The argument that Partha Chatterjee peddles in his latest article in Telegraph on the ongoing Kashmir uprising is quite mainstream. It is of course presented in a subalternist language and with a lot of sympathy. But in its assertion of the autonomy of the subaltern masses, the subalternist sympathy becomes generally like that of those parents who find every action of their children to be revelatory about their uniqueness. And if other children seem to show some unique characteristics, these parents always find them resembling their own children.
Being a Bengali historian, Chatterjee reserves this feeling of empathy only for Bengali subalterns. Obviously this allows him to connect with other parents, sympathise and advise them. This is what Chatterjee is doing in this article – imploring other parents (Indian and Kashmiri) to recognise the crossroads in their children’s lives and help them pass them successfully, without sliding to “worst outcomes.”
Chatterjee finds Kashmiris resembling Bengali mourners at the funeral of Kanailal Datta in 1908, who shot at a renegade in the courtroom, and was hanged by the Britishers. He quotes an official report of the time,
“An extraordinary scene was witnessed at Kalighat at the time of the cremation of Kanai… Crowds thronged the road, people pushing past one another to touch the bier… Many women, to all appearances of a highly respectable class, followed the funeral procession wailing, while men and boys thronged around shouting ‘ Jai Kanai’!””
According to Chatterjee, the Kashmiri act of mourning and rioting for an ‘Islamist terrorist’ similarly “perplexed” the officials and others. A proud father is always ready to dispel people’s perplexities towards other kids, by flaunting his own wisdom of parenthood remembering the childhood of his children.
Thus, continues the wiseman’s argument, where patronising eventually takes a more mainstream turn. Subalterns always perplex non-subalterns. Hence, they need specialised experts to interpret their actions and language. Left to themselves, the innocence of subalterns makes them vulnerable to all kinds of manipulations. Actually, they always look for “figures of love and reverence” and “pure selflessness.” Hence, the Kashmiris themselves are innocent and victims of “bad” manipulations by the two neighbouring states and “routine politicians.” What is happening is now an outrage against these manipulations constituting “the crossroads.”
So, Chatterjee asserts, “Kashmiri nationalism stands at the same crossroads where Indian nationalism stood a hundred years ago.” Pure subalterns wanting to be tended with love, care and self-sacrifice are looking for the figures that epitomise them. If “democratic nationalism” is not “given a genuine chance”, there will be a slide –
“Given the bankruptcy of the politics that has tried so far to accommodate Kashmir’s national aspirations within the Indian federal system, there is a tendency now for the young to adopt an Islamist idiom to vent their demands. If this trend gets stronger, the best result might be a new popular movement, Islamist in temper but with deep roots in local communities…The worst outcome would be the burgeoning of jihadi groups that no one will be able to control.”
Hence, as subalterns are bound to be instrumentalised or domesticated, why not channelise their energy for some good cause, which protects them and mobilises them in the interest of progress and democratic nationalism, thus saving them from an uncontrollable jihadi sectarianism?
But that leaves the story twisted – not just in Kashmir, but also that of the early twentieth century Bengal. Chatterjee does not tell us what happened to Indian/Bengali nationalism “beyond the crossroads”, at least not in this piece. In fact, he does not clear the ambience at “the crossroads” too. He talks about outcomes without talking about the processes. And outcomes are explicitly seen as sliding to worse, if they are not short circuited by “democratic nationalism”. “The bankruptcy of the politics” leads “to a tendency …to adopt an Islamist idiom”, which if not saved through “democratic nationalism” would result into “the worst outcome.”
Actually, the Bengali bhadralok has never been able to cope with the partition of his Bengali nation. The year 1971 soothed him but the scar that 1947 gave runs very deep. Historians like Chatterjee do understand it, but dil hai ki maanta nahin. How could the Islamic enticement to integrate with Pakistan ever be stronger than the Bengali brotherhood?
Hence, azadi is fine as it can be variedly interpreted, and one clever interpretation is that of the Indian left, which Chatterjee articulates so well:
“Azaadi is not the name for a blueprint of Kashmir’s future political state. Rather it is a rejection of India’s armed occupation and the declaration of the right of the Kashmiri people to decide its own future.”
It is all due to the intransigence of India and Pakistan that no breakthrough is happening. They see Kashmir as a site for their competition. Chatterjee goes ahead and talks about progressive constitutional options as tried in Canada to resolve the Quebec question. All these must be tried or things will slide to “the worst outcome.”
“To stop that slide, democratic nationalism in Kashmir must be given a genuine chance.”
It is the same Bengali hangover that seems to play its role here – pitting “democratic nationalism” of Sheikh Abdullah against Islamism/Pakistan. Chatterjee seems to judge everything according to tangible historical outcomes and options, rather than in terms of the processes that might lead to multiple outcomes and options. Azaadi is of course “not the name of a blueprint”, but a movement that houses many contesting blueprints.
Why not? It could also be about the redefinition of South Asia – a movement against thinking in terms of established states and institutions. It could be a signal to subsumed nationalities in the region to revolt against internal segmentation of politico-economic agencies, against differential surplusing and inclusion/exclusion of populations. It could be a struggle against the evolving framework of regional political economy that hierarchises peoples, while including some and reserving/surplusing many, to keep the structure under control and “human resources” competitive.
But most importantly, why are we not considering the stone throwing and infinitely resilient, yet defiant Kashmiri youth a sign of the times – the evolution of a popular subjectivity of the precariat leading a real movement that abolishes the present state of things? Why is Chatterjee bringing an example from the Bengali history that seemingly demonstrates innocence and malleability of the masses? Crossroads are about the opening of new horizons too. And definitely, the people’s history of early twentieth century Bengal is extremely rich in this regard. It is unbelievable that Partha Chatterjee is unaware of the complexity of those times. But perhaps the subalternist notion of subalternity doesn’t allow him to render any overt political agency to subalterns except as fodder for the two sides in the Manichaeism of mainstream institutional politics.
There, were far more interesting things happening than a funeral march, which was just a symptom, a temporal spectacle. Beyond spectacularity, while Bengali bhadralok radicals were mired in the voluntarist and masochistic interpretation of Bhagavad Gita, a new Islam was rising in Bengal that gave radical meaning to the everyday struggle of people providing a ground to the evolution of popular subjectivity. In this regard, let me extensively quote from a recent article on MN Roy written by a very astute historian of communism in Bengal, Suchetna Chattopadhyaya, published in the first volume of Communist Histories (Left Word, 2016, pp 45-46), edited by Vijay Prashad:
“The ‘new’ Islam of the early 1910s, in its populist political form, took shape in the backdrop of the ‘new’ plan to sharply alter the physiognomy of the city, the Balkan Wars as a ‘prelude’ to the First World War, and the emergence of a new set of preacher- leaders known for their radical rejection of loyalist positions. One of the aims of pan-Islamist campaigners was to protect Islamic shrines and monuments in the Ottoman Empire, under jeopardy in the climate of Balkan Wars. These efforts by a segment of the intelligentsia resonated, stirring empathetic response among the masses. The immediate material context of this identification was the aggressive and invasive implementation of colonial construction plans that had disturbed conurbations from Kanpur to Calcutta. Though public protests in Calcutta revolved around the issue of mosque demolitions by the authorities, the submerged feelings at a popular level reflected social anxieties and anger over looming evictions. The anti-demolition meetings, including those directed against the Port Trust authorities in Khidirpur, saw large participation of cooks, waiters and small traders. The protestors experienced and envisaged uprooted neighbourhoods, destroyed settlements and forcible expulsions from their dwellings. In the backdrop of such a large-scale offensive from the top, pan-Islam, and popular protests interacted and forged political combinations. With the coming of a major conflict, and British declaration of war against Turkey, the pan-Islamist support for the Ottoman Caliphate came to be echoed in mosques and bazaars, in prayers and conversations and in the texture of everyday life.”
Whatever the limits of historical languages and institutions inherited by the people be, the organic political process (not necessarily around formal state apparatuses) grounded in popular everydayness renews the subjectivity of the multitude, always exploring and exploding the limits that temporally bind it. Subalternisation should be seen as procrustean endeavours of the State apparatuses to depoliticise the everydayness and alienate this subjectivity. However, pure subalternity is never achieved, the multitude accepts new bondages only to master and destroy them. Hence, assuming any innocence on the part of the “subalterns” in Bengal and Kashmir in the process of the “slide” that Chatterjee talks about is not only factually wrong, but politically meaningless and even dangerous. Such assumption autonomises political practices and ideologies from the real political ground and reduces them to mere objects of the elitist and statist operation of naming and shaming.