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Review Essay: Partha Chatterjee’s take on Nationalism & Popular Sovereignty | Adityaprava Mozumder

Friday 17 September 2021

Review Essay

by Adityaprava Mozumder

’The truths and lies of Nationalism:

As narrated by Charvak

by Partha Chatterjee

Permanent Black

in association with Ashoka University, New Delhi


I am the people: Reflections on popular sovereignty today

by Partha Chatterjee

Columbia University Press, New York

2020, 208 Pages

ISBN: 9780231195492

Partha Chatterjee, one of the leading scholars who has contributed immensely to the study of political processes in India has come out with his new edited work entitled, ’The truths and lies of Nationalism: As narrated by Charvak’. This comes a year after his more generic work on roughly the same topic ’I am the people: Reflections on popular sovereignty today’. Both the works are a reflection on what he perceives to be the changing nature of the ’prevailing order’.

The core argument in both these works, as relevant here, is that what is now called the ’Indian Rashtra’ has existed as a nation state only since the middle of the twentieth century and is at best an offshoot of the national movement for Independence spearheaded by the Indian National Congress against the British. This ‘nation State’ is purported to have been brought under ’bourgeois hegemony’ under various political regimes. The bourgeois had to ‘share power’ with large landed proprietors and the bureaucracy. The influence of the Congress Party began to decay ‘with the emergence of regional parties’ and also with the dissolution of the traditional agrarian economy. In the process the bourgeoisie assumed a more dominant position as a ruling class. The result was an ’evacuation of politics and widespread apathy among voters’ as they felt that the State was given priority over the people. Chatterjee identifies the ’new contradiction’ in India between the ’formally regulated economic sphere dominated by corporate capital and driven by the logic of accumulation’ and the ’so-called informal economy’. In this context, various populist regimes in the Indian State spend a part of the revenue collected from the formal economy to help the ’poor’ in both ’urban’ and ’rural’ areas in contemporary times.

Thus Chatterjee in labouring to provide an explanation brings the category of ‘people’ into his already modular notion for nation to now fit the ‘people’ into the European discourse of populist regimes. He also differentiates the modern Indian State from polities of ancient empires of Ashoka or that of Medieval India of Akbar which were based on force and the payment of tributes. The concept of sovereignty, for him, is a modern construct used more after the French Revolution. To buttress his point, Chatterjee gives examples of the Stupa at Sarnath and the Harappan Civilisation to show that despite being located presently in two different countries, nationalistic sentiments give two suffering versions of the same events in India and Pakistan. He goes on to give a history of the Vedic Aryans as ’immigrants’ from Central Asia and how they intermingled with the Dravidians. So Chatterjee opines that it is difficult to identify a ’people’ as ’ancient’ not to speak of the Nation State which is also a modern phenomenon.

This book, like many earlier works of Chatterjee, is quite large in expanse which also, makes it quite simplistic in many of the central points that he needs to substantiate his forays in to history and one is apprehensive that, such an overarching interpretation of history more than often turn out to be quite facile. We may examine some of the points where the present work may have to face similar criticism.

First, a sense emerges from Chatterjee’s works that nationalism can easily turn out to be jingoistic or chauvinistic. Chatterjee correctly points out that contesting versions of the same history are taught in India and Pakistan. In fact one wonders as to whether it is not Chatterjee’s critique of Indian nationalism since 1980s that has more to do with such equation of Indian and Pakistani nationalism than the real difference between the secular Indian nationalism which is different from the Hindu communal assertion of nationalism and that of the nationalism that was at the root of the moment for Pakistan and its history. While it is true that in many contexts, as modern history points out, Chatterjee’s position is true, Nationalism has also historically been the most liberating force not only during anti colonial movements but also in contributing to human well being. Only Chatterjee’s restrictive and modular frame does not allow any such references emphasized by hundreds of scholars as well as the real history of many nationalist movement and nationalism.

Second, one is also quite skeptical of his understanding of the nature and role of economy in the overall processes that he tries to define in the book. Chatterjee, who is not known to have brought much of a discussion on formal or informal economy, has suddenly brought the binary of formal and informal to bear upon his theory of nation state. He applies the concept of primitive accumulation in the Indian context taking cue from the economist KalyanSanyal. Unfortunately he identifies the ’informal economy’ in India as homogeneous. This is far removed from reality and the ’contradiction’ with the formal sector portrays only half the story. Exploitative relations of production do exist as much in the informal sector as in the formal sector. PreetRustogy has through extensive research shown how the informal sector is characterized by inequality and even gender bias. In fact, it can well be argued that the formal sector has to some extent helped to absorb exploited persons from the informal sector also and this has benefitted the exploited. Chatterjee in ‘Truth and Lies of Nationalism’ also identifies ‘all India Power Groups’ and ‘Regional Power groups’ that are influential and have divergent interests in the context of the political economy of India. This might not the case always. As Ravi Shrivastava points out in an article in the Indian Express, the migrant crisis required coordination among stakeholders as diverse as Central Ministries, state and local Governments , employers and traders unions for an even and effective response to the human tragedy. Shrivastava has also pointed out the changing nature of work in India with reference to contract labour. Chatterjee fails to address these complexities that underline the economic and political process in India.

Third, Chatterjee opines that the Indian State in the 1950s and the 1960s attempted to co-opt the urban poor leaving out the peasant as modernist economic planning assumed a linear notion of time. This is a residue of his earlier critique of Nehruvian economy and a general critique of centralising trend in Indian polity as Nationalism was a ‘derivative discourse’ borrowed from the West. In present times even the rural poor are coopted by the Indian State. In his earlier works ‘The Politics of the Governed’ and the ‘Lineages of Political Society he analyzes some of these techniques that are premised on a distinction between ‘civil society inhabited by proper citizens possessing enforceable rights’ and ‘Political Society peopled by populations with specific characteristics that may or may not be met depending on contingent political considerations’. Over the years these processes have lead to a democracy deficit which Chatterjee then sees as the context and reasons for the rise of populism. Such an explanation becomes problematic not only form the standpoint of a counter argument but also as Chatterjee himself must have realised from the point of his logic that the rise of populism may direct anger towards the vulnerable population. For Chatterjee however building a model is important than the issues of empirical fact or logic of the case.

Events in India can be seen as indicating to facts which are quite different form what Chatterjee wants us to believe.

For years now Chatterjee and many of his colleagues at the Subaltern Study collective, using eclectic political intellectual tropes have tried to show how, what many Indians perceive to be a part of communal politics, were basically subaltern articulation of politics, anti-colonialism as well as proto nationalism. Chatterjee along with collective have made it quite popular to see those espousing secularism or secular polity as elite , elitist or those who derive their discourse from the borrowed European knowledge as against the authentic popular voices.For Chatterjee nationalism is a ‘derivative discourse’ carried out by ‘middle-class elites’ who produced their own domain of sovereignty within colonial society before beginning their political battle with the British. We can find such a line of reasoning in Chatterjee’s previous works also namely ‘The Nation and its Fragments’ and ‘Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World’. D.L. Sheth, a leading scholar of Indian politics, while, explaining the significance of the 2014 Vidhan Sabha elections in India had indicated how since the time of Independence democratic or ’secular politics’ was seen as an ’elitist’ affair [1]. Power, it was assumed, as the one subaltern collective colleague of Chatterjee and now a Hindutva enthusiast, Swapan Dasgupta suggested, ‘seemed to reside with an enlightened minority ruling under a loose ’left-liberal consensus.’ In his book ‘Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right ‘Thus the Hindu communally assertive claims, i.e, chants of ’Bharat Mata ki jai’ or ’Ghar Wapsi’ in this new frame become a cry of the ’subaltern Hindu’ for justice. In this sense, ’Jai Shree Ram’ is not a religious slogan per say but a befitting political reply to the ruling ’left liberal consensus’. The same goes for brazen chants of ‘Allahu Akbar’ in Parliament.

Despite the ’modern’ concept of nationalism needing equally ’modern’ concepts of secularism or democracy for its survival, Chatterjee like many scholars of the subaltern school has criticised the concepts as elitist. So the prognosis of constitutional rules being bent under ‘populism’ can only be justified rather than countered if we go by Chatterjee’s line of reasoning. This comes at a point of time in Indian history when even the incumbent Prime Minister has tried to reach out to the vulnerable sections of society as seen in his symbolic address at the Aligarh Muslim University. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called AMU a ‘mini India’ and stressed on ‘welfare’ for the poor and disadvantaged. Although Chatterjee identifies the ‘moral appeal’ of statistics in ‘postcolonial democracies’ to ‘govern better, he skips such issues. Further, the rise of Hindu or Muslim communalism before or during Independence even by the most educated sections of society is not addressed at great detail by Chatterjee.

Fourth, one feels quite disturbed that Communalism, both an ideology and also its prevalence among various communities, which has not only threatened the secular polity of India but also has been creating tremendous violence to its social fabric, finds no place in Chatterjee’s modular conception of Indian politics. Chatterjee does not address the issues of communalism among any other community other than the Hindu community. After all, as pointed out by those who studied nationalism and communalism well before the new category of ‘populism’ landed on Indian shore. Not addressing the content of education in religious institutions of all communities was a mistake committed by the Nehruvian State as pointed out by Bipan Chandra.

Fifth, the book while borrowing from the ancient and medieval history of the country, seems to have brought them to live only to fit them a modular decontextualized frame. We get a sense of ancient history which is not pragmatic and with no context of its own. The progress made by the people in this land over the years do not come out in Chaterjee’s analysis. So there are obviously no references to the cultural unity of Bharatavarsha except for highlighting the fact that it does not fit in with the present territorial demarcations of India.

Sixth, to take up the issue of the ’subaltern’ is noble but we have to remember that it is a relative concept varying across time and space. The book ‘Truth and Lies of Nationalism’ doesn’t mention the word ‘subaltern’ but follows the same line of reasoning that Chatterjee has done over the years. Someone who is a subaltern in one part of India at a particular point in time might not be so elsewhere. In fact, it is because of the subaltern population’s power to influence democratic politics by sheer weight of numbers that the State co-opts them turning a Nelson’s eye to even illegal activities. Vulnerable subalterns are left out. They are the ones who are ’othered’ and have to rely on the State to dole out privileges to them what they can actually claim as rights.

One may in conclusion say that the books tend to forward Partha Chatterjee’s older argument against the nationalism in general and India’s national movement in particular at a time when the the nature of nationalism that the national movement had tried to argue become the only bulwark against the narrow and sectarian variant of Hindu Chauvinism. By collapsing both in a modular treaties, Chatterjee has only forwarded an explanation for the readers abroad as to how to read Indian nationalism in the light of the rising populism in the west. For the Indians, it will advance only a cynic view of politics.

(Author: Adityaprava Mozumder, Department of Political Science, Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira, Belur Math, Howrah)


1. Chatterjee, Partha (ed.) The Truth and Lies of Nationalismas narrated by Charvak, Permanent Black in association with Ashoka University, New Delhi, 2021.
2. Chatterjee, Partha, I Am The People- Reflections On Popular Sovereignty Today, Columbia University Press, New York, 2020.
3. Chandra, Bipan, Mukherjee, Aditya, Mukherjee, Mridula, India Since Independence, Viking, Noida, 2008, page 229
4. Dasgupta, Swapan, Awakening Bharat Mata – The Political Beliefs of the IndianRight, Viking, New Delhi, 2019, page 20
5. Seth, D.L, D’Souza , Ronald, Peter ( ed.) At home with Indian Politics: A Theory of Indian Politics, Springer Nature, 2018, pp 16-20
6. Rustogy, Preet, Understanding gender inequalities in wages and incomes in India, Indian Journal of Labour Economics, Volume 48, Number 2, 2005, pp 324 – 330
7. Shrivastava, Ravi, Structural Change and Non-Standard Forms of Employment in India, Conditions of Work and Employment Series, International Labour Office, Number 68,2016, pp 21-38.
8. Shrivastava, Ravi, India’s Migrant Workers Need Better Policies,The Indian Express, March 4, 2021, opinion/columns/ india-migrant-workers-rights-policies-nitiaayog-covid-lockdown-7213082.

[1Seth, DL. ’At home with Democracy: A theory of Indian Politics’

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