Organizer and Chair: Sankaran Krishna, University of Hawai'i, Manoa
Discussant: Shelley Feldman, Cornell University
For any student of South Asia it ought to be apparent that we are in the midst of a fairly important re-negotiation of the politics of identity. For example, in India, the original Nehruvian consensus around secularism and autarkic economic development is unraveling; in Sri Lanka, the ethnic conflict has brought to the forefront issues of federalism and regional autonomy even as Sri Lanka positions its economy to become the first South Asia "tiger;" in Pakistan, women's movements and human rights organizations are striving to politicize the hegemony of a national security state that has eclectically used versions of Islam as a "cementing" force; in Bangladesh, the ongoing tension between Islam and Bengali-ness has manifested itself in new contradictions in civil society, most visibly apparent in the Taslima Nasrin controversy; in Nepal, the newly elected Communist government is embracing increasingly free market orthodoxies.
All these (at present) democratically governed societies are increasingly integrating with a global capitalist system and are being pulled into a communication vortex that has brought CNN, BBC, MTV, and a host of other abbreviations into their daily public and private spaces. What is the impact of economic liberalization, integration into a global communication grid, and changing state-civil society relations on the politics and the reconstruction of identities in South Asia? Tersely put, this is the central thematic that connects the three papers that comprise this proposed panel.
In "What's Left of the Hindu Right's Agenda?" Arvind Rajagopal assess the impact of economic liberalization and globalization of Indian capital on the efforts of the Sangh Parivar (the BJP-VHP-RSS combine) to discipline ambiguity and forcibly produce an exclusivist and martial Hindu identity for the majority community. In particular, he looks at the materiality of television as a medium reconstituting time and space as wholly inter-related with the strategies adopted by the right wing. In "Chasing Miracles: Postcolonial Identity and Mimesis in Sri Lanka," Sankaran Krishna investigates the role of the simulacrum called Singapore in producing a vision for the future for Sri Lanka. He argues that, by reading J. R. Jayawardene against William Gibson, Singapore, a combination of hyper-real commodified capitalist society and a rigid ethnocratic state, is an especially attractive model for South Asian countries like Sri Lanka. Finally Lalitha Gopalan and Itty Abraham in their paper, "Inverting India Reading Roja in Film and Fantasy," argue for a counter-intuitive reading of the Tamil film Roja based on the materiality of cinematic conventions and filmic institutions. They suggest that, increasingly, the most dominant and regressive visions of a naturalized/ nationalized Indian landscape will emerge primarily from areas considered peripheral to the Hindu/Hindi heartland.
What's Left of the Hindu Right Agenda? National Identity in an Era of
Arvind Rajagopal, Purdue University
The major question for this paper will be the issue of how discussions of national identity change with mass mediation, in the context of liberalization and globalization. Since modern ideologies are universalist and all-embracing in their scope, they are incomplete for the purpose of identity construction. Older ideologies offer a handy solution here, justifying exclusion based on race, religion and/or caste. Uneven development preserves such paradoxical combinations in culture, and the liminal category of the nation expresses and reflects key contradictions in the condition of modernity. The premier force involved in bringing the two together today in India is unquestionably the Hindu right, the sangh parivar and its political arm, the BJP. As is well known, they champion the somewhat spurious argument that the hegemony of a universalist religion like Hinduism is essential in order to safeguard tolerance and to overcome the tyranny imposed by fundamentalist minorities conspiring with corrupt politicians. The ideology and the political threat posed by the Hindu right over the last several years in India have dominated much of the public debate about the Indian polity and society, in an attempt to grapple with the causes and affiliations of communalism, and to resist its advances. The series of riots across the country, in which thousands of lives, mostly those of indigent Muslims but many others as well, were claimed, was horrifying. But it was not only this that provoked so much response. It was as well the seriousness with which a highly reactionary majoritarian political agenda was being pursued and the baffling popularity that this agenda seemed to enjoy across the social spectrum. In the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, we can attempt to understand changes in the political culture without the overriding sense of threat experienced during the last few years. We can distinguish, very broadly, between the phase of Nehruvian consensus, of a relatively secure Congress ideology of secular autarkic developmentalism and that which succeeded it. In a number of different ways, the question of how the boundaries of national identity will be redefined becomes crucial from the mid-eighties onwards. While the Hindu right have certainly been the most energetic contenders in the ensuing debate, its own terms of communalism versus (pseudo) secularism need to be extended and recontextualized for clarification. This paper will offer some tentative suggestions on this important issue.
Inverting India: Reading Roja in Film and Fantasy
Itty Abraham, Social Science Research Council
Lalitha Gopalan, Georgetown University
Film maker Mani Ratnam's film Roja (1992) has become the center of a controversy between cultural and political critics who see in the film a new understanding and representation of the Hindu communal fantasy: a fantasy played out in a national space populated by a modernized, anti-Muslim and avowedly middle class male subject. Mani Ratnam's film was not only successful at the box office and technically superior to much of contemporary commercial cinema: what appeared to confirm these critics' readings was the national award given him by the Indian state-"for wholesome entertainment and national integration."
This paper does not take direct issue with readings of Roja as fascist or communal by Niranjana, Pandian, Barucha and others. Instead, it addresses two other factors that these readings have largely ignored in order to bring attention to the materiality of film itself as a technology of representation. The first is the question of translation, mediated through regionalism: crudely put, Roja was first made in Tamil and then dubbed into Hindi-what difference does that make (for national integration)? The second is the question of Kashmir: long the overdetermined site of romance in Indian cinema, Kashmir can no longer be seen without reference to the insecurity of the Indian state-what difference does that make?
This paper argues that understanding cinema as a significant locus in the representation of national or regional fantasies requires new strategies of reading and interpretation. Feminist and post-colonial strategies of reading 'against the grain' must come to grips with the technologies of representation, in all their materiality. This paper argues that in the present context of ascendant neo-liberalism and Hindu chauvinism, consistent and credible representations of the "new" India can only emerge from outside the Hindu heartland and in the absence of Kashmir.
Chasing Miracles: Postcolonial Identity and Mimesis in Sri Lanka
Sankaran Krishna, University of Hawai'i, Manoa
One of the interesting aspects of late capitalism is the fact that desired models of development in the postcolony have increasingly shifted out of Europe and North America to a space called the Pacific Rim. Hence, one finds increasing reference to "east asian," "nic," and "confucian" models of capitalist accumulation as the ones worthy of emulation by South Asia, Africa, and other parts of the still benighted "third world." This paper investigates the thrall exercised by Singapore on the imagination of former President J. R. Jayewardena of Sri Lanka.
Through a textual analysis of his speeches, autobiography, biographies, interviews and other publications, it seeks to display the degree to which JRJ modeled his vision of himself and of Sri Lanka's future on a construction of Singapore. It does this at two levels. First, JRJ's desire to replicate Singapore as the definitive non-space of global capitalism: an export platform, a blip on the circuits of world finance and information flows, a glittering node on its entrepreneurial circuits. Second, as a society that has "solved" its troubling ethnic questions by the successful imposition of a hierarchy: a hierarchy justified on grounds that in ensures the continued frenetic rate of accumulation under late capitalism.
The final part of the paper argues that Singapore is the definitive simulacrum, a model without an original, of late capitalism. It is regarded as a model worthy of emulation because of its ability to "reproduce" nature (nature theme parks, zoos, aviaries, orchards, tree-lined boulevards, hi-fi electronic equipment, both audio-video and computer etc.) with higher and higher degrees of fidelity. Developing the arguments of Benjamin, Berman and Taussig, this part of the paper argues that mimesis, more than being the dominant signifier of the postcolony, is in reality the principle that hierarchizes societies under the regime of modernity: the most advanced societies under capitalism are the best mimics, to put it baldly. Sri Lanka's mimesis of Singapore is thus entirely appropriate: it stays within the script of modernity.