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Great Kolkata Scholar interviewed

Partha Chatterjee

If you exclude Nobel laureates, India's most major intellectual export to the West is arguably Partha Chatterjee. Many would say there is no need to exclude the Nobel laureates when maintaining this proposition. Kolkata rejoices in the fact that Partha Chatterjee prefers to remain very much a part-time export: he only spends about 3-4 months being professor at Columbia; the rest of the time he is mainly to be found in dhoti-kurta within his natural habitat. His devotion to Kolkata and his self-location within the city are evident from his speech at the Fukuoka Prize of 2009 ceremony in Japan, during which he speaks partly in Bengali to praise Kolkata as the city which made his kind of scholar possible. It's worth experiencing the integrity and dignity of his address at this link.

Two incidental details in connection with the Fukuoka Prize: among scholars, this has only been won earlier by two Indians, Romila Thapar and Ashis Nandy (both ordinarily resident in New Delhi). It is awarded to scholars whose influence has been widely recognized as profound and monumental. Second, Partha Chatterjee had asked that the prize be bestowed on him at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, and the awarding body had agreed. Unfortunately, Chatterjee fell very seriously ill and had to be briefly hospitalized over the Kolkata dates, and the ceremony on the youtube video was held in Fukuoka, Japan.

Partha Chatterjee was instrumental in shifting Subaltern Studies from OUP to Permanent Black in 2000. He has, since, quietly and steadfastly supported Permanent Black, both via giving us his own books to publish, and by advising scholars and students to look seriously at Permanent Black. Most recently, Chatterjee was responsible for bringing to fruition the publication of Ranajit Guha's collected English essays, The Small Voice of History (Permanent Black paperback).

This short interview with Partha Chatterjee reveals some facets of one of contemporary Bengal's most reputed scholar-intellectuals, whose two new books, THE LINEAGES OF POLITICAL SOCIETY (see blog lower down) and THE BLACK HOLE OF EMPIRE, will be published by Permanent Black, Columbia University Press, and Princeton University Press.

Q: Your concept of ‘political society’ in your book The Politics of the Governed, and now in your next work, The Lineages of Political Society, adds a new dimension to our understanding of how non-Western democracy functions. Could you explain this concept simply, and how you came upon it?

A: Liberal political theory has always had a concept of political society to go along with civil society. While civil society meant the associative public sphere of economic and cultural life, political society was the sphere of political organization of citizens’ demands through representation, voting, political parties, etc. Liberal theory insists that the same principles – those of freedom, equality, rule of law, etc. – must prevail in both spheres. It is from my repeated readings of Antonio Gramsci that I first got the idea (though Gramsci himself does not state this in as many words) that there might be a disjuncture between the two spheres. My attempts to understand the evolution of Indian democracy in the 1990s led me to formulate this as a disjuncture within the democratic process itself that, while deviating from liberal norms, was not necessarily a retarded or corrupt form of democracy. I now think there was a fair amount of conceit in my giving the name ‘political society’ to a domain of activity characterized by illegality and deviation from norms. I was trying to point out that the constitutionally ordained norms of civil society, drawn from the particular history of Western liberal democracy, were actually incapable of ensuring justice or fairness for all citizens in a country like India and that the gap was being filled, in the absence of an alternative normative order, by improvised deviations, even illegalities.

To put it simply, political society is a domain of politics where particular population groups organize to press upon governmental authorities their specific demands for basic necessities such as housing, food, livelihood, daily amenities, and so on, which they have thus far provided for themselves by violating the law or administrative regulations or established civic norms. Thus, they may be squatters on public land, or ticketless commuters on public transport, or illegal users of water and electricity, or hawkers on city streets, or manufacturers in the informal sector violating pollution or taxation or labour regulations. Such groups use the space of democratic politics to make their demands.

Governmental authorities too frequently respond to such demands not by clamping down on the illegalities but accommodating them as exceptions within the general structure of normative regulations. That is because political authorities realize that it would be impossible to provide for the basic demands of all within the strict limits of legal and civic propriety and yet the pressure not to alienate large numbers of such voters forces them to do something for them. It is my contention that a great deal of democratic politics in India is about these negotiations. They are not always pretty; sometimes they are violent. But they must not be dismissed as pathological.

Q: In what ways does Lineages of Political Society complement your earlier work, The Politics of the Governed? Does it also develop out of Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World and link in some ways with The Nation and Its Fragments?

A: LPS complements PTG in two ways. First, it explores the historical genealogy of ‘political society’ back into the eighteenth century, the Indian responses to colonial forms of government, and certain strands within anti-colonial politics such as the traditionalists (who did not appreciate Western forms of civil society) or Tagore who was strongly critical of nationalism. Second, it elaborates on certain aspects of political society that were insufficiently discussed in PTG – for instance, populism or the informal sector of production or the role of violence. In doing this I also respond to some of the criticisms that have been made of PTG.

As for links with my earlier work on nationalism, I can’t see any. Certainly, when I wrote those books, I had not formulated the problem of political society. But perhaps there are connections that others may discover.

Q: In what ways have living, teaching, and working in Kolkata been vital to the trajectory of your intellectual life and to the specific ideas you’ve outlined in your writings?

A: I am sure the experience has been central to my intellectual formation. The Kolkata I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s was often described as the most horrifying example of urban degradation anywhere in the world. I vividly remember as a college student waiting at bus stops besieged by begging mothers with infants in their arms; vast swathes of the city’s pavements were inhabited by homeless people from the countryside. When I started working in Kolkata from the early 1970s, the political climate was tense, with severe repression against the Left, especially Naxalites. It was at that time that, in association with my colleague (the late) Hitesranjan Sanyal, I began making regular trips into the Bengal countryside, interviewing several hundred rural people involved in the nationalist movement. This was perhaps the most valuable parts of my education as a social scientist. I also think the relative isolation of Kolkata in the academic life of India and its lack of well-endowed universities and institutes actually helped me to stay out of the obligations and temptations to which those located in Delhi, for instance, are subject. I had the chance to improvise, innovate, and think outside the prevailing orthodoxies.

Q: Do you support the anti-CPM political current sweeping across Bengal? Do you foresee improvement or worsening for the state with the removal of the CPM?

A: I have always been strongly influenced in my thinking by various currents of Marxist scholarship and have considered myself part of the Left in Bengal. However, I have been a frequent critic of the CPI(M) in the last four decades. I am not surprised by the spate of popular opposition to the Left Front that is sweeping West Bengal right now. At the same time, I am not hopeful that the parties that are likely to defeat the Left have a credible alternative to offer. In fact, I will not be surprised if they replicate many of the same forms of intolerance and sectarianism that have characterized the CPI(M).

Q: Could you list five or six non-scholarly books that have meant a great deal to you?

A: This is a difficult question to answer. I can think of Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land that set me thinking about using the historical archives to construct a fictional account of a long lost world and comparing that account with current ethnography. I suspect my reading of Amitav’s book had something to do with the birth of Princely Impostor. I can also think of Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul which absolutely captivated me. It would be far-fetched to claim that it has any resemblance to my soon-to-be-published The Black Hole of Empire but somewhere, I suspect, there is a trace. As for other books, I once used to read books about science, and two of them are my all time favourites – Brighter Than a Thousand Suns by Robert Junck, and One, Two, Three … Infinity by George Gamow. Another bestseller I still find thoroughly intriguing is Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. A book by a philosopher that I think is exemplary for its innovativeness and lucidity is Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance, but I don’t know if you’ll think of it as entirely non-scholarly. Finally, the non-scholarly and unstoppably influential book of all time for me is The Communist Manifesto. Even today, reading it gives me a thrill.


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