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  • The Categorial Logic of a Colonial Nationalism:Swadeshi Bengal, 1904-1908
  • Andrew Sartori

In 1905, the Bengal Presidency of British India was partitioned into two separate provinces in the name of administrative convenience. Bengal, the government argued, had become too cumbersome to govern effectively as a single unit. But if administration alone was at stake, Bengali critics of the scheme were quick to reply, there was no reason why new provinces could not have been carved out of the large, non-Bengali-speaking populations of Orissa and Bihar rather than by dividing Bengal proper. The real motives underlying the government's plan were not difficult to see: firstly, to divide the troublesome Bengalis of Calcutta from the troublesome Bengalis of the eastern districts; and secondly, to promote the interests, and thereby court the favor, of the large Muslim population of eastern Bengal as a communal counterweight to the overwhelmingly Hindu "educated middle class" that dominated the lively politics of the region.1 The response to the partition has entered the historiography of South Asia as the first major attempt in the history of Indian nationalism at popular mobilization under the leadership of the new middle class that had developed under British rule. Led by a new generation of leaders such as Aurobindo Ghosh, Bipin Chandra Pal and Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, Swadeshi nationalists, calling for a boycott of British manufactures and the promotion of the nation's economic, social and spiritual autonomy, quickly shifted the focus of their rhetoric from the fact of partition to a direct struggle against British rule as such. This essay represents a revisionist attempt to make sense of the internal ideological rationality that structured this new nationalist program.

The Historiographical Problem

The historiography of modern South Asia has fundamentally failed to develop an adequate framework for grasping the specifically ideological dimensions of colonial discourse—that is to say, the historically determinate nature of its truth-claims. There has been, first of all, a long tradition in both non-Marxist and Marxist historiography that has sought to interpret the emergence of nationalist discourses in the Indian context as a function of the competition of social interests. On the non-Marxist side, the Cambridge school argued that nationalist politics emerged from the specific ways in which ambitions were channeled and shaped through the interconnections of structures of power and governance at the local, provincial, and all-Indian levels.2 Yet for all the insights of this literature, a crucial remainder stood unexplained: namely, the core ideological content of nationalism itself, "a feeling of national solidarity against imperialism, an alien political and economic force that stood against the interests of the population of the Indian subcontinent as a whole," a sentiment that "could not be reduced to a catalogue of rivalries between Indian and Indian vying for government patronage."3 Even within Marxist historiography, it is hardly a new observation that the actual content of nationalist ideologies cannot simply be deduced from competing economic interests in a class society. In a study of the Swadeshi movement that was seminal to the Gramscian turn in the scholarship of modern South Asia, Sumit Sarkar had been forced to conclude thirty years ago that "economic distress"—for which, I submit, one might as easily read "economic interests" in the broadest sense—"could lead to nationalist politics only via the 'mediation' of an ideology."4 Yet Sarkar was able to provide few meaningful clues as to how the historical availability of this "ideology" was to be explained if it was not itself the universalization of some particular social interest.

In contrast to these approaches, an alternative tradition has instead emphasized the discursive effectivity of the global, modular replication of certain institutional and tropological forms—most notably, the nation-state itself.5 From this perspective, colonial discourse is seen as "derivative," a kind of non-reflective reiteration of Western tropes and thematics due to the interpellative effects of "epistemic violence," which served to "consolidat[e] the self of Europe by obliging the native to cathect the space of the Other on his home ground."6 From this perspective, the agency underlying colonial discourse is located in a Western will-to-power, effectively reducing the native...