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Politics, Political Society and 'the Everyday'


Aditya Nigam

LINEAGES OF POLITICAL SOCIETY
By Partha Chatterjee
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2011, pp. 278, Rs.750.00

VOLUME XXXVI NUMBER 3 March 2012

Over a decade ago, political theorist Partha Chatterjee embarked on what was a novel journey in the history of political thought in India and, perhaps in the postcolonial, non-western world. Bringing together the results of decades of his own intellectual engagement with Indian politics and the question of subalternity in particular, Chatterjee began articulating a concept that has now acquired wide currency: his concept of 'political society'. 'Political society', in Chatterjee's hands, was a way of recuperating a sphere of politics that had been a permanent source of anxiety for theorists of Indian (and postcolonial) modernity and democracy-the vast domain that existed outside the designated spheres of modern politics, where the untutored masses made claims on the state and formed their own associations and organizations, unmindful of the formal grammar of rights and citizenship. A crucial part of what defines activities in this domain is 'illegality', or at any rate, non-legality, where the state itself places the law in suspension in order to recognize the claims of the governed. Thus for instance squatting by the poor on government land that is strictly speaking encroachment in legal terms and can never acquire the status of a 'right', is nevertheless allowed by governments to continue through the recognition of some kind of moral claim of the poor on governments and society at large. Much of what goes on in these domains marks our modernity as incomplete or distorted in the eyes of political and social theorists-the signs of a permanent 'lack'. Democracy and modernity in India and other postcolonial societies, from this vantage point, always seem to be striving to be like the 'real thing' that exists, apparently, only in the West. Chatterjee's intervention made two simultaneous moves: First, it rejected the dominant narrative of modernity and modern politics as being grounded in the formal discourse of rights and individual citizenship and insisted that there are other modes in which politics takes place 'in most of the world', that needs to be seriously contended with, theoretically speaking. These modes of politics, Chatterjee argued, were a constitutive part of the story of postcolonial modernity and were not just prior stages on the way to our final arrival into real (western) modernity. Second, in doing so, Chatterjee did not take recourse to arcane notions of 'indigenous tradition' as have many theorists in the past, who then got caught up in the whirlpool of textual ...


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