent, and has a Son, and takes proper Care of the Household Goods, and, at the Times of Worship, performs her Worship to the Deity in a proper Manner, and goes not out of the House, and is not unchaste, and makes no Quarrels or Disturbances, and has no greedy Passions, and is always employed in some good Work, and pays a proper Respect to all Persons, such is a good Woman.

A Woman shall never go out of the House without the Consent of her Husband, and shall always have some Cloaths upon her Bosom, and at Festival Times shall put on her choicest Dress and her Jewels, and shall never hold Discourse with a strange Man; but may converse with a Sinassee, a Hermit, or an old Man; and shall always dress in Cloaths that reach from below the Leg to above the Navel; and shall not suffer her Breasts to appear out of her Cloaths; and shall not laugh, without drawing her Veil before her Face; and shall act according to the Orders of her Husband; and shall pay a proper Respect to the Deity, her Husband's Father, the Spiritual Guide, and the Guests; and shall not eat until she has served them with Victuals (if it is Physick, she may take it before they eat) a Woman also shall never go to a Stranger's House, and shall not stand at the Door, and must never look out of a window.

Six Things are disgraceful to a Woman: 1st. To drink Wine and eat Conserves, or any such inebriating Things. 2d. To keep company with a Man of bad Principles. 3d. To remain separate from her Husband. 4th. To go to a Stranger's House without good Cause. 5th. To sleep in the Day- Time. 6th. To remain in a Stranger's House.

When a Woman, whose Husband is Absent on a Journey, has expended all the Money that he gave her, to support her in Victuals and Cloaths during his Absence, or if her Husband went on a Journey without leaving any Thing with her to support her Expences, she shall support herself by Painting, by Spinning, or some other such Employment.

If a Man goes on a Journey, his Wife shall not divert herself by Play, nor shall see any publick Show, nor shall laugh, nor shall dress herself in Jewels and fine Cloaths, nor shall see Dancing, nor hear Musick, nor shall sit in the Window, nor shall ride out, nor shall behold any Thing choice and rare; but shall fasten well the House-Door, and remain private; and shall not eat any dainty Victuals, and shall not blacken her Eyes with Eye-Powder, and shall not view her Face in a Mirror; she shall never exercise herself in any such agreeable Employment, during the Absence of her Husband.

It is proper for a Woman, after her Husband's Death, to burn herself in the Fire with his Corpse; every Woman, who thus burns herself, shall remain in Paradise with her Husband Three Crore and Fifty Lacks of Years, by Destiny; if she cannot burn, she must, in that Case, preserve an inviolable Chastity; if she remains always chaste, she goes to Paradise; and if she does not preserve her Chastity, she goes to Hell.

-- CHAP. XX. Of what concerns Women. Excerpt from A Code of Gentoo Laws, Or, Ordinations of the Pundits, From a Persian Translation, Made From the Original, Written in the Shanscrit Language, by Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, 1776

Of course, within the discourse thus constituted, there was much debate and controversy about the specific ways in which to carry out this project. The options ranged from proselytization by Christian missionaries to legislative and administrative action by the colonial state to a gradual spread of enlightened Western knowledge. Underlying each option was the liberal colonial idea that in the end, Indians themselves must come to believe in the unworthiness of their traditional customs and embrace the new forms of civilized and rational social order.

I spoke, in chapter 2, of some of the political strategies of this civilizing mission. What must be noted here is that the so-called women's question in the agenda of Indian social reform in the early nineteenth century was not so much about the specific condition of women within a specific set of social relations as it was about the political encounter between a colonial state and the supposed "tradition" of a conquered people—a tradition that, as Lata Mani has shown in her study of the abolition of satidaha (immolation of widows),4 was itself produced by colonialist discourse. It was colonialist discourse that, by assuming the hegemony of Brahmanical religious texts and the complete submission of all Hindus to the dictates of those texts, defined the tradition that was to be criticized and reformed. Indian nationalism, in demarcating a political position opposed to colonial rule, took up the women's question as a problem already constituted for it: namely, as a problem of Indian tradition.


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.

Thus far we have not obtained anything that is different from the typical conception of gender roles in traditional patriarchy. If we now find continuities in these social attitudes in the phase of social reform in the nineteenth century, we are tempted to label this, as indeed the liberal historiography of India has done, as "conservatism," a mere defense of traditional norms. But this would be a mistake. The colonial situation, and the ideological response of nationalism to the critique of Indian tradition, introduced an entirely new substance to these terms and effected their transformation. The material/spiritual dichotomy, to which the terms world and home corresponded, had acquired, as noted before, a very special significance in the nationalist mind. 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, pre-serve, 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.

Once we match this new meaning of the home/world dichotomy with the identification of social roles by gender, we get the ideological framework within which nationalism answered the women's question. It would be a grave error to see in this, as liberals are apt to in their despair at the many marks of social conservatism in nationalist practice, a total rejection of the West. Quite the contrary: the nationalist paradigm in fact supplied an ideological principle of selection. It was not a dismissal of modernity but an attempt to make modernity consistent with the nationalist project.


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). Social parody was the most popular and effective medium of this ideological propagation. From Iswarchandra Gupta (1812-59) and the kabiyal (songsters) of the early nineteenth century to the celebrated pioneers of modern Bengali theater—Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-73), Dinabandhu Mitra, Jyotirindranath Tagore (1849-1925)7 Upendranath Das (1848-95), Amritalal Bose (1853-1929)—everyone picked up the theme. 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. One can hardly miss in all this a criticism—reproach mixed with envy—of the wealth and luxury of the new social elite emerging around the institutions of colonial administration and trade.

Take, for example, a character called "Mister Dhurandhar Pakrashi," whose educated wife constantly calls him a "fool" and a "rascal" (in English) and wants to become a "lady novelist" like Mary Correlli. This is how their daughter, Phulkumari, makes her entrance:

Phulkumari; Papa! Papa! I want to go to the races, please take me with you.

Dhurandhar: Finished with your tennis?

Phulkumari: Yes, now I want to go to the races. And you have to get me a new bicycle. 1 won't ride the one you got me last year. And my football is torn: you have to get me another one. And Papa, please buy me a self-driving car. And also a nice pony. And please fix an electric lamp in my drawing-room; I can't see very well in the gaslight.

Dhurandhar: Nothing else? How about asking the Banerjee Company to rebuild this house upside down, ceiling at the bottom and floor on top?

Phulkamari: How can that be, Papa? You can't give me an education and then expect me to have low tastes?5

Or take the following scene, which combines a parody of the pretensions to Westernized manners of the reformists with a comment on their utter impotence against the violence and contempt of the British. A group of enlightened men, accompanied by their educated wives, are meeting to discuss plans for "female emancipation" when they are interrupted by three English soldiers called—yes!—James, Frederick, and Peter. (Most of the scene is in English in the original.)

James: What is the matter? my dear—something cheering seems to take place here?

Unnata Babu: Cheering indeed, as ninety against twenty—a meeting for the Hindu female liberty.

James: A meeting for the Hindu female liberty? A nice thing indeed amidst poverty.

Frederick: Who sit there, both males and females together?

Peter: These seem to be the Hindu Heroes, met to unveil their wives' veiled nose.

Frederick: Nose alone won't do—if eyes and head be set to full liberty, Hindu ladies are sure to be the objects of curiosity.

Peter: Curiosity, nicety, and charity too.

Unnata Babu: This is offensive—this is offensive.

James: Nothing offensive—nothing offensive.

Unnata Babu: Go hence, ye foreigners. Why come Mere, ye vain intruders?

James: To dance, to sing and to feast—With our rising cousins of the East.

He takes Unnata Babu's wife by her hand, sings and dances with her, and then kisses her.

Unnata Babu [Catches James by the hand]: Leave her, leave her. She is my wife, my married wife.

James [Throws Unnata to the ground]:
O! thou nigger of butter and wax made,
Dared come, my hand to shake!
If Jupiter himself with his thunder-bolt in hand,
Comes to fight us, we will here him withstand.
[Takes out his sword]
Look, look, here is my sword.
Come, please, stain it with your blood.
[Frederick and Peter also take out their swords]
Strike him, strike the devil right and left,
We both better strike the rest.

The English soldiers make their exit with the following words to Unnata's wife:

James: . . . O! pretty poor lady! We good-bye,
Pray you—go, go forward—
Wait upon, and guard your husband,
A treacherous, bloody coward.6

The literature of parody and satire in the first half of the nineteenth century clearly contained much that was prompted by a straightforward defense of existing practices and outright rejection of the new. The nationalist paradigm had still not emerged in clear outline. In hindsight, this period—from Rammohan to Vidyasagar—appears, as one of great social turmoil and ideological confusion among the literati. And then a new discourse, drawing from various sources, began to form in the second half of the century—the discourse of nationalism.
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Re: The Nation and Its Fragments, by Partha Chatterjee

Postby admin » Tue May 25, 2021 6:06 am

Part 2 of 2

In 1851, for instance, a prize essay on "Hindu female education" marshalled evidence that women's education was encouraged in ancient India and that it was not only not harmful but positively beneficial for women to be educated.7 It went into numerous practical considerations on how women from respectable families could learn to read and write without any harm to their caste or their honor. In 1870, however, a tract on the duties of wives was declaring that the old prejudices about women's education had virtually disappeared. "Now the times are such that most people believe that ... by educating women the condition of the country will improve and that there will be happiness, welfare and civilized manners in social life."8

The point of the new discussions was to define the social and moral principles for locating the position of women in the "modern" world of the nation. Take, for example one of the most clearly formulated tracts on the subject: Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay's Paribarik prabandba (Essays on the family), published in 1882. Bhudeb states the problem in his characteristic matter-of-fact style:

Because of the hankering for the external glitter and ostentation of the English way of life ... an upheaval is under way within our homes. The men learn English and become sahibs. The women do not learn English but nevertheless try to become bibis. In households which manage an income of a hundred rupees, the women no longer cook, sweep or make the bed . . . everything is done by servants and maids; [the women] only read books, sew carpets and play cards. What is the result? The house and furniture get untidy, the meals poor, the health of every member of the family is ruined; children are born weak and rickety, constantly plagued by illness—they die early.

Many reform movements are being conducted today; the education of women, in particular, is constantly talked about. But we rarely hear of those great arts in which women were once trained—a training which if it had still been in vogue would have enabled us to tide over this crisis caused by injudicious imitation. I suppose we will never hear of this training again.

The ganika and sometimes the rupajiva too, received free training in the various arts and

those who teach prostitutes, female slaves and actresses arts such as singing, playing on musical instruments, reading, dancing, acting, writing, painting, playing on instruments such as vina (lyre), pipe and drum, reading the thoughts of others, manufacture of scents and garlands, shampooing and the art of attracting and captivating the mind of others shall be endowed with maintenance from the state. They, the teachers shall train the sons of prostitutes to be chief actors (rangopajivan) on the stage. The wives of actors and others of similar profession who have been taught various languages and the use of signals (samjna) shall, along with their relatives be made use of in detecting the wicked and murdering and deluding foreign spies.34

In a sixth century Jain work we have an exhaustive list of the prostitute's attainments -- writing, arithmetic, the arts, singing, playing on musical instruments, drums, chess, dice, eightboard chess, instant verse-making, Prakrite and Apabhramsa poetry, proficiency in the science of perfume making, jewellery, dressing up, knowledge of the signs of good or bad men and women, horses, elephants, cooks, rams, umbrellas, rods, swords, jewels, gems which antidote poison, architecture, camps and canopies, phalanx arrangement, fighting, fencing, shooting arrows, ability to interpret omens, etc. Altogether seventy-two arts and sciences were to be mastered by her.35

It is clear that the prostitute especially the ganika, the most accomplished among them, offered men something which by the early centuries A.D. had become absolutely rare among the women of the gentry, viz, accomplishment. We read in the Manusamhita: "The sacrament of marriage is to a female what initiation with the sacred thread is to a male. Serving the husband is for the wife what residence in the preceptor's house is to the man and household duty is to the woman, what offering sacrifices is to the man."36 This series of neat equations deprive the woman of education, dooming her to household chores only, especially service of her husband and in-laws, but also thereby indirectly doom her to the loss of her husband's attention. With an unaccomplished wife at home, the man who cared for cultured female company went to the brothel for it. Manu belongs to the early centuries A.D.;37 a steady deterioration in the status of the woman and the Sudra followed his codification of the social norm and the brothel flourished because it catered to the cultured man-about-the-town's (nagaraka) tastes in women.

The ganika because of her youth, beauty, training and accomplishment belonged to a superior social status. With an extensive, elaborate, and apparently expensive education she could frequently name her price, which, as Buddhist texts testify was often prohibitive. She was patronized by the king who visited her sometimes, as also by wealthy merchants. Because of her high fees none but the most wealthy could approach her. She alone enjoyed a position where as long as her youth and beauty lasted she could not be exploited.

-- Prostitution in Ancient India, by Sukumari Bhattacharji

The problem is put here in the empirical terms of a positive sociology, a genre much favored by serious Bengali writers of Bhudeb's time. But the sense of crisis he expresses was very much a reality. Bhudeb is voicing the feelings of large sections of the newly emergent middle class of Bengal when he says that the very institutions of home and family were threatened under the peculiar conditions of colonial rule. A quite unprecedented external condition had been thrust upon us; we were forced to adjust to those conditions, for which a certain degree of imitation of alien ways was unavoidable. But could this wave of imitation be allowed to enter our homes? Would that not destroy our inner identity? 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.10 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 relevant dichotomies and analogies are all here. The material/spiritual dichotomy corresponds to animal/godlike qualities, which in turn corresponds to masculine/feminine virtues. Bhudeb then invests this ideological form with its specifically nationalist content:

In a society where men and women meet together, converse together at all times, eat and drink together, travel together, the manners of women are likely to be somewhat coarse, devoid of spiritual qualities and relatively prominent in animal traits. For this reason, I do not think the customs of such a society are free from all defect. Some argue that because of such close association with women, the characters of men acquire certain tender and spiritual qualities. Let me concede the point. But can the loss caused by coarseness and degeneration in the female character be compensated by the acquisition of a certain degree of tenderness in the male?

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.11

The new norm for organizing family life and determining the right conduct for women in the conditions of the modern world could now be deduced with ease. Adjustments would have to be made in the external world of material activity, and men would bear the brunt of this task. To the extent that the family was itself entangled in wider social relations, it too could not be insulated from the influence of changes in the outside world. Consequently, the organization and ways of life at home would also have to be changed. But the crucial requirement was to retain the inner spirituality of indigenous social life. The home was the principal site for expressing the spiritual quality of the national culture, and women must take the main responsibility for protecting and nurturing this quality. No matter what the changes in the external conditions of life for women, they must not lose their essentially spiritual (that is, feminine) virtues; they must not, in other words, become essentially Westernized. It followed, as a simple criterion for judging the desirability of reform, that the essential distinction between the social roles of men and women in terms of material and spiritual virtues must at all times be maintained. There would have to be a marked difference in the degree and manner of Westernization of women, as distinct from men, in the modern world of the nation.


This was the central principle by which nationalism resolved the women's question in terms of its own historical project. The details were not, of course, worked out immediately. In fact, from the middle of the nineteenth century right up to the present day, there have been many controversies about the precise application of the home/world, spiritual/material, feminine/masculine dichotomies in various matters concerning the everyday life of the "modern" woman—her dress, food, manners, education, her role in organizing life at home, her role outside the home. The concrete problems arose out of the rapidly changing situation, both external and internal, in which the new middle-class family found itself; the specific solutions were drawn from a variety of sources—a reconstructed "classical" tradition, modernized folk forms, the utilitarian logic of bureaucratic and industrial practices, the legal idea of equality in a liberal democratic state. The content of the resolution was neither predetermined nor unchanging, but its form had to be consistent with the system of dichotomies that shaped and contained the nationalist project.

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.

We can follow the form of this resolution in several specific aspects in which the life and condition of middle-class women have changed over the last one hundred years or so. Take the case of female education, that contentious subject that engaged so much of the attention of social reformers in the nineteenth century.12 Some of the early opposition to the opening of schools for women was backed by an appeal to tradition, which supposedly prohibited women from being introduced to bookish learning, but this argument hardly gained much support. The real threat was seen to lie in the fact that the early schools, and arrangements for teaching women at home, were organized by Christian missionaries; there was thus the fear of both proselytization and the exposure of women to harmful Western influences.13 The threat was removed when in the 1850s Indians themselves began to open schools for girls. The spread of formal education among middle-class women in Bengal in the second half of the nineteenth century was remarkable. From 95 girls' schools with a total attendance of 2,500 in 1863, the figures went up to 2,238 schools in 1890 with a total of more than 80,000 students.14 In the area of higher education, Chandramukhi Bose (1860-1944) and Kadambini Ganguli (1861-1923) were celebrated as examples of what Bengali women could achieve in formal learning: they took their bachelor of arts degrees from the University of Calcutta in 1883, before most British universities agreed to accept women on their examination rolls. Kadambini then went on to medical college and became the first professionally schooled woman doctor.

The development of an educative literature and teaching materials in the Bengali language undoubtedly made possible the quite general acceptance of formal education among middle-class women. The long debates of the nineteenth century on a proper "feminine curriculum" now seem to us somewhat quaint, but it is not difficult to identify the real point of concern. Much of the content of the modern school education was seen as important for the "new" woman, but to administer it in the English language was difficult in practical terms, irrelevant because the central place of the educated woman was still at home, and threatening because it might devalue and displace that central site where the social position of women was located. The problem was resolved through the efforts of the intelligentsia, which made it a fundamental task of the national project to create a modern language and literature suitable for a widening readership that would include newly educated women. Through textbooks, periodicals, and creative works, an important force that shaped the new literature of Bengal was the urge to make it accessible to women who could read only one language—their mother tongue.

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 nationalist construct of the new woman derived its ideological strength from making the goal of cultural refinement through education a personal challenge for every woman, thus opening up a domain where woman was an autonomous subject. This explains to a large extent the remarkable degree of enthusiasm among middle-class women themselves to acquire and use for themselves the benefits of formal learning. They set this goal for themselves in their personal lives and as the objects of their will: to achieve it was to achieve freedom.15 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.

It is this particular nationalist construction of reform as a project of both emancipation and self-emancipation of women (and hence a project in which both men and women had to participate) that also explains why the early generation of educated women themselves so keenly propagated the nationalist idea of the "new woman." 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."16 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, and Kundamala Debi, writing in 1870, expressed this well when she advised other women

If you have acquired real knowledge, then give no place in your heart to memsaheh-like behavior. That is not becoming in a Bengali housewife. See how an educated woman can do housework thoughtfully and systematically in a way unknown to an ignorant, uneducated woman. And see how if God had not appointed us to this place in the home, how unhappy a place the world would be.17

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.

The specific markers were obtained from diverse sources, and in terms of their origins, each had its specific history. The dress of the bhadramahila, for instance, went through a whole phase of experimentation before what was known as the brahmika sari (a form of wearing the sari in combination with blouse, petticoat, and shoes made fashionable in Brahmo households) became accepted as standard for middle-class women.18

Indian tastes in clothing underwent a massive change with the arrival of an alien people — the British — in the eighteenth century, marking the entry of cultural values and fashions of Victorian England. It is in the colonial period that the sari got fused with European articles like the blouse and the petticoat — now naturalised in Indian vocabulary to the extent that they barely sound foreign. The cut of the modern blouse bore a strong resemblance to the torso of the gown and the petticoats gave the sari a graceful fall and a formal appearance.

Saris in colonial-era Bengal used to be made of a single cloth of fine, semi-transparent muslin that was draped around the body with no garments underneath — an outfit well-suited to Bengal’s hot climate. While leaving the house, the women would ordinarily drape a shawl, which was sufficient in Bengal’s then relatively gender-segregated society. From the perspective of the colonisers, who saw ‘exposure’ or physicality as a marker of savagery — the sari worn like that by Bengali women, left them “practically unclad”. There are stories of Indian women not being permitted entry in clubs frequented by the British on account of their ‘indecent’ clothing.,,

Prior to the societal reforms in Bengal, where a serious need was felt for recasting women’s living conditions, Bengali women of the middle and upper classes were generally confined to the private sphere and did not appear in public. Then emerged the distinct Bhadramahila, or middle-class gentlewoman, who was to gain an education and even participate in the public sphere. Until this point, explains sociologist Vinay Bahl, only the prostitutes and women of labouring class were seen in public, and the Bhadramahila had to be physically distinguished from these. Her attire — her sari — also had to be ”civilised’ and made ‘suitable’ for coming in contact with unfamiliar men...

The urban wearing style is a post-1870s phenomenon, said to be popularised by Gyananda Nandini Debi, the wife of Satyendranath Tagore — brother of Rabindranath Tagore — who introduced with it the use of Victorian-style blouses, jackets, chemises and petticoats among circles of middle-class Bengali women. She is said to have arrived from Bombay “dressed in a civil and elegant attire” in imitation of Parsi women which was hailed as an “integral combination of indigenousness, decorum and modesty”. Her style was quickly adopted by the Brahmo Samaj women — which came to be known as Brahmika sari — and also gradually gained acceptance among Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh Brahmos as well as non-Brahmos.

-- Why the story of the sari is as complex as its pleats: A glance into the sari’s uneven origins, colonial-era influences and confluent meanings encourages wearers to go beyond its broadstroke projection as a ‘timeless’ marker of pan-Indian-womanhood., by Nandini Rathi

Here too the necessary differences were signified in terms of national identity, social emancipation, and cultural refinement—differences, that is to say, with the memsaheb, with women of earlier generations, and with women of the lower classes. Further, 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.

There are many important implications of this construct. To take one example, consider an observation often made: the relative absence of gender discrimination in middle-class occupations in India, an area that has been at the center of demands for women's right's in the capitalist West. Without denying the possibility that there are many complexities that lie behind this rather superficial observation, it is certainly paradoxical that, whereas middle-class employment has been an area of bitter competition between cultural groups distinguished by caste, religion, language, and so on, in the entire period of nationalist and postcolonial politics in India, gender has never been an issue of public contention. Similarly, the new constitution of independent India gave women the vote without any major debate on the question and without there ever having been a movement for women's suffrage at any period of nationalist politics in India. The fact that everyone assumed that women would naturally have the vote indicates a complete transposition of the terms in which the old patriarchy of tradition was constituted. The fixing by nationalist ideology of masculine/feminine qualities in terms of the material/spiritual dichotomy does not make women who have entered professional occupations competitors to male job seekers, because in this construct there are no specific cultural signs that distinguish women from men in the material world.

In fact, the distinctions that often become significant are those that operate between women in the world outside the home. They can mark out women by their dress, eating habits (drinking/smoking), adherence to religious marks of feminine status, behavior toward men, and so on, and classify them as Westernized, traditional, low-class (or subtler variations on those distinctions)—all signifying a deviation from the acceptable norm. A woman identified as Westernized, for instance, would invite the ascription of all that the "normal" woman (mother/sister/wife/daughter) is not—brazen, avaricious, irreligious, sexually promiscuous—and this not only from males but also from women who see themselves as conforming to the legitimate norm, which is precisely an indicator of the hegemonic status of the ideological construct. An analogous set of distinctions would mark out the low-class or common woman from the normal. (Perhaps the most extreme object of contempt for the nationalist is the stereotype of the Anglo-Indian tnyas—Westernized and common at the same time.) Not surprisingly, deviation from the norm also carries with it the possibility of a variety of ambiguous meanings—signs of illegitimacy become the sanction for behavior not permitted for those who are "normal"—and these are the sorts of meaning exploited to the full by, for instance, the commercial media of film, advertising, and fashion. Here is one more instance of the displacement in nationalist ideology of the construct of woman as a sex object in Western patriarchy: the nationalist male thinks of his own wife/sister/daughter as "normal" precisely because she is not a "sex object," while those who could be "sex objects" are not "normal."


1 end this chapter by pointing out another significant feature of the way in which nationalism sought to resolve the women's question in accordance with its historical project. This has to do with the one aspect of the question that was directly political, concerning relations with the state. Nationalism, as we have noticed before, located its own subjectivity in the spiritual domain of culture, where it considered itself superior to the West and hence undominated and sovereign. It could not permit an encroachment by the colonial power in that domain. This determined the characteristically nationalist response to proposals for effecting social reform through the legislative enactments of the colonial state. Unlike the early reformers from Rammohan to Vidyasagar, nationalists of the late nineteenth century were in general opposed to such proposals, for such a method of reform seemed to deny the ability of the nation to act for itself even in a domain where it was sovereign. In the specific case of reforming the lives of women, consequently, the nationalist position was firmly based on the premise that this was an area where the nation was acting on its own, outside the purview of the guidance and intervention of the colonial state.

We now get the full answer to the historical problem I raised at the beginning of this chapter. The reason why the issue of "female emancipation" seems to disappear from the public agenda of nationalist agitation in the late nineteenth century is not because it was overtaken by the more emotive issues concerning political power. Rather, the reason lies in the refusal of nationalism to make the women's question an issue of political negotiation with the colonial state. The simple historical fact is that the lives of middle-class women, coming from that demographic section that effectively constituted the "nation" in late colonial India, changed most rapidly precisely during the period of the nationalist movement—indeed, so rapidly that women from each generation in the last hundred years could say quite truthfully that their lives were strikingly different from those led by the preceding generation. These changes took place in the colonial period mostly outside the arena of political agitation, in a domain where the nation thought of itself as already free. It was after independence, when the nation had acquired political sovereignty, that it became legitimate to embody the idea of reform in legislative enactments about marriage rules, property rights, suffrage, equal pay, equality of opportunity, and so on. Now, of course, the women's question has once again become a political issue in the life of the nation-state.

Another problem on which we can now obtain a clearer perspective is that of the seeming absence of any autonomous struggle by women themselves for equality and freedom. We would be mistaken to look for evidence of such struggle in the public archives of political affairs, for unlike the women's movement in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe or America, the battle for the new idea of womanhood in the era of nationalism was waged in the home. We know from the evidence left behind in autobiographies, family histories, religious tracts, literature, theater, songs, paintings, and such other cultural artifacts, that it was the home that became the principal site of the struggle through which the hegemonic construct of the new nationalist patriarchy had to be normalized. This is the real history of the women's question whose terrain our genealogical investigation into the nationalist idea of "woman" has identified. The nationalist discourse we have heard so far is a discourse about women; women do not speak here. In the next chapter, we will explore the problem of enabling women in recent Indian history to speak for themselves.

The location of the state in the nationalist resolution of the women's question in the colonial period has yet another implication. For sections of the middle class that felt themselves culturally excluded from the formation of the nation and that then organized themselves as politically distinct groups, their relative exclusion from the new nation-state would act as a further means of displacement of the legitimate agency of reform. In the case of Muslims in Bengal, for instance, the formation of a new middle class was delayed, for reasons we need not go into here. Exactly the same sorts of ideological concerns typical of a nationalist response to issues of social reform in a colonial situation can be seen to operate among Muslims as well, with a difference in chronological time.19 Nationalist reforms do not, however, reach political fruition in the case of the Muslims in independent India, because to the extent that the dominant cultural formation among them considers the community excluded from the state, a new colonial relation is brought into being. The system of dichotomies of inner/outer, home/world, feminine/masculine are once again activated. Reforms that touch upon what is considered the inner essence of the identity of the community can be legitimately carried out only by the community itself, not by the state. It is instructive to note how little institutional change has been allowed in the civil life of Indian Muslims since independence and to compare the degree of change with that in Muslim countries where nationalist cultural reform was a part of the successful formation of an independent nation-state. The contrast is striking if one compares the position of middle-class Muslim women in West Bengal today with that of neighboring Bangladesh.

The continuance of a distinct cultural "problem" of the minorities is an index of the failure of the Indian nation to effectively include within its body the whole of the demographic mass that it claims to represent. The failure becomes evident when we note that the formation of a hegemonic "national culture" was necessarily built upon the privileging of an "essential tradition," which in turn was defined by a system of exclusions. Ideals of freedom, equality, and cultural refinement went hand in hand with a set of dichotomies that systematically excluded from the new life of the nation the vast masses of people whom the dominant elite would represent and lead, but who could never be culturally integrated with their leaders. Both colonial rulers and their nationalist opponents conspired to displace in the colonial world the original structure of meanings associated with Western liberal notions of right, freedom, equality, and so on. The inauguration of the national state in India could not mean a universalization of the bourgeois notion of "man."

Indeed, in setting up its new patriarchy as a hegemonic construct, nationalist discourse not only demarcated its cultural essence as distinct from that of the West but also from that of the mass of the people. It has generalized itself among the new middle class, admittedly a widening class and large enough in absolute numbers to be self-reproducing, but is situated at a great distance from the large mass of subordinate classes. My analysis of the nationalist construction of woman once again shows how, in the confrontation between colonialist and nationalist discourses, the dichotomies of spiritual/material, home/world, feminine/masculine, while enabling the production of a nationalist discourse which is different from that of colonialism, nonetheless remains trapped within its framework of false essentialisms.  
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