On Interpreting India's Past
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On Interpreting India's Past

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Item Code: NAN920
Author: Amartya Sen
Publisher: The Asiatic Society
Language: English
Edition: 2016
ISBN: 9789381574430
Pages: 48
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch
Weight 70 gm

The first Ava Maiti Memorial Lecture delivered at the Asiatic Society by Professor Amartya Sen on 20 March, 1995 was so rich and penetrating a text that it immediately aroused considerable intellectual interest, and the Society felt that it should be published as an independent title at the earliest opportunity. Professor Sen liked the idea, and sent us a revised version of the paper which now appears as an Asiatic Society publication. Professor Sen however is still afraid that it may appear to be 'slight' to some readers at least as an independent volume, and proposes to contribute it to a collection of relevant papers. But we at the Society are convinced that it will make a significant contribution to the ongoing lively debate 'on interpreting India's past'.

Professor Sen handed the revised typescript over to us on 28 December, 1995 when he received the Indira Gandhi Memorial Plaque awarded by the Society. Our production team produced a print-out in record time, and Professor Sen took time off from his busy schedule to correct the proofs in Boston, and sent them back to us, enabling us to keep to the schedule of releasing the book at the Calcutta Book Fair, 1996.

Ms Ava Maiti (1923-94) was an important activist in the country's struggle for independence, and a leading Parliamentarian in independent India, serving as a Cabinet Minister at the Centre for a spell. The Endowment provided by the Bharat Margarine Company Limited in her memory will support a series of annual lectures to be delivered by outstanding academics. The Society is proud to have had Professor Sen as the first speaker in the series.


We live in the present, but that is a tiny bit of time - it passes as we talk. The current moment, vivid as it is, does not tell us much about who we are, how we can reasonably see ourselves, and where we would place our loyalties if and when we face divisions. Our identities are strongly influenced by the past. The self- perceptions that characterize a group are associated with, and to a great extent defined by, the shared memories and recollections of the past, and by the agreed priorities and implicit allegiances that draw on those evocations.

While this applies generally to all societies, the past becomes a particularly sharp battleground when contemporary debates invoke the past to redefine a collectivity and to allege the centrality of some particular features and the unimportance of others. This is very much the situation in India today. The tentative understandings that had become intellectually dominant during the national movement (and which had provided what was claimed to be a workable basis for the polity of the newly independent and freshly separated India) are now being subjected to severe questioning. The nationalist interpretations of 'Indianness', perhaps the most influential version of which is reflected in Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India, have been bruised fairly extensively by a variety of challenges.

To dismiss these challenges as arising out of political motivations and contingencies (such as the priorities of the newly empowered Hindu politics, or the demands of communitarian confrontation) is to minimize the force, of the intellectual questioning involved in these confrontations, and to overlook the political motivation that underlies also the classical nationalist interpretation itself. In so far as some of the redefinitions that are being advanced are arbitrary and ad hoc (and governed by the immediacy of the political agenda of particular movements), these proposals might well be seen as foundationally weak. But even when this is the case, this fact would not, by itself, re-establish the intellectual standing of the classical nationalist interpretation. There is no escape from reexamining the theoretical underpinning and the cogency of the nationalist approaches, along with investigating their practical relevance and import.

The substantive purpose of this essay is to examine the nationalist interpretation of India's past and some of the challenges that have been presented to it, and to relate them to the contemporary preoccupations that are active today. I shall argue that some parts of the established nationalist conceptions survive better than others, and the vulnerabilities are not quite the ones that seem to receive the most attention. It is important to distinguish between the different aspects of the classical nationalist interpretation and to see their respective roles and congruity.

As a background to this substantive exercise, it is necessary to sort out some methodological issues involved in these interpretative programmes, and this too I shall have to attempt. The methodological issues are taken up in the next section. But before that I should make a clarificatory remark.

The limits of national identity can be compared with the identities associated respectively with (1) the more restricted boundaries of communities and groups within a nation, and (2) the more inclusive coverage of broader categories, such as the identity of being an 'Asian,' or even that of belonging to the human race. Critiques of 'nationalism' from the former - more restricted -perspective would tend to take quite different lines from those presented in the latter- more inclusive - contexts. Recent demands for reexamination of the classical conceptions of Indian national identity have mostly come from the former viewpoints (for example, emphasizing the 'fragments,' as they are sometimes called, over the 'nation'). This essay is concerned entirely with those lines of critique, and does not consider the important challenges to nationalism coming from broader identities. It is, however, worth noting that classical Indian formulations of nationalism often did emphasize the importance of broader concerns that go beyond national limits. In one form or another, references to such constraints can be very clearly seen in the writings of Gandhi, Tagore, Nehru and others. The anticolonial nationalists often had strong global commitments, while invoking the unity of the nation in pursuit of demands for 'self-determination.'


1Introduction 1
2Positional Objectivity, Epistemology and Practical Reason 4
3External Orientation and Emphasis on Difference 10
4Classical Nationalism: Diversity and National Unity 13
5The Nation and The Communities 21
6Diversity of Relevance 27
7A Concluding Remark 36

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