Federalism and the Indian Nation: Partha Chatterjee at SEW-Lecture

Partha Chatterjee

Do the vision and policies of the current political dispensation in India foster the most widely accepted principles of federalism and sustain an effective and healthy relationship between the centre and states in India? This has been a major question of debate in the country ever since the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power in 2014. Many scholars underline the fact that the distribution of powers under the successive governments in India is deeply weighted in favour of the Centre. They also point to the new tendency, under the NDA Government, towards much greater centralisation with New Delhi exercising enormous financial powers, particularly after the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). There has also been an aggressive push towards centralisation in areas such as law and order or education in which states have concurrent powers, and seeking greater control over autonomous institutions such as banks, public sector enterprises and universities, as Partha Chatterjee often underlined in his speeches and writings.

Speaking on “Federalism and the Indian nation” as part of the “Scholars of Eminence Web-Lectures” (SEW-Lecture) organised by the Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, Prof Chatterjee, who is Professor of Anthropology and South Asian studies at the Columbia University, said that BJP’s “current strategy is to turn its popularity in the northern and western states into a permanent electoral majority at the centre in order to facilitate the imposition of its hegemonic vision of the Indian State, coincided perfectly with the Hindu nation.”

Prof Chatterjee, who was one of the founding members of the Subaltern Studies group, said that “the present federal form in India is premised on the dominance of the institutional structures of the state inherited from British colonial time. It was the demands of the linguistic states in the 1950s and 1960s that marked the assertion of popular mobilisation in different parts of the country to redefine the inherited forms of the state in accordance with the shape of the people-nation. Although the linguistic principle was recognised in the territorial reorganisation, after 1956, of the former provinces and princely states, it did not lead to a cultural redefinition of the Indian nation-state. This is reflected in the superior authority enjoyed by the discourse of the nation-state over that of the people-nation as well as the centralising tendency within the federal structure itself.”

He said that “the relativist approach would require negotiation of federal relations based on the prior recognition of the equal political legitimacy of each regional formation of the people-nation. That must be the ground from which legal, constitutional questions, such as administrative and financial relations between the centre and the states, between large and small states, between developed and backwards states, or the special status of the particular states etc, must be approached.”

Prof Chatterjee noted that “the relativist view provides a critique of the dominant idea of the Indian nation. One must also recognise the ideological power of the singular -normative view. There are two contending normative views of the nation struggling for hegemony at this time—the pluralist view and the Hindutva view. Both insist that the nation is singular. The pluralist view prioritises the values of the modern liberal constitutional state which is principally expressed in the English language and seemed largely confined to an English-speaking urban elite located in corporate business houses, the central organs of the bureaucracy and the higher rungs of the urban professions. The Hindutva view treats our histories that identified the people with the state in the nationalist imagination propagated through the print literatures of northern and western India. Socially, this view is influential within an alliance of Brahmin, Kshatriya and Baniya castes tied hierarchically to landowning peasant castes through sectarian and devotional communities.”

According to Prof Chatterjee, “in its present phase, the Hindutva view identifies the state with the Hindu nation superseding divisions of region, language and castes. Both the pluralist and Hindutva views share the premise that the unity and stability of the existing nation-state formation must be given priority over regional claims to autonomy and equality.”

He said that “it is here that the unique position of Hindi comes to the fore as the language through which the history of the state is sought to be identified with the history of the people. In this respect, the place of Hindi is not equal to that of the other Indian languages. There is, of course, the official promotion of Hindi through various governmental agencies. But far more influential has been the role of the Bombay cinema, television news, entertainment and commercial advertising. There are indications that the influence of media ties Hindi penetrated and even subordinated the autonomy of the regional linguistic formations such as Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali and Oriya.

Prof Chatterjee pointed out that “the impact of Hindi media on the recent construction of the imagined people-nation needs to be carefully studied in order to understand the future of federalism and the Indian nation. Since most of these issues are played out and settled in the field of electoral politics, political parties play the mediating role between the state and the people-nation. He said that “both national parties, the Indian National Congress and the BJP are highly centralised in their leadership and organisational structure. The ruling BJP is trying its best to align the federal electoral system to the most centralised format by turning not only parliamentary but even state elections into a federal-presidential election or by insisting that elections to parliament and the state assemblies be held at the same time.”

Prof Chatterjee said that the BJP’s hegemonic objective has been “clearly revealed in the exclusion of Muslims from its lists of candidates in the elections in UP and Bihar, the abolition of the Special Status of the Jammu and Kashmir, the new CAA that pointedly excluded Muslim migrants, the state sponsored consecration of the Ram temple at Ayodhya, and a host of other things.” He said “the main obstacle to this strategy of institutionalising the Hindu nation is the persistence of local demands, regional grievances, caste conflicts, sectarian claims, and all of those variegated elements that go into the making of the ‘people-nation.’”

He said that the BJP has produced over years a distinct party system in several of the states. These contrary elements will continue to instruct this hegemonic electoral strategy of the ruling party. While the opposition forces make their frequent presence felt, through agitations and support to struggles, such as farmers’ long-held fight against farm laws etc., “there is no coherent consolidation of these forces to challenge these hegemonic aspirations of the Hindutva project.”

In conclusion, Prof Chatterjee proposed “to imagine a different relation between the nation-state and the people-nation—one which is neither committed to a unitary vision of the Hindu Rashtra or a pluralist conception of civilisational unity with many subsidiary branches. It emphasises the willing participation of several distinct cultural formations among the people as equal constituents of the Indian nation-state. It does not advocate a radical constitutional restructuring, but rather a sustained working out of a more appropriate and just federal practice of the kind that indeed was accomplished in the 1950s and 1960s by the popular mobilisation for the linguistic states,” he noted.

T.T. Sreekumar, Professor at the English and Foreign Languages of University (EFLU), chaired the session. The SEW-Lecture series is organised by the IUCSSRE in honour of a distinguished scholar Dr. Sanal Mohan, who is Professor at the School of Social Sciences, Mahatma Gandhi University.

The author is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University. H frequently writes for Global South Colloquy.  He can be contacted at [email protected]




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