Event Report “2015-16 Christopher Ondaatje Lecture on South Asian Art, History and Culture”

Acharya, Pushpa Raj | November 6, 2015

A photo of Centre of South Asian Studies event on 1 October, 2015 | Image: Asian Institute, University of Toronto

Partha Chatterjee, Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies at Columbia University, delivered the 2015-16 Christopher Ondaatje Lecture on South Asian Art, History and Culture in an event hosted by the Centre for South Asian Studies (CSAS) and the Asian Institute (AI) at the Munk School of Global Affairs on October 1, 2015. The Director of the CSAS, Professor Ritu Birla made the opening remarks and also facilitated the discussion session after Chatterjee’s talk titled: “Nationalism, Internationalism and Cosmopolitanism: Some Observations from Modern Indian History.”

Chatterjee’s lecture was an examination of the interconnections among nationalism, internationalism and cosmopolitanism in twentieth century India. Chatterjee argued that the triadic connections of movements and ideas underlined “the historical achievements of nationalism and internationalism” despite “the recent call for a cosmopolitan global order superseding the nation states.”

Chatterjee began the talk by referring to the eighteenth century Indian ruler Tipu Sultan who had sought help from the Ottomans and the French to fight a war against the British East India Company. Tipu’s appeal to quam (nation) was a different form of internationalism, rather than mere nationalism. The political forms of nationalism, uncoupled with internationalism emerged in India with the formation of the Indian National Congress in the late nineteenth century. After a few decades of the nationalist struggle, the Indian nationalist leaders demanded full national sovereignty in the 1920s. Their notion of democratic nationalism was a rejection of the idea that the empire or imperialism offered a better rule in colonies.

Along with the nonviolent democratic nationalist movements, the militant nationalist movements also thrived in India. The latter exhibited internationalist characteristics. Radical Indian students in Europe created the links between the Indian nationalist revolutionaries and international socialist or communist movements. Indian militant nationalism drew upon the guerrilla movements, the unification of Italy, the Irish anticolonial movement and Japanese victory over Russia for a justification of armed conflicts. Chatterjee supplemented this idea with the example of Subhas Chandra Bose, a militant leader, who was an internationalist with a nationalist goal. Similarly, a pan-Islamic Khilafat movement in India dispatched a group to support the Ottomans in war, although Mustafa Kemal gave up the idea of Khilafat or empire and accepted the form of a modern nation state.

The talk then shifted to how the process of ‘normalization’ of the nation state model began with the formation of The League of Nations. As a liberal, colonial project under international management, the League accepted the condition of sovereignty as the concept of nation state. The governmental practices and empirical data collection and management, including those of primitive societies, generated a similar and universally comparable data of nation states. The International Labour Organization and the Commission for Refugees then put the technologies of governments into practice, turning the citizens to the care of governments. The Permanent Court of International Justice played the role of a legal monitor for the sovereign states.

Other forms of nationalist movements and debates began in the colonies following the idea of Communist Internationalism, which had succeeded the Socialist Internationalism in the post-Bolshevik period. It was in Lenin’s critique of European imperialism that the Indian communist leaders found their inspiration. Yet, soon Communist Internationalism ended up as a part of the Soviet foreign policy. This was manifest in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, leading to the development of three strategies of internationalism: right wing, left wing and something in-between – the last one being the internationalism of the non-aligned nations.

A photo of Centre of South Asian Studies event on 1 October, 2015 | Image: Asian Institute, University of Toronto
A photo of Centre of South Asian Studies event on 1 October, 2015 | Image: Asian Institute, University of Toronto

The Bandung conference in 1955 marked the beginning of the internationalism of non-aligned, new, independent nations. The internationalism of the Non-Aligned Movement appealed for “the end of colonial rule and racial discrimination and the formal establishment of equal sovereignty of all nation-states.” The Movement held national sovereignty as supreme along with other ideas such as the five principles (territorial integrity and sovereignty; non-aggression; non-interference in domestic affairs; equality and mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence), liberty, democracy, and autonomy based on popular revolt. The Non-Aligned Movement located the moral legitimacy of the new postcolonial nation states in their rights to self-determination of people and nation.

But the postcolonial regimes in Asia and Africa in the 1980s became authoritarian, corrupt and violent. So the international intervention for ‘protecting’ both individual and human rights in sovereign nation states became a new norm in the post-Soviet neo-liberal era. In these contexts, Chatterjee observed that one might remember the old and new notions of cosmopolitanism in such contexts. Immanuel Kant reminded us about cosmopolitanism based on civil rights: a notion that cosmopolitan rights should be based on universal hospitality. Rabindranath Tagore had critiqued European models of nationalism and found hope in Eastern practices of social unity as a more suitable model of cosmopolitanism. Tagore turned to the aesthetic world citizenship as a new model of cosmopolitanism. In conclusion then, Chatterjee imparted the idea that internationalism and cosmopolitanism could not entirely disregard notions of old nationalism, as there were new forms of colonial and imperial forces at work.

Pushpa Raj Acharya is a second year PhD student in Comparative Literature and South Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. 

About Pushpa Raj Acharya 2 Articles
Pushpa Raj Acharya is a second year PhD student in Comparative Literature and South Asian Studies at the University of Toronto.

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