Absolute unity will also mean a self-cancellation of love for it needs an other for it to live (p. 248)
Developing an idea of self-division for self-expansion in the writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Pradip Kumar Datta sums up in this tantalizing and aphoristic formulation, the central problematic of identity. The rise of fascist Hindutva in the 1980s and 90s in Indian politics had dismantled the simplicity of the problematique of communalism with which identity politics had hitherto been framed. Possibly one of the largest political mobilizations after the nationalist movements in India, it not only reshaped the contours of Indian politics, but also reframed the questions posed by historians and political scientists. The early 1990s therefore witnessed on the one hand a renewed debate among political scientists on secularism as a normative ideal in India, and on the other hand invoked the historian’s skills in adjudicating and debating communal memory through empirical evidence. However, the most productive direction in which both the disciplines moved was toward an exploration of not merely the content of identities, memories and histories that were marshalled and championed, but the form of these identities as well.
It became evident that the process of forging identities in the not too distant past through census, survey and other forms of colonial knowledge production generated the effect of a remote antiquity which bestowed on political identities in the present a peculiar kind of authenticity. These ‘traditional’ identities could no more be looked upon as atavistic, but were shown to be inventions of a modern, colonial governmental power that generated homogeneous hard-bounded selves. This explanation has provided somewhere an acceptable resolution to the theoretically vexed and politically disturbing nature of the phenomenon we confront in the identity based politics of Hindutva.
Datta’s collection of essays, although truly heterogeneous in its overt concerns, comes together to complicate this resolution for the process of identity-making. Written over a long period of time, these essays are framed within a fundamental historical experience of the rise of Hindutva in Indian politics to which he is politically opposed. However, Datta translates this political experience into an alternative conceptual direction by reframing the problem of identity-making into a conceptual grid of homogenous and heterogeneous formations. Departing from Dipesh Chakrabarty, who frames these as mutually exclusive realms of the self, Datta frames the homogenous world of the modern governmental capital, not as neatly separated from the pre-modern world of heterogeneity. He reframes the problem by highlighting a wide range of combinations that the homogenous and the heterogeneous enter into. Committed against homogenizing tendencies that he refers to as ‘identitarianism’, he highlights through all of his essays the centrifugal pulls that constantly interrupt ‘the gathering in’ of identity. He points to the internally disturbed process of subjectivation by drawing our attention to the simultaneous generation of multiple identities like caste, gender etc., out of the same governmental operation of power and shows the inbuilt disruptions of the apparently homogenous. Datta writes, the process of hardening of boundaries is also the one that opens up contestations between and within boundaries. Boundaries harden in not just one monolithic community but in several such communities. Individuals, even collectives, do not belong to a single collectivity alone: the constituencies and boundaries of class, caste, religious community and so on overlap. Colonial modernity was a period that saw the emergence of a multiplicity of identities: some intersecting, some mutually reinforcing and still others mutually contrary. Hence colonial modernity was a period of changing possibilities and surprising conjunctures as particular identities became dominant for a while among different social constituencies—even as the secular trend towards hardening boundaries and homogenizing communities drummed along its linear path. (p. 158)
As is evident, while conceding the homogenous form of modern identities, even as they turn the other of modernity into a facsimile of the modern self, Datta is dissatisfied with treating such modern identities as essentially ‘hard bounded’ entities. He is almost instinctively resistant to resolving into any formulae the process through which an identity collects itself. Always at odds with its plural moorings, identities remain unresolvable spaces in these essays, where a perpetual process of reconfiguration resists the triumph of the homogenous from usurping the entire field of subjectivity. Datta seems to be interested in leaving the contours of this frame in a constant state of flux. And that is where the contribution of this set of essays lies. It is a discordant voice in an academic space where governmental urges of modern institutions are increasingly taken for granted and the homogenizing tendency of modern identities are confidently posited. What Datta’s essays show us is that this governmental urge is, firstly, in constant tension with its own heterogeneous genealogy, and secondly, it remains merely an urge and not a project that succeeds in creating truly homogenous selves. He thus enters the world of identity-making to track the tension between the tendencies toward homogenizing identitarianism and heterogeneous disruption of the same. Datta’s contribution lies not only in revisiting identity formation with a conceptually sophisticated framework, but also in aiding political studies move away from its classical points of entry in the study of identity politics. From love to literature, class-room teaching to texts, the essays constitute important leads in reshaping ways of accessing the problem of identity.
The nine essays in the volume are divided into three parts and introduced in an initial chapter that conceptually formulates the problem that each of these essays explore. Each part develops a particular cluster of writings where the continuum of homogeneity and heterogeneity is developed in distinctive ways. The first section is interestingly a self-reflexive exercise as it enters a discussion of literature through a critical engagement with the social location of the literary itself. It also sets the tone for the method of discursive exploration for the remaining volume where at times texts become windows into the social and at times the social is read as a text in itself. In the first essay, ‘Keats’ Odes: Learning and Teaching’ the author, in an autobiographical mode, takes us through his personal experience of being taught Keats by a teacher, who wove into his persona the contradictory pulls of his location in a manner that defied the protocol for contouring identity. Drawing important linkages in the Postscript on the nature of English literature in a postcolonial nation like India, Datta reflects on the history of this disciplinary formation and searches for a ‘location of possibilities that may be uncovered by a historical recognition of the culture of English Literature in our country'(p. 39). The essay on the Indian English novel takes this theme ahead by exploring two novels, namely, Allan Sealy’s The Trotter-Nama and Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines. In that Datta explores the inescapable heterogeneity involved in the use of a language like English, with its foreignness, for creative writing in India, for representing the social reality of India. Through the plots and characters of the novels, Datta is able to transcend a simplistic notion of pluralism and paints for us the heterogeneous as the predicament of a location, most interestingly through Sealy’s engagement with Anglo-Indianness. The essay on vicissitudes of Bangla literature in the nineteenth century is particularly instructive in formulating the tension within the literary sphere, between identity and heterogeneity. Datta, to impress the politically loaded character of literture in colonial Bengal, writes, that it ‘may be concluded that in its embodiment of national energies, Bangla Sahitya provided a site that could be alternative to that of the woman’ (p. 53). Having forcefully noted this identitarian framing, Datta goes ahead to uncover how the world of Bangla Sahitya remained nevertheless essentially heterogeneous in its mornings in Orientalist discourses, its refusal to present itself as a derivative of Sanskrit, its seamless dialogue with English literature, etc. But he again qualifies the same by the fact that nevertheless ‘Bangla Sahitya tended not to disturb the boundaries of the social identity of the Hindu bhadralok’ (p. 54). In exploring this ‘paradoxical character’ of the heterogeneous formation of Bangla Sahitya, he traces the harnessing of literature to a nationalist ideal, say in Rangalal Mitra’s Padmini Upakhyan as opposed to the linguistically heterogeneous Pyarichand Mitra’s Alaler Dulal and the contradictions between sadhu bhasha and alali bhasha. In an in-depth perusal of the moves made in Bankim’s writings the author formulates the ways in which the heterogeneous is ultimately suppressed in order to mark out the hard boundaries of the Hindu identity. The essay of course concludes with Rabindranath Tagore in order to continue the play of these oppositions by revisiting another strong impulse in Bangla literature to break out of the regimented boundaries of the apparently heterogeneous literary sphere.
The three essays in the second section, the author claims, are about the homogenous. Here Datta develops an insightful analysis of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and Hindutva politics. The sources for these essays entail interviews conducted in Ayodhya in 1990, the analysis of booklets like Sri Ram Janam Bhoomi ka Rakt Ranjit Itihas, tropes developing in colonial historical accounts like James Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, and writings of ideologues like Savarkar and Golwalkar. They provide fascinating insights into the world of the Hindutva imaginary. In ‘VHP’s Ram at Ayodhya: Reincarnation through Ideology and Organisation’, Hinduism and Ram, in the interviews in Ayodhya, appear committed to universalism and plural toleration, even as they coexist with an invocation to theatrical and performative violence. Datta takes us through a detailed exploration of the categories, tropes, plots and techniques through which the discourse of Hindutva crafts its political identity. In ‘The History of Hindutva’s “Myhstory”: On Hindutva Conceptions of the Past’, he develops an important category to identify the peculiar mode of invocation of the past that manifests in Hindutva politics. He calls it ‘myhstory’, a knowledge formation, where myth and history combine to create multiple strategic combinations to put the past at the service of the present. In these and other essays of the volume, one of the most striking observations by Datta is the identification of the recurrent theme of battles and wars fought by Hindus in the myhistorical writings of Hindutva ideologues. By developing a genealogy through Todd, he is able to identify an important conceptual move in Hindutva discourse, where the trope of the generations of battling Hindus, against Muslim humiliation, justifies and consolidates the violence of the present political programme which recuperates a lost communal pride. The essay on the middle class social constituency of Hindutva, ‘Hindutva and the Reformation of the Indian Middle Class Subject’, locates their identitarian quest not in a politics of recognition, but in a politics of self-proclamation which is intimately premised on the crushing subordination of a Muslim other; a phenomenon that Datta seeks to explain through his work. However, even in this narrative of the homogeneous, Datta is careful not to impose a caricatured reproduction of the other, but a nuanced analysis of the discursive world of Hindutva politics.
Datta’s last section is a fascinating cluster that brings together three very interesting entry points into identitarianism: inter-community love, the idea of the national/global and (inter)disciplinarity.
“Datta’s collection of essays, although truly heterogeneous in its overt concerns, comes together to complicate this resolution for the process of identity-making. Written over a long period of time, these essays are framed within a fundamental historical experience of the rise of Hindutva in Indian politics to which he is politically opposed.”
Does love disrupt the homogenizing tendency of identitarianism? Does love compel the self to engage the other in a different idiom? Why is it important for love to be renamed abduction in a communal mobilization? What are the smudged boundaries between the tropes of abduction and love? In what ways did the colonial literary sphere embark upon a range of discursive operations to manage the crisis that love posited? Taking an incident of inter-community love in colonial Bengal as a point of entry, Datta explores the discursive constitution of love in nineteenth and early twentieth century Bengal through an overview of a large corpus of literary works and the modes through which it is reconfigured into a question of community boundaries.
Datta’s essay on reconceptualizing the global through the ideas of Rabindranath Tagore is a gripping read. Departing from the ways in which contemporary scholars have identified the nature of identity based violence that has accompanied globalization, Datta starts developing the ideas of Tagore in order to reconceptualize the global through Tagore’s critique of the nation form and the spirit of competition that animates the world of nations. In this endeavour, he formulates the concept of ‘processual identities’ as different from Sudipta Kaviraj’s ‘fuzzy identities’. Datta writes, ‘Boundaries, in Tagore’s conception, are not static; they are constantly merging and separating in a process as identities reach out perpetually to the other’ (p.249). Tagore’s critique of the nation, thus, provides resources for constructing a normative framework of transcending identitarian politics. The essay on interdisciplinarity is an important critique of what passes as interdisciplinary work in the social sciences. On the one hand, Datta is dissatisfied with the appropriative raiding through which practitioners instrumentally deploy techniques of other disciplines; on the other, Datta is extremely critical of the identitarian impulse in interdisciplinary studies to coalesce into disciplinary formations like cultural studies, gender studies and postcolonial studies. He proposes a notion of ‘the disciplinary commons’ as a space of disciplinary exchange, allowing the space for multiple intellectual trajectories for knowledge workers, even as they resist the identitarian impulse of disciplinarity.
These essays undoubtedly constitute an important contribution to the literature on identity-formation in modern India. If Datta were to don his political science hat, he has done a remarkable job in providing fodder to students and practitioners of the profession of political studies with a range of original concepts to mull over: ‘myhstory’, ‘processual identity’, and ‘disciplinary commons’ are the most explicit ones. Methodologically Datta’s strength has been a productive deployment of his training as a student of literature in unravelling discursive formations to identify and conceptualize a range of processes at work in the making of identities. In that literary skills have reached out to the other of political science in an apposite self-division. While to a historian, these essays might appear a bit too immersed in literary sources, for a political theorist, Datta’s work opens up a vast reservoir of concepts and thought experiments that could be productively debated further. Substantively, this body of work counters the oft-repeated derision against constructionist perspectives on identity for being non-universalist and posing a difficulty for the idea of the political itself. These essays are vibrant evidence of the ways in which a renewed notion of the universal can be envisioned that makes the unstable foundations of identity as its springboard.