Radical and Revolutionary Thought in British India: Rewriting India’s Twentieth-Century Intellectual History

AHA Session 40
North American Conference on British Studies 3
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 3
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Columbia Hall 3 (Washington Hilton)
Kama Maclean, University of New South Wales
Political Aesthetics and Progressive Writers, 1940s–60s
Maia A. Ramnath, University of California, Santa Cruz
Radical Visions of India’s Past: Poetics of Maratha National History
Janaki Bakhle, University of California, Berkeley
Vinayak Chaturvedi, University of California, Irvine

Session Abstract

Indian nationalism is generally associated, in the West at least, with Mahatma Gandhi and non-violence. This facet of Indian modern history has inspired generations of world leaders. Other than Gandhi it is the writings of Jawaharlal Nehru which have received most historical attention. Not only was he a prolific writer but it was his vision of future which became the ruling ideology and a guiding force in post-colonial India. However, little is known about the radical nationalists who espoused the creed of violence and drew sustenance from diasporic connections. Little is also known about the militant cultural nationalism which divided the country along religious lines. Hidden at the margins of Indian history are the revolutionaries, who viewed Gandhian nationalism as decadently bourgeois. There was thus a startling multiplicity of alternative ideologies. However, the visions of other radical nationalists and Indian revolutionaries fell on the wayside because theirs was a normative world which clashed with and critiqued the secular non-violent vision of the Indian National Congress led by Gandhi and Nehru. These ideologies of radical and revolutionary nationalists nevertheless played a significant role in the anti-colonial politics and have continued to inform political movements in post-colonial India. This panel examines three such theoretical strands.

The first paper will focus on the Progressive Writers’ Movement and specifically focus on the writings of Mulk Raj Anand (1905-2004) and Sajjad Zaheer (1905-1973). This paper will explore that although similar to the Nehruvian ideal of nationalism, the leftist international orientation of these intellectuals impacted their understanding of their cause and determined its ultimate destination. The second paper will examine the Marathi poetry of the Hindu nationalist ideologue, V.D. Savarkar (1883-1966) to demonstrate how his understanding of Maratha-national history is an important yet understudied alternative to the dominant Gandhian and Nehruvian view of Indian nationalism. The third paper focuses on the Indian revolutionary movement. It compares and contrasts the writings and poetry of Ram Prasad Bismil (1897-1927) and his revolutionary inheritor Bhagat Singh (1907-1931). By examining their theoretical understanding of India’s past it challenges the nationalist classificatory categories of right and left-wing, violent and non-violent, secular and non-secular.

Common to the intellectuals associated with above movements was one fundamental question – who are we? In trying to find a place for themselves in the colonial world these writers looked back into India’s past. For them the act of retelling the past was undoubtedly a political one and one which was moored in their political milieu. The imagining and narrativizing of India’s past was both a diagnosis of and a prescription for their colonial present which in turn enabled envisioning a normative future. These narratives of past thus flowed out of the present and into an imagined future. By examining the alternate visions harboured by these writers and movements demonstrates that Indian nationalism was not a monolith but a patchwork of different ideologies, which, notwithstanding their unity of purpose, competed and challenged each other.

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