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Decentring the Nation in Writing History

Malvika Maheshwari

By Benjamin Zachariah
Yoda Press, Delhi, 2011, pp. 314, Rs. 495.00


The question of the nation—its presence or absence, expansion or stagnation,exclusivity or everydayness, or its accuracy and ambiguity, has quite often rendered the concept difficult and unyielding. However, the extensive inquiries and the variety of propositions put forth by social scientists over time has made its occurrence and experience less threatening, more bearable and engrossing. Certain dominant ways of understanding the phenomenon that find their mainspring across disciplines and regions, which have been efficacious in the study of the Indian nation as well, illustrate sharply the academic discourses for containing and taming its manifestations. One important way of approaching the concept, the most dominant in social sciences, is to regard the nation as a form of identity that challenges other forms of collective identities like class, region, gender, race and religious community. While the ac-knowledgement to differentiate these identities remains relatively unquestioned, there is little consensus on the role of the ethnic, as oppos-ed to the political, components of the nation. Although national identities and loyalties often assume primacy over those of class, gender and race (religious attachments may at times rival national claims), national attachments can intermingle or oscillate in power and promi-nence with other forms of collective identities. This deliberation is also mirrored in the rival scholarly definitions and debates on origins of the nation-like the primordialist interpreta-tions stemming from the ‘givens’ like religion or language, strongly put forth by Geertz, against Gellner’s thesis of objective, practical necessity where nationalism ‘invents nations where they do not exist.’ A second position, increasingly problem-atized, looks at the ideological construction of nationalism as a form of blight, as an indica-tion of a discord with a predisposition to violence between individuals but more often between collectives, stressing on the cultural rather than the political aspects of nationalism, although a synthesis of the two might be possible as well. The doctrine that was first associated with popular freedom and sove-reignty prompted various social, political and intellectual developments that found powerful and explosive expression in radical politics. The ‘people’ must be liberated; masters of their own destiny and homeland—a historic territory, sharing a single public culture that is theirs as heritage, and therefore an expression of their authentic identity. The third aspect, relevant for our review, sees the nation, and its related concepts like national identity and nationalism, as an import, characteristic of the twentieth century ‘anti-colonial’ movements that were ...

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