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GREATER UNITY FOR MORE DIVERSITY

COMMUNAL IDENTITY IN INDIa: ITS CONSTRUCTION AND ARTICULATION IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY Edited by Bidyut Chakrabarty, Oxford, Rs 545

Communities co-existed peacefully, if not happily, in pre-modern times. It is only with the emergence of secular nation-states that communalism became an ideological construct. The factors that had gone into the making of a community now came to be negatively defined in opposition to another community. The professed secularism of the state radically politicized the process of community formation. Ashis Nandy rightly observes that communalism is “a pathological byproduct but nonetheless a direct byproduct of secularism” itself.

The thirteen essays in this book seek to posit communalism not only in the perspective of contemporary India but also in the global context. In his introduction, Bidyut Chakrabarty gives a clear indication of the duality around which the subjects of the essays are oriented: “Our identity has… two dimensions, ‘ontological’ and ‘epistemological’, the former referring to who we are and the latter to who we think we are.”

The essays are collected under three divisions. The first section includes extracts from the works of Gandhi, V.D. Savarkar and speeches of Jinnah. Gandhi’s insistence on Hindu-Muslim amity is pitted against Jinnah’s stubborn proclamation of the distinctiveness of Islam and Hinduism, and Savarkar’s vigorous emphasis on India being a punyabhumi only to Hindus. The communalist debate was thus set rolling in the early Forties.

The last two sections of the book scrutinize identity formations at crucial historical junctures, showing the inconsistencies of Indian secularism. The “one nation, one state” theory obviously does not apply to India, nor to many other secular nations. Bhiku Parekh in “Discourses on National Identity” discusses the uniqueness of Quebec nationalism in the Canadian state and post-Hitler nationalism in Germany which sought to make a clean break from an inglorious past. Like India, the two had to choose between continuing with a dubious historical tradition and political amnesia.

Bidyut Chakrabarty in “Fluidity or Compartments” looks at how Hindu-Muslim differences were decisively undermined in official history-writing in the Thirties and Forties. A radically different perspective on the subject comes from Kumkum Sangari in “Politics of Diversity”, which shows how the demands for special personal laws and uniform civil code operate within the framework of an overarching patriarchal ideology. T.K. Oommen’s article “Insiders and Outsiders in India” is a brilliant exposition of the policies of the Indian state.

Although religion, language and culture are three factors in communal identity formations in post-independence India, caste, class and region continue to influence the process. The essays in the book address these issues, and suggest that the project of nation-building can only progress within a relatively loose federal structure which will recognize the autonomy of communities both politically and economically. Instead of forcing allegiance, the state should consciously try to create conditions to make communities offer allegiance in their own interest.

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