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A Battle of the Books: Linguistic Antagonisms and the Crisis of Postcolonial Secularism

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 105-121 | 10.1353/com.2013.0022

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Introduction

In his contribution to a timely collection of essays entitled The Crisis of Secularism in India, Partha Chatterjee identifies a new element in what is increasingly being considered legitimate politics in contemporary South Asian contexts. This is the idea, he writes, "being voiced, not from the extremist fringes but from the very center of representative institutions, that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of minorities must be negotiated afresh in the political domain" (142). I will return momentarily to an elaboration of what exactly has led to this need to renegotiate minority rights and what theoretical responses it requires from the critical minds of our times. For now, let it suffice to say that in so far as his essay goes on to identify the matters of minorities at the very center of a process of modern secularization, Chatterjee suggests that, in the contemporary context he is examining, a new brand of secularism likewise involves new means of recognizing and managing (minority) difference at a time during which the national body is reconfiguring itself under the widening auspices of neo-liberal globalization. As several scholars have noted, Indian secularism has always involved neither simply a separation of political from religious institutions, nor merely a calling into being of an everyday ethics of this-worldliness. Rather, as Shabnum Tejani succinctly puts it, secularism in the South Asian situation emerged in an intimate alliance with "formulations of nationalism that involved dovetailing liberal discourses around individual representation with definitions of the democratic majority as broadly Hindu" (14). It was precisely in this democratic imperative toward the formation of a Hindu majority— accompanied by an entire dynamic of fitful inclusions and exclusions—that secular nationalism in India appeared most visibly as an instrument for regularizing difference. However, the question is: how and in what ways has the the form of the majority-minority structure (and therefore, the discourse of secularism) changed in the contemporary Indian scenario, and what does this have to do with the issue of what I am calling linguistic antagonisms?

Ethnic cleansing begins, and has begun in the past, with struggles leading to the ritual cleansing of language. Thus, as several thinkers like Walter Benjamin, Paul de Man, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and Dipesh Chakravarty (to name just a few) have reminded us, it is important first and foremost to understand that history is a linguistic rather than solely organic or referential event. To put this differently, one could say following Paul de Man most specifically of all these thinkers, that if time and history are first opened up by the unensurability of semantic gravitations in language, then the crisis of secularism in the Indian context is a crisis of historical thinking as indexed in the gradual institution of an ostensibly transparent linguistic code which forfeits precisely that unreliability of referential possibilities. As we shall see from the developments of this essay, in this new environment of language, time as a medium of rupture, distance, and difference is reduced to a governable field of regularities and history is historical only in so far as it annihilates the accidents and contingencies of time from its perfectly managed structure. In short, "the new element" in current Indian politics involves a technologization of language that takes as its object of attack not only the complexities of history, but also the messiness of difference as a vector for the historical sense. To ignore the idea that this new political environment is in fact a highly sophisticated matter of negotiating difference at the very level of linguistic coincidences and semantic regularities is to mistakenly understand the crisis of secularism as an effect of primitive impulses of faith-religion that merely await the coming of modern forces of science-rationalism to correct themselves. It is to dismiss the widening scope of a discourse whose power, in fact, lies in its very conflation of such apparently irreconcilable differences; it is to avoid the significant critical task of mapping the ways in which this discourse is tightly imbricated in the contemporary reconfiguration of political and cultural self-representation in a quickly globalizing South Asian situation. What I propose to undertake in the course of my essay is therefore precisely this...



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