ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Ressentiment and Its Possible Futures

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.

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