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Response to Review of The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power

I thank Neilesh Bose for his appreciative review and have no quarrel with his evaluation. However, he raises three points at the end of his review to which I would like to respond.

First, the important question of the exclusion of Muslims from the nationalist imagination of Hindu upper-caste Bengali intellectuals has been frequently discussed in the existing literature and it was not my intention to survey that field.(1) As for the response from Muslim critics to Nabinchandra Sen’s treatment of Siraj in his poem, this too has been recently discussed by Rosinka Chaudhuri in her essay, cited in my book (p. 240, fn. 47).(2)What is remarkable about the Siraj story is not exclusion at all but rather the enthusiastic embrace by Bengali Muslim intellectuals of the history of the British conquest of Bengal as written by Hindu nationalist historians such as Akshaykumar Maitreya. This was shown in particular by the demand raised by Muslim intellectuals in the 1930s for the correction of derogatory references to Siraj in school textbooks and the removal of the Black Hole monument from the central square of Calcutta, as well as by the revival of the Siraj theme in the Calcutta theatre in 1939. In every such speech, resolution or play, the authentic historical source cited was Maitreya. I have mentioned this in the context of my account of the movement among Muslim intellectuals and students in 1937–1940, trying to put pressure on the Fazlul Huq government to act despite its dependence on the European members of the Bengal legislature. Thus, while the larger story of the exclusion of Muslims from the nationalist imagination of Hindu intellectuals and, in particular, the glaring exclusion of Muslims from the Calcutta professional theatre (though not from its audience) is familiar, the Siraj and Black Hole story is a rare case of congruence of Muslim and Hindu popular views on a historical episode. This is one more reason why I was concerned to take the story of myth-making outside the sphere of high intellectual history into the popular cultural fields of theatre and football.

Second, the question of possible imperial ambitions held by the nationalist political leadership of the new Indian state needs more careful analysis than was possible within the space of my book. I would suggest that the key lies in my distinction between empire as technique and empire as ideology. In ideological terms, the Indian political leadership was, for obvious historical reasons, overtly, loudly and, one need not doubt, sincerely anti-imperial. In terms of its technical uses of power, however, as I have suggested on p. 196, it used many of the same imperial techniques used by the British, such as, for instance, in the integration of the princely states into India, including the use of armed force in Hyderabad and Kashmir. There are many instances where one will find undisturbed continuities in the technologies of power employed by the erstwhile imperial rulers and the present state leadership in India.

Third, the narrative strategy of using the Black Hole story as a fulcrum for depicting the various stages and discontinuities in the history of empire as a global practice was not meant to place upon it the entire burden of representing the phenomenon of empire. One of my central arguments is that there is no monocausal explanation of modern empire (such as claims of racial superiority or profits or export of finance capital or what have you). The narrative advantage of employing a story such as that of the Black Hole is the facility it affords with each retelling of moving from one stage of empire to another and from one level of determination to another. There are several causal explanations of time-bound and context-bound phenomena that I offer in different chapters of my book. But the Black Hole story is not the sole dependent variable in this history. On the contrary, what is remarkable is the capacity of this story about a foundational event to be metamorphosed every time into a new narrative that carries an entirely new moral, political and emotional charge, including the currently prevailing consensus among professional historians that the story is not worth remembering. I mentioned the report on New York undergraduates because when I first came across it ten years ago, I was startled to discover that so many young Americans of the mid 20th century knew about the Black Hole story. If I asked the same question in my class today, whether in New York or Calcutta, I doubt whether a single undergraduate would know anything about it. I am reluctant to accept that this represents the triumph of scientific history writing or of post-imperial politics. On the contrary, I strongly suspect the amnesia is the effect of a new practice of imperial power.

Notes

  1. In the field of intellectual history, see, for instance, Rafiuddin Ahmed, Bengal Muslims 1871–1906: A Quest for Identity (Delhi, 1996) and my own treatment in Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, NJ, 1993), chapters four and five. Discussions of the political implications of this ideological exclusion include Joya Chatterji, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition (Cambridge, 1994) and Pradip Kumar Datta, Carving Blocs: Communal Ideology in Early Twentieth-century Bengal (Delhi, 1999).Back to (1)
  2. Rosinka Chaudhuri, ‘The politics of poetry: an investigation into Hindu-Muslim representation in Nabinchandra Sen’s Palashir Yuddha’, Studies in History, 24, 1 (2008), 1–25.Back to (2)