Whose Imagined Community? by Partha Chatterjee — A Summary


Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. “Whose Imagined Community?” In The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, 1sted., 3–13. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

The miscarriage of nationalism in the postcolonial states during the 1970s — by distressing ethnic politics as well as corrupt, fractious, and often brutal regimes — has tarnished the legacy of nationalism. Nationalism is now seen as a “problem” and has consequently been made a subject of general debate.

This recent genealogy of the idea explains why nationalism is now viewed as a dark, elemental, unpredictable force of primordial nature threatening the orderly calm of civilized life.

In this time, colonial historians have been debating “what had become of the idea and who was responsible for it.” It is from these debates that emerged Benedict Anderson’s subtle and original observation that “nations were not the determinate products of given sociological conditions such as language or race or religion [but that] they had been, in Europe and everywhere else in the world, imagined into existence”.

This “imagined community” took concrete shape through, amongst others, the institutions of “print-capitalism”, that nexus of the technology of the printing press and the economy of the capitalist market “which made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and to relate themselves to others, in profoundly new ways” (Anderson 2006: 36). The historical experience of nationalism in the West had then supplied “modular” forms from which nationalist elites in Asia and Africa had chosen the ones they liked.

“[But] if nationalisms in the rest of the world have to choose their imagined community from certain “modular” forms already made available to them by Europe and the Americas, what do they have left to imagine?” This objection is made because the nationalist imagination in Asia and Africa are premised on a difference from and not on an identity with the western models of nationalism.

For this assertion to make sense, the standard nationalist theory of nationalism as which sees it solely as a political movement — beginning with the establishment of the Indian National Congress in 1885 after on a decade of “preparation” which in turn was built upon the reform movements of the previous five decades — must be dismantled. This standard theory of nationalist history necessarily converges with Anderson’s formulations.

Anticolonial nationalism creates its own domain of sovereignty in the spiritual sphere of colonial society before it begins its political battle in the material domain. In the material domain — the domain of the “outside” — of the economy, statecraft, science and technology, the West is superior and must be emulated. But in the spiritual domain — the “inner” domain — which marks cultural identity, colonial distinctness must be preserved.

The implications are many. For one, nationalism claims sovereignty in the spiritual domain. So, while the initial phase of the social reform period in India witnessed appeals to colonial authority to effect change, in the later phase, there was strong resistance to interventions by the colonial state. This later phase is the period of nationalism. This does not imply that the spiritual domain is left unchanged. It is, in fact, here that nationalism launches its “most powerful, creative, and historically significant project: to fashion a “modern” national culture that is nevertheless not Western. If the nation is an imagined community, then this is where it is brought into being (emphasis added).”

Some areas of the spiritual domain nationalism transforms will be examined with illustrations from Bengal.

Consider language. While the impact of print-capitalism is unheralded, it does not imply a simple transposition of European patterns or standards to the development of the “national” language in the colonies. It is the colonial state that introduced the English language and commissions printed books in Bengali. Closely on the heels of such development, the bilingual elite through an “institutional network of printing presses, publishing houses, newspapers, magazines, and literary societies” tried to provide its mother tongue with the requisites of a language for a “modern” culture.

While modern European languages and literature shaped the critical discourse, their conventions were considered inappropriate to judge Bengali literary productions. For example, in drama, it was not the conventions of Shakespeare but those from Sanksrit drama that would succeed on the Calcutta stage. Mainstream public theatre inspired by Western conventions is clearly distinguished from “folk theatre”. As another example, consider novels. Bengali novelists preferred the “direct recording of living speech” to the “disciplined forms of authorial prose” in an attempt to find an “artistic truthfulness” which made it “necessary to escape, as often as possible, the rigidities of [modern] prose”.

The assertion of difference was most dramatic in the realm of the family. The criticism of the Indian traditions and the reliance on the agency of colonial masters in the early reform period gave way to a rejection of outside intervention in the nationalists. Only the nation, it came to be argued, could have the right to intervene in such an essential aspect of cultural identity as the family.

In the material domain, nationalism begins by “inserting itself into a new public sphere constituted by the processes and forms of the modern”. It had to overcome the subordination arising out of the strategy of the “rule of colonial difference” — the preservation of the alienness of the ruling group which was pursued by the colonial state. Ironically, nationalism had to, in this domain, insist on abolishing this rule of colonial difference. Overtime, the domain became more extensive and morphed into the postcolonial state which, in India at least, was built on the idea of the modern liberal-democratic state.

But while the nationalist elite presided over a field constituted by the distinction between the spiritual and the material, the postcolonial state presides over the field constituted by the distinction between the private and the public. The modern liberal-democratic postcolonial state, in accordance with liberal ideology, seeks to protect the inviolability of private selves which means it has to remain indifferent to the concrete differences between private selves marked by race, language, religion, class, caste, and so forth, differences towards which the nationalist elite could not remain indifferent.

“The result is that autonomous forms of imagination of the community were, and continue to be, overwhelmed and swamped by the history of the postcolonial state. Here lies the root of our postcolonial misery: not in our inability to think out new forms of the modern community but in our surrender to the old forms of the modern state.”


Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised edition. London: Verso.


The Ethnographic State by Nicholas Dirks — A Summary

Title: The Ethnographic State
Author: Nicholas Dirks
Publication: Dirks (2001) Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India
Link: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rq9d

Toward an Imperial Sociology of India

After the Great Rebellion, caste assumed immense significance as the primary object of social classification and understanding in the colonial enterprise. The colonial state came to see anthropological knowledge of Indian society as necessary for not only understanding and controlling Indians better (to prevent future rebellions) but also for legitimising British rule itself.

However, more empirical data did not translate to more confidence about the data so gathered. Owing to the fundamental basis of difference and the inescapable reality of deception, the knowledge acquired was invariably mired in confusion.[1]

Nevertheless, the project of data collection proceeded. The categories deemed appropriate and necessary for ethnographic description became formalized and canonised. There was an obvious institutional push towards statistical and, hence, comparable data as opposed to dense narratives.[2] And towards the end of the 19th-century, the relentless systematisation of official colonial knowledge about India had led to the standardisation of the subject matter of ethnology.[3]

Reverend M. A. Sherring’s influential three-volume work entitled Hindu Tribes and Castes (1872) sought to give a detailed account of castes in India. Unlike earlier attempts which relied on textual categories, it depended more on empirical knowledge. He explained caste as a Brahmanical invention which had made the Hindu totally religious and totally servile.

From 1872, the task of producing information on caste was taken up by the census. By generating facts, the census installed caste as the fundamental unit of India’s social structure. But there was no agreement on what caste actually was.[4] The experiments with designating official caste hierarchies led to political mobilisation by caste associations who wanted to enhance their positions. By 1931, the use of caste in census was discontinued owing to the political fallout.

A classic anthropological text is H. H. Risley’s The People of India (1908) which summarises his views on the origin and classification of the Indian races based on historical speculations and anthropometric research.[5] The stress on and trust in anthropometry was informed by the caste system’s strict endogamy. Implicit in this method was the assumption of the existence of pure racial types in India, an assumption that would be punctured by subsequent empirical research. However, Risley’s views on caste as a social system and force dominated discussions on caste.

For Risley, caste has an ambivalent status. It is both religious and social. It is anarchic, yet encourages monarchy. It is particularistic, but also basis for any Indian unity. On the one hand, the caste ridden Indian history cannot build national sentiment but on the other, the caste system itself could be the basis for political awakening among caste groups. It is the colonial situation that resolves these contradictions.

Caste could, Risley thought, be made into a virtue out of its necessity. It could accommodate and shape a gradually developing class society, perhaps even softening its potential conflicts and antagonisms. Thus, caste was expressed as the defining feature of India. British colonial assumptions about the absence of politics and the overpoweringly divisive force of caste as a social principle still informed the discourses on caste.

The State of Ethnography

After the World War II, a new empiricist social science emerged, especially in US academia, that felt itself freed from the shackles of the colonial past, and combined the positivist method with a vaguely developmentalist agenda. McKim Marriott’s Village India (1955), perverted as it was by an idealist notion of knowledge that refused any contamination by the politics of knowledge, nevertheless heralded of a new anthropology of South Asia which charted the social organization of the village, not caste, as the primary unit of India. It made a strong case for the fundamental relationship between caste as a civilisational idea and the village.

Louis Dumont’s Homo Heirarchicus (1966) reinstalled caste at the centre of academic anthropology. It sought to develop a holistic theory of the caste system that took into account belief as well as action and based its argument on the idea that India was one, across both time and space.

Caste was cast as the symbol of Indian society with a resolute hierarchy as its overarching principle which valorises the society over the individual. As a profoundly hierarchical and religious symbol, caste subordinates political and economic (the realm of political power) aspects to the religious order (the realm of ritual status). That is why British interventions in the politico–economic sphere were so ineffective at bringing about change in Indian society.

The problem with these anthropological discourses is the elimination of Islam from the history of the subcontinent and the negation of political institutions. Indology replaced history! This is deeply unsettling as it disguises the history of colonialism and the “essentially contingent and political character of caste”.

This extract sums up the article’s arguments succinctly.

Colonialism in India produced new forms of society that have been taken to be traditional; caste itself as we now know it is not a residual survival of ancient India but a specifically colonial form of (that is, substitute for) civil society that both justified and maintained an Orientalist vision. This was a vision of an India in which religion transcended politics, society resisted change, and the state awaited its virgin birth in the late colonial era. … What anthropology and Indology together have done most successfully in the postcolonial context has been to assert the precolonial authority of a specifically colonial form of power and representation … reproducing what might be the most extraordinary legacy of colonial rule in the contemporary social life of caste and Hinduism in India today. (Page 60)


[1] “Indeed, the more H. H. Risley, census commissioner and superintendent of the Ethnographic Survey, went on to refine caste categories to allow the enumeration of the entire population of India by caste, the more it seemed that caste categories were overlapping, unstable, and contested.”

[2] The Madras Government’s Board of Revenue, concerned about “the deficiency in statistics, and the prolixity of details” in J. H. Nelson’s The Madura Country, declared it “useless to the general public”.

[3] “An ethnological account of an Indian people must consist of not less than five separate subjects; their race or descent, their language, their caste, their religion or sect, and their traditional habits and customs.”

[4] Should a caste with fewer than 100,000 persons should be included? how to organize the “vague and indefinite” entries that in 1891 exceeded 2,300,000 names? Whether, and if so how, to list the castes on the basis of “social precedence?

[5] Anthropometry refers to the measurement of the human individual. As a tool of physical anthropology, it has been used in various attempts to correlate physical with racial and psychological traits.

The Colonial State by Partha Chatterjee — A Summary

Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. “The Colonial State.” In The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, 1sted., 14–34. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

The Colonial State as a Modern Regime of Power

If the colonial state is understood as a specific form of the modern state, its emergence and flourishing is simply of episodic interest. The colonial form of the modern state becomes incidental to the historical narrative of modernity. This understanding is quite common given the attitude that while the progress of modernity is an ongoing project, colonialism is an artifact of the past.

But the colonial state was also more than just about colonial rule. The vast infrastructural, institutional, military and communication projects undertaken during the colonial presence were to leave a ‘permanent mark’ on India. This is, to adopt a Focauldian reading, the inexorable march of a modern regime of power that produces and facilitates rather than prohibits. Both liberal British and nationalist Indian historians, although the latter are wont to deny any benevolence in the colonial mission which the former asserted, agree on the value of state institutions created by the colonial state. In fact, the post-colonial state has only expanded and strengthened these institutions.

What is surprising, however, is that colonial discourse persistently refused to acknowledge the universality of the principles underlining this modern regime of power.

The Rule of Colonial Difference

The scheme of granting India a measure of responsible government introduced by the Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms in 1919 was contested by the British on the grounds that Indian society was not prepared for impersonal governance, that caste was incompatible with democracy, and that the experiment would be counterproductive for the British. Such a policy, in other words, made no practical or theoretical  sense and therefore could not and should not be applied to India.

Now, if the modern regime of power with its regulating and disciplining, or “normalising”, principles is justified by the argument that it makes power effective, productive, and humane, how can we address the debate about its universality? Is it universally applicable, as the liberal Indian elite asserted? Is it inescapably tied to Western societies, as the preceding paragraph implies? Or is it applicable when a certain cultural and historical education is attained, as Mill would argue?

All three positions are extant today and easily slide into the other by employing a rule of “colonial difference”. The implication is that if these three positions extant today draw upon the “colonial difference”, the colonial state, then, becomes crucial towards understanding the modern state.

Race and Rational Bureaucracy

The Revolt of 1857 forced the colonial state to reveal its true form as a modern regime of power which could never fulfill its “normalising mission” as its power was premised on maintaining the “colonial difference”.

The Revolt was followed by hard conservatism that scoffed at liberal evangelism in Britain and advocated leaving the ‘immoral’ native customs in India alone. This reaction clearly revealed the factor which united the rulers and separated them from the ruled. This was the rule of “colonial difference” whose most visible marker was race.

Racial difference became more entrenched even as the administration was being rationalised. This apparent paradox — the simultaneity of racial discrimination and merit-based rationalisation of the administration — is resolved if the goal of the colonial enterprise is seen as the preservation of the “colonial difference” within the otherwise universal framework of knowledge.

The Ilbert Bill brought the issue of whether bureaucratic rationalisation should be allowed to transgress racial division. On being pointed out that Indian judicial officers with the same qualifications and training as the British counterparts were being denied the same rights — an Indian Magistrate could not try a European — the liberal viceroy, Lord Ripon, introduced the said bill to straighten out the regulations. A veritable storm broke out with nonofficial Europeans rising in ‘almost mutinous opposition’ to denounce the bill. This forced the viceroy to beat a hasty retreat and pass instead a wholly emasculated bill.

The question was not so much the weakness of the viceroy as was the impossibility of establishing the modern state without suspending the idea of “colonial difference” which was so crucial to the colonial enterprise.

Race and Public Opinion

The Ilbert Bill also illuminated the relationship between the state and the civil society. In colonial Calcutta, the civil society was composed only of European residents whose opinions were considered public opinion.

The contours of this curious state–civil society relationship were revealed in interesting ways by the Nil Durpan Affair. The translation of a Bengali play, Nildarpan written by Dinabandhu Mitra, which spoke of the ‘indigo question’ from the perspective of the natives, through the initiative of the governor, John Peter Grant, and the translation’s subsequent circulation stirred up agitation amongst British indigo planters. The governor was charged with circulating “a foul and malicious libel” against them. The translator, James Long, an Irish missionary, was convicted of libel and sentenced. The governor was reprimanded and Seton-Karr, the secretary to the Government of Bengal who arranged for the translation, was dismissed.

What really was on trial? It was not the play or its author who was not even named in the suit of libel. The target was actually the government which had dared to libel against the public opinion. Long was simply a scapegoat. What was unacceptable to the European community, it turned out, was that ‘native public opinion’ was being considered on par with European opinion. Europeans constituted the civil society and theirs was the public opinion. Freedom of opinion applied only to the Europeans and not the natives.

Language and Freedom of Speech

The question of public opinion flared up in the 1870s when legal means were being devised to curb “seditious” writings in the vernacular press while English papers were kept out of purview. Despite this differentiation between the English and vernacular press being denouned as being “at variance with the whole tenour of (British) policy”, the Vernacular Press Act of 1878, with its stringent provisions which gagged the native press, was passed in haste. It would be repealed four years later. In any case, the distinction by language had ceased to be effective as Indians started publishing “seditious” papers in English.

Nationalism and Colonial Difference

Nationalism claimed sovereignty over the inner spiritual domain of language, religion, and civil relations arguing for an essential difference from the coloniser while simultaneously fighting to remove the marks of difference in the outer material domain of the state like administration, state, and law.

The insistence on difference, in rival conceptions of collective identity, has carried over into the postcolonial state especially with regards to the determination of agency in history. This gets implicated in the insistence on similar claims of “autonomous subjectivity”.

 “It Never Happened!”

The revisionist argument of British colonial history challenges the assumption that colonial rule represented a significant break and argues that the colonial regime was a continuation of indigenous regimes and further that Indians themselves were actively involved in this colonial project.

The first part of the argument, put forth by Burton Stein, sees the period between 1750 and 1850 as a “period of transition”. The early colonial rule slowly centralised military power just as other Indian predecessors did, marking a distinct continuity. But later, they also imposed a regime based on impersonality which marked a discontinuity not only from the indigenous but also the early colonial period.

Frank Perlin qualifies this argument by introducing the idea that the centralising tendency characterised largely the early colonial stage. It was the acceleration of this process that produced a “substantial break”. He adds that early colonial rule largely extinguished intermediary pockets of power that would often spring up during precolonial indigenous attempts at centralisation.

But in insisting on the distinction between the early and the later colonial period, the former as a continuation of precolonial regimes and the latter as a break, it attracts the justified question whether the whole argument is merely about identifying when the decisive break took place. If this indeed is all to it, one might retort simply that the date or period of the decisive break from early to later colonial state notwithstanding, the later colonial state did mark a discontinuity and develop the modern state and that this is all that matters.

The stronger second part of the revisionist argument emphasises the agency of Indian capital towards the colonial project. Indians were “active agents and not simply passive bystanders and victims in the colonial project.” Not only that, this perspective also highlights the resilience from the indigenous propertied groups that frustrated the “grandiose economic plans” of the colonial state. The Indian people are made subjects of history and a narrative running from the precolonial to the postcolonial period is constructed.

What of colonial rule then? It would appear that it was merely a brief interlude in the longer narrative of history.

David Washbrook argues further that an objective historical method centred on tracing continuities might help extract and restore the Indianness of colonial rule from the narrative of European history. And indeed, this “historical theory” perspective will reveal that economic and social institutions of precolonial India accommodated and encouraged modern capital. The East India Company was merely one of many players already performing much the same functions. Colonialism was thus the logical outcome of India’s own history of capitalist development!

Colonial Difference as Postcolonial Difference

It is magical how “historical theory” makes the violent intrusion and excesses of colonialism appear to be an innate property of indigenous history. But this, like all feats of magic, is also an illusion.

Washbrook asserts the similarity between Indian and European economic arrangements as a means of providing authenticity to Indian history and in doing so is merely restating, though he does not recognise it, the assumption that both histories are situated within the same framework of universal history. The assertion of difference by his predecessors put colonialism at odds with a society incapable of capitalism and modern government thus necessitating colonial intervention and education. But in asserting similarity, Washbrook has erased colonialism out of existence for it becomes, as earlier stated, an interlude, a phase in the historical development. The further implication is that if India is backward today, it is due to the limitations of its own indigenous history.

A State of Contradictions: The Post-Colonial State in India by Sudipta Kaviraj — A Summary

Title: A State of Contradictions: The Post-Colonial State in India
Author: Sudipta Kaviraj
Publication: Sudipta Kaviraj (2010) The Imaginary Institutions of India

Note: Why ‘state of contradictions’? Good question! Count the number of times ‘paradox’/paradoxically’ or ‘contradictions/contradictory’ appear in this summary. 


The modern state has seen success outside of Europe in two senses: instrumental and ideational. The former relates to the unprecedented increase in state power which allowed it to extend its control over the colonies. The latter relates to the enthusiastic acceptance of the sovereign modern state in the colonies post decolonisation. And over the years, this state has emerged as the central agency driving non-Western modernity.

The essay seeks to examine the post-colonial form of the modern state that took form in India and the insights that could be generalised from the Indian case. The insight is that democratic success outside Europe is more likely to follow the Indian rather than the European trajectory.

In this essay, ‘post-colonial’ is understood not simply as the situation after decolonization but strongly as a product of colonial history. This necessitates looking at the state from a long term historical perspective and tracing the transformation of political power brought about by colonialism.

Unlike Europe where economic and intellectual transformations brought about modernity, in India, modernity shaped the country’s economic and intellectual foundations. This ‘politics’, initially, started with the establishment of institutions of colonial rule which creating the colonial state where the British rulers and the Indian elites exercised influence. This was followed by the state’s extension, from the 1920s, to a more inclusive but still limited transformative nationalist movement and then, since the 1970s, its evolution into a truly expansive activity with the entry of lower class politicians.

This change in the nature and reach of the state, and this is the central idea of the essay, is the result of the transformation of a religiously determined and coordinated society, where the state was only marginal and worked to uphold that religious system, to a state controlled order. The ‘European’ state has since expanded its jurisdiction and has come to occupy a central position both in its instrumental and ideational senses.


‘Hindu’ society had been ordered in terms of caste which manifested as the four varnas in the formal ritualistic structure and as the numerous jatis in the effective sociological structure. The caste order grants monopoly over ritual status/religious prestige, political power, and economic wealth to three separate classes. This is in stark contrast to the aristocracies of the west where the latter two and sometimes even all three coincided in a single group.

This arrangement is significant because it meant that political rulers were mere ‘executive’ functionaries upholding and administering the social order and its ‘immutable’ norms already ‘legislated’ by religion. Placed between the Brahmins and the Vaishyas in the caste hierarchy, the Kshatriyas, the rulers, were separated from yet dependent on the other two castes. Thus, the idea of modern sovereignty could not apply to the political authority of the Hindu society.

And of the coming of Islamic rule, it can be said while its religion exhibited fundamental differences, they had little effect on the relationship between political authority and social order in India. The unstoppable force of the Islamic military power met and learnt to co-exist with the immovable structure of the Hindu caste system.


Colonialism was not uniform owing to the societal diversity of the European states themselves many of which deployed different projects in different places as well the societal diversity of the colonies which deployed their own cultural and political resources in the colonial encounter.

India is a peculiar case in that British advance was met with enthusiasm and support from a substantial cross-section of the emergent Indian public, especially India’s elites. The crucial initial phase of colonialism was not so much the establishment of the colonial state but rather the extension of colonial power.

This is where the contradictions come to the fore. British power at first was limited to instruments of trade and revenue collection. Slowly, ‘modern cultural apparatuses’, were introduced turning it into the modern state. With regard to this advance, Indian opinion was deeply ambivalent. Traditional centres of power like the conservative Brahmins and old aristocracies were understandably hostile. However, new commercial interests, aspirant political groups, and modern professional elites were supportive and welcoming.

The colonial state suffered contradictory impulses. Administrative thinking advocated against meddling in the social affairs of the on arguing that such interventions without fully understanding Indian society would create discontent. It was the unflinching initiative of the native reformers that compelled the British to end, for example, sati. But the thrust towards restructuring the Indian society on rational lines, for many a justification of colonial rule, was very much alive. This oscillation between reform and non-interference created space for nationalist politics, even if limited to the elites, to grow.

The establishment of liberalism in Britain which coincided with the colonial rule in India introduced internal contradictions in the Indian empire. The passionate advocacy of liberal principles in Britain was being carried out against the backdrop of a distinctly illiberal regime in the colonies. Educated Indians argued against colonialism using the same language as the liberals.

The non-realisation of liberal principles was effected in one of two ways. The first was simply to ignore the principles in practice. This allowed the nationalists to accuse the British of dishonesty. The second was Mill’s stage theory of history which laid down a certain ‘stage of civilization’ as a prerequisite for representative institutions, as stage which the Indians, apparently, had yet to reach. This argument was a veiled acknowledgement of the universality of liberal principles and pushed the British to the backfoot in their ideological defence.


The Indian state after Independence had a contradictory inheritance. It was the heir to both the British colonial state and the Indian nationalist movement. The legal institutions and the coercive apparatuses of the state against which the nationalist movement had fought against were largely left unaltered. What changed, however, was the introduction of universal adult franchise and the expansion of state responsibilities beyond law and order into welfare and development.

There was also the simultaneous consolidation, somewhat paradoxically, of the ‘logic of bureaucracy’ and the ‘logic of democracy’ — both rooted in the colonial rule.

The bureaucracy, impelled by considerations of efficiency during the colonial period, found application in Independent India as a necessary institution for its developmental agenda. Nehru imbued the state with a distinct ‘developmentalist and redistributivist ideology’ and made it the agent of development tasked with direct management of production and redistribution. As a result, the bureaucracy expanded significantly leading, paradoxically, to the rise of the overextended, corrupt and inefficient state.

In the 1970s, the developmental state underwent a subtle change in character. Nehru accorded autonomy in managerial and decisional matters to the enterprises constituting the developmental state. But after his death, the vast increase in their resources attracted attention of political leaders and ministers who sought control over their operations. The coherence of planning and ideology which was an essential feature of the Nehruvian state gave way to the ‘business’ of politics which (mis)used state resources for short term political gains.

While all these were happening, democracy expanded. Democracy came to India through a single stroke of political inclusion. But this did not translate to real political participation of the illiterate majority at least in the beginning which, paradoxically, ensured the proper functioning of democratic government as the short-term pressures of electoral politics did not obstruct long-term rational strategies.

The situation, however, changed in the 1970s. First of all, the well of legitimacy gifted by the legacy of the national struggle had dried up which forced the new generation of leaders to exploit the power of short term electoral promises. Also, the ordinary voters had learnt the strategic value of their vote and made greater demands on the political system.

As such, politics became increasingly ‘vernacular’ both in the literal and conceptual sense. Not only did the new politicians speak vernacular languages but they also lacked the foundational knowledge of Western precedents like liberalism and socialism and, instead, introduced vernacular concepts into the political discourse. Democracy was truly revolutionary in so far as it led to a ‘real redistribution of dignity’.

With the rise of economic modernity, caste observances have declined in private lives but thanks to democracy, caste identities have become more assertive even, paradoxically, demanding recognition of equality among caste groups. This defies general schemes of characterisation as the use of caste in this unprecedented modern formulation is not wholly modern yet not wholly fully traditional.

Also, the discourse on rights and equality has been dominated by demands for the primacy group rights and equality rather than those of the individual. The politics of community assertion drives a wedge between the principles of procedural propriety and participatory politics which are central to the complex of democracy. Political parties representing large communities point to established procedures of government — like secularism and positive discrimination — as obstacles to their pursuit of justice. This could explain the rise of Hindu nationalist ideology as a countermove against the increasing weight of lower and formerly marginalised caste-groups in Indian politics. Using an inflammatory rhetoric of restitutive justice and by insinuating discrimination against the Hindus, the BJP has garnered substantial upper-caste backing.

There is also the simultaneous power of both the bureaucracy and democracy. This apparent paradox between statist and participatory tendencies is resolved when the rise of participatory politics is seen to generate greater demands on the state to deliver the expectations of the voters. Democracy, in other words, has reinforced the state.

It can be argued that export of the ‘European’ state to other parts of the world have largely failed, often disastrously. But the experience of India forces a different conclusion. For all its ‘unsuitable’ cultural and economic conditions, India has successfully adopted and practiced democracy since its Independence not simply in the mere continuance of electoral politics but also in fundamentally transforming the social relations of everyday lives. If democracy succeeds in other non-European societies in the future, their trajectories are more likely to resemble that of India than the European ones.

Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity by Romila Thapar — A Summary

Title: Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity
Author: Romila Thapar
Publication: Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1989)
Link: http://www.jstor.org/stable/312738

My choice of subject for this lecture arose from . . . (the realisation) that the interplay between the past and the contemporary times requires a continuing dialogue between historians working on these periods. . . (T)he colonial experience changed the framework of the comprehension of the past from what had existed earlier . . . And where political ideologies appropriate this comprehension and seek justification from the pre-colonial past, there, the historian’s comment on the process is called for.


The growth of communal ideologies, or communalisms, is a marked feature of contemporary Indian politics.  These ideologies use imagined religious identities  as a basis for political mobilisation. The forced alliance of religion and ideology leads to a ‘redefinition’ of religion through the imposition of conformity and rejection of diversity. This redefining is necessary to attract people into the fold because numbers is all that matters in a ‘mechanical’ view of democracy.

Many such ideologies are current in India but the most dominant and most prevalent, by far, is obviously that of Hindu communalism. This communalism has sought legitimacy by claiming that “there has always (emphasis mine) been a well-defined and historically evolved religion which we now call Hinduism and an equally well-defined Hindu community”. How far is that claim true?


The modern description of Hinduism as a ‘brahmana-dominated’ religion somehow weaves the variety of different sects, the plurality of doctrines and the multiplicity of deities into a single religious fabric.

However, historical sources of the early period paint a rather different picture. That there were organisational, ritual and theological differences between Brahmanism and Sramanism is indisputable. Any historical view of ancient Indian religion would confirm this dichotomy.

The history of Hindu religion is necessarily complex.

The evolution of Hinduism is not a linear progression through an organizational system, with sects branching the mosaic of distinct cults, deities, sects and ideas juxtaposing or distancing of these to existing drawing not only on belief and ideas but also on reality.


Religious practice and belief were circumscribed by caste, sect or geographical boundaries. Despite that, assimilation of various Hindu sects having distinct and independent origins have happened via the appropriation of ‘civilizational’ symbols as religious symbols. How religious were these symbols? The svastika, for example is not a specifically Hindu symbol as it is used by a variety of religious groups. The epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, have their origins as civilizational symbols. Even concepts of the after-life were and remain contested.

The suggestion of structural similarity in rituals, despite its truth, falls short of having a shared theology, creed and ecclesiastical organisation which is so crucial for any organised religion.

[Why has the recent definition of Hinduism failed to take account for these variant and deviant premises of Indian religion?]

This definition was the result of various factors: of Christian missionaries who saw this as the lacunae of religions in India and which they regarded as primitive; of some Orientalist scholarship anxious to fit the 'Hindu' process into a comprehensible whole based on a known model; the efforts also of Indian reform movements attempting to cleanse Indian religion of what they regarded as negative encrustations and trying to find parallels with the Semitic model.

The normative value of ahimsa or non-violence has been claimed as a special feature of Hinduism. However, non-violence is a characteristic of Sramanism and not so of Brahmanism. The Bhagvad-Gita, for example, has no aversion to violence. In addition, the persistent belief that ‘Hindus’ never indulged in persecution is mistaken. The Saivite persecution of Sramanic sects — of Buddhists in Kashmir, of Jainas in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka — has been established.

The notion of a Hindu community as having a long ancestry is hollow. In fact, there were a variety of communities determined by location, occupation and caste and without any sense of religious oneness. Also, identities were segmented. And there was the absence of any unified notion of a “uniform, religious community readily identified as Hindu”.

The word ‘Hindu’ itself was an inclusive geographical term used to refer to the people living across the Indus river. The awareness that the incoming Muslims during the medieval ages and the Indian population had of each other was not in terms of a monolithic religion but as distinct and separate castes and sects.

The 19th-century definition of Hindu community relied on James Mill’s erroneous assumption of the existence of such a community going back to ancient history. It was buttressed by theory of the Aryan race who were said to have conquered the subcontinent. Upper caste supremacy was then justified by appealing to Aryan descent. This theory however has been discarded as there is no evidence of any invasion or conquest of north-western India.


The creation of a Hindu community by claiming historicity for the incarnations of its deities and monotheism, by encouraging the idea of a sacred holy book, by acknowledging the authority of ecclesiastical organisation and by supporting conversion is only a recent event impelled by the need for political mobilisation in the 19th-century as religion became a key to power. This was mobilisation directed towards hegemony over the ‘other’.

The result is often that the majority communities, who get to define national aspirations thanks to the strength of numbers, tend to sideline the minorities as disruptive and alien. The minorities are often forced to preserve ‘archaic’ features of their communities simply in order to assert a different identity.

If the history of religions in India is seen as the articulation not only of ideas and rituals but also the perceptions and motivations of social groups, the perspectives which would follow might be different from those with which we are familiar. The discourse and the play between and among religious sects of various kinds, has been a central fact of Indian religion and would reflect a more realistic portrayal of the role of religion in society.