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Book Review


Pandey, Gyanendra. Routine Violence: Nations, Fragments, Histories (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006). 228 pp., $21.95.

     For Gyanendra Pandey, modern violence comprises not only the most spectacular forms of violence, but also its routinization in everyday life. In Routine Violence, Pandey examines the complicity of nationalist narratives in permitting what he calls the "undisguised" political violence of modern India. Seeking to depart from representations of modern violence as simply an adjunct to the destructive power of the state, the author argues that violence is constitutive of modern nationalism, locating its possibilities in the categories of thought that form the fabric of the writing of history and the political world it helps produce. In this short but dense monograph, Pandey traces how the logic of nationalist histories have reproduced themselves in the Right-wing Hindu movements of modern India, arguing that the justification of violence by these groups against the Hindu's Others—Muslims, in particular—and the erasure of violence as a constitutive factor in the emergence of the nation-state, proceed out of the actual process of writing history.

     Pandey's book is comprised of eight essays, each detailing a step in the historical process that has led to the rise of right-wing nationalist movements in India. "In Defense of the Fragment" exposes how, after independence, secular nationalist histories re-inscribed essentialisms that produced the Indian nation as sacred, pure, non-violent, and immemorial. In "The Nation and its Past," Pandey demonstrates how right-wing histories fully partook of this logic while simultaneously taking advantage of their disregard for the religious consciousness of the people. Nationalist secular history's naturalization of a singular collective subject as the subject of history opened the way for the Hindu Right's claim to represent this subject as purely Hindu, a claim backed with a profusion of historical detail posing as scientific scholarship. This operation resulted in a series of key displacements: non-Hindus were dislocated from the core of the nation, while the violence unleashed in its constitution—the trauma of Partition—was disregarded as peripheral to the rise of India. Furthermore, the secular historian's indifference to popular religious beliefs permitted right-wing historians to narrate the course of national consciousness in terms of the historical disempowerment of the Hindu at the hands of the Muslim. In "Monumental History," Pandey traces how the Shri Ram Janmabhumi, for example, became a symbol of the eternal and undefeated Hindu Nation and its historical unfolding in the battle against the foreign Muslim invader.

     The possibilities for imagining a heterogeneous nation were not always foreclosed, but they were quickly eroded. In "The Question of Belonging," Pandey relates how, for example, although V.D. Savarkar's Hindutva posited an organic order behind the "chaos" of castes and creeds, other works, such as M.S. Golwalkar's Bunch of Thoughts, restricted national identity strictly to Hindus. As important was Golwalkar's logic of defining the national through exclusions rather than inclusions. Defining the Hindu identity in the negative naturalized it. It permitted the construction of what Pandey calls the "unmarked" national. In the essay, "Marked and Unmarked Citizens," Pandey argues that in the wake of Partition and Independence, the Hindu became the explicit referent for articulating the Indian nation: it did not need to be invoked to be mobilized, a "silent, invisible majority." (147)

     In opposition to the unmarked national, other identities were constituted as minorities. The marginality inscribed upon these newly articulated national identities were applied unevenly, as Muslims, due to their numbers, ubiquity, and commercial power, were seen as a greater threat to the purity of the nation. Only a demonstrated willingness to die for the nation could justify citizenship, a test of loyalty that necessitated the denial of "any separate Muslim needs and of a Muslim perspective." (141) Erasures and displacements affected Dalits and women differently. Women were displaced into the symbol of the nation as Mother and Nurturer, their threatening sexuality denied in the attributes of purity and spirituality this representation implied. Political necessities aggravated the question of the Dalits, which upper-caste Hindus wished to appropriate into the Hindu fold, albeit in a subordinate role.

     In "Cognizing Community," Pandey makes his most forceful turn in this regard. Focusing on the crucial debate between Gandhi and Ambedkar, Pandey argues that post-Independence India needed an escape from Hinduism, an event not entirely possible given Gandhi's vision of the Hindu village. Gandhi's village as an organic community was infused with mythical qualities and a Hindu character. While Gandhi claimed that the Dalit question was strictly a Hindu issue, Ambedkar possessed little interest in any mythical past, insisting caste was an instrument of political, economic, as well as ritual oppression. Gandhi's position that the Dalit issue could be construed as solely a Hindu affair dangerously replicated for Pandey the private nature of religion in western liberal thought. In "The Secular State," Pandey deepens his criticism of Gandhi's utopianism. "It makes little sense in this context," Pandey argues, "to think of religion simply as a well-demarcated and stable system of doctrines, scriptures and beliefs." (171) He labels Gandhi's vision "arrogant" and "premised" problematically "on natural communities constituted by birth." (180) For the author, any imagination of community or the nation must contemplate the politics, and thus violence, that goes into the making of a community.

     This is a dense and sophisticated book, useful mostly for senior undergraduates and graduate students with a solid understanding of the general outlines of the history of modern nationalism in general and Indian nationalism in particular. There are no illustrations or glossaries to ease the process. World historians could well use the insights of Pandey's book to deepen their treatment of decolonization and the critique of the nation-state. Yet they would need to confront the implications of Pandey's invocation of the fragment, as it necessarily reflects negatively on any grand narratives of world history. Those fragments of other histories that Pandey finds in the testimony of victims of the trauma of Partition are not part of any whole, but fragments that speak of other histories beyond those of the nation. As long as world histories are plotted in linear fashion, developed in the secular homogenous time of historicist narratives, with the nation-state as its necessary end, they are complicit with the erasure of subaltern histories. Given this indictment of the "whole," perhaps a critique of the category "world" is now in order.





Victor J. Rodriguez


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