Partha Chatterjee led the opening session of the Brown-India Seminar on September 21, 2012, giving a paper titled “Soccer and Collective Identity in Colonial Calcutta.” The following has been condensed from a conversation at the Watson Institute that morning.
It’s been 20 years since The Nation and Its Fragments was published, changing the way we understand nationalism in its different dimensions. In its preface, you write that it is in the nature of nationalism that any interrogation of a specific history can be brought to bear on another. So, first, I’d like to ask if we can apply the ideas you have elaborated about nationalism and its construction in your study of South Asia to questions of nation, society and identity here, in the country where you work and teach part of each year.
As a result, the forms of government that emerged in the colonial period, and later on, the kinds of government or forms of states that the nationalist leaders imagined for themselves, were necessarily very different from the kind of nations that the various American republics became.
In other nationalisms, it’s not simply a struggle against the colonial rulers, but there’s also an enormous struggle inside those societies trying to define for themselves a kind of modernity which would not simply be copying Europe. I believe that continues to this day. A lot of the things that one sees in terms of trying to define and project a certain national identity today in large parts of Asia or the Middle East or Africa is a continuation of that struggle.
Is there anything notable about the presentation of nationalism in the United States today?
First, the constant evocation of something called the ‘American People.’ Everything is, as it were, ratified by some appeal to something called the American People. Now, that of course is very foundational to the idea of nation — a nation as a people. But in the election campaign, for instance, clearly different parties and their leaders are making appeals to particular sections, and yet they never say ‘I am appealing to a section.’ It’s always the people.
There’s also the very interesting question of how this nation relates to other nations, to the rest of the world. There’s a long American tradition of what used to be called isolationism: that even though so much is shared with Europe, there was a sense in which the United States ought to preserve a certain distance from the old world, which was seen as a world of war and religious conflict. People who migrated from Europe and came here were happy to leave all that behind.
There is some residue of this in the conception of American nationalism. But one of the things that’s happened to the United States, especially since the Second World War, is the sense that the US has to take very prominent leadership over the rest of the world. And that continues to be this enormous tension. What does that presence mean? You see this constant tousle, that on the one hand, unless you move in with force, somehow that position of leadership is threatened. But as soon as you do that, there is a reaction of ‘Why should we be embroiled? Why should our boys be put in harm’s way?’ That again is precisely part of this deep ambiguity about the place of the United States in relation to the rest of the world. On the one hand, there is the sense that the true place of the United States is away from all that. And yet you can’t stay away.
What about history, and myth? Your theory of the creation of a nation is very much about how we remember our genesis.
There are other things that I can’t say I completely understand. For instance, unlike many other states the US actually had to go through a period of serious civil war. The place of the Civil War in American history and how it’s remembered — at one level one would think that’s an episode that, in terms of the official nationalism, people would simply want to forget. But it’s not been forgotten, and there are very interesting ways in which that memory has been incorporated into the history of the nation not just as something that happened, but as something that somehow rejuvenated the nation.
Do you see any relationship with that history of the Civil War and the experience of Partition in Bengal and the Punjab?
You are famous for your love of Calcutta, where you live most of the time. What do you miss most about Calcutta when you’re in New York?
And is there anything you miss about New York when you’re home in Calcutta?