AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 25

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Session 25: Constructing Communities and Citizens: Literature, Politics, and Law in South Asia

Organizer: Rina V. Williams, University of Cincinnati, USA

Chair: Syed Akbar Hyder, University of Texas, Austin, USA

Discussants: Vinayak Chaturvedi, University of California, Irvine, USA; Chandra Mallampalli, Westmont College, USA

Covering the range of historical periods from colonial to postcolonial India, the panel is centrally concerned with how communities and citizens are constructed over time through different types of institutions—including language and literature, politics, reservations, and law. Farooqi examines the writings of Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Hasan Aksari to show how Urdu writers and intellectuals perceived the relationship between Islam and Urdu both before and after partition. The paper explores the extent to which Urdu literature can be labeled Islamic literature, and what happened to the "Indo" part of Indo-Muslim cultural identity after the establishment of Pakistan. Singer examines how reservations constructed caste and gender groups after independence. Applying gender and social analysis to parliamentary debates, the paper shows how the meanings of representation and disadvantage shift over time, constructing salient and distinct categories of reserved citizens. Prasad examines cases of the Allahabad High Court in the late nineteenth century to show how Hindu widows used the colonial judiciary to redefine their economic rights and social status. The cases suggest that widows sought to construct themselves as a social class seeking financial support from society as a whole, rather than hapless victims who were individually dependent on their natal families for support. Williams examines the role of gender and women in the construction of a postcolonial, secular Indian national identity. Focusing on the politics and discourses of the Indian National Congress under Nehru, she argues that postcolonial nationalism was as deeply gendered an enterprise as other forms of nationalism.

Demanding her Maintenance from Society: Hindu Widows in the Colonial Courts of North India, 1875-1911
Nita Verma Prasad, Quinnipiac University, USA

This paper examines how Hindu widows in late nineteenth-century North India tried to use the colonial judiciary to redefine and restructure their economic rights and status vis-à-vis society at large. These attempts, which were embodied in court cases defended and prosecuted by widows in the High Court of Allahabad, all revolved around widows’ demands for maintenance payments from the family or property of their late husbands. The court records analyzed here indicate that not only did widows frequently sue their in-laws over their right to collect maintenance, but they also regularly requested that the courts place a lien on their late husbands’ property, so that whosoever should own the property (in the present and in the foreseeable future) would have a legal obligation to continue paying maintenance. These cases, when viewed in the aggregate, suggest that the widow litigants in question were trying to reconstruct their social positions and identities. Rather than outcasted, hapless victims who were individually dependent on their natal families for support, these women were arguing that widows, as a social class, formed a group that should be financially supported by all members of society. The paper thus highlights the role of law and the agency of Hindu widows in their efforts to reconfigure the familiar identity of ‘victim’ with which they were so often labeled.

Literary Paradigms in the Conception of South Asian Muslim Identity: Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Hasan Askari
Mehr A. Farooqi, University of Virginia, USA

Indo-Muslim is a term that has been glibly used especially when we allude to the cultural identity of South Asian Muslims. Generally speaking, shared social customs, embedded and represented by the Urdu language are held as a example of this hybrid "Ganga-Jamani" culture. Urdu's efflorescence, its popularity in the eighteenth century was made possible by the whole hearted participation of innumerable non-Muslim poets, writers and lexicographers. When the British took over large parts of northern India, they astutely figured a way to "other" Muslims as "foreigners" so that their own foreignness would be easier to justify. A potent way of establishing this was to create a cultural divide. The colonizers were able to push a wedge and split the commonly shared language Urdu, into Urdu and Hindi. They created the false, ahistorical equation: Hindi=Hindu, Urdu=Muslim. To what extent did this terse, simplistic yet divisive formula dominate the thought of two monumental intellectuals of Urdu, the poet, philosopher and political activist, Muhammad Iqbal (1877 -1938) and the pre eminent Urdu literary and cultural critic, Muhammad Hasan Askari (1919-78)? My paper will examine Urdu literary sources to show how Urdu writers and intellectuals perceived the relationship between Muslim and Urdu, and how Muslim identity would be re configured in the context of Pakistan. Can Urdu literature be labeled Islamic literature? What happened to the "Indo" part of Urdu and the Muslim cultural identity after the establishment of Pakistan?

Reserved Categories and the Shifting Meanings of Representation
Wendy Singer, Kenyon College, USA

The policy of “reservations”—setting aside positions for members of disadvantaged groups in jobs, education, and governing bodies—is designed to promote social change and equal access. And much scholarship (and court cases) has been devoted to the question of what groups benefit. New claims for reservations either propose to extend the policy or lobby for inclusion in existing categories. But reservations, in fact, have always defined recipients differently in different contexts—the meaning of reservations in governing bodies, for example, is different than in educational institutions. And interests of Scheduled Castes do not always seem to coincide with those of Scheduled Tribes. By disaggregating the policy (and practice) of reservations, this paper examines the competing meanings of reservations as they apply to group identity. In legislatures, for example, reservations provide disadvantaged groups a voice at the table; the idea is to represent the underrepresented. The result is that reservations themselves have constructed categories of citizens with presumed interests. For example, in parliamentary debates, MP from Scheduled Tribe constituencies may be called upon to address land autonomy, an interest not usually ascribed to Scheduled Castes. Also the question for women’s representation has been stymied over how to define a “women’s reservation,” vis a vis the interests of backward classes. This paper, by applying the tools of gender and social analysis to parliamentary debates, shows that the meanings of representation and, in fact, of disadvantage shift depending on the situation. Reservations therefore, construct salient and distinct categories of reserved citizens.

Gendering the Secular: Women and Gender in the Congress and Nehruvian Secular Nationalism
Rina V. Williams, University of Cincinnati, USA

India’s rich political history and democratic politics evolved multiple strands of nationalist thought and movements. While certain strands of Indian national identity have been thoroughly studied in the literature for their gendered aspects (including anti-colonial nationalism in late 19th-century Bengal, and contemporary Hindu nationalism), others have remained neglected. In particular, the literature has not examined the ways in which and extent to which secular nationalisms have been as gendered as religious forms of nationalism. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, focused on building a modern, secular nationalism to unite the newly partitioned country. Nehru’s vision of the Indian nation was predicated centrally on improving the status of Indian women: in his own words, “I have long been convinced that a nation’s progress is intimately connected with the status of its women.” In Nehruvian secular nationalism, women came to represent or embody modernization and national progress: India could not progress and modernize until its women did. To trace the gendering of secular progressive Nehruvian nationalism, this paper focuses on the discourses and activities of the Indian National Congress from 1947 until 1964. These gendered discourses of nationalism were manifested at the same time that the participation of women in the party’s activities grew significantly. At independence, women were elected to the Constituent Assembly and the Parliament, and held various positions of leadership within the Congress government. Women were also active in the rank-and-file membership of the party and formed a women’s wing, the All India Women’s Congress. Thus women in this period were more active in nationalist politics even as the discourses of nationalism remained gendered.