Friday, May 1, 2009

Partha Chatterjee, “On Civil and Political Society in Postcolonial Democracies,”

Partha Chatterjee, “On Civil and Political Society in Postcolonial Democracies,” in Civil Society: History and Possibilities, ed. Sudipta Kaviraj and Sunil Khilnani, 165-178. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

SUMMARY: Article looks at the development of civil society in modern India. It begins with the controversy of Nabinchandra Sen refusing to come to Bankimchandra Chattopadyay’s condolence meeting, and how it ultimately is a debate over the use of civil society (165-170). He defines civil society (172), and shows how it is problematic in postcolonial countries (172-173). He then offers that his idea of political society can help resolve this problem (173), but first explains how the idea of “family” and “population” developed (173) and the response to it by different kinds of nationalists (174-175), and many use the political society, which is describe (176-178).

165-paper looks at “the reasons for Nabinchandra Sen’s refusal to come to Bankim’s memorial meeting”; Bankimchandra Chattopadyay: “the most renowned modernist literary figure in nineteenth century Bengal, died on 8 April 1894.”; Nabinchandra: “one of the most respected senior figures on Bengal’s literary scene and a younger contemporary of Bankim in the civil service,” he was (166) “known to have been close to Bankim and, although he did not often share what he thought were the latter’s excessively Westernized literary tastes, he clearly deferred to his superior’s erudition, intellect, and public standing. The reasons for Nabinchandra’s refusal had nothing to do with Bankim. Nabinchandra objected to the very idea of a public condolence meeting.”; “’Imitating the English, we have now begun organizing “condolence meetings”,’ Nabinchandra wrote. ‘As a Hindu, I do not understand how one can call a public meeting to express ones grief.’…’Our’ grief, he claimed, was ‘sacred’; it drove one into seclusion…A meeting in a public auditorium could only create, he thought, the atmosphere of a public entertainment; this was not ‘our way of mourning for the dead’.[direct quotes]”

166-in response to this criticism, “Rabindranath Tagore wrote an essay in the journal Sadhana.” And admitted that it was a new practice, “But, like it or not, because of our European contacts, both external conditions and subjective feelings were undergoing a change. New social needs were arising, and new ways would have to be found to fulfill them…But merely because they were European in origin was not a good reason for rejecting them outright.” [Chatterjee’s paraphrasing]

-“The main point of objection to the idea of a public condolence meeting seems to have been its krtrimata, artificiality…sometimes it indicated a ‘mere’ form, empty within; sometimes it could even describe behaviour that is insincere, false…The krtrim form of a public meeting was inappropriate, he [Nabinchandra] must have said, for expressing an emotion as intense and intimate as grief at death of a loved one.”

-Rabindranath wrote that “A certain krtrimata was unavoidable if social (167) norms were to be followed…Surely, not everything could be left to individual taste and feeling. Artificiality could be said to be a defect in matters which were strictly internal to the self, where individual feelings reigned supreme. But society being a complex entity, it was not always easy to determine the boundary between the domain of the individual and that of society. In matters pertaining to society, certain universally recognized rules had to be followed if social relations were not to degenerate into anarchy…society deems it necessary to regulate and order these aspects of life in a way that is beneficial for all of society.” [a paraphrase], and says that “The specific forms of social regulation in India reflect this domestic character [which rested on the authority of householder parents and elders] of traditional society. But this was now changing.” Whith the emergence of new concepts: “public” and “private” and with them, new responsibilities, and so new public responsibility was for publicly mourning death which was as “’artificial’ as before, but it was a new form in which not just the members of the household but members of the public were required to participate.” [a paraphrase], and added (168) that he thought that the public is “not yet a proper public” and needs to be educated on their role—this is a restatement of the “nationalist project of modernity under Colonial conditions”; and Rabin goes on to say the India’s “social life is seriously incomplete” because it doesn’t have a place for women, a literary society, and instead of loving their great men as real people, they worship them (and the public memorial service would solve this last issue because it humanizes people)



169-What Rabin was calling for was a “new conception of personhood where the private and the intimate are, as it were, always oriented towards a public.”; a lot of literary activity and civil social institutions

-later in his life, Nabinchandra wrote he thought that literary groups were wasteful because they were just places for idle talk, and that traditional religious rituals and pilgrimages for great poets should be restarted, and that European-style gatherings (including Christian churches) were merely done for show and to impress people, and (170) does not think that celebrations help to humanize greatness

170-these opposing view bring to light the question of does modernity require adopting a Western style civil society?

-today in India, memorial services occur without debate, and are done similarly to the Western style (wreaths, moment of silence, speeches), though adds a few Indian touches (incense, garlanding portraits)—the practice is seen as secular though it has Christian roots—and when they are state-run, there is an attempt made to have people representing India’s religions to present a recitation, prayer, etc.



171-Chatterjee offers that the idea of political society is helpful “to think of a domain of mediating institutions between civil society and the state.”

72-civil society: “those characteristic institutions of modern associational life originating in Western societies which are based on equality, autonomy, freedom of entry and exits, contract, deliberative procedures of decision-making, recognized rights and duties of members, and other such principles.”, this is the classical sense, though there have been revisions (cf Cohen and Arato Civil Society and Political Theory)

-but in “countries such as India”, civil society is only used by a small section of its “citizens”, though the legal apparatus of the state has been able to…reach as the target of many of its activities virtually all of the population…”; “This hiatus is extremely significant because it is the mark of non-Western modernity as an always incomplete project of ‘modernization’ and of the role of an enlightened elite engaged in a pedagogical mission in relation to the rest of society.”

-“The common approach [to conceptualizing the rest of society that does not have civil society] has been to use a traditional/modern dichotomy. One difficulty with this trap, not at all easy to avoid, [sic] of dehistoricizing and essentializing ‘tradition’. The related difficulty is one of denying the possibility that this other domain, relegated to the zone of the traditional, could find ways of (173) coping with the modern that might not conform to the (Western bourgeois, secularized Christian) principles of modern civil society.”

173-“I think a notion of political society lying between civil society and the state could help us see some of these historical possibilities.”, “By political society, I mean a domain of institutions and activities, where several mediations are carried out. In the classical theory, the family is the elementary unit of social organization: by the nineteenth century, this is widely assumed to mean the nuclear family of modern bourgeois patriarchy…([which] by the late nineteenth century, the contractually formed family becomes the normative model of most social theorizing in the West as well as of reformed laws of marriage, property, inheritance, and personal taxation. Indeed, the family becomes a product of contractual arrangements between individuals and are the primary units of society.) In countries such as India, it would be completely unrealistic to assume this definition as obtaining universally. In fact, what is significant is that in formulating its policies and laws that must reach the greater part of the population, even the state does not make this assumption”

-“The conceptual move that seems to have been made very widely, even if somewhat imperceptibly, is from the idea of society as constituted by the elementary units of homogeneous families to that of a population, differentiated but classifiable, describable and enumerable.” [cf Foucault History of Sexuality], helped also by “colonial anthropology and colonial administrative theories.”; “population, then, constitutes the material of society. Unlike the family in classical theory, the concept of population is descriptive and empirical, not normative. Indeed, population is assumed to contain large elements of ‘naturalness’ and ‘primordiality’; the internal principles of the constitution of particular population groups is not expected to be rationally explicable since they are not the products of rational contractual association but are, as it were, pre-rational.”, it just makes populations “a set of rationally manipulable instruments for reaching large sections of the inhabitants of a country as the targets of ‘policy’.”



174-“Civil societies, on the other hand, if they are to conform to the normative model presented by Western modernity, must necessarily exclude from its scope the vast mass of the population”, “Civil societies in such countries is best used to describe those institutions of modern associational life set up by nationalist elite in the era of colonial modernity, though often part of their anti-colonial struggle. These institutions embody the desire of this elite to replicate in its own society the forms as well as the substance of Western modernity. We can see this desire working quite clearly in the arguments of Rabindranath…It is indeed a desire for a new ethical life in society, one that is in conformity with the virtues of the Enlightenment and of bourgeois freedom and whose known cultural forms are those of secularized Western Christianity…It is well recognized in that argument [of Rabincranath] that the new domain of civil society will long remain an exclusive domain of the elite, that the actual ‘public’ will not match up to the standards required by civil society and that the function of civil social institutions in relation to the public at large will be one of pedagogy rather than of free association.”, most of India’s colonial civil societies “survive to this day, not a s quaint remnants of colonial modernity but often as serious protagonists of a project of cultural modernization still to be completed. However, in more recent times, they seem to have come under siege.”

-“It is often said, not unjustifiably, that the reason why liberal democratic institutions have performed more creditably in India than in many other parts of the formerly colonial world is the strength of (175) its civil social institutions which are relatively independent of the political domain of the state. But one needs to be more careful about the precise relationships involved here.”; “Before the rise of mass nationalist movements in the early twentieth century, nationalist politics in India was largely confined to the same circle of elites which was then busy setting up the new institutions of ‘national’ civil society. These elites were thoroughly wedded to the normative principles of modern associational public life and criticized the colonial state precisely for not living up to the standards of a liberal constitutional state. In talking about this part of the history of nationalist modernity, we do not need to bring in the notion of a political society mediating between civil society and the state.”, “…even as the associational principles of secular bourgeois civil institutions were adopted in the new civil society of the nationalist elite, the possibility of a different mediation between the population and the state was already being imagined [cf Chatterjee Nation and its Fragments], one that would not ground itself on a modernized civil society.” , “It had to do with the fact that the governmental technologies of the colonial state were already seeking to bring within its reach large sections of the population as the targets of its policies. Nationalist politics had to find an adequate strategic response if it were not to remain immobilized within the confines of the ‘properly constituted’ civil society of the urban elites. The cultural politics of nationalism supplied this answer, by which it could mediate politically between the population and the nation-state of the future.”—this was Nabinchandra’s argument and Gandhi’s maneouvre



176-this mediation “takes place on the site of a new political society”, uses “Modern political associations such as parties” though these were sites of “strategic maneouvres, resistance, and appropriation by different groups and classes…[they] are not always consistent with the principles of association in civil society.”; “The major instrumental form here in the post-colonial period is that if the developmental state which seeks to relate to different sections of the population through the governmental function of welfare correspondingly, if we have to give a name to the major form of mobilization by which political society (parties, movements, [etc.]…) tries to channel and order popular demands on the developmental state, we should call it democracy. The institutional forms of this emergent political society are still unclear. Just as there is a continuing attempt to order these institutions in the prescribed forms of liberal civil society, there is politically an even stronger tendency to strive for what are perceived to be democratic rights and entitlements by violating these institutional norms…the uncertain institutionalization of this domain of political society can be traced to the absence of a sufficiently differentiated and flexible notion of community in the theoretical conception of the modern state. In any case, there is much churning in political society in the countries of the post-colonial world, not all of which are worthy of approval, which nevertheless can be seen as an attempt to find new democratic forms of the modern (177) state that were not thought out by the post-Enlightenment social consensus of the secularized Christian world.”

177-“There are at least four features of political society in post-colonial democracies which need to be noted. [1] First, many of the mobilization sin political society which make demands on the state are founded on a violation of the law. They may be associations of squatters, encroachers on public property, ticketless travelers on public transport, habitual defaulters of civic taxes, unauthorized users of electricity, water, or other public utilities, and other such violators of the law…the very collective form in which they appear before the state authorities implies that they are not proper citizens but rather population groups who survive by sidestepping the law. [2] Second, even as they appear before the state as violators of the law, they demand governmental welfare as a matter of ‘right’. There is a clear transformation that has occurred here from ‘traditional’ notions of the paternalistic function of rulers. Even as we may look for specific genealogies of the ‘pastoral function’ in non-Western societies, the rhetoric of rights is without doubt a very recent mass phenomenon in these countries and can only be regarded as the effect of a process of globalization of modern governmental technologies along with the language of democratization. [3] Third, even as welfare functions are demanded as a right, these rights are seen to be collective rights. They are demanded on behalf not of individual citizens (since this position is, in any case, unavailable to violators of the law) but of a ‘community’, even if this community is only the product of a recent coming together through the illegal occupation of a particular piece of public land or the collective illegal consumption of a public utility. Individual rights have no standing when the individuals are known violators of the law; collective rights can mean something when an older ethic of subsistence is married to a new rhetoric of democratization. [4] Finally, the agencies of the state and of non-governmental organizations deal with these people not as bodies of citizens belonging to a lawfully constituted civil society, but as population groups deserving welfare. The degree to which they will be so recognized depends entirely on the pressure they are able to exert on those state and non-state agencies through their strategic manoeuvres in political society—by making connections with other marginal groups, with more dominant groups, with political parties and leaders, etc. The effect of these strategic moves within political society is only conjunctural, and may increase or decrease or even vanish entirely if the strategic configuration of (usually) local political forces change. But that is the ground on which these relations between population groups and governmental agencies will (178) operate within political society. This is very different from the well-structured, principled and constitutionally sanctioned relationships between the state and individual members of society.”, cf Chatterjee “Community in the East” Economic and Political Weekly 32, 6


178-offers 3 “these that might be pursued further”: “1. The most significant site of transformations in the colonial period is that of civil society; the most significant transformations occurring in the post-colonial period are in political society. 2. The question that frames the debate over social transformation in the colonial period is that of modernity. In political society of the post-colonial period, the framing question is that of democracy. 3. In the context of the latest phase of the globalization of capital, we may well be witnessing an emerging opposition between modernity and democracy, i.e. between civil society and political society.”

-also notes that after Rabinchandra died, he, more than any other writer, has been deified and his grave has become a pilgrimage site.

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