A Critique of Subaltern Studies and Appropriative Solidarity: A Response to ‘Dear Prof. Chatterjee, When Will You Engage with the “Discomfort” of Indian Occupied Kashmir?’

by Pothik Ghosh

More Info on the Indian Occupation of Jammu & Kashmir at http://www.jkccs.net
More Info on the Indian Occupation of Jammu & Kashmir at http://www.jkccs.net

A sharply combative polemic that hits the nail on the head and which must, for that reason, be hailed. However, I doubt that Chatterjee’s response, if at all he deigns to come up with one, will throw any new light on the matter, much less open new horizons. His intellectual orientation and theoretical presuppositions — which stem from his political complicity only to reinforce it – are simply incapable of that. Subalternity is a constitutive crisis of the horizon or structure of valourisation, measure, distribution and/or representation. (The operative word here is constitutive.) In such circumstances, to envisage politics in terms of affirmation of subalternity – which is precisely the theoretical and historiographical project of the Subaltern Studies collective – is to reproduce that structure and its constitutive lack or crisis. For, subalternity is the crisis of the structure of representation that is nevertheless sutured on to it. In other words, to envisage politics in terms of affirming subalternity is to reproduce the constitutive duality of the élite and the subaltern, and thus enable its continued extension through intensification. This is pretty much a continuation through intensification of the politics of passive revolution. Something the Subaltern Studies, and Chatterjee in particular, claimed to have critiqued — albeit only as one of its concrete historical moments or appearances — by precisely perpetuating its general political mode.

This, contrary to what dyed-in-the-wool subalternists such as Chatterjee insist, is as different from what Gramsci had in mind when he came up with the conception of the subaltern as chalk is from cheese. For Gramsci, the conceptualisation of subalternity is important because it enables him to reveal the objective location within capital — as the general structure or horizon of the constitutive duality of the élite and the subaltern – from where a revolutionary-proletarian politics that would suspend this structure of constitutive redemption or duality could possibly be constructed. Thus subalternity, for Gramsci, is crucial only insofar as it marks, in and through its diverse concreteness, subject-positions that are potentially proletarian. This means that, unlike the Subaltern Studies collective, Gramsci does not uphold and affirm subalternity in its historically concrete diversity as a subjectivity of politics. Rather, he sees subalternity as a necessary condition – an objective position in the concrete – that has in it the potential for generating a revolutionary-proletarian subjectivity. And this, as Gramsci very clearly shows in his critique of Bukharin’s Historical Materialism: A Popular Manual of Marxist Sociology (1921), is to be accomplished not by affirming the sheer difference that such subalternity amounts to vis-à-vis the dominance of the élite, but precisely by critiquing the discursive-cultural markers through which such subalternity-as-difference articulates itself in its suturing with the structure (or hegemony) of the constitutive élite-subaltern duality. The so-called Gramscianism of the Subaltern Studies project rests precisely on conflating the radical distinction between the categories of subject-position and subjectivity that animates Gramsci’s conception of subalternity in its strategic deployment in and for revolutionary-proletarian politics.

Considering the so-called subalternist conception of radical politics is no more than affirmation of sheer subalternity in its historically concrete diversity, it’s hardly a surprise that Chatterjee can, in the same breath, be ‘critical’ of colonial occupations everywhere, and unproblematically refer to Kashmir and Tripura as Indian states. For, to think and envisage ‘radical’ politics in terms of sheer affirmation of subalternity is to affirm the crisis of subsumption and representation, albeit in its condition of being sutured to that horizon or structure of subsumption and representation in its historically concrete mediations or specifications. In other words, this amounts to affirmation of difference precisely as instantiation of the centripetality of the horizon or structure of subsumption and representation. Clearly, the revolutionary-proletarian modality of politics, wherein difference is affirmed in and as the instantiation of the centrifugality of antagonism and total negation, is radically distinct from this subalternist conception and practice of politics.

In such circumstances, this so-called criticism of colonial occupations by subalternists such as Chatterjee is not the determinate critique of political economy it ought to be in order to realise and fulfil its radical potential. And anti-colonialism and/or anti-occupation, in the discourse and thinking of such intellectuals, stands completely evacuated of all politics of class struggle to become no more than an idiom of competitive ethno-nationalisms and ‘militant’ reformism. Precisely through such a politico-theoretical move is the anti-colonial and/or anti-occupation politics of, say, Kashmir ostensibly affirmed only to be rendered a little nationalism or sub-nationalism that then serves to legitimise and reinforce India’s federalist-unionist big nationalism, which is the ideology that serves its imperial project of politically managing the South Asian moment of the globalising late-capitalist conjuncture. This particular modality of deployment of the language and ideas of anti-colonialism is nothing but their revisionist rearticulation, which is precisely what postcolonialism is.  

That Chatterjee affects a stance that is purportedly critical with regard to Indian colonial occupation of Kashmir, Tripura and other regions on the north-eastern side of the Indian mainland, and yet continues to refer unproblematically to those territories as Indian states, is a symptomatic demonstration of the larger politico-theoretical position he has staked out for himself. In fact, this dovetails rather nicely with his recent shift from the subaltern to the citizen. This, contrary to what he might want us to believe, is a ‘shift’ that was foretold by his subalternist theory and politics. As far as I am concerned, this is not simply hypocrisy on Chatterjee’s part. It is something far more pernicious. It is neurosis that inheres in the very structure of his thinking and discourse.

From Gramsci to Fanon to various militant struggles on the subcontinent to the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation, all have fallen prey to de-radicalisation in the revisionist postcolonialist readings of intellectuals such as Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakravarty and Bhaba. I would, therefore, actually consider it a blessing of sorts that the Kashmiri struggle against Indian occupation has so far remained outside the lasciviously appropriative sights of Chatterjee and his subalternist and postcolonial mates. It’s best, in my view, that it remains that way. Kashmir, as it is, has to deal with far too many bleeding-heart Indian radicals and left-liberals expressing precisely this kind of appropriative solidarity with its struggle against occupation. That many of them are, on the face of it, critical of the Subaltern Studies, does not in any way stop them from often sharing the same dangerous postcolonial, multiculturalist assumptions, albeit under different labels, while expressing their ‘solidarity’ with the Kashmiri struggle against Indian occupation. Chatterjee is the symptomatic tip of the iceberg. The problem, as I see it, is far too pervasive.

Pothik Ghosh is a member of the Radical Notes collective and is a part of the editorial team of its e-journal (radicalnotes.com). The critique above was initially written by Ghosh as a Facebook comment on Azfar Hussain’s timeline where the latter has posted Dar’s open letter to Partha Chatterjee. As would be clear from reading the piece above, it was posted before Partha Chatterjee’s response to the open letter was received or posted online — at least six hours in advance.  

2 thoughts on “A Critique of Subaltern Studies and Appropriative Solidarity: A Response to ‘Dear Prof. Chatterjee, When Will You Engage with the “Discomfort” of Indian Occupied Kashmir?’”

  1. Is the left really so delusional that, of all the vile people on this earth responsible for the ongoing state of emergency in Kashmir, they’re going after liberal professors, postcolonial theorists, etc.?

    1. If encouraging & insisting that the “liberal professors, postcolonial theorists, etc.” explicitly and urgently stand for truth, stand against the Indian Occupation & colonization of, and genocide in, Kashmir is read as “delusional,” so be it. By the way, you might want to read Prof. Chatterjee’s response as well…

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