Book Review | Zeeshan Husain

Partha Chatterjee is a voice that no one can afford to ignore. Broadly working and having expertise simultaneously in two fields— political science and modern Indian history, he has many feathers in his cap. Chatterjee’s contribution to our understanding of political theory, West Bengal’s society and culture, peasants in India, subaltern consciousness, and issues of development deserves special mention. I wonder how come so much complex stuff has been theorised by him with so much lucidity. Perhaps this is a hallmark of any expert. The book Politics of the Governed is definitely an important contribution by him to understand contemporary politics, ranging from the local to regional, to national and international levels. Let me first summarise the main arguments of the book and then analyse it critically.
From the title, one gets a brief idea what the book will be about. It is about the common people and their way of dealing with bitter socio-political realities of life. The geographical area under consideration is almost the whole world. The book has two major parts. The first part consists of three chapters which were delivered as Leonard Hastings Schoff Memorial Lectures in 2001. The second part consists of a collection of three speeches delivered in various places in India and US. Thus all the seven chapters are actually oral texts and are extremely lucid to read. This is usual in Chatterjee’s style of writing. But this also causes omission of various references which would have helped serious readers to locate the sources of statements which the author is making.
Chatterjee clarifies word by word the title of his book. ‘Popular’ means non- institutional form of politics, ‘most of the world’ means the whole world except the modern capitalist democracies i.e., Western Europe and North America (p.8), ‘civil society’ is the closed association of modern elite groups and ‘democracy’ as politics of the governed. One remains thankful to Chatterjee for defining these terms quite clearly. Indeed this makes the task of reviewer (and critic) considerably easy. Just a brief summary before we start the critique.
The book broadly deals in the first part with the issues within India and in the second part deals with global concerns. In chapter one, he critiques Benedict Anderson’s theorisation of ‘empty homogenous time’ and says that a nation actually lives in various time-spaces; or in simple terms modern, non-modern and even anti-modern characteristics exists in the same nation. In the second chapter, he puts forward concepts like ‘population’ and ‘‘political society’’. He departs from usual modern (liberal) understanding of Citizen and proposes the concept of ‘population’. While a Citizen's existence is theoretical, and normative, ‘population’ is empirical and descriptive. Population allows the State to intervene in people’s lives in the name of development. Chatterjee refers to Foucault’s notion of ‘governmentality’ (p.34). Chatterjee delineates ‘civil society’ and ‘political society’: former connects nation-states with citizens and the latter connects populations with governmental agencies (pp.37-38). ‘Political society’ exists outside the domain of ‘civil society’ (p.40). In the third chapter, he outlines what is meant by the ‘politics of the governed’. For him, it is democracy but seen from the position of those who govern(p.69). It is a local paralegal arrangement which seeks moral solidarity and tries to bring about change in the (asymmetrical) power distribution (p.66). From the fourth chapter onward starts another paradigm, that of global issues. Chatterjee says that globalisation is not new (pp.85-91); what is new is the emergence of US as Big Brother of the world (p.96). The peace of the world is ensured by the US, in a kind of ‘global democracy’ (p.100). He calls it an ‘empire’ (p.98) whose principle is control not occupation (p.101). It is this chapter which critiques the global order/ peace very poignantly. Fifth chapter flags the issue of ‘Islamic terrorism’ as a plank by US to ensure its control in the name of global democracy. Sixth chapter problematises the concept of secularism, along with ‘democracy’ and ‘war on terror’ and the seventh chapter gives the gloomy picture of neo-liberalism reaching India’s cities.
Chatterjee is critiquing the liberal understanding of ‘civil society’ and proposes the concept of ‘‘political society’’ to understand politics of the non-West (or East). For him the concept of ‘‘civil society’’ is not relevant in India, and perhaps the whole East/ South. Unlike in the West, people are not completely under the purview of state; they do not have citizenship rights. This causes many, if not most people, to remain outside ‘civil society’. State intervenes in this case, through, what Chatterjee is calling ‘‘political society’’. People outside the ‘‘civil society’’ are not looked upon as citizens but as populations to be controlled by the State for developmental concerns (p.40). He has, however, not defined this crucial term, unlike various others terms in the book. This might be intentional, as the term is extremely fluid. Nevertheless he keeps on giving us various characteristics of ‘‘political society’’, and ‘‘civil society’’ as well. Let us now critically engage with his ideas one by one.
First, Chatterjee is using Foucault’s concept of governmentality in this book. This assumption - that only non- West has this ‘‘political society’’ - is difficult to digest. I agree that ‘‘civil society’’ is quite strong in the West, yet a number of people’s movements constantly keep on negotiating with the State. This is the case with both West and East. On what basis, then, has this distinction between West and East and their respective politics been made by Chatterjee? If he was speaking in terms of degrees, he could have told it clearly. Rather, the neat definitions given show he has strong binaries in mind.
Second, whatever he means by ‘most of the world’ or East or South is extremely flawed. By giving few examples from India and US, one cannot generalise the functioning of democracy across the world. Chatterjee is theorising three-fourths of the world (p.3) without giving enough evidence from even three continents– Asia, Africa and South America. Indeed, there are a number of instances in these countries where there is a complete lack of state intervention. Many countries have dictatorships, civil wars, riots, and military regimes. One wonders on what basis one could theorise a concept while taking, almost exclusively, India as an example.
Third major flaw is the assumption that ‘civil society’ is ‘consistent with the ideas of freedom and equality’ (p.46). ‘Civil society’ is assumed to be modern, while ‘political society’ to be either pre-modern or a strange product of modernity (yes these two contradictory phenomena are used by him to explain ‘political society’. See pp. 51 and 75). To refine his assumption, Chatterjee has often used the term ‘elite’ to show that non-elites are not part of this ‘modern’ institution. It is here that Chatterjee fails to understand even India, let aside the whole of the world. Let us ask- who are the elites? What is their caste, religion, ethnicity, gender and even region? Chatterjee uses sociologists like Nikolas Rose, and Thomas Osborne but fails to accept the reality as described by another sociologist from his own home state of West Bengal– Andre Beteille. Beteille (2001) explains that ‘civil society’ in actual practice is infected with the considerations of kinship and religion. In what way can we assume that Indian elites who are almost exclusively upper- caste urban Hindus are seriously committed to the project of modernisation?
This brings us to the fourth major flaw in the theorisation by Chatterjee. He argues that the various characteristics of ‘‘civil society’’ are not actually empirically verifiable. But, recent researches have shown the opposite. It is the pressure from the grass roots activities and struggles which is making the State and its arms ‘modern’, ‘democratic’ and truly civil. I live in a society, where police connive in communal riots against Muslims, where Special Task Force is recruited to ‘control’ tribal populations and where Dalits are humiliated on an everyday basis. Modernity is a project by the common masses, not the elites. Chatterjee missed out on this completely. Just visit any Indian university and see gender skewedness and a near absence of peasant/ Shudra castes after a decade of implementation of OBC reservations. Even a simple reading of Ambedkar could have helped Chatterjee to comprehend most of the India well. This despite the fact that he has started, clearly in haste, his book by taking the case of Ambedkar.
He misreads Ambedkar at many levels, and various people’s struggles happening across India. This again happens to be a major lacuna in Chatterjee’s understanding. Ambedkar has spoken more about exploitative caste system than about untouchability (p.9) in his works. His conversion after a long struggle with Hindu society, was a tactical move to show people that Hindu society will remain caste- ridden and hence the best alternative, the Navayana Buddhism, has to be adopted. Conversion was not a result of frustration, as Chatterjee believes (p.24). Ambedkar’s almost prophetic quote, from the Constituent Assembly (9 Nov 1948) is: “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.” The ‘civil society’ which Chatterjee is assuming to be democratic is actually undemocratic and uncivil. Recent empirical researches like Anupama Rao’s The Caste Question (2010), Suryakant Waghmore’s Civility against Caste (2013), and Jeffrey Witsoe’s Democracy against Development (2013), among many others, show that it is the voices from the periphery that strengthen modern values of life, liberty, equality and fraternity. Pandian’s (2002) crisp essay One Step Outside Modernity provides a good framework to sum up how lower caste subjectivity is modern, not the other way round. At one place Chatterjee ends up calling lower caste leaders’ demands as patriarchal (p.75) which shows his limited understanding of caste–gender intersectionality.
Fifth, as I said earlier that Chatterjee has not explicitly defined the term ‘‘political society’’ but has given various characteristics of it. Going by those loosely defined characteristics, even Hindutva groups can be considered as valid forms of ‘political society’. These groups are beyond the purview of both State and ‘civil society’ and claim some moral significance for their groups too. One wonders how Chatterjee understands the rise of such groups, quite visibly since a decade.
In addition to these, there are number of self-contradictory statements (see for instances statements on ‘political society’ on pages 40, 47, 66 and 74). This might be due to his acknowledgement of the complex nature of political formations, which needed theorisation not mere passing references.
Overall the book successfully puts forward important changes happening in present world order, but fails to give any insight into the crucial working of the Indian or non-Western societies. Nevertheless, Chatterjee correctly places the relevnat political theory in the context of colonialism and present neo-liberalism. The book vehemently critiques US imperialism and its propaganda of Islamic terrorism. It is here that the book is at its best.

(Politics of the Governed (2004) by Partha Chatterjee Columbia University Press. New York. ISBN 0-231-13062-7. pp.170+ xi)

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