Ambivalence of Solidarity

Identity, violence in postcolonial South Asia

T Zami | Published: 22:51, Dec 15,2019


WHEN Kumudini Chatterjee revolted against the oppression of her husband Madhusudan Ghoshal, she got all possible support from her brother Bipradas. It was precisely at that moment of seemingly accomplished secession from her husband’s oppressive household, however, that Kumudini was made to submit to Madhusudan’s rule, roped in by the umbilical cord of Madhusudan’s unborn son that she had been unconsciously impregnated with. Rabindranath Tagore’s Jogajog is a riveting allegory on identity and violence, which could as well be projected onto the historical fate of a ‘political community’. Of course, we cannot stretch a metaphor too far, as all metaphors elide over essential and inalienable differences. Reading or projecting hidden meanings into a text easily devolves into the squabble between the author and the reader as portrayed in Sukumar Roy’s fable ‘Kalachander Chhobi’.

The act of revolution involves an immense wager of optimism about the improvability of the human condition in its specific context. In a national revolution such as a national liberation war or a popular insurrection, it also involves certain projections into or connaissance about the nature of the people manning the revolt. In the moment of the liberation war of Bangladesh, for example, the unity of ‘the nation’ coalesced around the demands for equality, human dignity and social justice. It was a moment of a new identification of the subject, ie an ideological moment. A fundamental question was who it is that makes that identification and in what terms. Kumudini revolted in the name of her culture — what her husband derisively called as the Nurnagari ways — as well as her womanhood. It was the realm of imagination that ineluctably set her apart from her husband: she imaginarily projected a Siva or a Gopal into her would-be husband whom she would love and adore unconditionally. When she was actually wedded to Madhusudan the coarse philistine, it was a terrible anti-climax for her.

While any identification is essentially partial or metonymic, it is such metonymic identifications that pull history forward by the ear, or at least tries to do so. As the historical moment establishing that identification passes, however, the question arises about the continued relevance of that revolutionary identification or ideology. In other words, how could the meaning of the revolution be translated for the people in whose name it was carried out? There is a rabid reaction, for example, in sections of South Asian ruling classes, whenever anyone raises the question of what national liberty has come to mean for the masses. As the ruling classes seek to impose loyalty tests for people in terms of identification with the privileged concept of national identity, they label anyone who raises a discomforting question as anti-national or its many synonyms across the region.

Such a question would be even more pronounced when the compositeness or plurality bursts open into the putatively singular body politic in the form of contradictions. The imposition of an identification amounts to the act of ontological ‘violence’ of imposing group identities against plural affiliations of human beings belonging and not belonging to those groups, a point Amartya Sen struggles to make in his book Identity and Violence (2006), essentially an elaborate moral, prescriptive proposition. In the case of Tagore’s Kumudini, her act of revolt failed to take account of other identities ascribed to her embodied existence: namely, her procreative fecundity. The subject is already identified by the structure through ascription, which is realised through violence.

Phenomenologically speaking, there are two modes of thinking or appreciating violence: (1) assimilated violence, and (2) alien violence. In the first, violence is seen as a systemic and regular phenomenon and thus explained away, whereas in the second violence presents itself in all its naked shock and transgression. Assimilated violence includes all forms of violence of assimilation and assimilated self-conceptualisation: patriotic wars for nationalists, blasphemy lynching for Islamists, go-raksha vigilantism for Hindutva activists or even sexual violence for male chauvinists. Alien violence on the other hand irrupts into the world of the subject with a profound shakeup. The key here is that the same action is perceived as assimilated or alien from the perspectives of different subjects. The same act of violence can be assimilable for the perpetrator and alien for the victim. Even the act of sexual violence can be, for a patriarchal chauvinist, a comprehensible enactment of a natural masculine expression of power and sexuality. For a vigilante or a lyncher, the act of violence is a socially naturalised form of border-policing. Of course, such naturalisation is an inauthentic attribution of substantiality to the subject who has choices to commit or not to commit violence. Yet it is not only the perpetrator who may assimilate or naturalise the act of violence, rather those bounded to the perpetrator in a tie of interpassivity may also assimilate or naturalise violence. By interpassivity, I am referring here to not only delegated passions among subjects, but packing within it the related phenomena of empathy, vicarity, as well as inter or intra-subjective coordination. The Bengali proverb ‘Ma’er cheye mashi’r dorod beshi’ (aunt is more empathetic than mother herself) can be helpful to illustrate the point that in empathising, identifying, or expressing solidarity with others, we often project feelings and ideas into them that they may or may not have. The empathy of the mashi can thus be identified with a certain kind of false xenophilia or interpassive solidarity.

Whether an act of violence is seen as assimilated or alien thus depends on ideology, or identification through group identities, normativity, and destiny ie; what an identity is meant to realise. Xenophobic or hostile group relations between two groups of unequal power can take the form of anthropemy (ejecting the other group from the social body) and anthropophagy (eating up and thus disappearing the other group into the dominant group). Anthropemy involves alienation while anthropophagy involves hostile assimilation thus both indirectly relating back to types of violence.

In Amartya Sen’s essay ‘Identity and Violence’, as a principled liberal he refuses to prescribe mindless xenophilia for particular group identities and instead recommends looking beyond group stereotypes to see human beings as multidimensional subjects and groups as constructs. Sen cites Akeel Bilgrami to point out the way many people see themselves as the quintessential or exceptional other, defining themselves with reference to the past dominance, disregard or oppression by others. We could add that this is reflexive interpassivity, self-solidarity or reflective vicarity. The subject identifies with and expresses solidarity with itself reduced into a victimised other. In that victimhood, it makes itself into a passive substance against which an activist agency is located at the other pole. Thus the subject’s action is detached from his hypostatised passion as a victim. With that idolisation of self-victimhood, the subject derives his power from that idol and counts himself as an organic instrumentation of that power, as in the politics of martyrdom of a terrorist or a shontan. The axis of passive victimhood and the axis of agency can also be located within the same subject. One’s own victimhood can provide a subject the moral license as well as the agentive empowerment to act whether vengefully or otherwise. Kumudini for example gathered herself to face the oppression of Madhusudan only by ascribing a certain passive inviolability to her elder brother in an act of devotional fetishisation.

The self-othering mentioned above can take the form of exoticisation, substantialisation and idolisation of the self, operating reactively within the scope of the master’s gaze. Instead of seeing for oneself, one sees oneself fixated within the same field of vision defined by the master, eg the colonialist. This sync with what Sen calls solitarist conception of identity, which in our words involves failure to see a metonymy as a metonymy. One identifies oneself precisely in the oppositional binary that has been laid out within the structure of power instituted by the master. To identify or not to identify, that becomes the question. Kumudini’s travails lay in whether to identify with the loving wife for Madhusudan, and the predicament was all the more compounded when Madhusudan pleaded for her love not through naked dominance, but in terms of autonomous love. How can one love one’s subjection out of one’s sweet will? Subjectivity or bhakti is even more precious than life. Madhusudan, however, desired the desire of Kumu. How can one dominate the unwilling subjects in liberal terms?

Kumu’s quandary illustrates the fundamental limitations of Sen’s argument, for Sen fails to identify the universality of liberalism or liberal reason itself as tied to a certain regime of power and rationality. He suggests keeping the avenue of rationality open within the political space of subject formation. Sen stresses that reason and openness must be infused as antidotes to insular multiculturalism or multi-monoculturalisms in a country like Britain. Yet he fails to answer who exercises the overarching hegemony in the integrated nation-space where all the distinct identities or communities come to mix and melt, as he assumes that the dictum of rationality would ensure that it would be a liberal hegemon. Sen was at that point a liberal optimist emboldened by the return of Congress to power after 2004 elections. Subsequent history has since proved otherwise as liberal regimes are coming apart across the world. For all his meaningful advocacy for plural identities and linguistic nationalism over religious identity, Sen does not speak about Kashmir or Palestine and how the political pathways in those places shifted over time under the pressures of naked dominance — so much for liberal parochialism.

Kumu had to return to Madhusudan’s household, carrying his unborn child. Instead of progressive transformation and realisation of ‘freedom’, South Asian political societies have been impregnated with a ‘postcolonial’ populism of an aggressive nationalist bent — whether linguistic or based on religion. South Asian secularism which is apophatic and discounted — in that it doesn’t abolish the religious role of the state but only renounces preference for one cult, and doesn’t abolish majoritarianism as such but seeks to preserve a space for minorities — is hard put to grapple with the challenge. The majorities and minorities are arrayed in matching symmetry across borders, so that majoritarianism in one country derives its life juice from its opposite majoritarianism in its neighbouring polity. In the verdict on Babri Mosque, India’s Supreme Court opened a pandora’s box of revendicationist vengeance of righting what are propagated as historical wrongs. The left-liberal historians are trying to historically unfound the Hindutva camp’s object of desire and imaginary magnification: the temples that were putatively demolished for erecting mosques. Fending for Ala al-Din Khalji or the Muslims with the interpassivity of mashis however has not mattered much in the bigger scheme of Indian things, as Nehruvian secularism seems increasingly blighted. The changes in the Indian law on citizenship along with the national register of citizen shows how majoritarianism is wedded to a complementary minoritarianism, where a delegated victimhood provides the majoritarian power the moral license and agentive empowerment to ruthlessly persecute parts of the polity in either anthropemic or anthropophagic ways. In Bangladesh, on the other hand, or rather on the same hand, democracy and secularism are painted out as irreconcilable, a productive irreconciliation for all sides of the political dispensation. Democracy understood as majoritarianism and a national secularism of an apophatic, discounted nature seem less than adequate for our times. The answer to this quandary probably lies in doubling down precisely on secular, popular-democratic politics in lines that are yet to be mapped.


T Zami is an author and researcher.

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