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Through Critical Lenses

Vineet Thakur

By Sudipta Kaviraj
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2010, pp. 299, Rs. 695.00


Sudipta Kavirajs brilliance as a political thinker, the front flap of the book claims, has remained something of a state secret for the fact that his publications are scattered in journals difficult to access. The Imaginary Institution of India, the first book in a trilogy of Kavirajs works, is thus a step towards dejournalizing Kaviraj. For a political thinker whose writings explicitly endorse a project of engineering a surreptitious, yet remarkable, displacement of any understanding of a coherent, singular, doctrinal idea of India, it is only fitting that his works are revealed in the larger, more plural public space. In eight insightful essays, written over the past two and a half decades, Kaviraj approaches the subjectthe Indian nationwith a passion for critical inquiry. The book makes no pretence of the fact that the field of inquiry is extremely complex; in his own words it is evolving, unstable, volatile, capable of sudden shifts in emphasis and political direction (p.7). This complexity, however, is an opportunity wasted by the writers of Indian history and politics who have tried to approach the past with presentist lenses and have in turn misrecognized, misrepresented and misconstrued it. His critical lenses also chastise Marxist interpretations for their economic-centric material reading of history, and he posits, in a more Gramscian vein, that changes in the politico-cultural domain are equally, if not more, important. Nation, in Benedict Andersons famous phraseology, is an imagined community and Kaviraj investigates the evolution of Indian nationalism through colonial, anti-colonial and nationalist discourses. Before he investigates the nature of the nationalist discourse, Kaviraj says that tracing the history of the nation from its antiquity would be a dishonest beginning, for there existed no nation, no idea of India before the nineteenth century. India as some form of cultural continuity can be said to exist prior to that, but India as a socio-political and cognitive reality only emerges after the arrival of the colonizer. A nation, in all its pretenses, is a modern idea that imports its ideational (eg., rationality, utilitarianism) as well as material (institutional administration framework, census) prerequisites from European modernity. The emergence of the nationalist discourse, counter-poised to the colonial discourse, he argues, is mid-wifed by another form of discourse-anti-colonialism. The initial reaction to colonialism in the form of an anti-colonial discourse is based on forms of acquiescence as well as opposition. Primarily championed by the native middle classes, the most ...

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