Monday, January 2, 2012

Gyan Pandey, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India

Let's start with the familiar critique of this book: communalism is ultimately attributable to colonial discourse, the phantom product of Western colonial power-knowledge and its classificatory strategies. First of all, Pandey makes it clear that anti-colonial secular nationalists were at the forefront of negotiating the category of communalism, by stereotyping this discrete, substantive political tendency as the conceptual other of nationalism. Moreover, he emphasizes that communalism as a colonial mode of knowledge only means that it was the product of a particular interpretation of history in which perennial religious battles were constantly re-enacted between already always-constituted and sharply differentiated communities of Hindus and Muslims. The point is that communalism should not be studied in isolation from other political trends of the colonial and postcolonial period. What this book investigates is “the meanings that different participants in the sectarian politics of the period—local Hindus and Muslims, nationalist spokesmen, colonial officials—attached to these politics.” Pandey's concern is not only with social, economic, and political “facts,” but with how historians, administrators, politicans, and “the people about whom we know least of all” have isolated “facts” and served them up as “history” (xvii). The discourse of communalism—the concept, the vocabulary—is as much a part of its politics as any notion of real, lived experience.

Chapter One—Introduction
Histories written over the last century have been national histories, and this is no different for modern India. Communalism became a stand-in, beginning in conservative colonialist writing, for a subcontinental version of nationalism—same-same, but different. By contrast, for Indian nationalists, communalism was important because it was not nationalism—it was, in fact, together with colonialism, nationalism's chief adversary. Both of these formulations rest on the ahistorical notion of the “nation” as a pure, fixed entity. In historical writings on South Asia, colonialist as well as nationalist, the concept of communalism and that of nationalism emerge as predetermined—Indian history being a deviation from the European model—instead of as the outcome of historical processes. Since communalism appeared in that particular political discourse of colonial India as “the central problem to be overcome in the development of a self-governing, national, and democratic polity in India,” the study of communalism is part of “a larger exercise aimed at understanding the construction of Indian society and politics in recent times” (5). This book analyzes a construction of knowledge about Indian society—the construction of a sociology and a history that can be summarized as “communalism.” It explores the history of the “problem” of communalism by examining the discourse that gave it meaning; in other words, what do we accomplish when applying the term “communalism” to the history of Hindu-Muslim (or Hindu-Sikh, etc.) relations in colonial North India?
Communalism is a form of colonialist knowledge. In academic usage, the term is applied to “organized political movements based on the proclaimed interests of a religious community, usually in response to...another religious community” (6). Yet the term is never applied in this sense to feudal Europe or other pre-capitalist societies, nor in reference to Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland. It is reserved for “the analysis of social and political conflict in the 'backward' parts of the colonial and post-colonial world, and then read back by some analysts as a quality that must have existed in these societies long before the colonial intervention” (7). Communalism captured for the colonialists what they had conceptualized as a basic feature of Indian society—its religious bigotry and fundamentally irrational character—which denies history, consciousness, and agency to colonized peoples (10). In the colonialist view, communalism was age-old, essential to and more or less universal among Indians, except among the enlightened/liberal/Western-educated. In the nationalist view, however, communalism was a problem with relatively recent origins, the outcome of economic and political inequality and conflict, and the handiwork of self-interested elite groups (11). But although these conceptions differ on the face of it, both the racist-essentialist and the liberal-rationalist view of Indian politics accept the givenness of communalism—a tangible phenomenon whose causes can be identified and which must be overcome for progress to be possible (12-13).
The false totalities of ready-made religious communities have largely been undermined by recent historians—liberal-nationalist, Marxist, even neo-colonialist—who have pointed out the immense differences in language, occupation, economic interest, and religious practice among Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, etc. of different regions, castes, and classes (13). However, some old views still remain current, such as the “continuity” argument, put forward by Christopher Bayly and others, which suggests that much that happened in colonial India—in this particular case, communal conflict—had its beginnings in the centuries before the arrival of the British, and that colonial intervention did not mark the drastic rupture which it has generally been assigned (15). This argument overlooks the radically altered nature of the state under colonialism—more modern, powerful, centralized, and interventionist than any prior “state” in the subcontinent. Another old view which persists is the search for “causes” and “rationality,” which reduces sectarian movements and conflict to economistic explanations. All this does is replace the Orientalist-essentalist view of Eastern irrationality with the false universal of bourgeois rationality. In sum, we must question the givenness of communalism by underscoring its historical character. As Benedict Anderson has shown, all communities are imagined, made; categories of thought, too, are “made” in this sense (22).

Chapter Two—The Colonial Construction of the Indian Past
Colonialist writers more or less established the pattern of the Indian past as we know it today. Sectarian strife was an important motif in that pattern. The reading of Indian history which represented religious conflict as a distinctive feature of Indian society was distinguished in three ways: a) its periodization in terms of the European experience (ancient/medieval/modern); b) its use of communal (religious) categories to differentiate those periods of history (viz. Hindu classical age/Muslim dark age/British renaissance); and c) the emptying out of all history from the political experience of the people and the identification of religion as the moving force of Indian politics (23-4). This chapter asks how reports of sectarian strife were received by contemporary and subsequent observers, what meanings were derived from them, and what place they were assigned in different representations of the changing colonial world—in other words, how colonialist observers (gazetteers, administrators) “read” the history of Hindu-Muslim strife in coming to terms with Indian society (26). Exemplary are the evolving historical perceptions of the 1809 Hindu-Muslim riots in Banaras, and how a particular experience of religious antagonism comes to apply to the country as a whole (28). Not only are there discrepancies between the earliest and most “authoritative” accounts of the 1809 riots, but the “bare facts” of the situation were constructed out of the prejudices, biases, and “common sense” of the writers (32). Some of these differences across the colonial accounts are as follows:
  • The figures of 28 people killed and 70 wounded get inflated to “several hundred” killed in the District Gazetteer of 1907 and the Government Memorandum of 1928.
  • The site of the initial outbreak shifts from the Lat Bhairava temple a mile outside the city to the Vishwanath temple at the city's center.
  • The cause of the conflict is displaced from the desecration of the Lat Bhairava idol, to the “frenzy” excited by Muharram lamentations, to a clash between Holi and Muharram processions, to “friction” over the mosque built by Aurangzeb (17th C.) at the current site of the Vishwanath temple.
The reconstruction of the Banaras riots in colonialist discourse, in its successive recensions spread out over approxmiately a hundred years, assumes over time the importance of a master narrative, a model for all descriptions and evaluations of communal riots in official prose (32). The colonial exercise of giving a cause and a name (fanaticism, irrationality) to the violence of 1809 not only emptied it of any other significance (or context, or history), but it established the fundamental antagonism between “Hindus” and “Muslims” (39). Colonial writings on Banaras in the early nineteenth century have certain recurring features: the emphasis on ethnic and doctrinal signs for the identification of rival crowds; the construction of a diachrony into which these events fitted; the description of violence as a means of describing native character (39-40). In this kind of history, “violence” always belonged to a pre-colonial tradition: the imposition of British rule, the displacement of an earlier balance of power, had nothing to do with it. The tradition of strife becomes the justification for colonial rule—by the late nineteenth century, it is no longer English military or scientific or commercial prowess but the hopeless divisions and primitive passions of the “natives” that legitimizes British power (45).
One striking component of these colonial writings, and another legacy of nationalist historiography, is the reduction of Indian history to the history of the state. The new, colonial state stood out in contrast to the pre-political, proto-historic character of local society. In the case of Banaras, James Mill wrote that the maintenance of peace and order in that cirty was “for some time” a “troublesome” and “imperfectly” accomplished task. But the “unrelaxing firmness” of British rule, a “better knowledge of the British character” and the “improving intelligence” of the Indians “lightened the labour” (i.e. the divinely ordained British task of bringing law and order) so that ten years after 1809, Banaras was “regulated with as much facility as any other city in the territories of the Company” (cf. Mill, History of British India, Vol. VII, pp. 338-9). In other words, the pre-history of Banaras, as that of all India before the coming of British power, is chaos, and, within ten years, history supervenes, order is established (46). These writings efface the violence of the colonial state, promoting a picture of a wise and neutral power, ruling by the sheer force of moral authority (49).
Finally, the colonial narrative on communal strife—the “communal riot narrative”—throughout the nineteenth century and beyond followed a particular model, unfettered by time or space. It proceeded by identifying the “first” major riot (usually the first recorded after the establishment of British rule), and then tracing a straight line through to the “last,” which naturally changes with the date of the writing (62-3). In this model, any riot can stand in for another, and all that can be usefully compared is the magnitude of violence—thus a description of the “first” outbreak indicates the character of all subsequent strife, such that Mubarakpur in 1813 = Shahabad in 1917 = Bombay in 1893 (63). The phrases that make for the history of these places in the nineteenth century are “fanatical and clannish” entities, “disorderly sections of the population,” communities “prone to dacoity and rioting,” “fires of religious animosity,” and “indiscriminate affrays” (64). This is of course not a history, but an ideological equation of rioting, bigotry, and criminality with an inferior people and a people without history—a “native” violence is distinguished here from the unacknowledged but “legitimate” violence of the colonial state (64). The violence of the native has specifically Oriental characteristics; it is helpless, irrational, and related to the age-old flames of sectarian strife. This is what constitutes the Indian past (65).

Chapter Three—The Bigoted Julaha
[See in this connection Chapter 3 in Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincializing Europe, “Translating Life-Worlds,” pp. 78-80. Chakrabarty questions Pandey's universalization of the figure of the weaver between Marx, E.P. Thompson, and the julahas of colonial U.P. In particular, he is concerned with the imposition of the secular time of history on the singular time of gods and spirits—that the particular life-worlds of the julahas, in which work and worship (i.e. labor and the spirits) are not dissociated from one another, cannot be subsumed to the “History 1” of the globalizing urges of capital.]
Colonial historiography of the past was accompanied by a colonial sociology of the present. The central organizing principle of Indian society in the colonial records shifted over the course of the nineteenth century from the “village community” to “caste.” This was concomitant with a shift in the colonial concern with revenue to the concern for law and order. With “castes,” colonial sociology sought to map the qualities of the subject population that were most germane to the business of administration—“not only a group's productive capacity, its traditional occupation, its (established or reputed) efficiency, laziness, etc. but also its criminality, military prowess, truthfulness, litigious tendencies, rebelliousness, and so on” (68). This chapter discusses one caste-stereotype, that of the “bigoted Julaha” (weaver) and its importance in the explanation of sectarian strife in northern India. The larger question is that “the relationship in colonialist discourse between 'sociology' and 'history'--'caste' and the politicized 'religious community', or, in other words, 'caste' and 'communalism'” (69).
Muslim weavers' involvement in Hindu-Muslim conflict is unsurprising, since they constituted the largest segment of the Muslim minority in the U.P. region, and they were concentrated in towns where the possibilities of violent conflict were greater (70). Moreover, the weaving communities of the north Indian hinterland were subjected to many new economic hardships—the decline of handicrafts, the deprivation of educational opportunity, urban migration—with the onset of colonialism and the market economy (72-8). It is a small step from weaver/moneylender to Muslim/Hindu conflict, but the reality is a little more complex. First of all, religion should not be taken as a surrogate for something else, but neither is it all-encompassing and unchanging; in nineteenth century northern India, the presence of a new colonial regime (of knowledge-power) was very consequential in determining the character of public religion and religious issues—in particular, the regime's drive to catalogue, to reify, and to record “established” customs and practices that had always contained a great deal of fluidity. The institution of “caste,” even more than “religion,” represents an outstanding example. New caste movements and status claims in the nineteenth century were not only negotiated within, but largely accentuated by the hierarchical classificatory efforts of the colonial Census (82-3).
The centrality of the loom in the Julaha community united work and worship to such an extent that economic struggle was closely entwined (pun intended) with religious sentiments. As part of the Julahas' fight to preserve and improve their economic and social status, prominent groups of weavers guarded against innovations that would reduce the importance of their religious festivals and places of worship. On account of these diverse, at times desperate struggles by weavers in many different places, the community acquired the reputation of being “uncompromising, easily aroused, violent Muslims: a community of 'fanatical', 'clannish' and 'bigoted' Julahas.” This stereotype effectively erased the different self-images and historical circumstances of different groups of Muslim weavers in northern India (102). Moreover, this image of Julaha bigotry was drawn up in colonialist writings on the basis of only the Gazetteers of four U.P. districts—Banaras, Ghazipur, Ballia, and Azamgarh—where “the existence of many old centres [sic] of cloth production, the numerical strength of the weavers in these 'urban' localities, the self-image and pride of the weavers, combined with the economic, social, and political disloation of the colonial period and the renewed struggles for power and prestige that came along with this, brought the Julahas out in numerous acts of resistance and repeated outbreaks of fighting over the prized symbols of Hinduism and Islam” (104-5).
The point here is that the myth distorts reality by taking history out of it. As Barthes writes, “Myth is depoliticized speech....It deprives the object of which it speaks of all History. In it history evaporates...all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful [or ugly] object without wondering where it came from. Or even better: it can only come from eternity” (Barthes, Mythologies, pp. 143, 151). In colonial sociology, “caste” is not just an organizing principle of Indian society; it becomes the site of particular instincts, tendencies, and urges. It is through this quality of having innate, unchanging properties that caste feeds into communalism, which has more to do with a kind of culture—“of unreasonableness, narrowness, dogmatism and violence, all arising at bottom out of an irrational, primitive religiosity. For the colonialist...if caste was the defining unit of Indian society, communalism was its defining culture” (108).

--I have omitted Chapter 4 in this summary, since it deals with a particular local history which is does not contribute significantly to the overall thesis. Here are two paragraphs, however, from Chapter 5 which are important to the argument that belonging to a “Hindu” and “Muslim” community did not always mean responding to “Hindu” and “Muslim” interest: many other factors, caste in particular, had far more weight in terms of local community solidarity--
“All this is not to suggest that 'Hindu' and 'Muslim' interests or the notion of a 'Hindu (or Muslim) community' had no meaning for the vast majority of local castes, in the Bhojpuri region or elsewhere....But the relevant point, perhaps, is that apperception at the local level during the early nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, was very much in terms of jati and biradari, caste and kinship, that the strength of local caste and community organization mattered (in that decisions were most often taken and/or channelled [sic] through them), and that the feeling of belonging to a wider 'Hindu' or 'Muslim' community did not mean—in spite of all that colonialist historiography and sociology had to say on the subject—that 'Hindus' and 'Muslims' responded automatically and in unvarying ways to every appeal for action on behalf of 'Hindu' or 'Muslim' interests.
The point possibly applies with greater force to the Hindu community than to the 'Muslim', because, unlike the latter, the 'Hindu community' was far from being small, concentrated in particular localities, or bound by anything in the way of a 'revealed' book or a 'united' church. The all-India 'Hindu community' (and, to a large extent, the all-India 'Muslim community' too) was a colonial creation for, as I have argued, the social and economic changes brought by colonialism, Indian efforts to defend the indigenous religions and culture against western missionary attacks, the 'unifying' drive of the colonial state—which was marked at the level of administrative structure and attempted political control...tended to promote the idea of an all-India 'Hindu community' and an all-India 'Muslim community' which were supposedly ranged against one another for much of the time. In spite of a widely felt sense of 'Hinduness' and 'Muslimsness', I would suggest that until the nineteenth century at any rate, people always had to work through caste, sect and so on to arrive at the unities implied in the conception of the 'Hindu community' and the 'Muslim community'.” (198-9)

Chapter Six—'Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan'
By the early years of the twentieth century, the sense of religious community was far more widespread than ever before. Reform movements, religious debates, administrative demands, census operations, and representative politics pushed elite groups among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs to: a) appropriate marginal groups (“untouchable” = “Hindu”); b) purify their domains (“Muslim” ≠ “Hindu”); and c) establish their separate identities (eg. the Singh Sabha's famous proclamation Ham Hindu Nahin, “We are not Hindus”). Along with the mobilization of Hindu and Muslim communities went the attempt to build “nationalist” feeling that transcended these boundaries and narrow interests (204-5).The ambiguity in Indian nationalism—that is, the contradiction between a “modernist” idiom of secular cosmopolitanism and the “dharmic” idiom of precolonial tradition—has been viewed by some as a tactical necessity and by others as a constitutive split (208). Pandey suggests that there is a third idiom: on the one hand, nationalism must speak in the language of rationality, the equality of all individuals; on the other hand, it needs the language of historical necessity, of ancient status and attributes, which is part of the discourse of community (209). The question is: how was the imagined political community of the future (à la Anderson) being constructed by Indian nationalists at different times? The answer is: prior to the 1920s and 1930s, the nation of Indians was visualized as a composite body, a collection of communities, each with its own history and culture and contribution to a common nationality. After this, India came to be seen much more as a collection of individuals, of Indian “citizens.” The concept of communalism, according to Pandey, was articulated in the context of this shift (210). This chapter peruses the writings of Hindu and Muslim nationalist writers—Bhartendu Harishcandra, R.C. Dutt, Syed Ahmed Khan—to discern a particular vision of nationhood. The evidence from the turn of the century points, on the one hand, to a political vision of emerging or potential unity based on the common interests of all Indians. On the other hand, it indicates the existence of a vision of society as already formed into discrete communities, each with its own priorities and interests and each with the right to determine its own future (231).

Chapter Seven—Nationalism Versus Communalism
This chapter represents the second part of the argument made above: that sometime around the 1920s, communitarian mobilization as had been articulated previously came to be regarded by more and more nationalist observers as a distorting tendency. “Hindu” and “Muslim” politics became divisive, primitive, and the product of a colonial policy of Divide and Rule. This was the birthplace of the nationalist version of the concept of “communalism.” Indeed, Indian nationalism itself, as standing above (or outside) the different religious communities, and taking as its constitutive unit the individual citizen untainted by the “primordial” pulls of caste and religious community, was conceptualized only on opposition to this notion of communalism. The point is that communalism and nationalism as we know them today arose together; they were part of the same discourse (235-6).
The binary opposition between nationalism and communalism entailed a careful re-examination and presentation of the Indian past. This reconstructed history emphasized not only the tolerance and synthesizing capacities that had gone into the making of Indian civilization, it would also show the commitment of all India's prior inhabitants to the soil, to the State, and to the nation—in other words, the priority of a “secular national loyalty” over any loyalty to religion, caste, or race. Nationalists now claimed, in opposition to colonialist assertions about the impossibility of uniting Indians, the fundamental, essential unity of India, based on its geographical boundaries, economic self-sufficiency, and the interdependence of its various parts (247). “In the nationalist discourse of the twentieth century, then, the unity of India appeared as a demonstrable but at the same time a metaphysical truth. 'India' became the nation personified” (249). This oversimplification of history is common to all nationalisms, but what was missing in the Indian case was the sense of the common people (instead of the great rulers of India—Muslims, Rajputs, Buddhists) as historical agents, of the peoples and classes of the subcontinent struggling to realize their many versions of truth, honour [sic] and the just life. “There was no room here for an accommodation of local loyalties, for continued attachment to religion, or even appreciation of the vigorous struggles that had been waged against these; nor much allowance for the class-divided and regionally diverse perceptions of the 'imagined community' (Anderson again), out of the struggle for which Indian nationalism and the Indian national movement arose” (253). By denying the subjecthood of the Indian people, nationalist historiography shared with colonialism a kind of statist perspective: for the colonialists, “the state alone...could establish order out of chaos, reduce the religious and other passions of Indians to 'civilized' proportions, and carry India into 'modernity.' So, too, in the nationalist account, the Indian state had performed the role of maintaining Indian unity in the past and would do so in the future” (253).
The nationalist redefinition of politics in the 1930s and 1940s excluded problems like communalism from the realm of the political. They attempted to subjugate the “social”—the religious and other pre-existing communities—to the “political” world—the mass of people mobilized into a new national community. However, they could not accomplish this subjugation, because they could never quite decide whether communalism was a social or a political problem. And even as the new religion of secular nationalism was being articulated, there were many vacillations and compromises made to accommodate Hindu and Muslim communal interests. [For an example of how the ostensibly secular Congress Party wilfully protected and empowered Hindu partisan ideologues after independence, in many ways setting the stage for present-day resurgence of the politics of religious extremism, see a recent article by Manu Bhagavan, “The Hindutva Underground: Hindu Nationalism and the Indian National Congress in Late Colonial and Early Postcolonial India,” The Economic and Political Weekly (Special Article, 13 Sept. 2008): 39-48]. The nation was, and continues to be, the outcome of many different visions—including the rights of the individual, of the poorest and longest oppressed—and the struggles between them. It is between these different conceptions of nationhood that the struggle must still be waged (261).

Afterword (2005)
[I quote from the last two pages of the afterword, because they are fabulous]
“In the plural societies of large parts of Asia and Africa, where neither absolutist nor conquest state had emerged in the early modern period to homogenize religious traditions and cultural practices, the politics of communalism—or what has been called communalism—arose in the colonial period to become a major factor in political debates. Such a politics was often seen, justifiably, as disruptive of emerging struggles of nationhood and independence, especially since there was always a danger that communalist campaigns would sprout separate national movements of their own. But movements of this kind were also a part of emerging political contests in these complex, multi-layered, plural societies—one element in the negotiation of political futures, the outcome of which was hardly predictable in advance.
The increasingly centralized nationalist states that have arisen all over the world since then have altered the political equation almost beyond recognition. The statist chauvinisms that have often followed the establishment of these nation-states have refused to enter into any dialogue with the kinds of sectional, sectarian, or cultural movements that were once labelled [sic] 'communalist.' In addition, the 'collapse of socialism', as it is called, the emergence of a unipolar world, and the onset of aggressive globalization, has eroded the grounds of contestatory democracy even further.
[F]or all the talk of a globalized and 'smaller' world, our planet as perhaps a more contradictory and fragmented place than it was a hundred or even fifty years ago. There are many more sovereign nation-states...the vast majority of people are recognized as citizens of one state or another (even if there is, once more, a growing number of refugees and migrants without any surety of this); and there is increased talk, in many countries, of multiculturalism, of the contributions of privileged migrants and diasporic communities, as well as of the fundamental rights of all men and women in all parts of the globe. It is in the rhetoric of sovereignty and human rights, in the disorder of our political world, and in the messiness of our search for new intellectual/political ends, that we will still find grounds for struggle.” (281-2)


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