Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Guest post by MAHMOOD MAMDANI. This paper is also available at the site of Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR)

Reading Ibn Khaldun in Kampala[1]

“No action resulting from choice is natural.” The Muqaddimah, p. 412

Why would a reading of The Muqaddimah[2]  by teachers and students in the Ph D program at Makerere Institute  of Social Research (MISR) be of interest to a wider audience?  One could put this question differently: why would a reading of a 14th century North African text be of interest to academics in 21st century Kampala?  Both questions belong to a wider reflection on the subject of universalization and particularization as aspects of a single process.  The universalization of particular modes of thought goes alongside the particularization of other modes of thought.  The centuries between the conquest of the Americas and the decolonization movement signified by Bandung witnessed two related movements in the history of thought.  On the one hand, Eurocentric thought was elevated to a universal; on the other, non-European modes of thought were containerized as so many “traditions” of no more than local significance.[3]  An assessment of the intellectual legacy of this period calls for a double task: alongside a critique of Eurocentrism, an exploration of engagements across various non-European modes of thought bounded as so many discrete “traditions.”  This paper hopes to explore the difficulties involved in such an engagement in the period after Bandung.

Let me rephrase the question in line with the dominant African imagination: Why study a late 14th century text today, in sub-Saharan Africa?  I can think of at least three reasons why a study of The Muqaddimah in an African academy is important today.  Most importantly, it provides us with a resource to think of an alternative to Eurocentrism.  If Eurocentrism claims to give us a universal history of reason anchored in Greece, the Muqaddimah offers both a discourse on the human and human reason and calls on us to think of the relation between Greeks and Persians as a way of de-centering Greece-focused Eurocentrism.  At the same time, it raises critical questions about Afrocentrism which has come to identify Africa with sub-Saharan Africa, as the product of a singular experience, slavery, but with a historical archive in Pharaohnic Egypt, not very different from how 19th century Europe fashioned classical Greece into an archive for European civilization.[4]  How do we historicize Africa before the Atlantic slave trade?  As a continent or as different regions?  Both Ibn Khaldun and The Muqaddimah suggest that it may be productive to think of Africa before the period of Atlantic slavery in regional rather than continental terms, and that one such regional imagination would bring together the Mediterranean and West Africa in a single history.

Second, The Muqaddimah has the potential of broadening our understanding of how to use oral tradition as a resource in the writing of African and regional histories.  The use of oral tradition as a source for historical information has been central to debates on the production of a history of Africa.  But these debates have remained confined to the history of stateless societies in Africa.  Ibn Khaldun’s discussion of isnad (the chain of transmission) has the potential of connecting it with a scholarship that has been totally set apart until now. (more…)

[The following is a revised version of some comments made during a discussion with Sudipta Kaviraj at the Centre for the Study of Developing Socoeties, Delhi on 21 October 2010. Kaviraj made a presentation based on a recent essay of his ‘Marxism in Translation: Critical Reflections on Indian Political Thought’ (published in Political Judgement: Essays in Honour of John Dunn, Eds Raymond Geuss and Richard Bourke) to which some of us responded. AN]

It is interesting to revisit, with Sudipta Kaviraj, the field of ‘Indian Marxism’. It is an abandoned field, a piece of haunted land where no living beings go – at least not in their senses. What is more, it is a field that ‘Indian Marxists’ themselves are afraid of revisiting. It is their past – the land of the dead, of unfulfilled ancestral spirits, where the ghosts of yesteryears hang like betaal from every tree. The terror of this forbidden territory has redoubled, after the collapse of socialism. It is as if some deep secrets of the past lie buried there which they would rather not bring back to life, for fear of what might be revealed to them of their own selves. It is strange but true that Marxists who swear by history are perhaps as afraid of it as anybody else.

And yet, we must visit that forbidden land, ‘summon up the ghosts of that nether-world’ in the hope that there may yet emerge another tale, maybe many other tales, that may throw some light on an idea that once seduced generations of modern Indians. For, it is all too easy to dismiss marxism as such, and Indian marxism in particular, as a bad dream, as some illegitimate idea that once took hold of us and kept us in that trance-like situation for almost a century (one could say, from the 1920s, at least). It is almost as if there was nothing to Indian Marxism except that it pathetically tried to copy one strand of European thought and history and implant it on Indian soil. It is all too easy, as has been often done in the past, to dismiss this episode as one where entire generations supposedly sleepwalked in the mistaken belief that they were awake – living a misrecognition, as it were.   How exactly did that happen? Presumably, if this rendition of our history is to be believed, the marxists of yore were doped (or duped) by the material successes of the West into believing that they could also all become Western/ modern overnight. The problem with this all too familiar, populist representation is that it forgets that it was not only the English speaking, west-oriented middles classes who were drawn towards marxism, but also large sections of the non-English speaking people of the regional language universe. It forgets too, the tremendous attraction that this vision held for the poorer and more underprivileged sections of Indian society. Thus we owe it to ourselves and to future generations, to take a fresh look at that entire episode. It is necessary for us to revisit the haunted land.

And so, Sudipta Kaviraj must be complimented for having made this foray, if somewhat too briefly, into that world.


Aditya Nigam

[This essay was first published in the Journal of Contemporary Thought, No 27, Summer 2008]

Nicos Poulantzas once made a distinction between ‘the political’ and ‘politics’ as such. In his rendering ‘the political’ referred to what can be called, with appropriate modifications, the juridical-political level of ‘the state’ (and we can include parties, elections and mobilization), while ‘politics’ referred to political practices (Poulantzas 1968: 37).[1] ’Political practices’ referred in his writings to ‘class practices’ but we can once again, suitably modify the term to include different kinds of political practices along different axes – class, caste, gender, religious or linguistic community and so on. Politics, thus seen, pervades life as such. We can also call it, after Michel Foucault, the micropolitics of power. Politics is there wherever there are power relations. And as feminism once struggled to establish, at this level, the personal is political. That is to say, from relations within the family, to relations between ‘loving couples’ and between parents and children, nothing is free of the relations of power. Indeed, the world has never been the same after that devastating intervention, however much formal political theory may try to ignore it. The great classical distinction between the polis and the oikos, reworked by moderns into the public and the private, seemed to suddenly wither under that attack.

At this stage I would also like to point out that what applies to ‘the private’ domain also holds for the more everyday and local forms of domination and power such as in the ways in which the caste rules operate in the villages or acquire a somewhat modified class/caste form in towns and cities, structuring what appear might to be ‘inter-personal’ relations. We can witness this in the hundreds of daily interactions, say for instance, between middle class families and their domestic employees, or their interactions with rikshaw pullers, vendors and such like. These are certainly not ‘private’ but bear the characteristics of the private insofar as they lack ‘publicity’.


By Nivedita Menon

Foucault has had enormous and wide-ranging influence on Indian scholarship, (and scholarship on India), but I am going to focus here only on one concept – governmentality. This concept has implicitly and explicitly shaped some very significant work trying to understand the shape, form, nature and content of “modernity” in India. I will take up two such bodies of work: first, a debate among a number of scholars (largely historians) about the nature and impact of colonial intervention in the 18th and 19th centuries, and second, Partha Chatterjee’s take on the idea of governmentality, through the lens of which he reworks, in the context of postcolonial democracy in India, conventional political theory understandings of the civil society/political society distinction.


By Nivedita Menon

(This paper was originally delivered as a public lecture in December 1999 at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore as part of a series called State of the Discipline in the Social Sciences jointly organized by NCBS and Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore.)

Why does political science call itself a “science”? The tag of “science” is an aspiration towards the high reaches of verifiability, quantifiability, systematization and applicability to “real life” which are seen as characterizing the natural sciences. Standard text-books on political science, for instance the excellent series produced by IGNOU, make a claim for the label of “science” because political analysis is about the study of “political reality”, while “political philosophy” for example, is partial because it excludes “practical aspects.” Further, behavioural and post-behavioural approaches are characterised as “modern”, as opposed to “traditional” historical and normative methods. It must be recognized that here, “traditional” means traditional within the discipline – which is itself modern. “You would come across the claim,” the student is told, “that approaches which are identified as modern, are considered more scientific.” Despite all the critiques of the fact/value dichotomy that was brought into social analysis by the behavioural revolution, the presumed (and desired) link between science and transformation continues to inform the self-styled social sciences. Society is to be studied in scientific ways, in order that it can be effectively transformed in accordance with scientific values.


Caste and the Writing of History

By Prathama Banerjee

Caste is seen as both the most archaic and the most contemporary reality of India – a persistent but paradoxical presence in historical time. Perhaps for this reason, caste seems to act as a challenge to the writing and teaching of history. This essay seeks to understand the ways in which caste as a category has, for a long time, escaped history as a discipline. It also explores the newer ways in which historians today try to interrogate and renegotiate history itself, in their effort to fashion modes of writing adequate to the workings of caste in India. This essay therefore is as much about history-writing as it is about the category of caste.


Published in International Socialist Journal, UK

India today

Issue: 118
Posted: 31 March 08

Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam, Power and Contestation: India Since 1989 (Zed, 2007), £12.99

This book, written by two academics who are also campaigners, offers the best survey of recent Indian history that I have seen.