Social Scientist. v 16, no. 178 (March 1988) p. 41.


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The 'Elitism' of Nationalist Discourse

PARTHA CHATTER JEE, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse^ Oxford University Press, 1986,180 pp., Rs. 110.

A serious student of history is fascinated by the past; reasonably so, for it promises to answer a number of questions embedded in the present. Nationalism especially interests one today, when the limitations of national social transformation and national consensus are becoming increasingly apparent. The primary question is, how does one look at the phenomenon of nationalism in a historical perspective? The demands of professional competence impel one to be acutely sensitive to the specificities of the phenomenon. This would mean that due heed be paid to both the objective constraints (including not only the constraints at the material level but also the hegemonic ideology, for example, Orientalism, paternalism, the civilising mission, i.e., Kipling's 'white man's burden', etc.) and to the subjective endeavour to transcend them (the distinction maintained is a purely analytical one as both impinge on each other).

Let us see how Chatterjee faces the above question. For the sake of clarity, we would first attempt a systematic arrangement of the chief formulations of the book and then we would critically analyse them.

1. Nationalist thought in India (consciously studied by the author with reference to three persons: Bankim, Gandhi and Nehru) was primarily an elitist discourse and seems riven with an inherent and historically irresoluble contradiction. This stemmed from the fact that the 'educated elite* or the nationalist intelligentsia could not reconcile what they perceived as 'national' (elements of culture) with the 'modem*, which to them seemed definable only in terms of the post-Enlightenment rationalism of European culture.

2. The element of self-contradiction in the nationalist discourse is patent in the problematic and the thematic that it historically adopts:

... the problematic in nationalist thought is exactly the reverse of that of Orientalism. That is to say, the object in nationalist thought is still the Oriental, who retains the essentialist character depicted in Orientalist discourse. Only he is not passive, non-participating. He is seen to possess a 'subjectivity* which he can himself 'make* (p.38).

The thematic (the 'justificatory* structures of an ideology, that is, the 'epistemological principles* used to demonstrate the existence of the *claims* made as historical possibilities) in nationalist thought accepts and adopts .. .the same 'objectifying* procedures of knowledge constructed in the post-Enlightenment age of Western Science, (p. 38)

This, in turn, n I



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