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Empire, Nation and Minority Cultures: The Postnational Moment

A closer look at many contemporary movements and struggles will show that they operate without the luxury of the Manichean imaginary of a world divided into two camps. These struggles respond to a world that is messy; where the oppressor could be on any side of the Left/Right divide. In a manner of speaking, such contemporary struggles operate under the unstated assumption that there is no "outside" to power - either of the state or of Empire. If that be the case, as these movements appear to be telling us, then all struggle is about operating in the interstices of power.




Empire, Nation and Minority Cultures: The Postnational Moment

Aditya Nigam

A closer look at many contemporary movements and struggles will show that they operate without the luxury of the Manichean imaginary of a world divided into two camps. These struggles respond to a world that is messy; where the oppressor could be on any side of the Left/ Right divide. In a manner of speaking, such contemporary struggles operate under the unstated assumption that there is no “outside” to power – either of the state or of Empire. If that be the case, as these movements appear to be telling us, then all struggle is about operating in the interstices of power.

I thank the participants at the weekly seminar at the International Centre for Advanced Studies, New York University, for their incisive comments. I would like to especially thank Timothy Mitchell, Director ICAS and other ICAS fellows for their invitation to present this paper in their seminar.

Aditya Nigam ( is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

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t might be appropriate to begin this paper by referring to two striking images of recent times. The first, an image of the Kurdistan region of Iraq on the eve of the American attack, beamed in the western media, not without an air of moral righteousness. This was the image of Kurdish men and women, arms in hand, preparing to “welcome” the United States (US) forces, as the television commentator put it. The second, a photographic image, republished by the Indian book review journal Biblio, of young Afghan girls playing football, with their hijab off, at least with their faces uncovered, in the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban regime. Stories of music and dance on the streets of Kabul, of the rejoicing artist who had concealed the human images on his paintings with an overlay of paint, now wiping it out to reveal the human forms beneath. The western media even enlisted, in a manner of speaking, the support of the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women (RAWA) for Empire, despite RAWA’s repeated assertions that they did not support the US attack on Afghanistan.

Not very long ago, the western world had witnessed a similar situation with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) “humanitarian” bombing in Serbia/Kosova, with the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA)

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fighting with open support from NATO forces. Milosevic’s brutal ethnic cleansing programme, it is well-known, had already marginalised and destroyed the old political leadership of the Kosovars, leaving KLA as the only force opposing the Milosevic regime. The bombing of Serbia thus ended up splitting the European left down the middle on this issue. Should the

bombing be opposed? Short of military intervention, is there any way of reining in Milosevic? These were recurrent questions even among anti-war activists and they continued to reappear through the war on Afghanistan and Iraq. How do we “refuse to choose” in this context, as it seems, we must? The choice either way is a difficult one, for the fight is no longer between the good and evil, between revolution and imperialism, or from the other side, between freedom and totalitarianism. Whether it ever was such a neat Manichean division, is in fact, debatable.

“Empire”, say Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in their influential recent book of the same name, “is materialising before our very eyes” (Hardt and Negri 2000). The two important events that signal the emergence of Empire, they say, are the first Gulf War and the war in Kosovo. The events that they identify as critical in the construction of Empire, merely presaged the later wars unleashed in the aftermath of 11 September. Empire, suggest Hardt and Negri, is not just another name for globalisation; it is a “global order, a new logic and structure of rule”, which is certainly coeval with and linked to the new global circuits of production but not reducible to them. Hardt and Negri read “the declining sovereignty of nation states” as one of the primary symptoms of the coming of Empire – a new form representing a new kind of sovereignty (ibid: xii). Crucial to this new sovereignty is the eclipse of conflicts or a competition between several imperialist powers, and the overarching idea of a single power “that overdetermines them all, structures them in a unitary way and treats them

under one common notion of right that is decidedly postcolonial and postimperialist” (ibid: 9 emphasis added). This new form of sovereignty is presented as “a global concert”, “a unitary power that maintains social peace and produces its own ethical truths”.

Empire in the Service of Peace

The really significant and persuasive part of Hardt and Negri’s thesis is that Empire is not formed simply on the basis of force but on the basis of its ability to present force as being in the service of right and peace. “All interventions of the imperial armies are solicited by one or more of the parties involved in an already existing conflict…Empire is…called into being and constituted on the basis of its capacity to resolve conflicts” (ibid: 15).

All the instances cited above are those of direct war and intervention and they at least serve to illustrate, somewhat dramatically, what might be a more general condition, which I wish to discuss in this paper. My interest here is in two questions, quite different from those of Hardt and Negri: My entry point is not that of Empire but that of (1) minority groups or cultures who almost inevitability appear as opportunist in their eagerness to welcome the powerful forces of Empire. (2) New kinds of political intervention, which often (though not always) deploy the rhetoric of universal human rights or that of a universal global civil society against the power of the nation state without necessarily being complicit in the project of Empire. Lodged here, in these two kinds of political subjectivities might be a larger question, an exploration of which might allow us to pose the problem of the postnational moment in a way that looks beyond the binary of “within” and “without”. In the following section, I discuss the question of the “postnational” – of thinking beyond the nation – as distinct from the shorthand term “globalisation”. I do this through a discussion of an exchange between Arjun

58 Appadurai and Partha Chatterjee, some years ago. In entering the discussion through this debate, I attempt to steer clear of both – a celebration of the global (Appadurai) and an exclusive insistence on struggles within (Chatterjee).

1 Thinking beyond the Nation?

In an early essay on the crisis of the nation state, which explicitly delineated the contemporary moment as “postnational”, Arjun Appadurai has laid out a programmatic imperative: “We need to think ourselves beyond the nation” (Appadurai 1993). Such an exercise, Appadurai claimes, would help “provide part of the apparatus of recognition for postnational social forms” (ibid: 411). He argues that there are already in existence a whole range of movements, which could be called postnational, which are floundering because of the lack of an adequate political language that would be able to provide them a way of “thinking their way out of the imaginary of the nation state” (ibid: 418). In identifying the actual formations Appadurai lists a vast range from terrorist organisations and transnational diasporic groups to organisations like the Amnesty International and Oxfam. “We are looking at the birth of a variety of postnational social formations”, he says (ibid: 420).

There is a sense in his rendering that the world is now increasingly made up of diasporas, of refugees, tourists, guest workers, transnational intellectuals, and illegal aliens – all increasingly unrestrained by spatial boundary and territorial sovereignty, and that this is what determines the meaning of “postnational” and the crisis of the nation state in the contemporary – almost as though the distinction between national territories has dissolved. Here Appadurai’s argument sounds a bit like some prevailing romantic/anarchist neo-Deleuzian talk of nomads, rhizomes and flows (of populations, images, commodities), and of world citizenship, as though this is now the dominant experience of populations worldwide. Such celebratory rhetoric of nomadism and flows, seems to be quite innocent of the continuing sharp inequities of power between say the west and the non-west.

Such a notion of free mobility does not square with our own experience in the

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“peripheries” of world capitalism, where struggles against displacement and dislocation of rural populations have become acute, as land acquisitions create ever larger number of mobile populations of “development refugees”. Similarly, struggles over urban space have erupted with particular sharpness in recent years. The process of relatively freer flow of populations, within the nation-space, that was so characteristic of the decades following decolonisation, and which made the postcolonial city a hospitable site for large numbers of people coming in search of livelihoods, is now sought to be halted, as nation states prepare these metropolises for foreign capital and the consumerist middle classes.

On the global level too, analyses of the recent rejection of the European constitution by large sections of people in France and Netherlands, for instance, show that at least one of the major concerns behind it was the fear of immigrants and the “lesser Europeans” trooping into these countries, throwing their own societies into crises. And these crises have to do with material questions like jobs and resources, as much as they have to with questions of culture. Free mobility and the possibility of “nomadism” are actually available only to the most privileged, who inhabit the “uncluttered spaces” of an anonymous, individuated modern existence. For the bulk of the populations, at least in the third world, who live in the dense and cluttered spaces of rural and urban community life, the liberation from space has not yet come. The meaning of the postnational moment for these populations is not quite one of movements and flows but something very different, which I intend to explore below.

Partha Chatterjee has responded to Appadurai’s suggestion with a certain sense of legitimate alarm. Chatterjee reads in Appadurai’s discussion a possible argument for “postnational forms of government”

– which may not have been the latter’s suggestion. This is, however, an argument that many others have made in recent times, as for example, the advocates of “cosmopolitan democracy”. These advocates have already begun thinking in terms of “world citizens” “whose membership in world organisations would no longer be mediated through their nationality but would have popular representation in a

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world parliament through direct elections above the national level”.1 There are different versions of this idea, including the cruder versions of “world governance” advocated by many powerful international institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Global Civil Society

While Chatterjee might be unjustly reading all this into Appadurai’s proposal, his alarm, it seems, is because he also reads in Appadurai’s essay – not without justification – a position which too has acquired an increasing popularity among scholars and activists in recent years: a case for a global civil society. Chatterjee argues that “a considerable part of transnational activities today take place in the domain of non-state institutions under the sign of a modernisation of civil social formation” (Chatterjee 2003). He further argues: “These are the activities of a transnational public sphere whose moral claims derive from the assumed existence of a domain of universal civil society” (ibid: 143). These organisations, UN agencies, women’s organisations, human rights groups, etc, “act as an external check on sovereign powers of the nation state and occupy the critical moral position of a global civil society assessing the incomplete modernity of particular national political formations” (ibid: 143).

Chatterjee is rightly wary of such global civil society or public sphere activism based on the language of individual autonomy and the rights discourse, that is often deployed quite innocently alongside the more cynical use of such rhetoric by the US in its political interventions across the globe. In a lecture delivered after 11 September and the US “war on terror”, for example, he likens these kind of activist efforts to the squirrel in the Ramayana, carrying pebbles one by one for building the bridgehead of Empire. Chatterjee is justly worried that the “celebratory rhetoric” and “high moral passion” associated with these visions of global modernity elide the political-strategic implications of such postnational formations. He likens the current phase of globalisation of universal rights to the “moral cultural drive to spread ‘modernity’ throughout the world”, associated with colonisation. His argument provides another vantage point of viewing the

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phenomenon identified by Hardt and Negri

– that of being called-into-being of Empire.

Chatterjee concludes his argument by stating quite forcefully that the struggles within the nation state, which are about democracy rather than modernity, therefore, situate themselves on the site of the internal, national domain of political society, rather than that of a universal, global civil society. As opposed to this, in the latter sphere of transnational civil society, he suggests, the framing idea is that of modernity and this, he argues, will inevitably structure the world in a colonial pattern based as its normative ideals are on those of western modernity. The logic of contestations over democracy and representation in political society, on the other hand, often violates the “universal modern conventions” of civil society.

The problem, of course, is that despite the force of Chatterjee’s argument, there is an equally insurmountable problem with an argument that seeks to confine struggles and movements to the space “within the nation”. For now, on the other side, the argument against universalism and the rights discourse gets incorporated within the cultural exceptionalist, rather essentialist rhetoric of many tyrannical third world regimes, which we know have strongly argued against human rights on this ground. In fact, this is precisely what Jurgen Habermas cites in his impassioned argument for the kind of global modernity that Chatterjee is arguing against. Habermas cites, in particular, the sharp conflict that came to the fore at the Vienna Conference on Human Rights, where a number of Asian governments like that of Singapore adopted this line of argument. He also refers to the 1993 Bangkok Declaration jointly signed by Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and China (Habermas op cit: 123). This then is the scenario: the army of global modernity marching under the banner of universalism (of rights) confronting the indigenous oppressors of all hues, presenting their anti-imperialism under the banner of cultural exceptionalism.

It is, of course, incorrect to say that Chatterjee makes an argument for exceptionalism. On the contrary, he continuously points to struggles within these societies that challenge the inequities of power and resources, but reminds us repeatedly that

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these struggles can only be fought within the domain of national political societies. In her argument against the “universalisation of human rights” position, Nivedita Menon finds in Chatterjee’s claim the openings of a third possibility: one that can steer clear of both the universalist claims of human rights discourse and the nationalist, anti-west rhetoric of the above-mentioned third world regimes. She finds the notion of political society important in underlining the fact that we are dealing here with many different forms of modernity. She thus emphasises that the notion of political society must be seen as neither modern nor traditional – a domain of contested modernities (Menon 2004).

However, this is a direction Chatterjee does not take – namely, the opening of a third possibility: The Kurdish men and women or the ordinary Afghan people, whose instance I cited above, cannot be seen, by any stretch of imagination, to belong to the normative world of western modernity or global civil society. If anything, they must be seen as part of the “national” domain of political society in a way that immediately throws the “national” into crisis. This is where things start becoming messy. Transversal alliances, often fleeting and momentary, are being continuously forged between oppressed and subjugated populations in one part of the world, with what are sometimes the bigger oppressors than the more proximate ones.

In the following section, therefore, I will examine what I think is a more general condition, namely, the “opportunism” of minority cultures/existence. This is also where the framing binaries of empire and colony, espoused by postcolonial theorists, seem to me to fail to recognise other voices that are continuously, simultaneously at play – voices that do not fit into either term of the binary.

2 Nations and Minority Cultures

Before we enter into the vexed question of the “opportunism” of minority cultures and their significance for understanding the postnational in a more complex and layered way, a brief discussion of the paradigm of nationhood will be in order. I would like to begin an exploration of this paradigm of nationhood by narrating two stories picked up at random from contemporary India, which suggest a different notion of belonging embodied in very different lived categories that structure the “cognitive map” of the popular.

The first is the story of an old man from the “east” – that is eastern Uttar Pradesh, a province in north India – a purabiya as “easterners” are referred to in spoken Hindi. This man, Mata Badal, came from a village in the Awadh region and worked as a gardener in the house in Dehra Dun, where we grew up. Every other year he would take leave from my father to go to his des (literally country or homeland). He would tell us that he did not like life here in this pardes or foreign land, where he had clearly come in search of livelihood. As children we used to laugh at his “ignorance”: how silly of him, we often thought, that he does not even know that his desh (country/nation) is the whole of India. What I did not realise then but have begun to feel increasingly now is that his des was emphatically not a mere apabhransha or a linguistically “fallen” form, of the purer, Sanskritik desh; that it embodied a different mode of being and notion of belonging. Outside this des, he seemed to live like an exile. It is also interesting that this was/is not merely his idea of belonging, but also of all those who would refer to him as an “easterner”, for implicit in the notion of the purabiya is the idea of the frontier or horizon outside of which what is east does not matter. Even “Calcutta”, which, for instance, became the object of so many folk songs of separation for the inhabitants of east Uttar Pradesh, does not figure at all within the limits of the lived geography of the western UP (now Uttarakhand) inhabitants, till very recently.

My second story, that of Zubeida, is even more fascinating. This story was narrated by Nivedita Menon, who met Zubeida in the relief camps in Gujarat in June 2002, after the carnages, which had completely destroyed her bangle trade (Menon 2002). In the course of one of the conversations, Zubeida asked her, “Have you ever been to Bindravan (sic)?”.2 On getting an answer in the negative, she asked yet again, “Never been there? Not even for pilgrimage (teerath)?” and then wistfully added, “woh hamaara vatan hai (that is my land)”.3 Zubeida, a Muslim woman from the land of Krishna, permeated with a Vaishnavite ethos, sitting in the camps of Gujarat, and barely able to pronounce the actual Sanskritik name of her land – and yet, she thinks of it as hers. Contrast this attachment and sense of Zubeida’s belonging to Vrindavan to her relationship to the “nation” that is India, where she is a perpetual outsider – always a potential traitor or a Pakistani agent. Vrindavan never demands any demonstration of unflinching loyalty of her in the way that India does. Vrindavan, her vatan, like Mata Badal’s des, is never overcome by the sense of crisis that the nation is perpetually threatened by, in relation to its inhabitants. It needs no continuous reiteration of loyalty; it simply is. The nation, on the other hand, as Ernest Renan, that ardent champion and theorist of nationalism, famously put it, is a daily plebiscite (Renan 1996). Loyalty for the nation must be rehearsed and reproduced, every day, every hour.

Pedagogical Enterprise

What is the relationship of Mata Badal’s des and Zubeida’s vatan to this entity called “India, that is Bharat”? It is easy to explain these terms away as ignorance – and that is precisely my point. The spirit of Indian-ness, the idea that one belongs to some larger landmass with specific cultural contours, has to be inculcated through the massive pedagogical enterprise of national education. Only then can one become a national/citizen.

At one level, these are not unusual stories. In other time/s, in other place/s, there have

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certainly been many such instances. Miroslav Hroch mentions the instance of the district of Polesie in inter-war Poland. When its inhabitants were asked in the Census of 1919 about their nationality, “most of them just replied: from hereabouts” (Horch 1996). Or, take the instance of France in the 1880s, when General Georges Boulanger decided to contest the elections and his Flemish supporters revolted against him for presenting them as “French”. “We are Flemish and Flanders is our land” was their war cry. They saw France as an entity that merely sucked their blood (Weber 1999).

We can dispose of one possible line of argument of an old historicist thought, right away. Such an argument will hold that we are today where the French were in the 1880s or the Polish in 1919. It is also easy to explain the prevalence of these notions by pointing to the “lack of education” and “low level of consciousness” of the people concerned and thereby argue that, “we are actually getting there” – this is just the road all nations traverse on the way to full nationhood.

Apart from ardent nationalists, such an argument will have few takers today and it need not detain us here. It is by now, widely recognised that the idea that all societies must take the same route to modern nationhood and eventual emancipation through the attainment of the ideal of abstract universal citizenship, is deeply flawed and flows from a eurocentric conception of the world. It is generally recognised nowadays, that there is no such thing as a world-historical telos, a common goal towards which all societies – or worse, the world in the singular – are moving. There is a further recognition today that different societies may have different visions of their own “preferred futures”.4

Clearly, this recognition is a relatively recent development in social and political theory. But the matter does not end with this recognition. That is the easier task. We need, in that case, to ask some further questions about the persistence of notions of belonging that do not need the existence of the nation-form. What if the expression of this different sense of belonging to the des or vatan were not mere remnants of a past consciousness, a relic of some other era, but constitute a different view of the world in our “here and now”?

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What if we see these notions of belonging, not as something to be overcome by “educating the illiterate masses” and instilling national consciousness in them, but as expressions of the fact that the everyday lives of common people are negotiated through a very different set of categories from the ones that the idea of nationhood accustoms us to? What are the theoretical implications of acknowledging that different “societies” have or can have their “own” preferred futures? What is this entity that we call “society” which can ostensibly have a singular will directing it towards its preferred future? Some of these questions call for much more sustained exploration, not all of which can be undetrtaken within the limits of this paper.

I should also refer here to one line of argument put forward for, instance, by Chris Bayly, in a different context. Bayly looks at the formation of bazaars and the emergence of regional marketing and financial systems between 1500 and 1800 CE and concomitant notions of “deshs, watans and nadus” and places them squarely in the pre-history of nationalism (Bayly 1998). He attempts to show that these local ideas of belonging were the pre-existing bases on which later nationalism was to grow. Apart from the fact that this argument is firmly located within the telos of nationhood that I have already referred to above, it will not certainly account for the persistence of these categories in the present. It will not do to simply refer to the persistence of these notions in the present as “survivals”

– for they simply beg the question. We must ask some further questions about the theoretical status of these “survivals”, especially when they continue to be critical to the lived experience of large numbers of people in the present. My argument is that the nationform cannot really deal with the ideas of des (not desh, as Bayly calls it), vatan or nadu. It is precisely by erasing the presence of these notions of belonging that the nation seeks to establish its sovereignty. I might also mention that this kind of nationalist teleology is seriously problematised even by Britian’s recent history with the Scotts and the Welsh reasserting themselves and Scotland even getting its own parliament, or more recently, the fears of the break-up of Belgium.5 These developments indicate, at the very least that nationalism may not

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really be the last station on the road to abstract universal citizenship.

‘Paradigm of Nationhood’

The central problem of what I am referring to as the “paradigm of nationhood” is that of aggregating what have been till then so many different social, cultural and geographical entities into a single entity of the nation. It must weld together all these different entities – let us call them “localities”

– with different pasts and different presents, into one big modern nation. As Eugen Weber has suggested in his study of the French nation, at least in this respect, the process of nation-formation functions in quite the same way as colonialism. The claims of the nation’s sovereignty can become real and tangible only to the extent that the pasts of the localities are either erased or reproduced within a narrative of the nation’s history. History, as the new “science” becomes the weapon of the nation in its fight to produce a common past and thereby posit a common destiny, against the claims of the locality. The profound insight that, in a sense, colonisation/colonialism constitutes the paradigmatic form that is the basis of all nation-formation is crucial here. For the nation to emerge, then, its sovereignty over its “own” territory is established through the marking out of the territory (and people), in the first place (which is in effect, simultaneously, a demarcation of its external sovereignty), and through their assimilation into a new national culture.

This historical possibility, however, is closed for anti-colonial nationalisms, which began taking shape in the course of their fight for liberation from colonial rule, and thus had to hammer out an agreement with different kinds of political aspirations that began emerging alongside them. This process was undoubtedly complex and multilayered but nationalisms, so long as they remain such (caught within the imaginary of the nation state with a single culture), can never give up the ambition of eventually erasing all difference. That is where minority cultures become problematic. That is also where the attempts by nationalism to give itself an ancient and glorious past, creates more problems than it can solve, for not all communities can ever share that particular past.

There are enough instances in India’s own history, especially in the colonial context, which indicate the desire of oppressed cultures to seek their liberation by aligning with the colonising power. I have argued elsewhere that dalit and lower caste assertions in late colonial India represent one important current that seeks to constantly disrupt the binary of colonialism/ nationalism in the course of charting out its own path of liberation. It is well known that dalit and “lower caste” ideologues and intellectuals have always seen colonialism as the liberator of the dalits. I have also discussed the phenomenon of the “opportunism of minority cultures”, with respect to Muslim identity in India, elsewhere, and shall not go into it here (Nigam 2006 op cit). In the remainder of this paper, I shall explore the notion of transversal politics and transversal alliances and what they might mean in terms of thinking afresh the concept of power, as also the different ways of dealing with it.

3 Transversal Alliances: The Global Conjuncture

Deleuze, Guattari and Foucault occasionally use the term “transversal” politics to refer to specific struggles but none of them really define the term. Nira Yuval-Davis has also used the category “transversal politics” in a somewhat different sense to refer to the construction of a dialogic space across difference (between women from different cultures) that can help overcome the universality/particularity dichotomy. To Foucault, transversal struggles are not limited to any one country; they are transnational. Moreover, such struggles do not necessarily limit themselves to either horizontal or vertical alliances or solidarities. All these senses of “transversal”, however, still gesture very much to alliances or solidarities between different kinds of oppressed sections. I will use this term in order to refer to a wide range of struggles and modes of political intervention, which have emerged or become visible, over last couple of decades, including some that could fall under the category of global civil society activism, which are forced to negotiate their way within a complex web of power. There is a high degree of complexity here as it is often difficult, if not impossible, to permanently fix a hierarchy of evils; these struggles are thus often forced to seek alliances, even if momentarily, that may seem quite opportunist, if not downright dangerous.

In recent times, in India, we have seen the furious controversy that raged, for instance, over the decision of some dalit organisations to raise the issue of caste oppression/discrimination in the United Nations Conference on Race and Other Related Forms of Discrimination, held in Durban in 2001. Both, the fact that dalit groups decided to raise the issue as well as the fact that almost all shades of nationalist opinion came out in an open opposition, using the well-worn nationalist argument that this is our “internal matter” and should not therefore be raised in international forums, underlined the extent of division between two kinds of positions. This time round the stridency of opposition to this move of the dalit groups, despite the fact that a UN conference does not have quite the same status as a colonising power, revealed how resistant the dominant and powerful nationalist interests are to any move to take matters out of the purview of the nation state’s jurisdiction – never mind the fact that the nation state itself has hardly shown any interest in dealing squarely with questions of continuing caste-based discrimination.

Discussion in International Forums

In the last two decades, the question of raising “internal matters” in international forums has come up quite often and sometimes in ways more problematic than raising them at UN conferences. The question of human rights violations by the Indian state in the north-east, especially Nagaland, could not find a sympathetic ear inside the country till the matter was raised through forums like the Amnesty International. Another question that acquired the character of a serious controversy among activists groups was the attempt to lobby international support for the struggle against the displacement of the Narmada tribals led by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), especially an instance of deposition by some supporters before the United States Congress. And yet, it is also undeniable that the only time the NBA campaign achieved some measure of success was, when, as a consequence of international lobbying, the World Bank was forced to suspend financial support for the Sardar Sarovar dam. Inside the “nation”, this struggle, around one of the most hotly debated public issues, has routinely invited the epithet “anti-national” by most mainstream political parties.

Once again, more recently, when the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat were going on in 2002, some anti-communal activists had to take recourse to international campaigns and lobbying, including deposing before the US Congressional Committee on Religious Freedom. It was these and the subsequent campaign undertaken by Indian and south Asian groups in the US, that the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi was denied a visa to the US.

As against these instances of struggle, let me take up one that actually lost the opportunity to fight a determined battle because its imagination continued to be hegemonised by the “imaginary of the nation state”. This is the instance of the Indian side of debate on the social clause. It is worth remembering that the first labour legislations in India were enacted as a result of the “trade wars” between the nascent indigenous industry and the textile barons of England. As Bipan Chandra shows

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in his study of economic nationalism in India, “first impulse towards legislative action to mitigate the harshness of the evils of capitalist industrialism in India came from England, whose philanthropists and textile manufacturers joined hands to demand statutory protection for the health of the women and children employed in Indian factories” (Chandra 1966).

The Social Clause

We know that as the final negotiations to the Uruguay Round on the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade (GATT) came to an end, on the eve of the signing of the accord, the metropolitan countries produced their trump card: Trade could genuinely be free, they argued, only when all conditions were equal. But third world entrepreneurs have an unfair advantage insofar as they employ cheap and overexploited labour, child labour and have the benefit of practically non-existent environmental regulations. They thus proposed the inclusion of a clause in the international trade treaty that would link trade to certain universal labour, human rights and environmental standards. This was the proposed “social clause” that included all those universal norms that are emblazoned on the banner of “global modernity”.

The Indian – and most third world governments – protested mildly and with considerable hesitation.6 In January 1995, the Fifth Conference of the Labour Ministers of Non-Aligned and Other Developing Countries, held in New Delhi adopted a declaration that expressed “deep concern about the serious post-Marrakesh efforts at seeking to establish linkage between international trade and enforcement of labour standards through the imposition of the social clause” (CEC Dossier: 161). While the government was hesitant to take a very tough stand on what was ostensibly a measure against the Indian industrialists’ anti-labour policies, ironically, it was the trade unions which came out in total defence of the national capitalists. All the major trade unions gave their unstinted support to the government in the name of anti-imperialism. The CPI(M) weekly put it clearly: “the social clause is a singular issue on which there is unanimity not only among the trade unions and employers, but also on support to the government for wanting to reject the

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US move.”7 The position of the trade unions amounted to an unconditional declaration of support to the government, leaving no bargaining possibility whatsoever.

Expectedly, the dissenting voices came from the margins, where conditions were much more difficult. So for instance, Srilata Swaminadhan of the Rajasthan Kisan Sangathan argued that the fight over the social clause was between two sets of exploiters wanting a larger slice of the pie at the expense of the toiling people of the world and that if the Indian workers wanted to improve their lot they should use this opportunity; they should “fight and insist on the linkage of the social clause with multilateral trade agreements” (Swaminadhan 1994). Sujata Gothoskar of the Workers’ Solidarity Centre, Mumbai, did see problems in the institution of the social clause, its monitoring, its use or misuse but underlined the need for evolving an independent worker-oriented position (Gothoskar 1994). Thomas Kocherry of the National Fishworkers’ Forum, expressed his ambivalence: “On the one hand, it is clear that the real motivations of the developed countries are dubious, on the other hand, the failure of our government in protecting workers makes one wonder whether it is an opportunity to be exploited”.8

Hegemony of Organised Working Class

I may also mention here that the Indian case represents a higher degree of hegemony of the organised public sector working class organisations over the trade union movement and they enjoy relatively better living and working conditions. In many other third world countries, the situation is such that even the mainstream trade unions find it difficult to take such a straightforward nationalist position. For instance, take the case of the Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC). In March 1994, it announced in anticipation, that “it supports a GATT social clause” according to the International Metalworkers Federation. The MTUC statement went on to argue that “if the world’s companies can have common global rules, then so too, can the world’s workers” (Workers Rights News 1994). According to the International Metalworkers Federation, the MTUC statement was only one more position in a chain of similar

vol xliv no 10

stances adopted by trade union leaders in Singapore, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uganda, Ghana, Chile, Argentina and Venezuela (ibid: 6). Even more interesting and symptomatic of the difficult conditions of struggle in the third world, is the instance of the Peruvian government threatening union leaders with life imprisonment, branding their action of deposing before the United States Trade Representative (USTR), as “treason against the state”. Three union leaders including Teodulo Hernandez, the secretary general of the Confederacion General de Trabajadores del Peru (CGTP) and representatives of Centre for Labour Counsel (CEDAL) and Coordinadora de Centrales Sindicales del Peru, had earlier met representatives of the USTR to give their perspective on their government’s response to a complaint before the US Generalised System of Preferences sub-committee. They had argued that Peru “failed to qualify for the programme, which provides duty-free access to the US market because it is not affording workers the rights of association and collective bargaining”.9

From this above description then, it is evident that wherever the conditions of survival and struggle were more difficult, even mainstream trade unions adopted a position of welcoming, in a manner of speaking, the imposition of universal norms by the western countries. At the very least, their position amounted to a tactical support, utilising the conflict between two capitals or between their nation states and western governments, to extract a better bargain for the workers. In India, where the trade unions are dominated by fairly comfortable public sector workers, who in any case receive more than prescribed minimum wages and enjoy trade union rights, the trade unions’ investment in nationalism was much greater. More importantly, from our point of view, unlike the other instances discussed above, these are struggles within political society that in a sense, even function on the logic of political society – extended on a global scale. Let us recall Chatterjee’s own argument: One of the crucial aspects of the logic of political society is that it does not have recourse to the language of rights but makes its claims on the state by utilising the opportunities afforded by the electoral-democratic system, striking alliances with or seeking the support of political parties and their leaders or groups within civil society that are willing to take up their cause. The logic of struggle within political society is such that sections of such groups in struggle, might ally with one arm of the state against the other.

4 Flight, Escape, Play

A closer look at these movements and struggles will show that they operate without the luxury of the Manichean imaginary of a world divided into two camps – with all the oppressors on one side and all the oppressed on the other. If it is true that an “overdetermination of contradictions” that would lead to the fusion of a vast range of forces into a ruptural unity, is but a rare occurrence in history; if it is true as Gramsci observed, that the history of the subaltern classes is always episodic, being always subject to the disorganising activity of the ruling classes, then we must begin to see such struggles in a different light.

These struggles respond to a world that is messy; where the oppressor could be on any side of the Left/Right divide. Hence, the proliferation of what Laclau and Mouffe have called “democratic struggles”, on the other.10 Most of the movements discussed above are also self-consciously “antiimperialist” and opposed to the domination of western powers. This is certainly true of the NBA and many of the anticommunal groups in India; it is also true of most of the mainstream trade unions from different parts of the world that have either supported the social clause, or sought to utilise the opportunity presented by this threat from the western governments. Further, some of these are movements that do not think in terms of the “capture of state power” – for many of them have rejected such a state-centric politics. In fact, for some of them in India, the approach to state itself has changed. In a manner of speaking, many contemporary struggles operate under the unstated assumption that there is no “outside” to power – either of the state or of Empire.

If that be the case, these movements would appear to be telling us, then, all struggle is about operating in the interstices of power. The old marxist debate about “entryism”, for example, (whether to enter bourgeois institutions like the parliament), are thus irrelevant here. Their struggle is “everywhere”. They thus seek to “infect” and “contaminate” power itself.11 This might seem quite far-fetched for we are quite used to seeing power itself as corrupting. Who then can corrupt or contaminate power? Such a notion of power, I believe, is still lodged in the 19th century notion of power as sovereignty, as a thing located at a particular node of the social body. It is something that one possesses. As opposed to this, the unarticulated notion of power that underlies many of the new kinds of political subjectivities that I have gestured towards, is a notion that is of a capillary or network form. If we are always-already constituted as subjects by power and we are always in its web, then the question is not one of entering or exiting an imaginary space – outside of which one may choose to remain pure and uncontaminated. Rather, the question then is of identifying the relations of power that one is inserted into and evolving responses adequate to that context.

In these kinds of contexts, the domain of political action is constituted by counterstrategies that play off one kind of power against another, without permanently committing to one side as though it were a battle between good and evil. We might need, then, to see these kinds of movements and stuggles as practices (and subjectivities) that emerge with the collapse of many of the modernist conceptual boundaries that had defined our world so far. Paradigmatic of such boundaries was, of course, the territorial borders of the nation state. But there are certainly others that I have discussed above such as those between say the left and the right, which scarcely exhaust the entire conceptual political space of the contemporary any more.


1 See discussion in Habermas (2001). Also see, Archibugi, Held and Kohler (1998). This idea of “world citizenship” is, of course, a far more legalistic one than the romantic, neo-Deleuzian one referred to earlier.

2 “Bindravan” was Zubeida’s way of pronouncing Vrindavan, the land of the birth of Lord Krishna and an area, which for that reason is considered a pilgrimage site.

3 The Urdu word “vatan” is actually the exact counterpart of the “des” of the spoken Hindi language.

4 I have borrowed this term from Alam (1999). 5 See for instance, Robert Weilaard (2007), “Belgium Downplays Break-up Concerns”, http://ap.

march 7, 2009

CWsu3uP8gk8gD8S4HP380, downloaded on 9 October 2007.

6 Social Clause in Multilateral Trade Agreements (A Dossier on Social Clause). Centre for Education and Communication, New Delhi, p 163. All documents quoted in relation to the social clause debate, unless otherwise stated, are from this dossier published by the CEC, (Henceforth, CEC Dossier)

7 People’s Democracy, 4 December 1994, New Delhi. That this unanimity was a fiction existing only in the imagination of the Left, is evident from the positions adopted by the government and industry.

8 Ibid, p 162. Thomas Kocherry has since taken a position in opposition to the social clause. However, the fact that it did present a dilemma in the initial stages, before the overall position of the trade unions hegemonised this space, is important.

9 “Testimony at USTR Draws Attacks on Peruvian Labour Representatives”, ibid, p 3.

10 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe differentiate between what they call “popular struggles”, which are based on the idea of two camps (the oppressors and the oppressed), and “democratic struggles”, which are based on the proliferation of antagonisms of different kinds – none of which, by implication can be treated as less important.

11 I borrow this expression from Linden Farrer, “World Forum Movement: Abandon or Contaminate”, free/wsf/worldforum.htm (accessed on 4 September 2007).


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Appadurai, Arjun (1993), “Patriotism and Its Futures”, Public Culture, Vol 5, No 3, Spring, pp 411-29.

Archibugi, Daniele, David Held and Martin Kohler (1998): Re-imagining Political Community – Studies on Cosmopolitan Democracy (UK: Polity Press).

Bayly, C A (1998):P Origins of Nationality in South Asia – Patriotism and Ethical Government in the Making of Modern India (Delhi: Oxford University Press), p 20.

Chandra, Bipan (1966): The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House), p 327.

Chatterjee, Partha (2003): “Beyond the Nation? Or Within” in Carolyn M Elliott (ed.), Civil Society and Democracy – A Reader (Delhi: Oxford University Press), p 143.

Gothoskar, Sujata (1994): “The Social Clause – Whose Interest Is it Serving”, People’s Democracy (op cit), pp 59-65.

Habermas, Jurgen (2001): The Postnational Constellation – Political Essays (UK: Polity Press), p 107.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri (2000): Empire (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press).

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Menon, Nivedita (2002): “Surviving Gujarat 2002”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol xxvii, No 27, pp 2676-78.

– (2004): Recovering Subversion – Feminist Politics Beyond the Law (Delhi: Permanent Black and Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press), pp 225-28.

Nigam, Aditya (2006): “The Insurrection of Little Selves: The Crisis of Secular-Nationalism in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

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– A Reader (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp 42-55.

Swaminadhan, Srilata (1994): “Towards International Solidairty” in People’s Democracy, 4 December, New Delhi, pp 57-58.

Weber, Eugen (1999): Peasants Into Frenchmen (California: Stanford University Press), p 100. Workers’ Rights News (1994): “Asian Unions Join Call for Social Clause”, Issue No 9, Spring, p 6.

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