Caste, Anti-Colonialism, Indian Nationalism


The term ‘Independence Struggle’ that names a cluster of discursive practices (associated with nationalism and anti-colonialism) in 19th and 20th centuries cannot be taken as unproblematic or as referring to practices with a singular politics. The phrase assumes that the struggle is for independence that is lost. This would mean that prior to the event of colonisation ‘independence’ did exist. For whom did it exist? The term would suggest that the entity on behalf of which this independence struggle is carried out was, if not a unified whole, at least a continuous field. That is, ‘India’ as such has to be ‘freed’ from the British because it has been enslaved by the British. Now, what is this India? It is most commonly seen as a territorial unit and the people within it. The people within this territorial unit have lost independence, which has to be recovered, is the logic here. The question is: whose independence was lost? If it had to be recovered, from whom? Secondly, what has to be recovered – the lost political agency or cultural agency? Both questions bring in the issue of whose independence was lost and in which spheres. No doubt, colonialism was bad, had to be opposed and defeated. But in asking questions about the nature of the recovery, sense of loss and fields of sovereignty to be wrested, one would be able to examine diverse implications of the idea of independence in the context of the notions of nation as well as the discursive practices of nationalism.

As some of the socio-cultural actions in the 19th and 20th centuries suggest, the aim to achieve independence was not always solely from the British. Therefore, the event of loss and the structures of loss of independence were various in the discourses of differently inflected nationalisms. One example is the anti-caste/ anti-brahmin nationalism, which considered colonialism as an opportunity that had accelerated the mobility of the lower castes and had loosened the grip of brahminism, thus providing a historical opportunity for the lower castes to obtain independence from the brahminical order.

Seen thus, independence struggle was multifarious not merely because of the differences in approach to anti-colonialism but because the very notion of independence, the loss that has to be amended, varied. Broadly, the logic of recovery in the discourses of independence struggle may be divided into two streams. One is internal recovery – recovery of independence from the ‘internal’ coloniser, i.e. the brahminical patriarchy. The second is external recovery – recovery of independence lost to the ‘foreign’ coloniser. The internal recovery logic mounted its critique in the socio-cultural field wherein the shift in the political power to an agency beyond caste had not broken down the structures of caste slavery. The external recovery logic mounted its critique in the political field wherein the political power had to be recovered from the coloniser. In both, there were massive importations from the European knowledge systems to strengthen their case.

What is significant is the engagement between these two. The critique of brahminism forced the critique of colonialism to restructure itself. The latter felt the need to employ the terms of modernity and borrow from the culture of the coloniser to restructure itself though it hardly ever completely accepted the former’s demand for a total revision. Thus the modernising/ reformation attempts were not merely responses to the exposure to western culture but also a response to the internal critique.

Independence was being claimed on different grounds and also different kinds of independence were pursued. The external critique claimed for political independence – reserving the right to socio-cultural restructuring to itself, as Partha Chatterjee (NF) shows – while internal critique aimed at socio-cultural independence from the very forces of the external critique and questioned their programme of restructuring the internal sphere. This meant that different notions of the nation were in operation in terms of what is lost, what has to be recovered and what has to be constructed and reconfigured.

The response to modernity in the internal critique was largely non-resistant as modernity offered means of emancipation – for example, industries provided new employment outside the obligations of caste, rationalism provided the platform to challenge the metaphysics that held the system of caste in place. The internal critique on the other hand was selectively resistant to modernity.

To put it briefly: the notion of nation informing the various standpoints in the socio-political activism in 19th and 20th centuries in India were different and the notion of independence sought was also of diverse nature. The independence struggle was not a monolithic mass aspiration. What proceeds from this is that the socio-political activisms were diverse in their content, form, modality, target and representation. Different politics, different aspirations, different structures of feeling and experiences, different notions of past and future, and hence different histories inform the plurality of the socio-political action that often is seen as one. The extent to which the categories coloniser and colonised need to be fragmented is suggested in the view that ‘India’ was being constituted differently: ‘India’ the object of nationalist discourses, the past of this ‘India’, the notion of independence, the future contours of ‘India’.

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