Sunday, August 26, 2012

black hole of empire: lousy history, reviewed by fellow leftie, rebutted by acerbic scholar

a bit like that prize ass pankaj mishra was spanked by mihir sharma. 

anybody who claims to be subalternist in india is basically an apologist for fascism or stalinism.

these charlatans have stolen our history. 

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: G
Date: Fri, Aug 24, 2012 at 2:21 AM
Subject: IHR Reviews
To:


Self indulgence and self-aggrandisement on a handsome $ income, with
the usual distortions about the unalloyed joys of Islamic rule before
Clive and Hastings. Partha Chatterjee is predictably and egregiously
silent on Tipu Sultan's own private Moplah pogroms of forced
conversions, etc. and Siraj's dismal rule, the subject of acerbic
comment by Ram Mohun Roy. The latter of course welcomed the British
incursion as liberation from grievously oppressive Islamic rule.

Apparently Partha Chatterjee was a personal witness to 18th century
Bengal, just as the harridan, Romila Thapar effectively insinuates she
was present when Mahmud of Ghazni visited India on a tourist package
and marvelled at the splendours of Somnath, before returning home
satisfied.

Getting an obscure Leftie Bengali, of humbler professional status, to
review one's book is a smart subterfuge, but rather too obvious!

GS

The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power

Book:

The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power
 Partha Chatterjee
 Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2012, ISBN: 9780691152011;
440pp.; Price: £19.95

Reviewer:
Professor Neilesh Bose
 University of North Texas

Citation:
Professor Neilesh Bose, review of The Black Hole of Empire: History of
a Global Practice of Power, (review no. 1307)
 URL: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1307
 Date accessed: 23 August, 2012

See Author's Response


Popular references to Calcutta (now Kolkata) – once the gleaming
capital of British India – in Anglo-American contexts often conjure
images of poverty, crowded city streets, unbearable traffic, smog, and
residents that require a savior. Patrick Swayze and Lisa Niemi’s 2009
memoir (1) includes a description of his performance in Roland Joffe’
s 1992 City of Joy, the film adaptation of Dominique Lapierre’s 1985
novel of the same name. Swayze portrays Max, a jaded Texas doctor who
searches for spiritual enlightenment in Calcutta to work as serving
the poorest of the poor. Not only did the film project the image of
Calcutta as a place beyond saving, but Swayze himself remarks about
how he was assigned by the director to travel himself to Calcutta to
prepare for his work. He diligently prepared for his role at home and
then ‘went to the black hole of Calcutta’ (p. 181). After discussing
the smog, the dirt, the eerie lighting at night, he ends his
description with a casual reference to ‘the black hole’, which, for
English readers, must link Calcutta with the characteristics of
backwardness and poverty. In the 2012 film Avengers, the savior Bruce
Banner tries to keep his inner Hulk in control as he attempts to save
leprosy victims in Calcutta, invoking familiar images of poverty,
over-crowdedness, congested streets, and people in need of a savior.
As critics of Avengers have opined, the vision of Calcutta in the film
was ‘a complete throwback to an older idea of India, where the lights
are dim and the televisions flicker feebly, where wide eyed children
tug at the sleeves of the good phoren doctor’.(2) Though the
‘Calcutta’ portions were shot in New Mexico, critics also stated that
the city looked quite similar to the area depicted in City of Joy,
twenty years earlier – ‘cramped, squalid, leprous’.(3)

A discursive coherence to the representations of Calcutta as cramped
and squalid emanates not only from popular-cultural American
Orientalism, but from a longer history of imperial practices in
colonial India, as discussed by Partha Chatterjee in The Black Hole of
Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power. The story of the Black
Hole of Calcutta, well known to historians of India, and well known to
travelers to India from the 18th century through the late 19th
century, finds an odd place in the history of India and the history of
modern empires. Though probably cited in popular ways by many amateur
Indian history buffs, professional historians seem to have forgotten
about it. The Black Hole refers to the site where allegedly many
Europeans (the precise number has never been settled in the
historiography, though the fact that some people died is beyond
dispute) died by suffocation as prisoners of Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah,
Bengal’s ruling nawab, in 1756. This signature event led to a chain of
conflicts and encounters that ultimately resulted in the English East
India Company’s conquest of Bengal in the late 18th century,
coinciding with their political rise in Southern Asia and the loss of
the American colonies.

By the mid 19th century, most of what is now the nation-state of
India, was conquered by the British Empire. The colonial encounters
between Europeans and India at discursive and material levels
generated landmark debates and historical changes about issues central
to the modern world, such as the nature of capitalism, the spread and
role of the modern state, the extent and desirability of imperialism,
and the nature of nationalism and decolonization in Asia. These modern
encounters, at some level, derive their potency from the starting
point of conquest, during and immediately after the literal Black Hole
incident in the 1750s. The ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’, therefore,
comprises a story that not only commands lasting rhetorical power in
popular Anglo-American culture, but also refers to one of the most
important events in the history of the modern world.

Partha Chatterjee, the pioneering political theorist, historian, and
one of the pioneers of subaltern studies, argues that the ‘forgetting’
of the story by professional historians and the maintenance of a
certain image of Calcutta in the popular imagination, actually tells a
larger story about the nature of empire in the modern world. In this
book, he tells the story of how the narrative itself changed and
impacted different writers – European and Indian – but also claims
that the history of Empire is best understood through a coherent
faithfulness to a certain type of mythos. Chatterjee tracks such a
history of mythos through the history of the story.

In ten chapters, Chatterjee provides a narrative of the Black Hole
story and its physical manifestations, as they slip in and out of the
historical record. Interspersed with the narrative are a series of
critiques of political thought and imperial historiography. His first
chapter, ‘Outrage in Calcutta,’ includes a preface to his narrative of
‘the mythical history of the British Empire in the East’ (p. 1) with a
brief disquisition on the nature of black holes, which establishes the
claim upon which the entire book is built. Chatterjee offers an
analogy of the history of modern empires through a comparison with
black holes in space: just like scientists infer the existence of
black holes without direct observation, historians and present-day
critics and political analysts often detect the presence of imperial
practices, without a grasp of empire’s discursive history. In order to
address the discursive history of empires in the modern age, he
pursues ‘many layers of narrative and doctrine that lay buried under
our currently fashionable postimperial edifice of the global community
of nations’ (p. 1).

Chatterjee begins with an analysis of a monument that represents how
the mythos of empire has impacted Indians, through a tour through the
famous monument in Calcutta’s St. John’s Churchyard. Completed in
1902, under the direction of then Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, this
monument was erected in memory of the victims of the ‘Black Hole’
incident in 1756. The monument leads him to reflect on how various
place names and relationships to space, empire, and nation are
literally inscribed in the built environment of India. From this
point, he starts his story, as he claims that ‘to trace the movement
of the Black Hole Memorial is to unravel the mythical history of
empire’ (p. 6).

In this first chapter, the author provides a detailed history of the
conflicts between the English East India Company (and in particular,
Clive) and Siraj-ud-daulah, as the newly ascendant nawab of Bengal.
His chapter two, ‘A secret veil’, begins with an analysis of political
theory regarding sovereignty in the early modern period, by providing
a schematic listing of the different positions on conquest and
sovereignty in discussions amongst European powers. He also begins a
critical literary history of how the Black Hole story and its
representatives in literal structures (the memorials) changed over
time.

Introducing Orme, the first author of English language histories of
the Black Hole in 1763, Chatterjee establishes how Orme sets the
standard for how discussions about conquest would proceed, based on
both the idea that Indians were naturally servile to those in power
and that Europeans had the right to retaliate and reclaim territory if
serving a higher purpose of conquest. But at this stage, in the late
18th century, the discursive meaning of empire still demonstrated
ambivalence about its origins, as writers such as Burke and others
aimed for a ‘a secret veil’ to be shrouded over the signs of duplicity
and treachery that accompanied the conquest of Bengal by Europeans. It
is in this context that the original memorial for the survivors of the
Black Hole incident was taken down in 1821, as Chatterjee mentions at
the end of chapter two.

In chapter three, ‘Tipu’s Tiger,’ Chatterjee continues to analyze the
discursive history of conquest and sovereignty (how these important
aspects of empire’s ‘Black Hole’-ness were understood by historical
actors) through the late 18th-century history of European conquest in
other regions of India, notably southern India, and the fall of Tipu
Sultan, the ruler of the Sultanate of Mysore from 1782–99. An active
diplomat and ally of the rising Napoleonic force in Europe and Africa,
Tipu Sultan represents what Chatterjee delineates as one aspect of
‘early modernity’ in South Asian history. He introduces the idea of
the ‘absolutist early modern’ and the ‘anti-absolutist early modern’
and concludes that an ‘absolutist early modern’ formation appeared in
various parts of India in the 17th and 18th centuries. For Chatterjee,
this ‘absolutist early modern’ form included various elements such as
the need to establish state sovereignty, the comparability of power,
creating new disciplines via the military, and focusing on effective
leadership and skills, not lineage or status. This ‘absolutist early
modern’ formation was most effectively harnessed by Tipu Sultan, in
his modernization of his military, fiscal revenue collection, trading
practice, irrigation, cultivation, and his gun and saltpeter factories
developed in his domain.

Chapter four, ‘The liberty of subjects,’ and chapter five, ‘The
equality of subjects’ establish the other part of Chatterjee’s
characterization of early modern India, that of the ‘anti-absolutist
early modern’. As the ‘absolutist early modern’ form was taking shape
in Tipu Sultan’s realm in south India, in Calcutta of the late 18th
and early 19th centuries, Chatterjee shows how a multi-racial
intelligentsia of Bengali Hindus, Europeans, and mixed-race subjects
of the British Empire started to press for radical and
proto-democratic representative institutions and privileges. In
chapter four, he discusses the first movements to establish, promote,
and push for ‘rights’ – here in the 1780s, by James August Hickey, who
started Hickey’s Bengal Gazette. In this publication, the editor and
contributors aggressively pursued the right to critique corruption in
the Company as well as the liberty to publish and circulate journal
copies outside of the Company’s interference. This, for Chatterjee,
‘enunciated perhaps for the first time in a British colony in the
East, a classic antiabsolutist statement of the innate and inalienable
liberty of the freeborn British subject’ (p. 111). Though a growing
racialized order was visibly appearing in urban transformations of
public space, as he details in these two chapters, he also discusses
how Indians, such as Rammahon Roy, the pioneering intellectual and
social critic of the age, asserted the equality of subjects.

In chapter six, ‘The happiness of mankind’, Chatterjee returns to a
critical textual analysis of how the Black Hole figures in
English-language writings from the late 18th century onward. Here, he
dissects Macaulay (infamous for his 1834 minute on education in which
he professed his belief in the innate superiority of Western
literatures to Oriental literatures) and his writings about Clive and
the Black Hole incident in the 1840s. Macaulay’s essay on Clive, read
by schoolchildren in the metropole, turned the Black Hole story into a
founding myth of empire. This founding myth was sustained because for
Macaulay, Clive’s moral improprieties (ambivalently hidden in the
‘secret veil’ phase earlier) were condoned because he initiated what
would later be good government in India. As Chatterjee states,
Macaulay made


empire safe from its own infamous origins. The secret veil could now
be lifted. Clive’s history could be taught to British schoolchildren
as a fable of moral instruction, to instill pride in their hearts not
merely for the valor of their compatriots but also for the selfless
service they were rendering to the people of the empire (p. 167).

Chapters seven ‘A pedagogy of violence’ and eight, ‘A pedagogy of
culture’ return to political theory and the nature of imperial
practice, after the periods of ‘absolutist early modern’ and
‘antiabsolutist early modern’ politics had faded. Chatterjee argues
that by the 1840s empire functioned on pedagogic grounds, and by one
of two models only: violence, exemplified by rapacious territorial
conquest in the mid to late 19th century, and culture, in which
education, language and literature, the arts would all develop in
tandem with Europeans, but on segregated lines, refracted through the
lens of colonial difference. In chapter eight, Chatterjee discusses
the arena of Bengali popular theater, where cultural appropriations of
various acts of interpretation of the Black Hole incident appeared
from the 1870s through the 1900s. In these plays, by writers such as
Nabin Chandra Sen and Akshaykumar Maitreya, produced by the famed
regisseur-director Girishchandra Ghosh, Chatterjee traces a glimmer of
resistance to the various discursive practices of empire examined in
earlier chapters. Sen’s 1875 Palashir Juddhya (The War of Palashi)


gestured, if only rhetorically, to the possibility that Bengal under
Siraj, although badly
governed, was at least sovereign, and therefore free, and had a state
where even though the ruler was a Muslim, Hindus nonetheless enjoyed
positions in the highest echelons of government (p. 242).

In chapters nine ‘Bombs, sovereignty, and football’ and ‘The death and
everlasting life of empires’, Chatterjee shifts the focus to the
popular sport of football in late colonial Bengal as well as rising
nationalist sentiment against the Holwell monument marking a new
memorialization of the Black Hole victims. This last monument, built
by Curzon, in 1902, appeared in the midst of rising nationalist
agitation and four decades later, as Chatterjee shows, immense public
mobilization on behalf of Indian football teams competing against
European teams. By the early 1940s, Chatterjee argues, the public
culture of Bengal’s sporting world and nationalist activists had
merged, such that the nationalist opposition to the Holwell monument,
which began in earnest in 1940, included the large world of football
fans. As he states in chapter ten, ‘it is quite certain that there was
considerable overlap between the public that celebrated the victories
of Mohun Bagan or Mohammadan Sporting Clubs on the Maidan, the public
that agitated for the removal of the Holwell monument, and the
murderous public that went on a rampage on the streets and in the
slums of Calcutta’ (p. 335).

The chapter, and the entire book, ends with an 11-page analysis of
empire’s discursive and practical career in the present day, along
with a concise statement of the book’s anchoring claim, which is
demonstrated through his history of the conquest of India: ‘the most
reliable definition of an imperial practice remains that of the
privilege to declare the exception to the norm’ (p. 337). He lists
examples of this privilege of declaring the exception to a norm
constructed by those in pre-eminent nation-state power (previously, by
those in imperial power), such as the decision of who gets to sit on
the UN Permanent Security Council, the decision of who acceptably may
house nuclear weapons, the decision to allow for differential
treatment of victims of tragedies. In this final example, he compares
the way that American victims of the recent BP gas spill have been
treated compared to the victims of the Union Carbide gas leak in
Bhopal, India, in 1984. Furthermore, as a way to demonstrate how the
career of empire’s technologies live in the present day, he mentions
how imperial ventures today by powerful states like the United States
proceed both by pedagogical discourses of violence (justified in Iraq
by the United States) and through non-violent means (Saudi Arabia and
Burma, as examples).

Chatterjee has produced a virtuoso performance that integrates a
powerful combination of narrative history and political thought. He
has mastered a diverse set of archives rare for historians, such as
the treasures of dramatic literature, fiction, historical writing,
urban history, and histories of space. His extensively researched
narrative history is fruitfully interrupted with exciting discussions
related to present-day politics and historiography.

Chatterjee conducts a cultural history by employing various strategies
of reading texts, aimed not at empirical certitude or sociological
clarity, but aimed at the resolution of the genealogy of enduring
discursive questions. The need for precise empirical research, then,
does not accord the same meaning as it would for a social history (as
an example of another methodological approach to history). But might
questions of social history complicate the way that Chatterjee
interprets the history that is required to make sense of his critique
of political thought? There are two ways that questions of social
history may complicate his own presentation: one, through an
exploration of alternative textual readings of the very same sources
he offers and two, an assessment of the global reach of the ‘Black
Hole’ narrative. Chatterjee opens his book with the claim that ‘the
global phenomenon of modern empire’ (p. xi) is represented by the
history of this story. Pursuing these avenues into his work opens a
window into a larger question about the way hegemony is conceptualized
in Chatterjee’s book and the implications of this conceptualization
for the writing of history.

Though the texts Chatterjee interprets are certainly multi-faceted and
deserving of close readings, do any alternative reading strategies
uncover underlying discursive elements that went into the making of
those texts? In his section ‘One the poetic and historical
imagination’, he offers a wonderfully detailed analysis of
representations of Siraj-ud-daulah in the writings of Bengali Hindus,
like Nabin Chandra Sen, and his play Palasir yuddha, first published
in 1875, produced in the 1870s and also in the 1890s. In this play,
Siraj appears as a cutthroat tyrant, probably due to the English and
English-inflected sources about him that Sen received. This depiction
received a critique about 20 years later by Akshaykumar Maitreya, who
countered Nabin Chandra Sen’s depictions of Siraj by using varieties
of new evidence from the period. Maitreya showed him as a ‘absolutist
ruler fighting to defend the sovereignty of the state, which he
believed was the precondition for peace and prosperity in the kingdom’
(p. 245). This move not only showed sympathy and humanity for Siraj,
countering Orientalist and stereotypical constructions of Muslim
rulers, but created the ‘foundations of nationalist anticolonial
historiography’ (p. 243). Chatterjee then discusses the ‘dramatic
national popular,’ worked out by playwrights and theater artists in
the wake of these debates, as led by Girishchandra Ghosh in the first
two decades of the 20th century.

Chatterjee’s exposure of these debates and tracing of the origins of
nationalist thought are detailed and nuanced. But there are two areas
in his presentation that cry out for more expansion. One, though he
mentions without any notes or references that ‘Muslim critics had
often complained about the unfair portrayal of Siraj in Nabinchandra’s
Palasir yuddha’ (p. 242), he devotes not a single line to any Muslim
Bengali writers, critics, or political figures who had a stake in this
entire debate. It is not incumbent upon Chatterjee to offer an
analysis of each and every text and/or community that produced
responses to these sorts of discourses, but a history of discourse
without any grappling with the social markers on the ground leaves
readers wondering about the historicity of these moments. When
discussing how such a nationalist and idealized form of India’s past
came to occupy these writers through the figure of Siraj, Chatterjee
does not discuss how this very form potentially excluded Muslims from
taking an active role in the nationalist imagination in this
particular way. As Chatterjee states, Nabin Chandra Sen provided


the key elements of the rhetoric of Hindu-Muslim fraternity that would
ring out so loudly in the days of the Swadeshi movement…This was not
the fraternity premised on the abstract citizen-subject, grounded in
homogenous and equal citizenship, and then handed down as the liberal
ideal of civic nationalism, most exemplarily since the French
Revolution. Rather it was based on Hindus and Muslims constituting
distinct communities that were nonetheless bound by the solidarity of
naturalized kinship (p. 249).

Such a textual reading may provide quite insightful for understanding
Nabin Chandra Sen as well as nationalists who also reproduced this
rhetoric, but does it apply to Muslim intellectuals of the same time
period? Or, for that matter, to intellectuals grappling with these
ideas in other regions of India? Since Muslims were the majority of
Bengali speaking people at this time, readers have no way of assessing
the manner in which these constructions actually represented anything
beyond the Hindu intelligentsia. Or if there were discursive and
intellectual encounters that transcended the boundaries that Nabin
Chandra Sen, Akshaykumar Maitreya, and Girishchandra Ghosh
represented.

During the age of this nationalist thought-world, from the 1870s to
the 1910s, many Muslim writers wrote in Bengali; like Mir Musharraf
Hussein, who wrote novels, plays, and verse, in particular, the
three-part Bishad-Sindhu (Ocean of Sorrows) about the Battle of
Karbala, and Ismail Hossain Shiraji, who traveled to Turkey during the
Balkan Wars, wrote travelogues about Turkey in Bengali as well as
seditious anti-colonial literature. These writers were certainly also
affected by the newly ascendant discourses of nation and community.
Though not a particularly visible or remarkable part of the
vernacular-educated Bengali middle-class literati, these writers also
grappled with issues of sovereignty, in particular through idealized
connections with the Islamic world as well as Islamic literary and
ethical themes in Bengali that had been present in the language since
at least the 17th century CE. Given that the Muslim portion of Siraj’s
identity was crucial for the stereotype of him as a tyrant, why not
include any assessment of Muslim Bengali writing during the age of
nationalist thought? Chatterjee mentions how by 1940, ‘the Muslim
public in Calcutta was being mobilized for entirely new political
futures’ (p. 323), but without any sense of the exclusions that were
discursively operating in the thought-worlds of Bengali letters at the
time. Inputting an awareness of the exclusions operating at discursive
levels would allow readers a sense of the texture of how hegemonic
ideas generate force and power. These questions reflect on the larger
issue of how hegemony is understood in this work, for the broader
audience of scholars of modern politics and political thought. Is
hegemony always already given and does it not have a history? What
happens to the contingent moments of the construction of the hegemonic
ideas in the making of ‘imperial practices’?

Near the end of the book, Chatterjee mentions a way of disaggregating
the Indian nation by presenting a potential critique of its post-1947
career: ‘there is no reason to believe that a postcolonial democracy
such as India would not harbor ambitions of playing such an imperial
role, just as democracies of the nineteenth century had done’ (p.
344). Such a statement exposes the assumption that the making of
Indian national ideas itself was free from such ambitions and only the
post-1947 set of state practices requires such a disaggregation. Could
one pursue the making of exclusions in India’s own past – for example,
the Bengali Hindu writers that he discusses, and the particularly
upper-caste Hindu nationalist community that is created by them –
through directly addressing areas of the Bengali and broader Indian
landscape they systematically ignored?

Besides an assessment of the social realm in the making of discourse
and an appreciation of discursive power, what also remains unaddressed
is how a narrative like the Black Hole story of Calcutta is so
powerful that it, and its career, should assume the burden of
representing the ‘the global phenomenon of modern empire from the
eighteenth to the twentieth century’ (p. xi). In order to demonstrate
the power of the Black Hole story, Chatterjee uses the example of one
third of 115 senior college students knowing about it and most (how
many of the one third of 115 constituted the ‘most’ was not mentioned)
believing it to be true. Does this exercise represent the extent of
the power of this sort of ideology of empire that the Black Hole
represents? Did the story resonate with colonized peoples and colonial
officials elsewhere, as opposed to New York college students in 1947?
As Chatterjee mentions other types of imperial-modern forms, such as
the settler colonial and the plantation types, do those types not
require a discursive unpacking and examination, or are readers to
assume that the ideological bases for their imperial practices are
easily understood? In his laudable pulling of the curtain back from
European political thought’s hypocritical self-representations and
false universalisms, Chatterjee potentially inserts a comparable
blindness in his generalization of ‘African and Asiatic’ peoples as
represented by the particular place of Calcutta and the various ways
that Hindu elites in the modern age understood political power.

These questions aside, Chatterjee’s work proves relevant to
post-colonial scholars, political theorists and early modern
historians, regardless of the region of specialization. His history is
a discursive history of the modern world, a post-colonial counterpart
to synthetic world histories that have appeared in recent years, such
as C.A. Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914 and Eric
Hobsbawm’s many ‘Age of …’ books, particularly his The Age of Empire,
1875-1914.(4)

In a manner that departs from these authors, he grapples with how
imperial practices are imbricated in knowledge reproduction, much
likes Nicholas Dirks’ The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of
Imperial Britain.(5) He achieves this particularly successfully in his
reading of how the Black Hole story changed in the 19th century from
requiring a ‘secret veil’ to creating a justification for conquest.
The consequent manners of appropriation of ideas of conquest in the
Bengali Hindu intelligentsia are also, similarly, parsed out in
excellent detail. Doubtlessly, specialists of other regions of the
world which experienced discursive shifts in ideas of conquest will
benefit from Chatterjee’s approach. His work would be profitably read
against Bayly, Marks, as well as contemporary theorists of global
history, such as Bruce Mazlish and recent debates about the ‘new
global history’ (6) in order to situate the role of empire in the
history of modernity.

This work figures as a significant moment in Chatterjee’s career as a
distinguished scholar of politics, culture, and history. Author of
groundbreaking contributions to political thought and history, such as
the 1998 Nation and its Fragments (7), required reading for South
Asian specialists of all stripes as well as post-colonial theorists,
Chatterjee has managed to develop new positions outside of his earlier
works through The Black Hole. For example, in his section on
‘antiabsolutist early modern’ politics, exemplified by Rammahon Roy,
he offers a tour through many newly unearthed primary sources that
have yet to be studied together and uncovers modes of learning and
thought that were not shaped directly by colonial education. His
spotlight on how pre-colonial debates about monotheism and religion
emanated not from the encounter with the ‘West,’ but from internal
Indian debates that included Muslim, Hindu, and Zoroastrian thinkers,
warrants particular attention. This angle is a departure from his
previous work, such as Nationalist Thought and the Postcolonial World
(8) and A Nation and its Fragments, in which the late 19th-century
figurations of nationalism in the latter and key archetypal modern
Indian nationalist figures in the former were the objects of study.
Here, Chatterjee transcends the focus only on the colonial encounter
and manages to include a detailed analysis of intellectual debate in
the Indian realm of letters before the rise of modern colonialism.
This work, for South Asian specialists, may be read as a profitable
successor to many of his earlier works about hegemony, culture, and
colonial and post-colonial politics.

Chatterjee offers a wonderfully provocative ending to his book, about
yet another mythos, that of the national, as opposed to the imperial,
through the interpretation of how Curzon’s plaque about the Black Hole
had ended up in the Philatelic Museum. At least according to one of
the museum’s staff members, Subhas Chandra Bose, the great late
colonial Bengali nationalist, wanted it removed and so hammered it
loose from the wall. As Chatterjee states, ‘the ground remains fertile
for nationalist mythology’ well after the formal careers of empires
have come to a close. One wonders, though, whether such fertility is
restricted to Indian nationalists, like Bose, and those with the
privilege of identifying with and therefore debating the contours of
an empire or nation. Or does it touch a wider swath of humanity across
the spectrum of life touched by the rhetorical power of empire?

Notes
 1.Swayze, Patrick and Lisa Niemi. The Time of My Life (New York, NY,
2010).Back to (1)
 2.Sandip Roy, ‘An Incredible Hulking shame: The Avengers go to
Calcutta’ <http://newamericamedia.org/2012/05/if-the-avengers-is-right.php>
[accessed 17 July 2012].Back to (2)
 3.Ibid.Back to (3)
 4.C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914 (Oxford,
2004); Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1875–1914 (London, 1989); The
Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (London, 1962); The Age of Capital,
1848-1875 (London, 1975).Back to (4)
 5.Nicholas Dirks, The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of
Imperial Britain (Cambridge, MA, 2006).Back to (5)
 6.Bruce Mazlish, The New Global History (New York, NY, 2006).Back to (6)
 7.Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and
Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, NJ, 1993).Back to (7)
 8.Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World
(London, 1986).Back to (8)
 August 2012

Author's Response


Partha Chatterjee

Posted: Thu, 23/08/2012 - 12:00

I thank Neilesh Bose for his appreciative review and have no quarrel
with his evaluation. However, he raises three points at the end of his
review to which I would like to respond.

First, the important question of the exclusion of Muslims from the
nationalist imagination of Hindu upper-caste Bengali intellectuals has
been frequently discussed in the existing literature and it was not my
intention to survey that field.(1) As for the response from Muslim
critics to Nabinchandra Sen’s treatment of Siraj in his poem, this too
has been recently discussed by Rosinka Chaudhuri in her essay, cited
in my book (p. 240, fn. 47).(2)What is remarkable about the Siraj
story is not exclusion at all but rather the enthusiastic embrace by
Bengali Muslim intellectuals of the history of the British conquest of
Bengal as written by Hindu nationalist historians such as Akshaykumar
Maitreya. This was shown in particular by the demand raised by Muslim
intellectuals in the 1930s for the correction of derogatory references
to Siraj in school textbooks and the removal of the Black Hole
monument from the central square of Calcutta, as well as by the
revival of the Siraj theme in the Calcutta theatre in 1939. In every
such speech, resolution or play, the authentic historical source cited
was Maitreya. I have mentioned this in the context of my account of
the movement among Muslim intellectuals and students in 1937–1940,
trying to put pressure on the Fazlul Huq government to act despite its
dependence on the European members of the Bengal legislature. Thus,
while the larger story of the exclusion of Muslims from the
nationalist imagination of Hindu intellectuals and, in particular, the
glaring exclusion of Muslims from the Calcutta professional theatre
(though not from its audience) is familiar, the Siraj and Black Hole
story is a rare case of congruence of Muslim and Hindu popular views
on a historical episode. This is one more reason why I was concerned
to take the story of myth-making outside the sphere of high
intellectual history into the popular cultural fields of theatre and
football.

Second, the question of possible imperial ambitions held by the
nationalist political leadership of the new Indian state needs more
careful analysis than was possible within the space of my book. I
would suggest that the key lies in my distinction between empire as
technique and empire as ideology. In ideological terms, the Indian
political leadership was, for obvious historical reasons, overtly,
loudly and, one need not doubt, sincerely anti-imperial. In terms of
its technical uses of power, however, as I have suggested on p. 196,
it used many of the same imperial techniques used by the British, such
as, for instance, in the integration of the princely states into
India, including the use of armed force in Hyderabad and Kashmir.
There are many instances where one will find undisturbed continuities
in the technologies of power employed by the erstwhile imperial rulers
and the present state leadership in India.

Third, the narrative strategy of using the Black Hole story as a
fulcrum for depicting the various stages and discontinuities in the
history of empire as a global practice was not meant to place upon it
the entire burden of representing the phenomenon of empire. One of my
central arguments is that there is no monocausal explanation of modern
empire (such as claims of racial superiority or profits or export of
finance capital or what have you). The narrative advantage of
employing a story such as that of the Black Hole is the facility it
affords with each retelling of moving from one stage of empire to
another and from one level of determination to another. There are
several causal explanations of time-bound and context-bound phenomena
that I offer in different chapters of my book. But the Black Hole
story is not the sole dependent variable in this history. On the
contrary, what is remarkable is the capacity of this story about a
foundational event to be metamorphosed every time into a new narrative
that carries an entirely new moral, political and emotional charge,
including the currently prevailing consensus among professional
historians that the story is not worth remembering. I mentioned the
report on New York undergraduates because when I first came across it
ten years ago, I was startled to discover that so many young Americans
of the mid 20th century knew about the Black Hole story. If I asked
the same question in my class today, whether in New York or Calcutta,
I doubt whether a single undergraduate would know anything about it. I
am reluctant to accept that this represents the triumph of scientific
history writing or of post-imperial politics. On the contrary, I
strongly suspect the amnesia is the effect of a new practice of
imperial power.

Notes
 1.In the field of intellectual history, see, for instance, Rafiuddin
Ahmed, Bengal Muslims 1871–1906: A Quest for Identity (Delhi, 1996)
and my own treatment in Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its
Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, NJ, 1993),
chapters four and five. Discussions of the political implications of
this ideological exclusion include Joya Chatterji, Bengal Divided:
Hindu Communalism and Partition (Cambridge, 1994) and Pradip Kumar
Datta, Carving Blocs: Communal Ideology in Early Twentieth-century
Bengal (Delhi, 1999).Back to (1)
 2.Rosinka Chaudhuri, ‘The politics of poetry: an investigation into
Hindu-Muslim representation in Nabinchandra Sen’s Palashir Yuddha’,
Studies in History, 24, 1 (2008), 1–25.Back to (2)


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