Fractured Histories of Colonial Liberalism: Political Networks and Political Norms, India 191043

AHA Session 244
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Chicago Ballroom C (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Cassie Adcock, Washington University in St. Louis
Barbara D. Metcalf, University of California, Davis, emerita

Session Abstract

This panel addresses the distinctive history of secular liberalism in colonial India by examining the micropolitical networks of local power relations— embodied practices of labor, self-fashioning and militant activism— at their points of intersection with mainstream liberal political norms.  How did recombinations of such micropractices secure the ascendance of secular-liberal forms of political expression in colonial India?  How did they produce points of contestation, or institute novel forms of political community?

            The politics of colonial India was famously divided.  The civic arena of colonial politics was directed toward the state and organized by a liberal idiom of political representation and rights.  In the civic arena, power was viewed as inhering in the individual or community, the subject of rights.  However, the politics of the civic arena existed in tension with forms of political struggle that did not address the Anglo-Indian ruling elite, and that were not framed in the idiom of political liberalism, but nevertheless impacted the state: what we might provisionally label “ritual-politics.”  Ritual-politics included a range of practices from dress and diet to boycott and public ceremonial, and could be organized by idioms of purity or status.  These practices were no less completely political: indeed Gandhi’s politics of Non-Cooperation drew the most popular support precisely when it was appropriated into the ritual-political regimens of self-fashioning that organized subaltern politics.  An appreciation of modern Indian political culture therefore requires that we resist the impulse to relegate these different varieties of politics to the realm of the extrapolitical (as religious, mystified, etc.), or to ascribe them to traditions or “moral economies” allegedly untouched by colonial statecraft. 

            This panel examines the points of intersection between mainstream liberal norms of politics and alternative forms that were not only ubiquitous but also decisive for the Indian politics of the time.  A peculiarity of liberal politics in colonial India was that political representation was organized around the interests of communities, and not simply of individuals.  This yielded majoritarian efforts to mobilize a unified Hindu constituency on the one hand, and on the other, assertions of minority rights: Indian Muslims, for instance, claimed and received separate representation as a special interest, and in the 1930s, “Untouchables” claimed separate status as a non-Hindu minority.  We examine how colonial officials, caste-Hindu elites and dalit (“Untouchable”) politicians struggled to reframe the ritual-political practices that organized local relations of subordination and deprivation in the language of liberalism, and assess the effects of secular-liberal categories on the struggle against caste.  We trace the concrete effects of the meeting of distinct conceptions of mobilization and of state-society relations in new arenas of contest.  And we examine how the politics of representation combined with strategies of anti-colonial resistance and practices of self-fashioning to feed Hindu militancy.

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