A new book by any member of the early Subaltern Studies collective remains an eagerly awaited event – even when it consists, in the main, of already published essays as this one. Gyanendra Pandey has, of course, been a leading historian of modern India and given continuing and ample proof of his reputation by producing books and articles that have been provocative, original and densely described. Specifically, he has written densely detailed and carefully analysed narratives that have informed—and elaborated—key theoretical concerns regarding the relationship between subaltern initiatives and elite normalization of these, the social multiplicity and displacement of identities, the problems of memory and historical narrative and so on. Judged by the high standards that he has himself set, Routine Violence, a little disappointing for its offer of generalized insights and arguments into history and violence— which is clearly its main preoccupation – is not sufficiently rich to compensate for the denuded texture of historical description that was a challenging feature of his earlier narratives.
Although the title – and the effort – of this collection is to frame violence globally, the energy of the book clearly derives from confronting the intellectual problems raised in the late 1980’s and 1990’s by the ascendance of Hindutva and the domination of the national level political agenda by communal identities, specifically the questions raised by communal violence. For Pandey these problems pertain to issues of historical evidence and composition, the historicized discourses of communal violence, the construction of a (Hindu) Indianness out of tense negotiations with and subordination of alternate community identities and the question of secularism. Flagging off the collection is an expanded version of his ‘fragments’ article that had spawned a fair amount of debate when it had first appeared. The next two essays elaborate the idea of the fragment. Pandey’s polemical target in all three is what he evidently regards as the dominant historiography, that is, the historical narrative of the secular nation state. Against this he poses the need for the subaltern historian to recover fragments that would resist and splinter the homogeneous history of the nation state. This framework of the argument is elaborated differently in each of the three essays.
In the first essay, Pandey argues that by celebrating the nation state and by adopting the archives (the institution par excellence of the state) as their main (if not only) source, historians have marginalized the violence imbricated in our history. On a complementary ethnographic register, Pandey shows how the memory of survivors of the Bhagalpur riot of the 1980’s is colonized by the nation state, while academic and activist reports displace the constitutive element of violence by an array of explanatory devices such as claiming that it was introduced by outside agents, by seeking explanations in the economic context and so on. Implying that the very search for ‘rational’ explanations may itself normalize, if not delete, the role of violence, Pandey seeks to recover the emotional, experiential impact of riots in the ‘fragment’ which, in this essay, is shown to manifest itself in a literary composition produced during the riots by a local poet. In the next essay called ‘The Nation And Its Pasts’ Pandey takes up the “scientific, nationalist” critique of Subaltern Studies made by Irfan Habib and K.N.Pannikar which accuses these historians of attempting to fragment the idea of the nation state by privileging the multiple histories of collective identities. Pandey counter-polemicizes against this critique by claiming that its assumptions not only derive from a defence of the nation state but also involve a conservative defence of traditional history. Against their history Pandey again invokes the idea of ‘fragment’, but this time deploys it to describe the ‘subaltern’ strategy of writing differentiated histories drawn from odd, resistant material from the archives, non-official sources, interactive interview sessions and so on. The final essay of this group is entitled ‘Monumental History’ and contains a critical discussion of the hybrid history of Hindutva. He concludes that Hindutva history is actually rooted in the same assumptions of secular history, that is, on the defence of the unitary nation and the valorization of facts. I may add that Pandey’s assertion seems a little forced here since it has to suppress the importance of the ‘magical’ elements of the Hindutva discourse in order to prove itself.
The second thematic that Pandey takes up is of Hindutvization of the state and this is the subject of the next two essays. In Chapter 5, entitled, ‘The Question of Belonging’, Pandey sketches out the representational devices used by Hindutva to produce a homogeneous nation of which the upper caste (possibly North Indian) Hindu male is the normative constituent. Pandey dwells on the trope of battle that organizes the history of the country as the story of embattled Hindus and locates the function of the temple as a way of countering the uncertainty about the category of both Indian and Hindu. It is in this light that Pandey sees Savarkar’s fetishization of naming, that is, as a way of fixing the ever-changing history of the meaning of the word Hindu. Pandey evidently regards the formulation of Hindutva as a critical turning point in the homogenizing of ‘Hindu’ and ‘India’ for he observes that it was not until the 1920’s (the period when we see the ideological formulation and institutional consolidation of Hindutva) that the uncertainty regarding who made up the nation was removed. This point may be further inferred from the next essay called, ‘Marked And Unmarked Citizens’ which takes up the moment of partition to look at the categories and procedures through which the conceptions of majority and minority were institutionalized. Pandey looks at the popular discourses, vigilante state action and juridical procedures by which the Hindu was normed as the representative of the nation while the Muslim was defined as one who had to constantly prove his loyalty. Finally, in a very insightful section, Pandey takes up the cases of those who vacillated between Pakistan and India to indicate that the space for the revision of choices (which, it may be assumed, is something attendant on the recognition of multiple affiliations) was one that was completely erased in this period.
The final section concerns the processes and conditions that define communities and the terms of their interactions. The essay ‘Cognizing Community’ tries interestingly to explore this question through the relationship between the dalits and the Hindus in temporally different conditions of community construction. Besides the institutional and fixing of caste by the census and the compulsory forms of community making such as the forcible retention of the low castes in India during the Partition, Pandey explores – through the Gandhi Ambekar debate—how the resulting community forms were nevertheless problematized and contested. Pandey’s reading of Ambedkar is interesting since he sees him as differing from Gandhi not just in regarding untouchability as constitutive of Hinduism (and the dalits as separate from the Hindus), but in his universalistic commitment to social justice. Pandey ends with the present, this time framing it by the history of conversions which shows that the newly converted still suffer from their earlier disabilities of social inequality and discrimination.
In his last essay Pandey takes up the issue of ‘The Secular State?’ Actually this is not so much an essay on secularism as an attempt to complicate the idea of toleration (or conceptions proximate to it) that has been offered as an alternative to secularism by its critics. The core of Pandey’s material in this section is the famous EPW issue on secularism although he naturally includes the contributions of Gandhi, Nandy, Madan and others. The substantive criticism that Pandey mounts of the move to begin with communities—and the prospect of mutual dialogue between them – as the basis of evolving peace and understanding between the different religious communities is that it does not stop to consider who names the communities. Further, this conceptual path overlooks the fact that neither communities nor their relationships are stable. Through a critique of the Gandhian position, Pandey also underlines the problem of stabilizing hierarchies between communities that could also be involved in the idea of toleration. While this particular discussion is illuminating, one misses an engagement with the revisionist secularism of Rajeev Bhargav and Amartya Sen that would have certainly yielded a more comprehensive insight into the problem of addressing community antagonisms. Be that as it may, in his concluding part Pandey suddenly jettisons the main line of his argument to show how, from Partition, the state has been homogenizing communities on the lines of majority and minority, a process that has reached a new level of intensity with the “war against terror” and the securitization of the state. He ends with the hope that people may be persuaded to regard the real `majority’ of subaltern communities as simply multiple communities that cannot be unified by an overdetermining other. A nice thought, although with Pandey’s narrative construction of a state bent on an ever accelerating—and effective—intensification of homogenization, one is left to wonder where the reader could ever locate the grounds for thinking this prospect.
If what I have just said sounds flippant, it was not meant to be, for the comment really indexes what I feel is a certain unresolved ambiguity in the book between privileging homogenization and the valence given to the processes of internal contestation. Let me start with the notion of fragments. There are at least two conceptions involved. In the reputed ‘fragments’ article Pandey locates fragment outside the structures of state (the archives), the community (whose memory of violence is fashioned by narratives that beseech help from the state) and civil society organizations (such as the PUDR investigative team of which Pandey was a member) in the literal fragment of some poetic lines that embody the experience of pain, uncontaminated by the domain of reason. If fragments here indicate a certain romantic notion of a marginal location, far removed from the state and its tentacles, in the next essay Pandey equates fragments with the early subaltern narratives of multiple histories. This idea of fragments suggests that these are embedded within (to extrapolate from the reading of the nation by the early subalterns) structures that claim to be homogeneous. This ambiguity between a fragment as located in an outside, that is, in a different discoursive location, and one that can be grasped within existing ‘sources’ of historical reconstruction can be seen, for instance, in Pandey’s understanding of the archives. In the “fragments’ article it exists as a simple institution of the state which does not provide any opportunity to use it against the grain of its founding assumptions. In the following piece however, Pandey includes the archives as one of the places which can yield fragments that resist the grain of homogenized historical narratives. I should add, that this catholic use of fragments sometimes functions ironically in Pandey’s narrative to play a homogenizing function: thus, for instance, Bipin Chandra (who is committed to a straightforward invocation of nationalist history) is conflated with Sumit Sarkar (for whom there is a recognition of plural identities together with a stated desire for privileging a political narrative based on class – neither of which really fits the nationalist bill).
Another related issue is that of Hindutva and the nation state, although here the problem may be one of insufficient attention paid to the ambiguity that exists between the two. Put simply, Pandey tends to read Hindutva synechdochally as the Indian nation state. It is not as if Pandey is not on strong grounds here: his analysis of the way the Indian state congeals and heirarchizes Hindu and Muslim identities during the Partition and just after is an important pointer to the shared terrain of the two. And there are a number of instances to suggest that the Indian state has since then been pursuing an informal policy of discrimination against the minorities in many spheres. However, to conflate Hindutva with the state is to make a political formation equivalent to the state. The problem with making this equivalence is that it elides the normative differences between the two as they now exist. The function of this difference can have immense consequences: to declare a formally hierarchized citizenship that is the underlying and incessant motif of Hindutva, is to ground citizenship ontologically, as an attribute of the national soil as it were, which is clearly different from the idea of citizenship by residence. In the first instance, the idea of citizenship would replace the pulls and pressures of different collective identities that marks out democratic polity and squeeze and simplify them into a fixed binary of Hindu and Muslim; in the second, the notion of equal citizenship functions to produce a constant, built-in tension with the policies of hierarchization. In turn this allows different criteria of what is legitimate and not so – that would also produce diverse possibilities of mobilization (hence a campaign for the right to free artistic expression or to protest against acts of genocide would be possible within our present normative political horizons and not under a pure Hindutva dispensation). Clearly, given this difference, the normative function of the Constitution as it exists today, would allow for a polity that would be more proximate to the prospective plurality of communities that Pandey seeks to build than the norms of Hindutva.
Finally, a few words on the deployment of the concept of ‘routine violence’. A fundamental problem I have with the use of this notion is that its significance is seen to lie in the grounds that it prepares for the extraordinary violence of communal conflict. Besides the debatable hierarchies of significance that this move implies between the two, there are a few problems of explanation that it causes. Firstly, it seems to prevent Pandey from fully exploring the sphere of everyday violence itself. In the introduction, he indicates different spheres of violence that exists in the everyday (pp.10-12): that of the state (including global agencies) and other political formations (such as terrorism), of social (class, caste, gender based) and religious conflicts. These levels are not however explored in their own terms, as a consequence of which they seem to either work as equivalent phenomenon or as continuous with one another. The second problem is that the reading off from routine violence to extraordinary violence silences the distinction between the two and the questions that this produces. How, for instance, does ‘normal’ caste criminal state violence translate into communal violence? Is the violence perpetrated against a dalit in preventing her from using the common resources of a village or urban settlement have the same motives and consequences as that perpetrated against Muslims in Gujarat? If a fundamental distinction is granted here, then the question arises, what are the mechanisms by which caste violence is absorbed into communal violence: is it one of displacement, suppression or absorption? Specifically, is violence a quality like energy that can circulate in different spheres without being transformed itself or is violence inseparable from the meanings and practices that embody it? What makes one tolerate violence and in another instance (as Pandey observes in the case of Gujarat) celebrate it?
In conclusion let me add a proviso to my early notice of disappointment. As my reading of this book may have suggested, it has its own distinctive quality, which is its elaboration of an enormously large range of issues that inform history writing today (of which I have isolated only some). The book may not offer fresh methods or new areas of study, but it is essential reading for those who wish to update themselves on the concerns and practices of history writing in present-day India. And, before I forget to mention it, there are two excellent appendices. The first, which is a reply to a certain Mr. S.D, is one of the best pieces of polemical writing I have read in a while; the other, entitled ‘Ayodhya and the State’ contains a short and incisive historical discussion of the Ayodhya controversy. All these reasons – even if we discount the simpler one of keeping abreast with the intellectual development of an established scholar – is enough cause for a serious engagement with the book.
Pradip Kumar Datta is with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.