Wages of Freedom: 50 Years of the Indian-Nation State

Originally published in Contemporary South Asia, vol.8, no.3, Carfax Publishing (Bradford, U.K.), 1999.

Partha Chatterjee, ed., Wages of Freedom: Fifty Years of the Indian Nation-State, Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 1998.

Recent years have seen a significant enrichment of the theoretical depth of Indian political and social analysis, inspired both by revised disciplinary perspectives — most notably, the work of the Subaltern Studies collective — and by contemporary political changes. This volume, edited by one of the most outstanding of such recent theorists, brings together both seasoned analysts and new contributors from the fields of social, cultural and political analysis in a solid collection of essays that examine the experience of postcolonial democracy and nationalist modernity.

Partha Chatterjee’s editorial introduction sketches a contribution to the debate on civil society, lucidly explaining a framework that incorporates a domain of political society mediating between the elite institutions of nationalist civil society and the state. Making clear a concern with governance and power which underpins all of the essays, Chatterjee suggests a new founding perspective for critical analysis of politics and society in the processes of democracy. In the first section, concerned with more conventional discussions of state policy apparatuses, Rajni Kothari (“The Democratic Experiment”) narrates the democratisation of the polity over the past fifty years; Prabhat Patnaik (“Political Strategies of Economic Development”) discusses political economy; and Achin Vanaik (“India’s Place in the World”) examines the course of foreign policy and India’s future role in a multipolar geopolitical order as an aspiring great power.

The second, most compelling, section extends the guiding concern with democracy and national identity to cultural forms Tapati Guha-Thakurta (“Instituting the Nation in Art”) analyses of the modern canonisation of Indian tradition in cultural and artistic representations. Sudipta Kaviraj’s lecture (“The Culture of Representative Democracy”) contains rich and eloquent observations on the cultural and social consequences of egalitarian principles in a hierarchical society. Madhav Prasad’s discussion of the film industry (“The State In/Of Cinema”) examines the constitution of popular subjectivity and configurations of the state and community through one of the most effective technologies of nationalist discourse, the cinema.

The third section joins essays by Javeed Alam (“Communist Politics in Search of Hegemony”) and Aditya Nigam (“Communist Politics Hegemonised”), exchanging views on the decline of the Left in India, accounted to the failure to effectively manage the terrain opened by the deepening democratic process, to articulate the cultural and social demands of new social identities to a collective will and hegemony. Both authors underline the narrow class reductionism of the organised Left, its strategic inflexibility, and the dismissal of democracy and culture as politically unimportant, thereby allowing the neutralisation of the Left by the dominant nationalist discourse.

The final sections gathers reflections on specific issues of recognition, inclusion and identity — of caste, gender and region. Kancha Ilaiah’s polemic (“Towards the Dalitization of the Nation”) describes the ambitions of the newly activated groups arising from the new lower-caste and Dalit political ferment, while M.S.S. Pandian (“Stepping Outside History?”) analyses new Dalit literature from Tamil Nadu which challenge conventional notions of historical memory. Nivedita Menon (“Women and Citizenship”) problematises the ability of the state to effect change for women in the face of other domains of patriarchal authority in the family and community, through an examination of arguments for an Uniform Civil Code. Subir Bhaumik (“Northeast India: The Evolution of a Postcolonial Region”) examines the changing relations within the Northeastern States and in their relationship with the Centre.

While intended for publication in 1997 to commemorate the golden jubilee of Independence, the volume appeared a year after the anniversary. But it is no less timely a contribution to the study of Indian politics and society, and can be recommended to almost anyone concerned with the processes and consequences of postcolonial modernity in the subcontinent.