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A Critique of Secular Nationalism

A Critique of Secular Nationalism The Insurrection of Little Selves: The Crisis of Secular Nationalism in India by Aditya Nigam; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2006;


A Critique ofSecular Nationalism

The Insurrection of Little Selves: The Crisis of Secular Nationalism in India

by Aditya Nigam; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2006; pp 331, Rs 650.


n a political milieu where the mainstream discourse is trapped within the binary of secular vs communal, it is no doubt a difficult task for anyone to develop a critique of secular nationalism and still be counted as radical. Aditya Nigam provocatively takes up this task in his book. The book not only offers us a radical critique of secular nationalism in India, but also urges us to move beyond offering it as the only antidote to communalism.

Nigam’s well-argued thesis against secular nationalism in India unfolds within a larger critique of modernity and its claims. Drawing on the works of Hannah Arendt and Eric Fromm, he argues that modernity not always produced the individuated citizen-subject, but also the “fear of freedom”. This fear prompts those who are dislocated by modernity to seek relocation in community or identification with external figures of authority. Thus “the modern subject that was expected to simply ascend from the constitutive attachments of community life into the realm of citizenship, actually followed a very different trajectory and revealed in the process, the complex nature of ‘free will’ and disengaged agency” (p 3). Modernity, in its self-arrogating certitude, refuses to acknowledge this inevitable ambiguity of its career and the co-presence of different temporalities. Instead, it represents other voices as survivals from the past without any credible future. As Nigam rightly shows, this claim to universalism is the source of modernity’s violence. For him, “…to accept the existence of…different times, irreducible to any other more privileged one, is to argue for a fundamentally different kind of contingent totality, that has no singular logos that governs all its levels” (pp 20-21).

Against this broad theoretical canvas, Nigam develops his critique of Indian secular nationalism. Treating the assertion of a range of new identities in Indian politics during the 1980s and the 1990s (which he, following Michel Foucault, calls “the insurrection of little selves”) as a comment on the pre-existing secular “consensus” that citizen-subject is the only legitimate identity in politics, he unravels the underside of secular nationalism. According to him, though the assertions of new identities began during the 1970 (as evident in the rise of Karpoori Thakur as the icon of the backward castes in Bihar, the Anandpur Sahib resolution passed by Shiromani Akali Dal in 1973, Left Front government’s memorandum of 1977 seeking higher share of power to states, etc), the political changes witnessed during the 1980s and the 1990s were of critical importance. Nigam writes, “I suggest that the 1980s represent one moment of rupture and the 1990s another. The first moment ruptured the secular-nationalist discourse ‘from below’, the second ‘from above’, representing nation striking back” (p 85). The first moment is represented by the mobilisation of backward castes, dalits, women, etc, and the second moment by the rise of Hindutva. As Nigam shows convincingly, this return of the repressed is indeed the source of secular nationalism’s current crisis – a crisis that discloses the limits of secularism as a radical discourse. In short, the political churnings of the 1980s and the 1990s demonstrate that the singular insistence on citizen-subject by secular nationalism blocks the arrival ofminority identities in the public sphere while keeping majoritarian politics at bay.

Proceeding further, Nigam tempers this argument by showing that secular nationalism, despite its claims to be deracinated, is unwittingly Hindu and upper caste in its orientation: “…there is something in the abstract universalism of secular modern politics and its understanding of Progress and History, that, in its effort to erase markers of difference, privileges the dominant/ majority culture as the norm. By delegitimising such difference and disallowing articulations of ‘different’ voices, modern secular universalisms reproduce the common sense of the dominant/majority cultures as hegemonic” (p 73). This quality of secular nationalism, which is sedimented in the constant invocation of categories such as efficiency, merit, and productivity, comes in the way of minority cultures identifying with it. Drawing on instances of alternative histories narrativised by dalits and Muslims, Nigam shows that secular nationalism’s conceptualisation of time as a movement from community to citizensubject, does not accommodate their interests. He argues, “…if the early dalitbahujan assertions in the personalities of Ambedkar, Periyar, Iyothee Thass, and such others, resist the incorporation into the nationalist narratives, so does the present dalit movement resist the bid to assimilate its voice into that of secularism” (p 228).

Sites for Radical Politics

Sidestepping the rigidities and exclusions which are inherent in the secular nationalist reasoning, Nigam argues for the domain unrecognised by the modern civil society, i e, the political society, as the site of radical politics. As he notes, “…in the secular stance, the state alone is the agent of secular transformation while communities – if they ever come into the picture – are locked in sectarian strife” (p 167). In a significant and politically important move, he recovers the grass rootspolitical worker who abandons high secularism but chooses to be part of the

Economic and Political Weekly December 23, 2006

community in order to transform it, as the figure for alternative politics: “The modern constitutionalist language of civil society cannot be the language of conversation in political society. Here the key figure, as I have suggested, is the bilingual intellectual/activist who speaks at once the language of community and the civil society. In other words, the privileged position of the enlightened intelligentsia has to be abandoned” (p 325). His own fieldwork among the Left political workers in West Bengal offers interesting instances of how these bilingual activists conduct their politics on ground transgressing the rigid boundaries between community and state, civil society and political society.

Theoretically expansive and empirically rich, the book does succeed in its task of developing a much-needed radical critique of secular nationalism in India. The book also covers substantial new ground in looking for alternatives for the limits of secular nationalism. Importantly, the alternative political possibilities that it outlines are worthy of serious consideration by anyone who is committed to the everelusive ideals of equality and freedom which modernity fails to deliver despite its promises. In furthering the accomplishments of this important book, I have a plea and a suggestion. The plea follows from my difficulty with the book’s degree of certitude about the alternative politics it offers. I will argue here for a greater degree of ambivalence. This is so because neither the “insurrection of little selves” nor the figure of the bilingual activist needs to be necessarily the vehicle for alternative radicalism for all times. It does not take much time for either to nurture dreams of domination and hegemony. In other words, it is not so much “little selves” in themselves but their shifting careers in the lived world of politics that needs our constant attention. My suggestion is about the possibility of alternative modes of representations as a necessary part of radical politics. The crisis of secular nationalism and the violence of communalism flow, as the book ably shows, from the single premise of treating identities as singular and bounded. Given this, I think, it is time to think how to conceptualise a politics that consciously bases itself on representations of multiple belongings.



Economic and Political Weekly December 23, 2006

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