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Ressentiment and Its Possible Futures

Dwaipayan Sen (dsen@amherst.edu) is at the Departments of History, and Asian Languages and Civilizations, Amherst College, US.

Benoy Kumar Sarkar: Restoring the Nation to the World by Satadru Sen, New Delhi: Routledge, 2016; pp 208, 395.

Arguably one of the most important social scientists of his generation, Benoy Kumar Sarkar (1887–1949) is a figure nonetheless comparatively understudied in modern Indian intellectual history. He is perhaps best known for his internationalism and cosmopolitan convictions in an epoch of culturally homogeneous visions of nationalism, and his support for, if not espousal of, fascist means and politics. Satadru Sen’s critical and timely study of Sarkar’s thought on India’s nationhood offers a compelling and concise introduction to this remarkable scholarly persona, and situates his life’s work and vision for India in a global context of late 19th and 20th century intellectual and political developments. In Sen’s reading, Sarkar articulated a concept of the Indian people that drew from cosmopolitan as well as völkisch imperatives, straddling, as it were, these seemingly contradictory impulses. The study contributes to a growing body of biographical–historical scholarship framed as an exploration of possibilities foregone and forgotten, and is thus well-suited to the “Pathfinders” series in which it appears. Alongside a growing body of literature, it suggests the resolutely global coordinates of Indian nationalist thought and selfhood.

Sen gives prominence to three overarching themes distilled from Sarkar’s expansive and multilingual ouvre that informed his views on the kind of state and citizen that ought to emerge after the demise of colonial rule: the project of opposing, rather than reinforcing, Orientalist narratives of difference; what he terms “restoring the nation to the world,” the subtitle of the book; and the transformation of the individual to produce a new citizenry, self-aware of their location in the world and the unavoidable necessity of violence. Sen is perhaps sharpest in his assessment when he observes that Benoy Kumar Sarkar’s vision of the kind of state most conducive to racial dignity imbued it with “an obsessive militarism and an acceptance of coercion that frequently overrode other concerns, such as rights, legality and anti-colonialism itself” (pp 3–4). Far from being condemnatory, however, Sen makes the effort to interpret this imagination with considerable sympathy, and as uncanny anticipation of what postcolonial statehood would become. Sarkar is therefore less an outlier than “an alternative within Indian nationalism,” whose “quasi-fascist tendencies” found unacknowledged expression in the ideology of the modern Indian state when confronted with resistant communities (p 31). Sen suggests that Sarkar’s politics of ressentiment (a driving motivation in his thought), the frustrated emasculation underlying the desire to give whites an inferiority complex, or the easy will to authoritarianism and violence, were in fact remarkably prescient. In these days of lynch mobs, the book makes for chilling reading. Sarkar, one imagines, might well have applauded the political ethos and idioms of the current regime.

Three extended essays, focused on Sarkar’s interlinked engagements with the ideas of race, Japan, and the state, constitute the core of this account, and are introduced by means of an extended reflection on the wider conflicts informing such preoccupations. Based primarily on a substantial selection of his scholarship and public engagements in a number of prominent journals, Sen impressively interweaves this archive with secondary scholarship on the staggering array of themes with which Benoy Kumar Sarkar was concerned. Sarkar emerges as a thinker with a dazzling and worldly range of interlocutors and influences, from Tagore, Bankim, and Haridas Palit, to Herder, Nietzsche, Hegel, Kautilya, the possibly forged 19th century text Sukraniti, Mazzini, Croce, and Gini, besides countless contemporaries who defined the Indian political scene: Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Bose, and Savarkar are repeated points of reference. Sen usefully draws parallels and as importantly, points of departure, from these figures and their political and ideological motivations. Sarkar is presented as a curious constellation of what may appear to be inconsistent concerns—at once committed to the radical refusal of colonial difference anticipating, as it were, postcolonialist sensibilities, while uncomfortably reminiscent of Hindu nationalist ideology in his conceptualising the problem of the Hindu in India; sharing in the Nehruvian fetish of the technocratic state; accommodating of Muslims within the “Indian people”; and enamoured of the militaristic solutions proposed by Subhas Chandra Bose. Sarkar is thus significant, because he confounds the carefully demarcated lineages and associated habits of Indian nationalist thought.

The first chapter, “An Indian Race,” follows the developments in Sarkar’s imagination of this concept against the backdrop of the rise of Muslim nationalism. Pitted against the powerful colonial notion that India hardly constituted a nation, Sarkar shared his generation’s instinct to challenge such imperialist scorn and reformulated his understanding of race to serve such ideological ends. Like some of his contemporaries, he attempted a novel reconciliation—a “tactical slipperiness”—of the difficulties in working out the possible relationships between “Hindu,” “Muslim,” and “India” in his idea of the “Indian race” that would increasingly be troubled by the course of political events. Sen charts the corresponding shift in Sarkar’s understanding of race from culturalist to biological registers, and suggests the ultimate impossibility of a “racial justice” in the context of late-colonial India.

Sarkar’s notion of race was informed by the awareness that since miscegenation had been the norm in history, the belief in racial superiority was “no less a mark of neurosis than the inferiority-complex prevailing in the slave mentality.” He thus looked on the accelerated social admixture under colonial rule with both alarm and excitement, as simultaneously containing the potential for regeneration and degeneration. Sarkar’s “Indian race” embraced the miscegenation of caste-Hindu, pariah, Muslim, and aborigine, and envisioned its management by the state and its vanguard. Such considerations were manifest in Sarkar’s conception of the “folk” as integral, over the course of history, to racial formation itself, linking as it did bhadralok, peasant, and tribal. The Indian race was thus the product of the proverbial melting pot, a consequence of diffused and dialogic processes of exchange and democratisation across the nodes of social hierarchy.

How Muslims figured in this historical imagination distinguished Sarkar sharply from Savarkar, with whom he otherwise shared a great deal. Sarkar perceived the Muslim role in India’s history akin to the democratising influence he believed the “folk” exercised on its people. There was in theory no difficulty on account of religious difference in accommodating them to his idea of the Indian race. He thus advocated, for instance, that Hindu scholars learn Arabic, and Muslim scholars learn Sanskrit, in both a nod to his understanding of the precolonial past as well as a gesture anticipating the emergence of composite selfhood which he took to be an ongoing pedagogical work. “The Muslimisation of the Hindu as well the Hinduisation of the Muslim …” constituted the very bedrock of Indianness. Nonetheless, Satadru Sen shows how Sarkar’s attempts to view Muslims as integral to India faltered with the rise of the demand for Pakistan from the 1930s onwards, prompting a retreat to the conservative discourse of “Hindu–Muslim unity,” and after Partition, to calls for a revised historiography of the medieval to be reinterpreted now in less sanguine terms. The romanticism that leavened Sarkar’s early 20th century passion for Indian racial justice gave way to a sobered liberalism that could not but realise that it was, after all, a “Hindu” race.

Obsession with Japan

The second chapter, “Wars of the Emasculated,” surveys Sarkar’s qualified fascination with the idea of Japan and its implications for a wounded Indian male nationalist psyche. As with countless Bengalis of his generation, Sarkar drew inspiration from Japan as an example of how Asia could stand up to and challenge Europe. Following their defeat of Russia for instance, “… that manhood-in-the-world came dramatically to the rescue of the castrated-at-home” (p 95). Yet this was no uncritical enthralment. Sen situates the vicarious pleasures of seeing Europeans humiliated and defeated by an Asian power alongside Sarkar’s discomfort with Japanese imperialist aggression within Asia, their sycophancy and mimicry, his witnessing of “anti-Indian abuse,” and their seeming indifference to his romanticism about Asia.

Simultaneously enamoured and disappointed, Japan offered occasion and foil for Sarkar to define what an adequate racial justice might look like for India, sharing as it did in the wider Asian predicament of subjugation to the Western powers. From the vantage of one who perceived his world and the course of history through the will to vishwashakti and principles of matsyanyaya, the Indian incapacity to unleash catastrophic violence found compensation in Japan’s military–industrial exploits. As with the previous chapter however, Sen shows how the lessons Sarkar drew from World War II dramatically tempered his enthusiasm for the militarism he desired for the Indian nation state-in-making.

Underpinning the obsession with Japan was the peculiar emasculation of the native in colonial India. As Sen puts it:

What made emasculation such an effective curse is that colonialism in India had generated the desire for organised violence but not the opportunities, even in the age of revolutionary terrorism. (pp 124–25)

A curious frustration thus characterised Sarkar’s looking towards Japan, for even as he remained an inspired apologist—Sen suggests, for instance, that he would have instinctively understood Justice Radhabinod Pal’s dissenting note at the Tokyo war crimes trials—the gesture never seemed to have been reciprocated. Rather, Sarkar would have to reckon with the millions who perished due to the 1943 Bengal famine, ostensibly a consequence of the shortage in food supplies brought on by the war and Japanese military advance. Sen thus effectively points to the deep ambivalence that accompanied the gaze of Indian onlookers; unqualified adulation, “… the desire to walk in Japanese shoes (with Hindustani hearts) proved unsustainable for nearly all of them” (p 98).

“A Romance of the State,” the third and final chapter, recalls Ashis Nandy’s collection of essays with the near-identical title, and pursues related themes by tracing Sarkar’s infatuation with the state as guarantor of freedom and justice. What kind of state and citizenry did Sarkar envision in his futurist imagination of independent India? Sen tackles head on the thorny issue of whether he was indeed a Nazi and/or a fascist, and finds to the contrary that he was a “critic of fascism, albeit a mild one” (p 132). He is keen to show that the potential for the state to lapse into authoritarianism was a possibility Sarkar appeared willing to entertain, indeed perceived as necessary. Even as Sarkar desired a state that was inclusive, liberal, and democratic, these aspirations had, of necessity, to be balanced against the imperative that it identify and manage its resistant citizens. After all, the role of the state in a democracy “… held the door open for spaces of coercion within what was otherwise ‘freedom’ ” (p 171).

Sarkar envisioned what he called a demo-despotocracy—a fusion of democracy and despotism as a modern regime of power—because he perceived coercion as intrinsic to the work of the former. The individual he had in mind remained a docile citizen, produced through the pedagogy and engineering of the state. Such tendencies, as well as his ideological affinities with German Romanticism explain his admiration for Nazi Germany, that “climax of a statecraft in which the state had become fully race-conscious” (p 157). Sarkar embraced eugenics and allied anxieties with deviancy and defectiveness, approved of its deployment by a state in service of the nation, and had little to say on what the historian Raul Hilberg called the “destruction of the European Jews.” Sen explains away Sarkar’s “misreading” of Germany as a function of his assumption that democracy was compatible with tyranny. His vision of the nation state was thus “pockmarked with ‘camps’ or states of exception” (p 165). As Sen pithily concludes: “Racialised freedom goes hand-in-hand with racialised oppression” (p 172).

Students of Indian nationalist thought will benefit from reading this slim volume on the past futures of Benoy Kumar Sarkar. Sen’s is an engaging and provocative interpretation that pushes back against claims of his fascism articulated most recently by Benjamin Zachariah. At the same time, it composes a rather less pleasing portrait of Sarkar’s preoccupations than, for instance, Manu Goswami’s treatment in The American Historical Review some years prior (Goswami 2012). Some readers will surely question the re-characterisation of Sarkar as neither Nazi nor fascist, and may wonder whether Sen has not been much too charitable. It is not entirely evident, for instance, whether the mildness of Sarkar’s criticisms of the Reich constitute sufficient grounds for refutation. While this is to be expected due to the brevity of the study as well as the chosen methodology and primary-source base, it may also have been useful to contextualise Sarkar with a richer sense of his biography. We learn relatively little about his personal and institutional lives and acquaintances and how they moulded his intellectual concerns, nor of how others saw him. Such thickening could have been opportunity for enhancing the reader’s appreciation of Sarkar’s varied predicaments, as well as the circumstances of his “forgetting.” These observations do not compromise my appreciation of this fine and disturbingly suggestive reflection on Sarkar’s desires for India and its peoples. One cannot help but dwell on the arresting proposition that he has been, all along our postcolonial decades, an intimate friend.

References

Goswami, Manu (2012): “Imaginary Futures and Colonial Internationalisms,” The American Historical Review, Vol 117, No 5, pp 1461–85.

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