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The Colonial, Postcolonial and the Politics of Anti-Imperialism: An Interview with Tithi Bhattacharya

by | September 12, 2016

The ascent of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India has brought to light the dark underbelly of Indian society – often seen in Europe and North America as a beacon of democracy and hope for the Global South. Modi, in many ways, shows the strong continuity between the strategies of the British colonial rulers of India and the Indian post-colonial elites in their respective forms of social domination. In this interview with Tithi Bhattacharya, professor of South Asian History and the Director of Global Studies at Purdue University, she discusses Modi’s upper caste, majoritarian violence; the nature of the postcolonial India state; her work on the bhadralok class; gender violence and social reproduction; and Palestinian solidarity and the BDS movement.

George Souvlis: What were the formative experiences (academic and political) that strongly influenced you?

Tithi Bhattacharya: I grew up in the political turmoil of India in the 1970s. Strangely for me, purely accidental family divisions kept faith with the tempestuous divisions and splits of the Indian Communist Party (CP). My family on my mother’s side was deeply involved in the Naxalite movement that split the CP in 1967. My grandfather was Charu Mazumdar’s doctor and the histories of our two families have been generationally intertwined. On my father’s side, however, I had family members who were leading members (including a MP) of the CPI (M), from whom the Naxalites had split.

As a child, then, on the one hand, I knew not to speak of certain uncles, who were ‘underground’ during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. The police raided our home on several occasions and I would watch my parents’ helplessness in the face of state terror. On the other hand, when I visited my father’s side of the family, I heard conversations about how the Naxalites were really ‘ultralefts’ and their ‘romantic’ adventurism in the countryside would cost the communist movement for years to come. It was a politically accurate and historically cruel assessment of the Naxalites. While young Naxalite women and men were being tortured by the state in new and ingenious ways, CPI (M) cadre were busy distancing themselves from their erstwhile comrades, and on occasion, helping the state arrest them. If we ever get a chance, during a mass upheaval, to draw up a balance sheet of that decade, the cruelty of practice will perhaps outweigh the accuracy of political judgment.

Let’s speak about your monograph The Sentinels of Culture. The study deals with the role of the education in making of the bhadralok class. I would like you to explain to us the composition of this class, the process of its formation and more precisely the role of the education in the making of its identity. Additionally, what was its role in the making of Indian nationalism?

The literal translation of bhadralok, as a Bangla word, is Gentleman (bhadra=polite/gentle; lok=man). Both the word and the social relation it represents grew up in the shadow of empire, heavily freighted with Victoriana. The term has a double life in Bengal. One, it is part of everyday parlance/perception. For instance, in a commonsensical way, people from Bengal are ‘supposed’ to be intellectually superior to other Indians. The traffic Police in Calcutta are supposed to recite Hamlet at you. If you look at faculty directories of the US and European academy, you will see a festival of bhadralok-ism! The academy is dominated by upper caste Bhadraloks; the Chatterjees, Mukherjees, Chakravartys and Bhattacharyas.

Second, the academic literature on this group naturalizes this dominance or takes it for granted. The bhadralok, in the studies about them, are supposed have a unique grasp of culture and knowledge and are supposed to have used the master’s tools (Enlightenment) to dismantle the master’s house (decolonisation). When I started graduate school in the mid 1990s, there were numerous studies on the bhadralok. Their ‘heroic’ role in birthing the nation, their creative role in nurturing the nation through their truly extraordinary, literary achievements, their contribution to gender history, and on and on. There was a handful of Marxist historians, Sumit Sarkar for instance, who were skeptical of such claims, but the field was dominated by non-skeptics. Even the subaltern historians, who had formed such a lodestar for me as a young student, had moved, as one prominent South Asianist caustically remarked, from ‘Provincialising Europe to Globalising Bengal’!

Now, you must understand, I grew up under severe social expectations to be ‘bhadra’, which in the case of women meant a religious adherence to being the best scholar, the best wife, the best mother there ever was. You had to uphold both progressive doctrines and the strictest of bourgeois family values. I was surrounded by stern, ‘communist-bhadra’ women, whose Marxism put pictures of Stalin and Lenin up on their walls, while their ‘bhadralokism’ shunned any hint of sexuality as ‘sluttish’! Naturally, I failed to retain any loyalty or love for the bhadralok world by the time I started to study them.

Most studies on the bhadralok took the bhadralok’s own definition of themselves seriously without any further interrogation. The group’s own claims about ‘culture’ and ‘education’ or rules about ‘propriety’ were seen as the group’s effort to contest colonialism and the ‘subalterneity’ that colonialism imposed upon them. The bhadralok truly invented the winning game of eating the postcolonial cake and having it too – all the privileges of class were obscured by the fact of their colonial status – and in the nether world of Subaltern Studies, after the decline of the subaltern, the bhadralok could present themselves as the truly oppressed!

This was the context for my own research on the bhadralok. Sentinels of Culture is an historical account of the class location and composition of the bhadralok. It argues that the discourse of being ‘bhadra’, served as a language of class mobilization from the mid nineteenth century in Bengal, uniting diverse layers of the Hindu upper classes. While access to a bhadra world – educational institutions, cultural achievements – was strictly shaped by objective social rules, the subjective discourse of being a bhadralok, united the landed rentier class and the petty bourgeoisie in a common nationalist project against both the British at one end, and the working class and the peasantry at the other.

According to Perry Anderson’s The Indian Ideology, India’s democracy is a historical failure. It is fatally compromised by its origins in an anticolonial struggle led by the monolithically Hindu Congress Party that Anderson considers responsible for the bloodiness of the partition of the British-ruled subcontinent in 1947. What is your take on this issue?

Various Indian historians and commentators have taken Anderson to task for this book. Criticisms of Anderson are, in effect, two kinds of defense of the nationalist/Nehruvian project. Liberal commentators such as Ananya Vajpeyi and Pankaj Mishra provide the strong defense. They argue that Anderson is essentially letting the colonial state off the hook when he places the blame of India’s present on India’s liberal-nationalist past. Some Marxist scholars such as Vijay Prashad have made a weaker defence that Anderson has failed to locate the radical kernel, or working class struggle, in the liberal shell of nationalism. I think what Anderson does in this book is very important for two reasons.

One, he does not let the nationalist leadership or liberal nationalism off the hook. Why is that important? Because of the nature of the scholarship about the post-independent national form. The problem with a lot of theorizing about the post-independent nation state is that colonialism is seen as a monolithic determinant that is responsible for all tragedies. Nick Dirks blames caste as a form on colonialism, Gyan Pandey blames communialism as a practice on colonialism and so on. At face value they are right. Colonialism played a dominant role in these structures and practices of oppression. But it could only do so because of a past saturated with class war waged by the indigenous ruling class (upper class and caste) against the oppressed.

The indigenous ruling class that inherited the postcolonial state also inherited and retained institutions and habits of rule from the colonial past. One glaring instance of this continuity, and there are many, is the simple name change of the colonial Thuggee and Dacoity Department into the current Central Bureau of Investigation. The former pursued migrants and resistors to the rule of the East India Company, the latter, with all its structures intact, pursue Naxalites and other political dissidents. The scholarship on the postcolonial state is often quick to locate colonial violence, but not postcolonial continuity. This is necessary but insufficient. Anderson’s book reveals the relationship between the colonial past and the postcolonial present and does not let the present hide in the shadow of the past.

The second important contribution of Anderson’s book is to remind us to interrogate the ‘secular.’ Reminiscent of some of the arguments of Talal Asad, Anderson exposes the deeply Hindu majoritarian roots of the nation state. Where the liberal critic only sees disjuncture between dominant liberalism and rampant Hindutva, Anderson again shows their relation – how one is co-constituted by the other and comes to the fore according to the contingent needs of capital. Thus the BJP and Congress are of course different formations with different projects but share similar roots and logics of existence. Anderson’s argument has very real strategic consequences for the revolutionary Left in India. As the parliamentary Left, like the CPI(M) in 1996 and 2016, put their electoral faith in the ‘lesser evilism’ of the Congress against the BJP, the revolutionary Left needs to revive and win the argument for independent working class organisation and politics.

The current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was denied entry into the US for decades because of the massacre of thousands of Indian Muslims in the state of Gujarat during the pogrom of 2002 in which he was at that time the Chief Minister. Could you explain how Indians elected a nationalist neoliberal politician like Modi as prime minister? What are the counterhegemonic forces to Modi (of course to the extent that exist)?

First, to be clear: the strongest support for Modi in India during his election and later did not come from the ordinary Indian but from the corporate class. The corporate elite formed a solid phalanx of support behind Modi, with the Stock exchange breaking all records on Election Day. Why? Because Narendra Modi successfully tied Hindutva to ‘Development’ thus blending the uniquely Indian toxin of upper caste, majoritarian violence to the universal toxin of capitalism.

So, while he goes about denouncing modern science and basic democratic rights for Dalits and women, he can co-author editorials in the Washington Post with the proud upholder of democracy and freedom, Barack Obama. It is also important to remember two further things:

First, that in 2014, Modi’s BJP won only 31 per cent of the total vote, the lowest vote to have produced a Parliamentary majority in India; second, Modi’s rhetoric of ‘development’ that promises a shining India is ultimately unsustainable. It is one more instance of capital myth making that will neither better the growth charts for the economist nor better lives for the many. What remains to be seen is whether after decades of defeats and assaults the Indian working class can fight back. And in this, we should not be looking only at workplace struggles but to all struggles, like the current ones about justice in Kashmir and Manipur. Any struggle against the violence of the Indian State has the potential to overflow the initial context of its production – and in such plenitude of possibilities lie our raw materials of hope.

In one of your articles you deal with gender violence in the neoliberal era. What is the correlation between the two? Why do you argue for social reproduction theory to be an adequate analytical framework to interpret the possible dialectics between the two phenomena?

That is a very good but complex question. The shorthand response is that neoliberalism is a particular strategy that capitalism adopts to deal with the crisis of accumulation. But since it is a systemic strategy, it, by necessity, affects all social life under capital’s sway.

While capitalism’s economic project is the realisation of surplus value it has never historically achieved this goal by being ‘neutral’ in its social relations. Thus gender, sexuality, race, physical ability (to name a few) form important determinants of capitalist social relations. That is the dynamic relationship between the universal form (realization of surplus value) and the specific-concrete form (the specific political forms needed for such a realisation). It is important to understand that since it is both relational and dynamic the specific-concrete forms both depend on and shape the process of exploitation.

This is the framework for my writings on gender violence under the neoliberal phase of capitalism. I was frustrated with liberal feminist writing on the rise of gender violence and wanted to investigate two whys: a. why gender? and b. why now? And the analytic of ‘labour power’ was for me the bridge between the two. Social reproduction theory reveals the relationship between the production of commodities (value) and the reproduction of labour power (people). One of the key insights of Marxism is the how the dialectical and doubled relationship between the two shapes all social life under capitalism.

To specifically take the case of gender, I argue that when faced with a crisis of accumulation, capitalism is not content simply to reorder production (break unions, reduce wages etc.) but it also tries to intervene in the process of reproduction by inventing new ways to reorder the functioning of the working class families, lives and new ideologies to justify them. Thus the neoliberal era is famous for pushing the cost of social reproduction and social provisioning onto individual families. How did this help capital? The elimination of public support for social reproduction – housing, education, transport – did not mean that workers were then excused from being workers in the sphere of production. Instead, this simply meant that all support that was previously public was either transferred onto individual families or privatised and priced out of reach for the vast majority. This made all workers, male and female, vulnerable in the workplace and less able to resist capital’s assault in the workplace.

If social provisioning is privatised to this extent then it stands to reason that someone has to stay home to do it. This is where ideologies about the family come into play to redefine masculine-feminine tropes or (more commonly) older tropes are re-circulated in a new context. It is here that the seeds of violence ought to be located. Gender violence does not take place because men hate women – but because capitalism creates conditions for it.

As a long-time activist for Palestinian justice do you consider the two-state solution a feasible alternative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Should the left-wing forces join the Palestinian-led movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel? If so, why?

There is a practical issue and a logical absurdity central to the two-state proposal. The practical: any just state-formation has to recognise the right of return for all the displaced Palestinian refugees, over decades of violence of dispossession. The absurd: at the heart of the Zionist two-state ‘solution’ is the idea that Palestinian and Jewish people cannot live together. This is both absurd and contrary to the proud history of Jews fighting for integration and exclusion for the oppressed.

In my opinion, at the moment, BDS is the best, internationalist, strategy for the movement for a Free Palestine. In its form it is an international picket line that our Palestinians comrades have erected and that is our duty to defend. In its content and everyday relevance it trains ever-new layers of young activists in the politics of anti-imperialism. And when such anti-imperialist politics unite with the resistance to domestic forms of violence – such as we are now seeing in the wonderful statements of solidarity between Black Lives Matter activists and Palestinians activists – we are talking about a real threat to capital. In my opinion we not only need to extend BDS, we also need to deepen its scope – from workplaces to community organising, from class rooms to class struggles – we need to constantly unite the strands of resistance to capitalism, for its imperial plunder abroad and racist violence at home.

Do agree with those on the Left that say the Democratic Party can’t be reformed to act in the interest of working people? Which is your take on the recent Sander’s electoral campaign?

I want to separate out the support for Bernie Sanders from Bernie Sanders and his organisational affiliations. In the support for Bernie, I witnessed first hand, what could be possible in this country. It was not an electorate – a passive category – that came out for Bernie, but a movement. But, and there is a huge but. A movement needs organisational roots to embed itself into new spaces, to nurture itself from other movements, to grow.

If we can recognise that Bernie Sanders unleashed a ‘movement’, even though glimpsed as a moment now, we must simultaneously recognise that the organisation Bernie gave this movement to grow and take roots was the Democratic Party. This is a party of capital. As the Hillary vs Trump electoral farce now clearly reveals, the Democrats are in fact the chosen party of Capital. Why would such a party allow a movement to grow that was fundamentally hostile to the logic of capital?

Having said that, I will also say that I hold immense hope and invest immense political joy in the vast, heterogeneous collective that came out for Sanders. They gave body to the word ‘socialism’ after decades of the word being banished from public discourse. The movement for Bernie also revealed the deep authoritarian road-blocks of the Democratic Party. One can write lots of good books and essays about the Democratic Party being a graveyard of social movements, but these lessons are best learnt on the streets. I believe that the Sanders campaign began a process of teaching such lessons to a new generation of activists. All such political lessons are seeds for the future. That future may yet be unwritten, but it is important to learn what not to write when it arrives.