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Nationalism: A Split Phenomenon?

Partha Pratim Shil

By Sudhir Chandra
Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2011 (Second Edition. First published 1975), pp xxvi + 195, Rs. 675.00


The text under review is a re-publication of a monograph that initially appeared in 1975. It looked at the emergence of, what the author calls, a ‘national consciousness’, in late nineteenth century colonial India. Though it has a new introduction, the main body of the text is not a revision of the earlier edition. Therefore, as a reviewer, one is inhibited in making it stand the scrutiny of subsequent conceptual developments with which the phenomenon of nationalism is now studied. Since one cannot ever bracket out the awareness of these later developments, this review is a set of responses that only seeks to assess whether the book actually accomplishes what it sets out to do. In the dramatic debates of the late 1960s between nationalist Marxist and revisionist historians that today constitute the initial historiography of nationalist movements in India, Chandra alleged a ‘Manichean insistence on seeing things in either or terms’ (p. xxiii). They either unveil the material interests that constituted the reality of nationalist ideology or posit nationalist ideology as having transcended the social location of its leaders. In his new introduction he develops his distance from this historiography more elaborately. The author posits his work as a ‘radical historiographic departure’ from such singular explanatory tools. In his framework, social location and national ideology tussle to shape the narrative simultaneously. Looking at an extremely formative and fluid period between the after math of the Mutiny and the establishment of the Indian National Congress in 1885, the fundamental site of study for the author is the interaction between the official policies of the colonial State and the political associations and leading personalities who constituted the new associational life in the emerging public sphere in the nineteenth century. Extensively using, apart from official sources, newspapers and proceedings of many of these political associations, Chandra develops an interesting and factually thick narrative of the emergence of a national consciousness in the ‘humdrum’ of political alliances, agitations and internal conflicts in response to official policy. The leading figures in this story are, what the author repeatedly calls, ‘the politically awakened’ Indians of upper and middle classes, like zamindars and other landed elite, manufacturing and mercantile elites, lawyers, civil servants and other educated middle classes. These social classes were products of a new colonial economy and were existentially dependent on colonial structures. The monopoly of ‘political awakening’ that is attributed to these vocal and archive ...

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