AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 112

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Session 112: Ethnic Identities and Political Competition in Historic and Contemporary Asia

Organizer: Sumit Guha, University of Texas, Austin, USA

Chair: Prasenjit Duara, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Discussant: Prasenjit Duara, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Strong ascriptive identities have become increasingly prominent in a modernizing world, despite the strength of forces that should have dissolved them into forms more suited to the standard models of capitalist democracy. A few years ago, Kanchan Chandra theorized about the dynamic nature of politicized ethnicity in electoral politics. Subrata Mitra has analyzed the forces determining levels of identification with that most valorized of modern identities – the nation. That is obviously an identity that has been and is being actively promoted by organized States everywhere in the world. Yet, as Mitra points out, these States are still beset by the cultural politics of sub-nationalism. He seeks to understand the genesis of the emotional charge – exceeding ‘rational’ calculation that is associated with this politics. Given the indisputable presence of such forces, Kanchan Chandra presents the complex feedback mechanisms between State efforts to ‘manage’ such political forces and the forces themselves, with an emphasis on mechanisms that preserve a degree of stability and order amid the potential for chaotic violence. Sumit Guha has been working on the management of ethnicity as an aspect of state-building and state subversion in the longue dureé. He argues that strong ascriptive identities were the building blocks of state power for many centuries as they are becoming today. Elements of the contemporary situation seem to echo that process. This panel therefore looks forward and back so as to understand dynamics of ascriptive identity in political systems, historic and contemporary.

Sub-national movements in India: the ‘rational politics of cultural nationalism’ hypothesis revisited’
Subrata K. Mitra, University of Heidelberg, Germany

Sub-national movements, drawing their support from their affinity with a particular language, religion, ethnicity, territory or some deeply felt sense of collective grievance are the scourge of national states in post-colonial societies, and can be found in the fringes of some western liberal states as well. Rising, typically, from a conflation of identity and material interest, such movements gather force when they succeed in attracting sympathisers from its cultural catchment. Once cultural nationalists succeed in gaining power there sets in a phase of banalisation, and the everyday politics of transaction replaces the transcendental goals of sacrifice for the cause. In India, this has usually taken the form of the creation of a new federal State where the movement gets ensconced into the leadership of the new territorial unit. The stability of the arrangement derives from its character as a point of equilibrium – a political saddle-point – which represents the maximum gain for the movement and the minimum loss for the central authorities. This ‘rational politics of cultural nationalism’ hypothesis is challenged by the emergence of new movements from within the old ones (eg, Telengana, Manipur and Nagaland...). The paper aims at a reappraisal of conventional models of sub-national movements in the light of the off-and-on character of sub-nationalism, and look for a new explanation with a diachronic analysis which pits collective memory, the non-linearity of time, and cultural and conceptual flow against the conventional arguments of identity and interest.

The “Management” of Ethnic Differences in South Asia
Kanchan Chandra, New York University, USA

The states of South Asia – Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka – are among the most ethnically diverse in the world. Post-colonial governments in each of these states have created a diverse array of institutions to “manage” the “problem” of ethnic diversity. This paper describes and evaluates the success of these institutions in comparative perspective. Its theoretical approach is grounded in anthropological understandings of the constructed nature of both ethnic identity categories, of ethnic differences as a “problem”, and of the role of the institutions of the state in promoting and reifying such constructions. The empirical research includes fieldwork in these seven states between 2008-2010 and a close reading of their constitutions and other legal provisions. Section 1 describes and compares the patterns of ethnic diversity in South Asia, tracing the similarities and differences in the construction of caste, religion, sect, tribe, clan, region, language and nationality. Section 2 describes and compares the way in which institutions, including the census, the executive and legislature, and electoral laws, respond to these differences. Section 3 evaluates the effectiveness of these institutional strategies both in preventing violence and in guaranteeing the well-being of individuals and groups.

Ethnic boundaries in the working of multiethnic states c.1500-1950
Sumit Guha, University of Texas, Austin, USA

Fifty years ago Fredrik Barth proposed that ascriptive identities should be understood in terms of their boundary processes and that such organizations had long coexisted with states. Nowhere does this hold more true than South Asia. How did the everyday economic and political life of bounded communities integrate with, but not dissolve into imperial power and global markets through past centuries? I will argue that the social segmentation into ‘castes’ characteristic of pre-modern South Asia was also generated and infused with power relations. It changed as the relations of political powers and subordinate communities altered. I will especially focus on the early modern and modern era – roughly the past five hundred years – when the technologies of power and communication grew increasingly effective and the state penetrated more deeply into the economic and ideological structures of local society. Contrariwise, non-state actors sought variously to repel, influence, penetrate and capture the state itself. These processes culminated in the high colonial era – the mid-twentieth century, when many of the institutional structures of South Asian society set into forms that have lasted down to the present. But we need to conceptualize this in terms of the long history of the Indian subcontinent and understand its identity politics in the past if we are to comprehend them in the present.