AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 317

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Session 317: Swadeshi in the Time of Nations: Reflections on Sumit Sarkar's Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, India, and Elsewhere - Sponsored by the South Asia Council

Organizer: Bernard Bate, Yale-NUS College, USA

The republication of Sumit Sarkar’s Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (Permanent Black, 2010) invites reflections on the swadeshi movement at large and the scholarship of politics, modernity, and the idea of India since it was first published in 1973. As Sarkar noted, the swadeshi movement articulated virtually every major idiom that would define the freedom struggle, Indian nationalism, and even post-colonial democratic politics in the twentieth century: boycott and the promotion of swadeshi commerce, especially in textiles; the appeal to labor; the use of folk motifs in song and story; new literature, poetry and drama in political protest; the production of nationalist space and time; and, of course, the systematic interpellation of the People as a new political agency. The swadeshi movement also embodied the erasures characteristic of nationalism: largely an upper caste/class movement of Hindu men, it presented itself as universally relevant while erasing the vast majority of others who were enfranchised in neither participation nor voice. And its nationalist idioms often cast it as Indian and Indian alone, erasing the linkages actors shared with people in other places such as California, Mexico, Germany, and the Soviet Union. Participants in this panel will engage The Swadeshi Movement in examinations of anarchists and others in the swadeshi diaspora on three continents, in the production of new nationalist time and space, in questions of women’s participation in their writings and new sartorial fashions, and in the production of entirely new semeiotics and modes of vernacular political practice and its policing.

The many spaces and times of the swadeshi movement
Dilip M. Menon, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Conventionally the Swadeshi movement is seen as an event that occurred in response to the proposed partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon and extending for a brief period from 1905-8. In the broader historiography of the eddies of swadeshi and its segueing into nationalist militancy/ terrorism the space of swadeshi extends to Punjab, and Maharashtra and its time to the hanging of Bhagat Singh in the 1930s. Sumit Sarkar’s seminal work pointed out the class and caste limitations of the movement in Bengal, its communal element as also the international dimension of the context of a prospectively resurgent Asia. There are three themes this paper will outline. First, the critiques of the very idea of nationalism that emerge from the heart of this putatively nationalist project in Tagore’s writings and speeches of nationalism and Gandhi’s text Hind Swaraj which is framed by the legacy of swadeshi. Arguably, the fear of mass action and the need to discipline it are central to both these figures. Second, colonial repression following swadeshi generates a map of disaffection that extends to California, Berlin, Mexico and the Soviet Union, as the swadeshi diaspora on the run imagine elective affinities with other politically radical ventures in Europe and North America. Third, the conventional periodisation of swadeshi perhaps needs to be rethought in terms of event and its afterglow: 1908 marked the end as well as the beginning of a particular politics that exceeded the strictures of nationalism and national territory.

Anarchist History and Historiography in the Shadow of Sumit Sarkar's Swadeshi Movement.
Maia Ramnath, Pennsylvania State University, USA

The Bengali Swadeshi Movement is one of those dense, auratic nexus moments containing threads which may later be incorporated into the genealogy of divergent ideological histories, but may be completely claimed by none of those in which it plays a role. One of Sumit Sarkar's signal historiographical contributions is to have reminded us that a richer and often radically revisionist understanding of such a multivalent event is yielded by taking into account those threads which track along the underside, out the back or across the weave of the surface pattern. In the case of the Swadeshi Movement, some of these can be followed far into the labyrinth of the Revolutionary Movement Abroad via the movement of ideas, tactics and people, who brushed up repeatedly against other forms of international radicalism. In this broader context, at least in the categorical parameters of the British intelligence network, Swadeshi activists were often tagged with the anarchist label, which at the time was primarily associated in the popular imagination with propaganda by deed and the cult of the bomb. Rather than dismissing the epithet or accepting it at face value, I will unpack the substance of this accusation, which is neither quite right nor entirely wrong. Secondly, to return full circle to Sarkar's historiographical presence, I argue that applying the lens of an anarchist logic allows for a critical social history that can combine the strengths while avoiding the pitfalls of both Marxist and postmodernist sides of the old debate within subaltern studies.

Swadeshi semeiotic: political Tamil and the invention of vernacular shorthand
Bernard Bate, Yale-NUS College, USA

By 1907 colonial officers were becoming aware of new kinds of political meetings involving vernacular oratory, and they began to develop new modes of policing to counter these practices. Shorthand was one of those modes. It enabled police inspectors to conduct surveillance of meetings, record what people said there, and create documents that could then be brought to bear in a court of law against those who spoke sedition among the masses. In a larger sense, shorthand was produced by alien officials facing an alien landscape and set of signs who worked to safeguard their own privileged place as masters through the development of new, and often alien, modes of governance. In the process, both oratory and shorthand shared a similar idea of how language works: both techniques stripped language down to its denotational function, the relationship between words and concepts, the signifier and signified, and stripped individuals down to their words as threatening or benign, loyal or seditious. Oddly enough, officials also appeared to have an intuition of how sign carriers themselves, rather than their denotationality, were critical in their political entailments. Thus a vernacular newspaper article was not only easier to monitor, but it also presupposed and entailed a very different kind of interaction – and political import – than a vernacular public meeting whose denotations and politics were far murkier and potentially more dangerous. This paper will discuss the invention of shorthand and track the semeiotic ideologies associated with it between 1907 and 1914.

‘Fashioning’ Swadeshi: Clothing Women in Colonial North India
Charu Gupta, University of Delhi, India

The swadeshi movement in many ways marked for the first time controlled access of women to a political-public sphere. This undermined the neat divide between private-public, and led to the conjecturing of women as the mother-land and the mother-goddess. However, the language and symbols of swadeshi also had other significant gendered implications in many other regions, and particularly on women’s clothing and fashion. This paper shows how Hindu publicists of colonial United Provinces, while writing in the vernacular, creatively appropriated swadeshi rhetoric, to dress up Hindu middle-class, upper caste women in particular ways. These writers made universalizing claims on the subject, in relation to swadeshi habits and enterprise. However, swadeshi dress codes for women also mirrored social, caste and religious hierarchies, sexual divisions and moral boundaries. The paper thus explores its simultaneous implications for Hindu revivalism, for Hindu-Muslim relations, for a new language of sartorial morality, and for modern bourgeois values of thrift. It does so by examining cartoons, illustrations, advertisements, popular vernacular writings and resolutions of various caste associations, signifying transitions in middle-class, upper-caste women’s clothing and fashion. However, the paper simultaneously looks at contemporary women’s voices on the subject, which were much more ambiguous, as even while supporting swadeshi, they articulated their other dressing desires, with no linear following of swadeshi dress codes.