Language, power, nationalism

To understand Benedict Anderson’s influential work, it is important to follow the arc of his life and travels.

Updated - March 24, 2016 10:27 am IST

Published - December 17, 2015 12:11 am IST



In 1981, Salman Rushdie wrote Midnight’s Children , in which the protagonist Saleem Sinai says: “A nation which had never previously existed, was about to win its freedom… It was a mass fantasy shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat, and would periodically need the satisfaction and renewal which can only be provided by rituals of blood.”

Two years later, three scholars of history and political science began a debate on nationalism. What did nationalism mean and how was it defined or constructed? The scholars were Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm. Anderson, Aaron L. Binenkorb Professor Emeritus of International Studies, Government and Asian Studies at Cornell University, > died on December 13 in Indonesia leaving behind a formidable academic legacy.

Imagined community Anderson’s most influential work was Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983), where, puzzled by the rise of nationalisms across the world, he sought to first explain what a nation was and then to trace the rise of different nationalisms. This book, in which he curiously echoed the argument made by Rushdie’s newly post-colonial protagonist mentioned above, has since been translated into 30 languages and is still required reading in most political science courses across the world.

Vasundhara Sirnate

For Anderson a nation was imagined, as it was an agreed upon dream or a “horizontal comradeship” shared by people who did not know each other and would not know each other and still shared the same concept of the nation despite the persistence of inequalities and exploitative relations between them. He wrote, “Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”

Critiques A challenging critique of Anderson’s work came from Partha Chatterjee, who raised the question, “Whose imagined community?” In an eponymous essay published in 1996, Chatterjee challenged Anderson’s idea of modular forms of nationalism developed in the West as providing the mould for various anti-colonial nationalisms. Could all anti-colonial nationalism be reducible to mere borrowing? If so, then what exactly were these nations “imagining”? Chatterjee argued that in many colonised nations, an anti-colonial nationalism had already developed and remained within the non-colonised, traditional, inner domain where the coloniser had been able to assert little power. After a point, it was externalised or became public through novels and public schools and this articulation of nationalism, embedded in the distinctness of the traditional or the spiritual, became the foundation of many anti-colonial nationalisms. Such articulations of an “inner” nationalism were further found in popular novels like Ghare Bhaire (The Home and the World) by Rabindranath Tagore in 1916. For Chatterjee, the production of consent about the nation meant that subaltern narratives had to be suppressed and at the same time accommodated by the elite. So the Andersonian process was much more complicated in practice than the book claimed.

It is difficult to understand the motivations of Anderson’s influential work without examining his own ambulant life. He was the son of Irish-English parents and was born in Kunming in China in 1936. His family moved to California in 1941 and to Ireland in 1945 where one-half of the family constituted Republican supporters stressing on an Irish nationalism. After getting a B.A. in Classics at the University of Cambridge in 1957, he enrolled at Cornell University, where he subsequently earned a Ph.D in 1967 with a focus on Southeast Asia, in particular Indonesia.

While his anti-imperialist thinking was already strengthened at Cambridge, Cornell provided to him a set of formidable research skills that led to him anonymously co-authoring a paper with Ruth McVey that argued that the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) and Sukarno had little to do with the September 30, 1965 coup in Indonesia. After a bloodletting where six top generals of the army were killed in an attempt to crush the rebellion, General Suharto had to maintain order. McVey and Anderson wrote, “The actual originators of the coup are to be found not in Djakarta, but in Central Java, among middle-level Army officers in Semarang, at the Headquarters of the Seventh (Diponegoro) Territorial Division”. This paper, known now as the “Cornell Paper”, was ultimately published in 1966, and led to Anderson being banned from entering Indonesia until 1988.

A polyglot, he also studied the relationship between language and power, and among the books he subsequently published are Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (1990) and The Fate of Rural Hell: Asceticism and Desire in Buddhist Thailand (2012).

(Vasundhara Sirnate is the Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council, Washington DC.)

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