In his article The Nation in Heterogeneous Time, Partha Chatterjee draws out parallels in three well-known works – Benedict Anderson’s articles on nationalism, BR Ambedkar’s struggle for the representation of the Dalits in government offices, and Satinath Bhaduri’s novel Dhorai Charit Manas – and offers critical commentary on them.
In his essay Imagined Communities, Anderson proposes that there exists a concept known as homogeneous empty time, according to which every moment of time is equivalent and empty. It is homogeneous as it is not affected by any particular event, and empty as any number of events can fit into it.
Anderson believes that it is due to this concept that people who have never met each other find it possible to relate to each other and view themselves as a single nation.
He follows this up in his book The Spectre of Comparisons by identifying two kinds of seriality that are produced while trying to imagine a community, and in doing so, tries to distinguish between nationalism and the politics of ethnicity.
Anderson describes seriality as a social construct which functions as labels which are either imposed upon people (bound serialities) or voluntarily adopted by them (unbound serialities). Bound serialities are identified by authority and this makes them constricting. An individual can only count as part of a category or not a part of it, thus making this an ‘evil’ tool of ethnic politics. On the other hand, Anderson feels that unbound serialities are liberating and help in bringing people closer.
Thus, he argues that the two bring about the differences between ethnic politics and nationalism. He believes that nationalism is inherently ‘good’ and ethnic politics is inherently ‘evil’, and the two are completely disconnected.
Partha Chatterjee, however, disagrees. He argues that in the context of the Third World, especially in a country like India, the concept of homogeneous empty time as proposed by Benedict Anderson does not hold true. Ethnic politics cannot be separated from nationalism; and imagining so is imagining nationalism without governmentality. Partha Chatterjee feels that the concept of homogeneous time exists only in utopia, and in the real space of modern life there is only dense, heterogeneous time.
In order to illustrate this, Partha Chatterjee talks about BR Ambedkar and his struggles in ensuring equality for the Dalits in independent India. Being a modernist, Ambedkar set out to first understand why untouchability existed in society. He scrutinised the reasoning of caste system existing due to division of labour and refuted it as being irrational and inefficient. Instead, Ambedkar proposed a separate theory in which the Brahmins, tired of being subjected to indignities and tyrannies when they were politically weak, rose to political dominance and suppressed the Shudras by imposing social degradations on them, thus producing the hierarchical divisions of caste. The ‘untouchables’ arose out of the Brahmins adopting vegetarianism and banishing the beef-eating community out of the village grounds in order to compete with the ‘puritan’ ideas of Buddhism.
Ambedkar hoped to change this and ensure equal citizenship for the Dalits. He argued that they can be represented under the state by themselves alone. This could be done in two ways. The first way to do so was to reserve a certain number of seats in the legislature only for candidates that belong to the lower castes. The other way was to have separate electorates for lower-caste voters. Ambedkar supported the latter; however, this was met with a lot of criticism from Gandhi, who threatened to go on a fast to oppose it.
Gandhi insisted that India was homogeneous, and the problem of the Dalits was internal to the Hindu community. However, problems started arising when Pakistan demanded a separate sovereign state. Ambedkar felt that Partition would ensure India does not have a weak central government. He fully supported unbound serialities, but he also realised that in order to achieve more substantive equality, certain bound serialities are essential. In order to defuse the situation, Gandhi and Ambedkar signed the Poona Pact by which Dalits were given reserved seats within the Hindu electorate.
Partha Chatterjee also talks about a modernist novel Dhorai-Charit-Manas, by Satinath Bhaduri. The novel is constructed so as to fit the narrative of Ramcharitmanas, and follows the life of Dhorai, who leads the lower castes into defying the local Brahmins. When his kinsmen plot a conspiracy against him, he goes into exile and starts living in another village with another backward community. After a violent earthquake, the villagers are promised that they would be given relief to repair their houses; however, the money only goes to the richer communities.
Dhorai’s introduction to voting is through an act of impersonation. Although the villagers voted for the Mahatma, the elected chairmen turned out to be the Rajputs and the Brahmins against whom the backward castes had fought for years. This increased the rift between the two communities. Dhorai and the rest get mobilised into participating in the Quit India Movement and eventually get labelled as ‘rebels’ and are forced to flee and live as fugitives.
This illustrates how the freedom struggle among the backward classes was very different from that among the upper castes. The backward castes were often pushed into it without them knowing about it. Apart from battling against the colonists, they also had to constantly battle against their own countrymen – the upper castes – for basic human rights.
We agree with Partha Chatterjee here. In a third world country, the concept of homogenous free time would not hold true. Since such countries are backward in terms of technology and resources, most events that occur are interconnected and not mutually exclusive. For example, with the coming of globalisation, a majority of the local Indian brands perished due to the free flow of foreign goods. Moreover, ethnic politics is so deeply rooted into the system that it holds more importance than certain other issues in the lives of people. Everyone in a third world country does not have similar access to quality education, due to various issues including but not limited to ethnic suppression of minorities. In India, the caste system prevented the Dalits from gaining education for generations. This warranted the need for a reservation system. In conclusion, we believe Partha Chatterjee’s claim that universalist ideals of nationalism simultaneously bring with it the reality of ethnic politics is justified.