Sujay Biswas: JNU SPECTRESS Fellow in Zagreb, Croatia

The historian who draws an analogy between the break-up of nation-states like the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (into six independent republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia), with the birth of nation-states like India, finds the varying definitions that nationalism can acquire in different contexts particularly noticeable. The historian who conducts such an analogy is given grounds for deducing that nationalism in nineteenth century Europe was fairly different from nationalism in twentieth-century India. Nationalism in nineteenth century Europe resulted in the break-up of nation-states comprising various racial, cultural and linguistic categories into comparatively kindred communities. In the context of India, the nation-state resulted from the union of the populace with diverse languages, different cultures, and who believed in varied traditions. European scholars spoke with delight of the intimate bonds of language, culture, and race that united the newly-born nation-states. Similarly, Indian nationalists talked with delight of their accomplishment in uniting into a single nation-state, the ethnically and culturally diverse people, and who followed different customs and traditions.

I was a Project SPECTRESS (Social Performances of Cultural Trauma and the Rebuilding of Solid Sovereignties) research fellow at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb, Zagreb, Croatia, from 1st October to 31st December 2016. During my fellowship, I had audited a course paper, ‘Theories of Nationalism’, taught by Dr. Nebojša Blanuša and Prof. Tihomir Cipek, and Prof. Nenad Zakošek’s ‘Democratic Transition and Consolidation of Democracy in Croatia in Comparative Perspective’ lectures on doctoral studies that dealt with at the faculty. I benefitted immensely from my interaction with Dr. Nebojša, my supervisor for the SPECTRESS Project, and other faculty members and students.

Sujay Biswas

L-R: Sujay Biswas, Prof. Aditya Mukherjee (Professor of Contemporary History, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India) and Dr. Nebojša Blanuša (Assistant Professor, Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb, Zagreb, Croatia).

I was told that the idea of Croatia is built primarily around religion and language. The majority of the citizens of Croatia (Croats or Croatians) identify themselves as Christians (Catholic) and speak Croatian (their native language). In fact, the Croats are said to have created specific Croatian words to distinguish the Croatian language and themselves from the neighbouring countries. Croatia, I was also informed, is unfortunately experiencing a decline in secular outlook and there is a resurgence of Right-wing ideology.

Croatia, therefore, provided an ideal environment for my proposed research, ‘Untouchability: Situating the ‘Trauma’ in the Making of the Nation’. The Indian national movement in “building the idea of India” faced a wide spectrum of challenges, of which the problem of caste divisions, particularly the practice of untouchability was a formidable one. Untouchability stands for the traumatizing humiliations imposed by the ‘caste-Hindus’ generation after generation on large sections of the ‘Untouchables’. For example, the ‘Untouchables’ were forced to live in segregated settlements, they were not allowed to use the public roads that privileged castes used, they were not permitted to drink from common wells, they were not allowed into Hindu temples, they were not allowed into privileged-caste schools, they were not permitted to cover their upper bodies, and they were only tolerated to wear certain kinds of clothes and certain types of jewellery, and so on and so forth. This reminds one of apartheid in India being practiced by the members of the same community.

The traumatic relationship between the ‘caste-Hindus’ and the ‘Untouchables’ had reached a crisis during the constitutional negotiations of 1932, and it took a “fast unto death” by Gandhi to cement a rift filled with the most destructive potential that held the prospect of balkanizing India.  Gandhi saw untouchability as constructing a ‘cultural trauma’. He not only cognitively identified the existence of the ‘Untouchables’’ suffering but also took on board significant responsibility for it. He wanted to bring an attitudinal change amongst the ‘caste-Hindus’ by creating “guilt consciousness” in them as they had been ill-treating their brethren for centuries. The method he adopted was to mobilize the feelings of “shame” and “guilt” among the ‘caste-Hindus’, and his movement against the practice of untouchability was a “penance” for them. He demanded that ‘caste-Hindus’ should participate in the social, economic and political uplift of the ‘Untouchables’ as part of their penance. In believing that the ‘caste-Hindus’ should share in the sufferings of the ‘Untouchables’, Gandhi tried to delimit the boundaries of the category “we,” of the ‘caste-Hindus’ as opposed to “them,” of the ‘Untouchables’ and rebuild a strong solidarity between “we” and “them.”

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About Jennifer Edmond

Dr Jennifer Edmond, is the Director of Strategic Projects in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. Trained as a scholar of German literature, Jennifer is mostly engaged professionally with the investigation of knowledge exchange and collaboration in Humanities research and in particular the impact of technology on these processes.
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