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States That Might Have Been

Lost Political Vitalities of Independent India

Satadru Sen ( is at the history department, City University of New York.

Different Nationalisms: Bengal, 1905–1947 by Semanti Ghosh, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp xiv + 425, ₹995.

Some lacunae in the historiography of modern South Asia are quite old. For instance, there has long been a need for studies of the final stages of decolonisation, which go beyond a focus on the emergence of either “India” or “Pakistan,” and examine other options and imaginaries. These other imaginaries include Bangladesh, which emerged belatedly, as well as states that “might have been.” We have not searched adequately for these unborn and aborted states of mind, and have lost sight of their decayed roots, despite their vitality in the past. Likewise, the attention that has been paid to the tension between sectarian and secular ideologies of nationalism—sometimes described crudely as a tension between the communal and the national—has tended to occlude the productive interpenetration of sectarian and secular agendas within the same political forces. Semanti Ghosh’s monograph Different Nationalisms: Bengal, 1905–1947, addresses these lacunae, and does so very well indeed. It illuminates the history of independence in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and in the process provides an accounting of a vitality that apparently fizzled out in 1947.

Different Nationalisms takes on the regional politics of Bengal between the two partitions of the province. It is, appropriately, a study of partitioned subjectivities and institutions, which questions the degree, content and contingencies of partitioning. It fits most closely alongside a short but seminal set of books with which it engages continuously: Sumit Sarkar’s The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, 1903–1908, Joya Chatterji’s Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932–1947, Partha Chatterjee’s The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, and Ayesha Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan. It argues that by the time of the first partition, regional sentiment, that is, attachment to the region as a nation in its own right, was widespread and strong, overlapping communal lines, even as it was contested and negotiated within and across communities. By the time of the second partition, this sentiment was more highly developed, thanks to considerable cultural and political work, but could no longer find a viable space within the politics of the subcontinent. It was effectively stifled from the outside, by India, primarily in the form of the Congress, and secondarily in that of the All-India Muslim League. Ghosh suggests that communal polarisation has been overemphasised by historians of late-colonial Bengal (Chatterji is the most direct target), to the exclusion of the politics and culture of “Bengaliness,” within which difference would not dissolve, but remain in a state of manageable and productive tension. Regional sentiment, she argues, promised a way of resolving the problem of difference, even as the production of difference was intensified by mass mobilisation and electoral politics.

Reality of Regional Nationalisms

Ghosh also suggests that the region–nation was a viable solution to the nature of the Indian polity, which calls for a confederated structure, rather than the unitary nation state. Unpacking the Pakistan demand in Bengal, she argues that it was at least as much about regional autonomy as about Muslim solidarity and separatism, let alone solidarity with other Indian Muslims. She goes on to suggest that this regional nationhood mitigated the violence and population transfers of August 1947 in Bengal. People had not exhausted their ties to their regional compatriots, and left their homes and homelands not because they were dangerously out of place in the present (like Punjabis), but as a result of deliberations about the future (like Muhajirs). This thread of her analysis—which could have placed the work more firmly within the historiography of the partition—comes rather late in a long book, and is not developed to its full potential, which is a pity, because there is a great need for comparative studies of the Punjabi and Bengali experiences of violence and displacement.

The brevity of that particular analysis does not, however, detract significantly from a book which has many strengths. Different Nationalisms takes seriously the reality of regional nationalisms that have been lost to, or subsumed within, the Indian nation. We forget, all too easily, that as late as the 1940s, there was such a thing in India as Bengali history and even Bengali sociology, and that people who were Indian nationalists in one mode, fantasised about the Bengali place in the world—and Bengali policy relative to India—in other modes. Also, the author’s complication of Chatterji’s thesis was long overdue. In our attempt to address communalism as an ideological menace, we have been too ready to see it as a simple and undiluted phenomenon. The book is, furthermore, a nuanced extension of Sarkar’s pioneering work, going well beyond the preoccupations of the bhadralok world and its immediate periphery, focusing on Muslim opinion, but also bringing it into a common frame of analysis.

Multilayered ‘Indianness’

Ghosh’s examination of Bengal politics is exhaustive (perhaps overly so), well-supported and always gripping. The lovingly-detailed analyses of Fazlul Huq and the Krishak Praja Party (KPP), and to a lesser degree of Abul Hashim and H Suhrawardy, are especially rewarding. They show not only the deficiencies of categories like “communal,” but also the often-hostile negotiations between regional and pan-Indian communal ideologies, and between nationally-oriented and transnational sectarianisms. They reveal, moreover, the complex, flexible and resilient relationships between the key political factions: the Bengal Congress, the Bengal Provincial Muslim League, the KPP, and the All-India Congress and Muslim League organisations. Paying attention to these relationships and their attendant possibilities and animosities allows Ghosh to situate Bengal politics within the “many independent Indian states” discourse which had a limited but significant acceptability in the 1930s and 1940s—animating ideologues as diverse as Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Benoy Kumar Sarkar—and which has been buried under the Republic of India’s hegemonic claim on Indianness.

In a related vein, there is, in Different Nationalisms, an excellent discussion of the idea of “Purba Pakistan”—the internally and externally contested, wistful, but also fiercely realist Bengali–Muslim take on the post-1937 demand for Pakistan—which is effectively a prehistory of Bangladesh. We are given a glimpse of the problems and trajectories that would become overt, although not necessarily inescapable, in Pakistan, beginning with the language crisis of 1952. Ghosh, thus, not only raises the question of what happened to the multiplicity of early visions of Pakistan, but begins to provide an answer, although one that is incomplete, being limited to Bengal.

Mere Bengali Exceptionalism?

In other respects, there is room for criticism. Ghosh grossly oversimplifies Congress ideology and politics, portraying it not only as a monolithic commitment to unitary nationhood and Hindu dominance, but also as a straightforward confrontation between Bengali regionalists and non-Bengali unionists. She overlooks the regionalist impulses within the larger Congress organisation, which, by the 1920s, was already restructuring itself along federal lines, adopting a trajectory that allowed the government of independent India to respond effectively, if clumsily, to its own language crisis in the 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore, while there is certainly a range of good arguments to be made for a relatively decentralised Indian nationhood and nation state, and for a federation of religious communities, there were, and continue to be, compelling arguments for liberalism and a strong central government, which can exist only if they are packaged together. These arguments cannot be dismissed as brute majoritarianism or the overzealous pursuit of governmental power. They were, particularly, for the Nehruvian wing of the Congress, central to the project of justice, without which independence and nationhood became hollow.

The Bengal-centric nature of Ghosh’s work generates its own problems. There needs to be more engagement with the politics of the other Muslim-majority provinces, and indeed, with the minority provinces as well. Otherwise, there is no real explanation for why things were different in Bengal, other than an implicit and persistent Bengali exceptionalism. If the larger analytical objective is to shed light on the wider Indian (and Pakistani) problem of negotiating difference, this is a real missed opportunity, although it is consistent with the author’s determination to highlight the “part as whole,” rather than the whole as a “sum of parts.” We are given a very good history of how difference was negotiated within Bengaliness, but a much less satisfactory account of how regional identity—a difference in its own right—was negotiated within Indianness, particularly when the negotiations were complicated by the demographic problem of a “national” minority being a “regional” majority in terms that were both religious and linguistic. Unless due attention is paid to that complication, we cannot fully grasp the challenge of Indian federalism, which, since the amendment of the Official Languages Act, has proved adept at managing linguistic fragments, but has turned religious fragments into metaphors of treason.

Contentious Partition

A surprising weakness, given the author’s explicit rejection of simplistic deployments of “communalism,” is evident in her analysis of Bengali–Hindu attitudes towards the partition. She falls into what has become a common rhetorical trap, arguing that Hindus “championed” partition. Whatever the contrarian value may be, this is a misleading assertion, related to a deliberately distorted use of the term “partition” to mean the partition of the province, instead of the partition of India. The “Hindus wanted Partition” position derives, to some extent, from Jalal’s argument that the Congress was responsible for partition after the failure of the Cabinet Mission Plan. That position is defensible if it means, narrowly, that Nehru and a section of the Congress leadership saw partition as preferable to a relatively weak state and to conceding the Muslim League’s “sole representative” position on the composition of the interim government. To go from this position, to asserting that the Congress (or Hindus) wanted partition is akin to arguing that a man caught between a rock and a hard place “wants” an amputation. It is also to blur beyond recognition, the distinctions between the Nehruvian outlook on the emerging Indian state, and that of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Savarkar. In the process of this blurring, Ghosh distorts and devalues the Bengali–Hindu attachment to the wider geography, history and ideology of India, and the reluctance to be severed from it, reducing the attachment to a communalism that can be posited against a “good” (and non-communal) attachment to Bengal. Bengali Hindus, in other words, are blamed for preferring India and a fragment of Bengal to a united Bengal, and it is implied that such a preference can only be either perversion or false consciousness.

The Bigger Picture

This is a serious misreading of the relationship between regional and “national” identities, or the part and the whole. Regions are not defined by language alone. India, in the period of the study, was already a “region” in its own right, made so by a great deal of political and cultural work. This was as true for Bengalis as it was for Marwaris. Both these groups, who appear as political adversaries in Ghosh’s book, were existentially invested in the bigger region as a normal field of migration and aspiration. This has become more obvious since 1947, and even the linguistic “weakness” of India-as-region has faded, but it was already evident 70 years ago. Nearly every argument that Ghosh makes for Bengal—including the existence of imagined histories and real affect that produce the will and the means with which difference might be negotiated— existed for India. There is no reason, historically, to see the Indian national fiction as a perfidy, and the Bengali alternative as redemption.

Why, then, should Hindus have privileged Bengal over India in the spring of 1947, and given their support to Sarat Bose and Suhrawardy’s plan for an undivided and possibly independent sub-region? There is throughout Different Nationalisms a romanticisation of Bengal as the nation “that could have been,” with the accompanying assumption that it was a better-developed, more workable, and ultimately more just nationhood, than the Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. It is understandable that in the current ideological climate in India—where religious majoritarianism and the rejection of liberalism have poisoned political subjectivity, and hardened cultural boundaries to the point of morbidity—the citizen in search of modalities of coexistence will retreat into regionalist nostalgia and virtue. Indeed, the current state government in West Bengal has shown a fine grasp of that dynamic, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Situating Bengal politically as an alternative to “India” (not to mention Gujarat), does generate, in the present time, a precarious space in which communities can coexist with a measure of dignity. There is, however, little basis for situating Bengal historically as a place “outside” India, and available to the nationalist as an affective alternative, in which the worst problems of Indian nationhood had found a solution that eluded the other regions.



Updated On : 27th Feb, 2018


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