Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 25-26 (Dec 1993) p. 5.


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Imagined Economies

Styles of Nation-Building in Twentieth Century India

D Satish Deshpande

The fiftieth anniversary of the Quit India movement seemed to provide a natural vantage point from where to take stock of the history of our present. As the cartoonists pointedly reminded us, 1992 appeared in so many ways to be 1942 in reverse: far from calling upon foreigners to quit India, our leaders are desperately seeking foreign and multilateral capital; the enormous hope, energy and idealism of the 1940s are the inverted image of the dispirited and cynical 1990s where the buzzword is 'realism'; finally, and not least, the commitment to a vision of socialism (however ill-defined) is now parodied by the boundless faith being invested in the capitalist market

But then came December 1992, only to be followed by January 1993. Ironically enough, the cup of contrasts that was threatening to spill over seemed to steady itself. This, after all, was common to both decades, both crucial turning points in the social history of the modern Indian nation. In a sudden surreal twist, the nineties seemed to be the forties in fast forward as well as reverse, and familiar everyday things—relationships, faces, voices, images and institutions—grew distorted and grotesque and shrill before our very eyes.

The idea that has perhaps suffered the most is that of the Indian nation. It is as though an elderly celebrity has taken ill and all the society columnists are hunting for their pre-written obituary notices, eager to do some editing, polishing, updating. But the reports of its imminent demise are no doubt somewhat exaggerated: indeed, this is perhaps the best time to enquire into the social arrangements and the ideological idioms that have made it possible for us to think the Indian nation.

Intended as an invitation to a research project, this exploratory essay looks at some of the transmutations that have occurred during this century in the way that the Indian social imagination articulates the discursively constructed concepts of 'economy' and 'nation'. If nations are indeed 'imagined communities' as Benedict Anderson has so persuasively suggested, then I would argue that one of the domi-

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