INTERVIEW

Partha Chatterjee Interviewed by Manu Goswami

Manu Goswami (MG): Some thirty years ago you became a founding member of the Subaltern Studies Collective. Yet your graduate training was in the heartland of Cold War American social science, in game theoretical analysis of international relations. Did this early encounter breed distrust of mainline social science or just hasten your involvement with subaltern studies? Partha Chatterjee (PC): That is a history that somebody else should disentangle. I’m not the best person [laughing] to analyze this early biography. It was largely serendipity that I ended up in the political science department at the University of Rochester, the cradle of what would become rational choice political theory. I went there in 1968, when I was just twenty years old. It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to do what they taught, but I had a certain facility in mathematics. Obviously, I was still growing up and hadn’t quite found myself intellectually. But what was attractive, and looking back I can say this now, was the intellectual rigor of an essentially axiomatic deductive analysis. The kind of model building that became fashionable at that time was part of a very positivist philosophy of science. The idea that you could model political processes in a rigorous way had a certain attraction. In the specific field in which I trained, and where quite interesting work was done at that time, many of the usual difficulties of political analysis could be set aside. In thinking nuclear arms strategy, it was plausible to conceive that the decisions were being made by very, very few people accustomed to hardheaded rational calculations. This was the ideal situation that game theorists like to think about. You could assume rational players who had a clear idea of what their information was, what their uncertainties were, and what their objectives were, and you could then devise strategies like a chess player would. This was the late 1960s, when talks for limiting the number of missiles were just beginning between the United States and the Soviet Union. There were lots of counterintuitive ideas that this literature produced at that time. It was better strategy, for
Public Culture 25:1 
DOI

Partha Chatterjee

Copyright 2013 by Duke University Press

10.1215/08992363-­ 1890504

177

interestingly. MG: It was an early experience of incommensurability. Yet. your scholarly career. Looking back now. PC: It is completely true that in the discipline of political science. India was entirely an object of analysis. a major figure of the time. or what was then named Indian sociology. were necessarily in conversation with Indian practitioners. very restricted field. There was a clear awareness that there were institutions and practices that required a rather more specialized set of conceptual frameworks and that simply extrapolating from Weberian sociology would not do.Public Culture instance. By the late 1960s. including political theory. And even foreign scholars such as Louis Dumont. It’s just one of those things that ended almost as soon as it began. as old-­ fashioned conventional military thinking would counsel. PC: Yes. I do go back and think about the way in which the global imperial system of the nineteenth century transitioned to the twentieth-­ century order. This is a major shift that your own work and the larger trajectory of subaltern studies track. I was interested in not only how people came upon these kinds of arguments but also the way states and statesmen actually thought and worked. N. first with the League of Nations system of mandates and trusteeship. [Mysore Narasimhachar] Srinivas and his students and people like André Béteille were publishing. it was. The Black Hole of Empire. And I realized that the work I had done many years before was still relevant as an analytical framework. There was not a second person with either the knowledge or interest in this mode of analysis! So I just gave it up. After almost forty years. no institutions that were recognized as having any role to play in producing theories for what would become the field of Indian politics. MG: When you began your career. I could see even then that attempts to generalize these methods to elections or the way political parties mobilized votes would not work. this was the time when sociology. I think that 178 . who were accepted as equal interlocutors. and then later to the postwar global order. was a recognized field with several practitioners. Although. There were no scholars. But it was a very. I went back to India immediately after my thesis was defended and realized that this work simply had no prospects. to let the other side know exactly what arms you have rather than keep it a secret. not an instigator of social science theories. in my most recent book. there was an established field within which M. I could refer back [laughing] to the work I had done as a graduate student. India was an object of social science research.

Disciplinary territories were never very clearly marked in my case. This was really the moment of transition to forms of mass democracy in India. oral history. was a period of immense political upheaval. and its limits  —  has been the central concern of your work. and so on were absolutely essential. In 1967 the Congress Party was defeated 179 Partha Chatterjee Interview: . Subaltern studies emerged. toward disciplinarity? PC: I think that is certainly true. So that allowed a certain freedom to hunt and gather [laughing] in the forests. MG: The problem of popular politics  —  its genealogy. All serious scholarship would now require that. You could not understand Indian politics without looking at the questions posed by Indian sociology. out of the study of modern Indian history. For various reasons. allowed me to roam more freely than I might have done in other circumstances. MG: Your work has been remarkable for its transdisciplinary purchase. I think. of course. an example of what you were suggesting  —  of turning something that was purely an object of analysis into a field with its own apparatuses of thinking and analysis. After the initial volumes. We were saying that in addition to whatever Western social science had to offer. and the adoption of methods such as ethnography. I was located.part of what subaltern studies accomplished was to bring the questions raised by Indian sociology and Indian anthropology into political and social history. and it included people from many different disciplines. there was no supervising authority to ask me why I was straying into other areas. when I was in college. The whole project was not conservative in any disciplinary sense. you needed experience-­ based knowledge from the field. It was quite the opposite. This association. Subaltern studies was able to create a disciplinary overlap. This was an advantage. a generative indifference. But this was. along with the fact that I was located outside the university structure. Did your membership in the Subaltern Studies Collective. even within India. professionally speaking. outside the university structure. though it was not alone in doing this. enable an indifference. just out of college. but effectively we could mobilize resources from any field. The mid-­to late 1960s. which initially comprised mostly historians. the group expanded. Could you talk about your own early political formation? PC: I left India to become a graduate student in the United States when I was twenty. its modes. We had literary scholars like Gayatri Spivak and political theorists like Sudipta Kaviraj.

events were leading up to the emergency of 1975  –  77. Subaltern studies hadn’t been formed as yet. it taught me how to talk to people and make myself understood and acceptable and get people to tell me about their lives and their involvement in political struggles. The most intense education I received stems from these years. It had been preceded by intense repression of the Left. I have no problems in dealing with rural life or rural people. I don’t visit rural areas that often now. especially rural politics. I had never formerly trained as an anthropologist. The 1970s were the most severe authoritarian phase in Indian politics.Public Culture for the first time in several states. the emergency was a quite formative period. This opened my eyes to things that I would never have known. I was in some village or other for twenty days in a month. but when I do. Most of it had to do with campaigns for civil liberties and the release of political prisoners. MG: The book that came right after this experience was on nationalism. including in West Bengal. Even more. Politically. to say that it was a distinct ideological and historical phenomenon. This was an extremely formative part of my background as a practicing social scientist. MG: You were the first person to tackle the question of nationalism in colonial worlds. 180 . Three very close friends from school and college were actually killed in prison. but I had decided for my next project to look precisely into forms of popular politics. This experience has stayed with me. For five or six years. since I was brought up in the city. But I quickly realized how indiscriminate this apparatus was and could be. its early promise and later degeneration into an unthinking bureaucracy. in the 1920s. where I was based. and 1940s. It was crucial not only in terms of my acquaintance of rural India and. in West Bengal at least. and so these were methods that I had to work out for myself. 1930s. Several of my friends were in prison. And this was when I first began my historical research. others were at its fringes. When I went back to India in early 1972. [The period] 1977  –  78 was the most active phase of political involvement that I have ever been through. with the life of the poor. The most active phase when I was involved in what one could say was street politics was just before the emergency and then all the way through 1977  –  78. Several of my friends were deeply involved in Left politics. After 1977  –  78. there was a long period of Left rule with its ups and downs. obviously. when I traveled extensively in rural West Bengal. PC: Yes.

It dealt with the emergence of an owner peasantry as the main population of rural Bengal. I needed to come out of the cage of intellectual history. So my research on agrarian structure led me to think about the political and ideological forms of political movements centered on the peasantry. relations among landlords and tenants. is the tone on which that book ends. In The Nation and Its Fragments. in itself. And in the 1920s and 1930s.PC: Yes. I had never wanted to do intellectual history as conventionally defined. MG: How did you arrive at the questions that animated Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World? PC: Nationalist Thought was actually the second part of what was supposed to be a three-­ volume book. MG: The book is notable for a strong political pessimism. I soon realized that the answers that one got in this domain led to a sense of historical inevitability that. I was far more concerned with the traces of mass politics in the realm of canonical ideas and doctrines. It was an attempt to connect the domain of concepts and ideas with everyday political life. It looked at the agrarian structure and legal forms of ownership that were part of the transition from colonial landlord proprietorship to the kinds of landholding that developed after India’s independence. But everyday politics was carried out in an immensely heterogeneous social field. It was at that level that it became evident that everyday political practices were so varied that there was no single logic that unified them. Could you talk about this shift? PC: Nationalist Thought was a move into the domain of ideas and discursive analysis. such as popular theater and questions of caste. there is an urge to unify and claim a certain universal validity for what is going on. 1920  –  1947: The Land Question. My later work attempts to find a language 181 Partha Chatterjee Interview: . that meant nationalism in the countryside. This disappears or dissipates in your later. I tried to move into other areas that no intellectual historian would touch. The first volume was Bengal. works that turn to the logic of collective democratic practices. But that is not where the questions actually emerged. looks like traditional intellectual history. especially its conclusions. This research about agrarian structures — the arrangements of tenancy. landless farmers  —  led me directly to consider popular organizational and ideological forms. Nationalist Thought. more ethnographic. At the level of grand conceptual ideas such as nation or nation-­ people. as you say.

That’s no longer true. Yet neither social life nor political associations conform to this topography of a modern civic sector alongside a traditional sector that consists of caste. The concept of political society names this disjuncture or difference. The practices of democratic politics that I am concerned with are the new forms of association produced by both the activities of modern governance and the activities of modern politics. was the assumption that the state and forms of governance were external to the immediate social world of peasants. and so on. religion. whether at the level of the state or the ideological representations of something called the nation.” the collectivity called the nation? This is where my later work moved. loyalties. Modernization theory recognizes a split in placing the traditional outside the space of the civic and in assuming that the former operates in terms of caste. What is political society? PC: The heterogeneity that concerned me was not the free associations of civil society. it was the new form of democratic politics that emerged in postcolonial India. These are entirely new forms. It points to all the deviations and exceptions from the civic and constitutionally sanctioned ways of association among citizens. whether structurally or otherwise. MG: Was this emphasis on coexistent multiplicity the pathway to your critique of civil society arguments? In the post-­ 1989 era. as modernization theory would have it. Everybody has equal rights. This was neither the politics of freely associated modern citizens with knowledge of their rights nor a traditional sphere of caste or religious obligations. How does one make. Rather. Government agencies and nongovernmental organiza182 . Yet it takes other routes that are not simply a carryover of some traditional ways of associating or protesting. This inquiry is something that subaltern studies enabled. for instance. you begin to elaborate a counterargument about political society. patronage. including its summoning of affects and loyalties. But I would argue that built into the subaltern studies focus on peasant insurgency. patron-­ client relations. connections between an enormous heterogeneity and claims to belonging to an utterly homogeneous space called “us. this simply means that everybody is the same as far as the state is concerned.Public Culture for this social heterogeneity while recognizing at the same time that there was something that held together. amid a general rediscovery of the civil society concept. Political society is premised on the existence of the domain of the civic and of the liberal constitutional. so therefore it is possible to posit a homogenous sphere that everybody inhabits in their public life. The Indian constitution guarantees basic freedoms to citizens. Read in a traditional liberal way.

whether squatting or stealing electricity. and yet claim that this particular instance. My favorite example here is the relation between the administration and urban squatters on public lands or minor lawbreakers of all kinds. This follows your critique of the abstraction of normative liberal democratic theory. What this suggests 183 Partha Chatterjee Interview: . The police. so why shouldn’t the slum dwellers be allowed to keep theirs? Asserting a right becomes a right to be regarded as an exception. they say. The basic strategy of democratic practice in contemporary India is improvised exception. naming all the local politicians with arms in their houses. know that these people have arms in the house. the administration could deal with them as lawbreakers. The research question now is about the new forms and meanings of the popular. They don’t correspond. pragmatic issue. The slum organizers or minor criminal gangs routinely make a show of strength in front of the police station. It is to formulate a ground for exception. including ideas of populism. Contemporary subaltern discourse today consists of an expansive use of the idea of exception. by which different population groups are able to say that if governments can make exceptions in the case of the rich all the time and get away with it. so why won’t they make one for us? I just came across a recent study of popular criminality in Delhi slums. MG: In Lineages of Political Society you argue for a political theory grounded in and oriented by exceptions. is a contingency that necessitates a provisional exception. From a strictly legal interpretation. which is the reality of power in a society like India. But the sheer social heterogeneity.tions that essentially do governmental functions are part of the daily lives of most Indians outside the domain of the properly civic middle classes. MG: Political society is then a postcolonial problematic in both a chronological and substantive sense. This is now a pervasive modality of making political claims. to acknowledge that the law does apply equally. Could you expand on this thesis? PC: Governments in societies like India often deal with departures from the civic norm as an immediate. This domain could not have been studied properly in the original frame of subaltern studies. cannot be dealt with in terms of an abstract homogeneity on which the basic assumptions of liberal constitutions are grounded. PC: Yes. It is my claim that the entire task of administration has now become one of continual resort to the argument of exception.

where the onus is on a consequential evaluation of outcomes. there is no definition of a new normativity. This is no longer the main object. but I’m not certain what the full implications are. a neoliberal administration would say that it just happens to be the case that there are all these squatters without real title to the land. This is the situation of democracy at the moment.Public Culture is the lack of a conceptual vocabulary or language to articulate claims in any kind of positive sense rather than as a deviation from some abstract norm. So it is acknowledged that some have a right because they have legal title to land and others have certain entitlements because they have been on the land for years and a good administration must recognize that. The interesting question to pursue is what effect this has on the way these populations respond to governments and the market. that there is one kind of legitimate normality and the rest is all deviation. Practices like microcredit. The ascendancy of neoliberalism does amplify the onus on the efficient delivery of government services. which are then integrated into larger institutional circuits of credit and capital. The practices that compose the so-­ called informal economy are neither outside the world of capital nor a legal sphere. Has this condition intensified or altered with the worldwide ascendancy of neoliberalism? PC: It has. For instance. for the conceptual division between a formal and informal economy no longer holds. What’s the best way to proceed? Simply ignore the fact that they don’t have title? Create a certain claim? Even institutions like the World Bank make the distinction between having a right and an entitlement. which come with an entire body of liberal constitutional thinking. Yet they are at a tangent from it. are still in place and have claims to legitimacy. MG: So one of the objects of postcolonial political theory is to confront this new condition of conspicuous illegality and legitimate exception. and yet we need to recognize them and give them certain services. Earlier modes of legitimate state action had needed to conform to the ethical prescriptions of liberal constitutional norms. are precisely targeted to such populations. for instance. This is still a murky area. The exception is made part of a modality of governmental operation. and we do not fully understand 184 . Is this outcome better in terms of some objective criterion of performance or delivery of services? This modality of neoliberal governance has brought populations considered outside the pale into some kind of legitimate and legible presence within a market domain. And even as illegal practices are justified as legitimate exceptions. Yet political practices deviate enormously from these norms. This goes back to the argument I was making earlier. Inherited normative claims.

industrial cities. But we need to know more before we can assess the consequences for democracy or capitalism. From what one knows. For all the talk of China and India as the next great manufacturing industrial powers of the world. this happens through caste relations or credit relationships based on trust rather than legally validated contracts. It is not as though there is no collective politics at all. on the face of it. from the mid-­ nineteenth century onward. we still do not understand the contours of the new capitalist organizations that are emerging in those countries. These shifts have large implications. There were insurgencies against landlords and money­ lenders from the 1860s and 1870s all the way through to the early twentieth century in northern India. you claim. Yet they have to acquire capital without being incorporated. They are not formally incorporated units because they want to dodge taxation. But the context has utterly changed from the one assumed by earlier work in subaltern studies. labor laws. Is it that peasants are now indebted to banks. and so on. pollution control. The informal sector in India today is not just the household or small manufacturing or service units of the self-­ employed. nothing new about indebtedness among the peasantry. There are powerful collective movements that make collective demands. Simply describing them as a difference from some normative domain elides a great deal of internal diversity. not moneylenders? But public institutions like banks in India find it very difficult 185 Partha Chatterjee Interview: . There is.their inner workings and complexity. For one of the most persistent dimensions of peasant life in late colonial India. Why is the response to indebtedness today that of individual suicides? Many would say that this is a function of neoliberal governmentality where all forms of collective resistance have disappeared. The informal sector no longer consists of economic activities of a relatively marginal kind. MG: One of the arguments you make about contemporary shifts in India concerns what used to be called the peasant question. Yet we still need to explain why this is the case. It is certainly possible to think that they are quite distinct from the incorporated civic associations of Western capitalism. This is being posed. It involves very large production units that are networked in ways we do not fully understand. Could you elaborate on this? PC: Let’s take the much talked about case of farmer suicides in India. was both peasant indebtedness and the many instances of collective resistance to indebtedness. But something has changed. They are an extraordinary phenomenon. in a qualitatively new way because of the unstable mix of market-­ oriented neoliberalism and electoral democracy. Almost every unit there is informal. There are entire manufacturing facilities that are really cities.

So I don’t think we can only consider the first and forget about the second.Public Culture to recover loans from individuals by taking away their land. PC: Populism is a particularly important category to think about. We have to think anew about the forms of passive 186 . All of this needs to be rethought. even as others such as regional identity politics have flourished. It is far more likely that private moneylenders are able to coercively appropriate land. MG: Subaltern studies was forged in the wake of authoritarian populism. But populism then was restricted to something negative. it refers to specific forms and modalities of mobilization. So it remains puzzling why collective resistance against them is no longer possible. As a descriptive category. but we cannot assume similarities across contexts. Did this prohibit thinking about populism in other ways. The ideas of Caesarism and passive revolution were particularly crucial for subaltern studies. not all of which are worthy of support. including accounting for why certain mobilizations take place at great speed but also dissolve very fast. But it also raises evaluative questions about different kinds of popular mobilization. I think many distinctions have to be made to understand contemporary mobilizations. because we were very aware of the authoritarian uses of populism in the 1970s in India. of aligning it with more experimental democratic forms? PC: It’s interesting you say that. however. Populism does offer. What was enabling at the time was Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the people-­ nation and the possibility that the idea of the people could have ambiguous political resonances. I think these questions need serious new work. the possibility of rethinking modalities of collective action. MG: Does your project on political society intersect with contiguous attempts to rethink the political? I’m thinking here of Ernesto Laclau’s idea that populism is the signature political form of Latin America’s twentieth century. even as we stuck to the idea of the people. it no longer corresponds to localized face-­ to-­ face communities. Populism is a phenomenon all over the world today. What are the legitimate and feasible forms of political protest in postcolonial democracies? Certain combinations that were entirely possible and expected fifty years ago have just disappeared. What is the domain of the popular today? What are the media through which it coalesces and mobilizes? These are the new tasks of research. While there is a notion of exploited peoples.

or nationalism. A great deal of comparison in comparative politics. Things are made. uses empirical data that are not strictly comparable. But I think one should take small steps toward building larger comparable sets. [Laughing. Could you say more about this return to imperial history? PC: For the past four to six years. on the other. MG: Your most recent work is The Black Hole of Empire. they actually help sharpen the object that you began with. and the implications of this for something like state populism. I wish some of you would do it. state forms. There are some kinds of comparisons more easily made across contexts because you’re dealing with large structures. When comparisons are oriented toward showing contrasts or difference.] MG: An implicit theme of your work has been a critique of approaches that simply assume the comparability of the phenomenon under consideration. It is easier to make comparisons of that kind. But the sorts of phenomena we’re interested in — things like everyday life. on the one side.revolution. whether democracy. How does your project on postcolonial political theory speak to questions of comparison or rather comparability? PC: I am suspicious of comparisons that simply facilitate a certain application of general theory. rather than found. comparable. But I would prefer that to the kind of cross-­ country comparisons made on the basis of extremely dubious data that have been forced into a certain grid where they don’t really belong. We need to think through these distinctions much more closely. much fewer uncertainties. There is now a wider crisis of received models of comparison in the social sciences. And they also establish connections across phenomena where such connections were not previously seen. with fewer variables. We do not as yet have good evaluative criteria for differentiating between modes of populism. for instance. This is a slower process and you probably get far less dramatic results. it depends on the structural level at which you’re making comparisons. the political practices of ordinary people  —  a re far more difficult to render comparable. Of course. I have returned to international politics. to where I began as a graduate student. and populist mobilization against the state. how its structures have changed enormously. I was impelled by an effort to understand Partha Chatterjee Interview: 187 . My own inclination would be to be a little more modest about how much we can generalize. All too often this does violence to one’s findings. All of these uses are extremely enlightening.

the scale of intervention. In recent times. It seems to me that the emergence of the modern state itself  —  its constitutional forms. Once this was recognized. The great burden of anticolonial movements was to reassert the question of popular sovereignty — to say that whether or not foreign powers are ruling in good or bad ways is irrelevant. It’s a question of who rules. the problems encountered in other regions were of a different order. This prompted my return to the history of empire as a political form.Public Culture the emergent world order  —  the making of new regional and economic powers. ranging from direct administration and outright annexation of territory to what would be called protectorates. the so-­ called law of nations  —  was forged in the late eighteenth century. on the other. stage theories of social development. What seems crucial is how the two questions of sovereignty. in making it possible to say that what mattered was less who rules than whether the rule was good or efficient. in many world regions can only be described as imperial. representative government as a normative idea. One of my arguments is that the kinds of solutions devised in the early nineteenth century in the context of utilitarian thinking. the implications of the global financial crisis for Western powers. These allowed for a measure of internal sovereignty while taking over effective external sovereignty. This was a departure from the historical experience of empire in the Americas. It is in the early nineteenth century that a whole range of techniques of power were devised that allowed for enormous flexibility in facilitating different ways of exercising power over other peoples. Utilitarian thinking was absolutely fundamental in enabling such a distinction. and the like. which came to a place of dominance only after the end of World War II. military and diplomatic. on the one side. and ideas of liberal tutelage that were part of liberal theory came to constitute the new form of empire. get separated after the coalescing of ideals of popular sovereignty as the only legitimate locus of sovereignty in the modern world. Although a large part of the thinking about empire during this period was shaped by the experience of the Americas. as the universally legitimate form of the state. There was a clear recognition of gradations of sovereignty within legal domains where the law of nations applied only to countries with equal sovereignty. that is. 188 . especially to what I think was the watershed moment of the second half of the eighteenth century. Modes of ruling could be compared on a consequentialist basis. This was the moment of a new geopolitical order where supposedly modern and newly capitalist European states acquired overseas land territories and took on the business of governance. From the early nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. whether imperial rule was for the good of most people or not. anticolonial nationalism struggled to enshrine the nation-­ state. and governance.

then. N. The question becomes who can effectively claim to make exceptions. Empire resides in who claims the privilege to make exceptions within a world order of states. one-­ vote system. 2011. Nationalist thought and the colonial world: A derivative discourse? London: Zed Books for the United Nations University. Bagchi. New York: Columbia University Press. 1984. a whole range of exceptions to national sovereignty are made and can be made. The imperial privilege is precisely the privilege to make exceptions. ——— . 1986. Calcutta: K. you have a range of imperial practices and exercises of power that do not require direct territorial colonization.J. is a conceptual history of empire over the past 250 years. The black hole of empire: History of a global practice of power. 1920  –  1947: The land question. The nation and its fragments: Colonial and postcolonial histories. But it does not. ——— . In contemporary international institutions. 189 . 1993. Lineages of political society: Studies in postcolonial democracy. ——— . Bengal.: Princeton University Press.: Princeton University Press. One of my arguments is that already in the nineteenth century. Imperial power can be and was established through a range of other means. to decide what rules apply to whom. Works Cited Partha Chatterjee Interview: Chatterjee. Partha. The book. ——— . P.you would think that empire should have vanished. 2012. despite the operation of a one-­ member. N.J. Princeton. Princeton.