Monthly Archives: August 2006

Performative Production of the State in India

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Akhil Gupta has this article titled ‘Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics and the
Imagined
State’ in Zoya Hasan edited book Politics and the State in India (Sage,
New Delhi, 2000). In this article he examines the way people construct the state through various practices including corruption. I found this article extremely interesting as it couples solid field work with fine theorization. The very idea of viewing how people imagine the state into being performatively is great. His is a nuanced reading of his field work data which attends to local history, culture, social set up as well as resonances of relationships. I think it is important to not see corruption as the same everywhere and always (it wont lead us anywhere). There is much sense in following Gupta’s approach and study the performative production of corruption, state, and the relation between state and subjects. If your interest includes state, corruption, performativism, any or all of these, I think you would find Gupta’s article interesting.

An excerpt: “At the local level it becomes difficult to experience the state as an ontically coherent entity: what one confronts instead is much more discrete and fragmentary… it is precisely through the practices of such local institutions that a translocal institution such as the state comes to be imagined.”

Akhil Gupta points out that western categories of civil society and state as well as private citizen and public servant become inadequate to describe the lived realities in India as one finds boundaries being blurred such that the function of public servant need not transpire only in the rationalizes locations of the offices; and the interaction between the civil society and state may continuously be revised on the basis of various factors.

I have only picked a few bits of the many fine ideas to be found in this article. Check it out, folks.

Textual practices in 19th century South Asia

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One of the much debated issues within the field of south Asian studies is the nature and origin of ‘novel’. People have pointed out that the older belief that when Indians started to write novels in 19th century they merely imitated the

European form. It has been noted that much more complex processes were underway than mere imitation. One of my favorite theses comes from Aniket Jaavare who terms it a generic translation. In discussing an early novel written in Marathi, Aniket argues shows how there is mixing of the European prose narrative style and the poetic style of narration commonly found in Sanskrit literature. He goes on to argue that possibly what is happening in 19th century is not so much imitation of European novel, but derivation of the genre which is then mould to the local purposes of the Indian writer. For example one such purpose was to modernize one’s language.

Novel writing is one of the forms of textualising that south
Asia learnt from the colonizer. The modern genres of history, autobiography, journalese are all, along with novel, new to the south Asian culture. Learning these therefore meant that a sort of losing of ones language as these affected the languages. Therefore, the newness of ‘writing’ a novel is also a beginning to alter one’s language, to cut one’s tongue vis a vis the colonizer’s tongue. This space of newness is at once a novel mode of knowledge production as well as one where a negotiated settlement is taking place between the older and the new forms of knowledge production. Thus the emergence of these textual practices is engaged in complex relation of absorption, re-formation, and internalization.

 

 

 

Caste and Identity Politics

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In the post-independence period in Indiaon the one hand there has been erosion in the caste system so that in certain quarters and certain fields the power of this abominable system has decreased; on the other, we see the caste organization being revitalized. This paradoxical situation has been attributed to the policy of reservation policy by some thinkers (not those who are against this policy, but co-travelers). They feel that this policy while enabling the oppressed social groups upward social mobility, also gave an impetus to a process by which many social groups declared themselves as a caste group (while they were seen to belong to a sub-caste earlier), and made claims on the beneficial policy. At the same time, those social groups outside the ambit of this policy felt threatened by the emergence of lower castes into areas of social and political spaces that they traditionally held with themselves, began to mobilize themselves and work for the benefits of their members. This may be seen reflected in the profusion of ‘mats’ (religious seats) and matadheeshas (seers). These twin processes related to the reservation policy have discounted the little progress made in the direction towards abolition of caste.

This argument, offered by those who support the reservation policy yet note the existence of such a sociological situation, is tenable, but within limits. Because, I feel that while this may be true, what has led to the entrenchment of caste interests on the part of the upper castes is also the very idea of losing the traditional power. Social mobility of the oppressed social groups thus has led to a reorganization of the caste hegemony wherein the upper caste social groups find new ways of defending the perpetuation of their domination. See for instance the religious fundamentalism which I believe did much harm to the solidarity of the anti-caste forces in the society. From the ethico-judicial sphere where the power of caste was contested, move towards identity politics was the gift of the religious fundamentalism. Also interesting is the manner in which the exponential growth of religious fundamentalism takes place at the same time as the emergence of the oppressed social groups into the political sphere in a decisive manner, something that was made possible by the reservation policy.

This paradox thus has meant that the goal of annihilation of caste is more or less dispensed with in favour of identity politics. It is this which has created a situation where more efforts at improving the socio-economic conditions of the oppressed social groups would also mean the postponement of the abolition of caste. If the various parties involved in this complex social issue continue to stick to the politics of identity, the goal of a casteless society that Ambedkar and others had set for us to achieve might remain unrealized.

State of affairs of affairs of the State

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Thinking about governance is rather difficult. I find too many intricacies involved and hence if someone asks me about the performance of a government or the result of an election I am confused and unable to give a coherent answer. I of course have no deep knowledge of the subject of governance. But being governed is good enough an education in the subject. There are areas that bore us to death to comment upon or to read or listen to the comments. Say corruption. Sonia’s foreign origin. Lalu. And much else. But I think we need to think seriously on the emergence of a certain insensitive governance. Not that governance was ever very sensitive to people or morals or duties. But in the age of mass media when tv has overexposed the good old field of political scandals with profuse daily doses of them, people involved in governance seem to have developed resistance to even this mode of humiliation and shaming. The result is that accountability is further eroded. There was a time when a few stories in Indian Express had the power to unsettle the cabinet balance. Today, no amount of hidden camera exclusives lead to much change. I read this as not merely an insensitivity but a change in the relation between the public sphere and the state institutions. I think what we are witnessing today suggests that a severance is now appearing between popular politics and politics of governance. Policy framers, political institutions, bureaucrats are all thick skinned about public opinion whatever its intensity. The only quarter that has all their attention is the corporate world. Is this an indication of a shift in the institution of modern politics? There has been a long historical association between the middle class and governance. It seems to me that middle class is losing out to the corporatism – a term better suited to describe present day capitalism.

 

Treasure of Tales

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In my childhood reading story books was looked down upon by my elders. We used to subscribe to a newspaper and then later a weekly magazine. I read the daily comics in the newspaper, Modesty Blasé and Phantom. Phantom catered to curiosity and Modesty Blasé often titillated. I was repeatedly chided for wasting time on reading comics! As for stories I got to hear of many from the elders, primarily my mother. They were mostly stories about religious figures. Not very interesting.

 A cover page of Chandamama in 1948

A cover page of Chandamama 1948.

From http://specials.rediff.com/money/2006/aug/28sld2.htm

Then I was introduced to Chandamama. Now this surely was a treasure of stories that too with illustrations. Easy to read, superbly written and offering variety. The stories of course created a long-ago-in-the-past atmosphere and usually had Kings or princes somewhere. But they also had the common folk. They were accompanied by pictures that aided our visualization of the time and place of the stories.

Later, I would read Chandamama in English. Here again, the stories were lucidly written, held my interest all along. There surely wasn’t nothing in them that titillated but they got you hooked.

I think my interest in reading and later even writing has something to do with this excellent publication. All these came to my mind when reading on the rediff site a feature on Chandamama. It has completed 60 years of publication! Cheers!

Their website is: http://www.chandamama.org/

Chandamama for me for a long time simply meant the Vikramadity stories. With Betala on King Vikramaditya’s shoulders, it had that extra attraction. You can read some here.

I remember picking up a Chandamama a couple of years ago for old time sake! My daughter doesn’t share with me the same enthu for Chandamama. That is understandable; the entertainment quotient of this book is reduced for her generation growing up as they do on multimedia entertainment. For me, forgive the tone of nostalgia, Chandamama was the ultimate source of entertainment. No wonder my father would censure me whenever he saw me with a copy of Chandamama. Well, it only increased the excitement as one read stories and had the thrill of cheating on one’s father at the same time!!!

Hip Hip Hurray! Chandamama.

A note on Amitav Ghosh II

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In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (SL), the issue of identity is linked to his critique of nationalism. It is a much commented upon subject, so I won’t pretend to say something new. But, however, I have a case to make, and towards that let me push my argument. The story of the unnamed narrator’s growing up in SL takes in the theme of nationalism by probing the problems confronting the development of a sense of identity. The three frameworks here, as mentioned in the previous post, are represented by Tha’mma, narrator’s grandmother, a die hard nationalist; by Ila, narrator’s desire image, a claimant of cosmopolitanism; and Tridib, narrator’s relative and role model, a ‘man without country’.

In exploring his relationships with these characters and their bearing on the way he views the world, and in cross stitching narratives of war, riots and mass mobilizations, the narrator brings the discourse of nationalism under the scanner for its exclusive claims on the identity of its subjects; the violence across time and space – world war II, communal riots in Calcutta and Dhaka – is made to speak of the divisiveness inherent in the ideology of nationalism. Tha’mma’s shrill exhortations to the narrator to not love Ila as she has deserted her mother land, Robi’s chauvinistic attempts to enforce the cultural code of ‘our country’ on Ila when she tries to dance in a hotel, the easy manner in which even small children internalize the division between us and them during a riot, the commonality of daily lives and people’s aspirations across borders – and a number of such narrative units are accumulated in the novel to weigh against the ‘shadow lines’ that nationalism draws between people; on the contrary, it brings out the bond of human (!) empathy that overcomes divisions to form relationships as between Tridib and May. And contrary to the violence that nationalist emotions unleash, it offers a kind of merciful violence and sacrificial violence that are based on ethics (as when May puts to death a suffering dog and Tridib enters a violent mob to save the old man) rather than ideological hatred.

The narrator’s negotiations with the past, his evaluation of the public history through private memory and his reconstruction of his own coming of age story expose the role ‘nationalism’ plays in the process of identity formation. The novel presents three aspects of the nationalist discourse in the Indian sub-continent: nationalism’s construction of the ‘other’, communalist character of nationalism, and exclusionary principle of ‘national’ category. The narrator’s expostulations on this issue reveal the anxiety about how the ‘other’ makes real borders in the imagination of the people – both within and beyond a territorial polity – and releases ‘terrifying violence’. The rhetoric of nationalism conceals on the one hand, transnational connections and on the other any other forms of collective identity.

However, this critique of nationalism in Ghosh follows a familiar course. That it is one which fits in with some of the postmodernist and post colonial theories have provided this novel much currency. What is seldom talked about is the unsaid aspects of nationalist discourse in the sub-continent. Ghosh’s comprehensive critique of nationalism in SL by remaining silent about the caste dimension of the constitution of nationalist discourse evades a major aspect of it. The nexus between dominant groups and the nationalist politics has achieved a hegemony that for long has rendered invisible the underlying contestations of it through history. Hence, when we read in SL a critique that feigns ignorance on the level of cultural fissures that inform the nationalist discourse, we cant help becoming a little suspicious. It would appear Ghosh’s critique of the grand narrative of nationalism is only a part of another grand narrative of critique of nationalism as it  ignores very important dimensions of the politics of contestation in the nationalist discourse as it embraces the transnational theoretical positions on nationalism.