By Mallika Soni

Edited by Michelle Cherian, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

1983 was a year of consequence in the study of nationalism. Three significant works were written that year: Nations and Nationalism by Ernest Gellner, The Invention Of Tradition by Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger and the third was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (IC). Imagined Communities was published in 1983 and a revised edition was available in 1991 (adding two chapters). This article is an approach for comparing Anderson’s ideas in the book Imagined Communities and Mayawati’s political propaganda.

Let us start by comprehending the major arguments of the book. Talking of Imagined Communities, Anderson once said that, “I wrote the book when I was 45. That’s nearly 25 years ago. I have a relationship to that book as to a daughter who has grown up and run off with a bus driver — I see her occasionally but, really, she has gone her own merry way. I can wish her good luck, but now she belongs with someone else. What would I change in the book? Well, should I try to change my daughter?”

In the afterword to the book Anderson says that: “Aside from the advantages of brevity, IC restfully occludes a pair of words from which the vampires of banality have by now sucked almost all the blood.”

The major idea of the book rests in Anderson’s expounding definition of nations as – Imagined Communities. Anderson says in a very ANTHROPOLOGICAL SPIRIT that THE NATION IS “AN IMAGINED POLITICAL COMMUNITY INHERENTLY LIMITED AND SOVEREIGN.”

IMAGINED: As we won’t meet most of the people in the country but yet we think of ourselves as a community. This understanding both shapes and is shaped by political and cultural institutions as people ‘imagine’ they share general beliefs, attitudes and recognize a collective national populace as having similar opinions and sentiments to their own. Thus, members hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity.

LIMITED: The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of nations, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations.

SOVEREIGN: It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm…nations dream of being free…The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state.

COMMUNITY: As there may be inequality or exploitation but deep down it is like a comradeship so much so that people actually die for the country. It is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings. (page7)

The book deals with the ideas of nation, nationality and nationalism which according to Anderson have “become difficult to analyse let alone define”. In the beginning of the book Anderson clearly explicates his idea behind the book where he says that nationalism and nation-ness are artefacts of a certain kind. So to comprehend them we have to understand their historical being and the way they have changed overtime as well the manner in which they now exist. Hence he continuously moves from past to the present while formulating his argument.

Nation as a Concept

The dictionary meaning of nation states a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory. In the beginning of the book (page 3) Anderson uses a statement by Hugh Saton Watson. He says: “I am driven to the conclusion that no scientific definition of the nation can be devised yet the phenomenon has existed and exists”. The word nation came to the English language from the French word ‘Nacion’ which means ‘that which has been born’. Today it is treated more like a geographical term as signified by the word ‘territory’ in its definition. Also when we think of a Nation we visualise a feeling of togetherness as people are united by history, culture and language. This idea of togetherness thus gives birth to modern day ideas like national anthem, national song, national emblem, national bird, national animal and so on. Thus Nation can be thought to be like an Umbrella term bringing people together and thereby dissolving differences that may exist.

Nationalism as a Concept

In Ernest Gellner’s famous book on nationalism, Nations and Nationalism, nationalism is defined asprimarily a political principle that holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent, a sentiment, or as a movement, can best be defined in terms of this principle. Nationalist sentiment is the feeling of anger aroused by the violation of the principle, or the feeling of satisfaction aroused by its fulfilment. A nationalist movement is one actuated by sentiment of this kind. ” But as Anderson says “plausible theory about these two words is conspicuously meagre.”

Antony D. Smith is also important here. Smith says, “We may term a state a ‘nation-state’ only if and when a single ethnic and cultural population inhabits the boundaries of a state, and the boundaries of that state are coextensive with the boundaries of that ethnic and cultural population.”

Smith defines nationalism as, “an ideological movement for attaining and maintaining autonomy, unity and identity on behalf of a population deemed by some of its members to constitute an actual or potential ‘nation’.”

The major arguments of the book that I will use to fortify my case study are:

1. According to Anderson, Print Capitalism played a major role in the formation of imagined communities. Capitalist entrepreneurs printed their books and media in the vernacular languages in order to maximize circulation. As a result, readers speaking various local dialects became able to understand each other, and a common discourse emerged.

2. In the book, Anderson contends that with the rise of “print capitalism”, innovations such as the newspaper and the novel identified (or “imagined”) and addressed new “national” communities. These texts resorted to vernacular languages rather than the old privileged languages; or established formal versions of these vernacular tongues, which could be understood throughout the regions which made up the new nation and by those who had previously been unschooled in privileged languages. Reading newspapers and novels became the “mass ceremony” through which the national community was “imagined.” Through the new imagined communities, however, millions of unconnected individuals were aware that they were mutually witnessing the life of their nation, as it moved “calendrically through homogenous, empty time.”

Eg: we may not know many Indians in our entire life but we have a complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity. Novels did the same by ‘conjuring’ an Imagined Community, by using phrases from their own culture to show that their community is powerful and by indicating that we are in a world of plurals. In other words they gave us a feeling of estrangement and togetherness at the same time. Hegel even said reading ‘newspaper is a substitute for morning prayers.’ It is an exercise that people perform at their house aware or unaware that it is being performed by others at the same time who are known or unknown to him. Thus an Imagined Community is visibly rooted in our daily lives.

3. Due to print language and piracy, nation became like an ‘invention on which one could get a patent’. There was also an awareness of ‘plurality’. The crux of the idea of language lies in the line which Anderson uses: ‘through the certain language pasts are restored, fellowships are imagined and futures are dreamed’ (page 154)

4.As stated before there was also more focus on living life backwards; looking at the ancestors for inspiration as Adamantios Koraes said, “We are the descendants of Greeks…. we must either try to become again worthy of this name, or we must not bear it.”(page 72)

Thus Anderson concludes, the Imagined realities as nation states, republic institutions, common citizenship, popular sovereignty, national flags and anthems etc came forth.

Current Indian Situation: A Study of Mayawati’s Politics

The Bahujan Samaj Party is a national political party in India which claims to be inspired by the philosophy of B.R.Ambedkar. It was formed mainly to represent the Bahujans (meaning people in majority) which basically refers to people from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Castes (OBC) as well as minorities. The party is strongly established in Uttar Pradesh. May 11, 2007, the Uttar Pradesh state assembly election results saw the BSP emerge as a single majority party, the first to do so since 1991. The basic ideology of the party is to end the exploitation that the weaker sections of the society face by means of a movement and changing things for them in a very social, economic and political way. So the party promises equality, human rights, special care to the weaker sections of the society, removing the economic disparities and developmental activities like any other party in the country. But how did BSP attain its goal to bring together Dalits as an Imagined Community is the concern of this case study.

Dalits are a group of people traditionally regarded as ‘untouchable’. Mayawati is herself a Dalit belonging to a family from Lucknow. In the recent past, there has been a visible upsurge in the assertion of the Dalit identity, which challenges the humiliation that they have faced for centuries. There has emerged a strong urge amongst these marginalized groups throughout the country to assert their identity and self-respect through their own cultural resources and challenge the cultural hegemony of the upper castes. This is powerfully visible in North India, especially in Uttar Pradesh (UP), which lies in the Hindi heartland and has one of the largest populations and land areas in the country.

Dalits form around 16.6% of India’s population. Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) has earned the dubious distinction of being a state where the highest numbers of atrocities have been committed against the Dalits (Scheduled Castes) for the last many years.

Situations helping the BSP

The number of atrocities against Dalits in U.P. has been the highest for the last many years. The state government of UP has recently claimed that crimes against Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) have come down considerably as compared to other states. But the crime figures released by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) again show that U.P. still tops in crime against Dalits. U.P. tops in the total incidence of crime against Dalits. The Bahujan Samaj Party chose this situation for their own political benefit.

Badri Narayan’s Women Heroes and Dalit Assertion in North India: Culture, Identity and Politics, discusses this situation by saying,

“Benedict Anderson (1983), Peter Van der Veer (1991) and others rightly suggest that the modern nation cannot be imagined without the collective simultaneity of the private act of reading, made possible by print capitalism. Anderson emphasizes on the development of newspapers, books and administrative bureaucracies that made it possible for millions of people to ‘imagine’ themselves as part of the same community or nation. According to him, the remarkable redefinition of identities resulted from cultural transformations that evolved along with new technologies for distributing information in the early modern era. New technologies disseminated new cultural narratives in newspapers and novels, all of which ‘created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morph-ology set the stage for the modern nation.’”

The BSP used new narratives filled with memories of dissent against dominance and oppression. The language too is filled more with cultural and social symbols and metaphors. This helped in constructing an identity in a new way for the Dalits. A political consciousness is being created among them which has significantly helped in their mobilization. In this process, their consciousness becomes not only cultural but also political, thereby they form BSP’s electoral base. If one follows the trajectory of the emergence of Dalit consciouness, one sees that their mobilization began with the production of popular literature by the literate sections of the community in order to sensitize the masses. The party even appealed to writers to write booklets highlighting the problems of SCs, STs and OBCs that formed their electoral base. The literature was concerned with building a society based on equality, justice, freedom and fraternity, etc. (can be called Bahujan Literature) and such writings brought ‘renaissance’ in the society. There were problems in spread of such booklets as all the Dalits were not educated neither allowed to be educated, but this ‘Medium had a message’ as Marshall Mcluhan would put it. The message was one of self -respect and hope for a better future. One of the internet links about the growth of BSP says,

“When Kanshi Ram began his political career in Pune in the early 1970s by moblizing the Dalits of that region, D.K. Khaparde, an associate, provided him a large number of Dalit booklets that helped him understand the real issues facing the Dalits. In particular, Ambedkar’s ‘Annihilation of Caste,’ which had been circulated among common people in the form of cheap popular booklets, helped Kanshi Ram to concretize his language, logic and issues, which further helped him while presenting his ideas at seminars and discussions. He himself bought a large number of booklets to read and gain insight into the Dalit psyche. This also helped him to plan his future course of action in terms of developing the political language to address the Dalits at the grass-roots level. Activists and local politicians also rely on these booklets for formulating their political language so as to communicate with the grass roots and bring them under the influence of the BSP movement.”

This is the exact argument that Anderson uses in the book of print capitalism bringing a certain community under an umbrella and thereby forming an ‘Imagined Community’.

Also another point here is how the BSP used the narratives and tales rather the ‘myths’ for its own political agenda as the myth of Jhalkaribai. The past becomes a subject for reconstruction and thus is tactfully built into the present.

Thus on a concluding note, the political strategy of the BSP has been to tell and retell the stories of the heroes so that they are etched in the pshcye of the people and they become aware of the role of the Dalits to make this nation and of their role in the history. Analogous to this is what Suman Kumar, a Dalit folk actor once said,

“Now our music is not merely for entertainment but is an instrument in our fight for liberation. We are creating our own narratives and establishing our own heroes.”

The politics of such a statement is the most interesting as well as intriguing part of it. Thus, this is the BSP model that made a simple Dalit woman a glorified ‘Behanji’.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind