a publication of
the forum of indian leftists

Volume 1: Number 2                 November 26, 1997

Showing our True Colors: Culture, Nation and the Left

by Priyamvada Gopal

"The political left is then doubly disabled: if it seeks to evolve its own discourse of place, body, inheritance, sensuous need, it will find itself miming the cultural forms of its opponents ; if it does not do so it will appear bereft of a body, marooned with a purely rationalist politics that has cut loose from the intimate affective depths of the poetic"

--Terry Eagleton, "Nationalism: Irony and Commitment."

"We are not being called upon to force the meaning of peace deliberately from our tradition, but to accurately study and bring to the knowledge of the world those things which undoubtedly imply the message of peace"

--Mulk Raj Anand "Peace."

ecently on the FOIL listserve, one of those mini-debates which erupt now with such dynamic regularity, wrestled briefly over whether or not we could combat religious fundamentalism by invoking the familiar stereotype of India as a peace-loving and tolerant land whose heritage was being corrupted by the Hindutva brigade and their politics of violence. The first, perhaps hasty, reaction from some of us was that to invoke this image was to participate in an absurdity derived from Orientalist stereotypes as well as in the kind of naive nativist self-romanticization we need to distance ourselves from. Nevertheless, even we who balked at this image recognized that the strategy of reasserting a progressive heritage against those who would conveniently rework historical memory to their own ends is of immense importance. Defending the use of this image, Partha Banerjee opened up a set of familiar but thought-provoking anxieties to the broad spectrum that constitutes the Indian left today: "as much as we want to show our colors ("very Lal" for some of our friends)...we need to appreciate and make use of the secular version of Hinduism and other religions" (FOIL Listserve, July 16, 1997).

Partha's comments echo what is by now a well-known critique of left strategy--that by ignoring or downplaying the cultural and the affective, the left has lost out to its opponents who know precisely how to manipulate this realm. If applied with care, caveats and attention to context, this is entirely justifiable criticism. What I want to do in this short piece in honor of a fiftieth anniversary that elicits mixed feelings from many of us, is to recall a historical moment, also about fifty odd years ago, when those who considered themselves workers in the cause of a radical independence tried to work through the question of culture and community. The question for those of us who believe that commitment to a cause has a very important space for self-critique and correction is indeed that of how to avoid old mistakes but how to do so without recourse to simple conflations of culture with religion, religion with nation, tradition with culture, or an uncritical valorization of the feelings of "ordinary people." How do we reclaim a heritage so as to work with historical truths and ethical imperatives so that we don't dissolve into pragmatism for its own sake, and how do we do this reclamation in nuanced ways so as to both acknowledge the savagery of past and present while recalling those traditions of justice and respect for human life that are undoubtedly woven into the fabric of our history? The moment this piece recalls--i.e. the period of the formation of the Progressive Writer's Association and the Indian People's Theatre Association--does not provide all the answers, but does indicate that questions of culture, identity and transformation were issues for the left during the transitional era, that the left itself has been a more heterogeneous entity than many of its critics or adherents would remember or concede, and that there is a historical tradition of leftist thought, debate, and praxis on the Indian subcontinent that is very much concerned with offering its own vision of community and nation in the context of the anti-imperialist struggle and the struggle for social justice.(1)

In 1935, inspired by the "World Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture," an anti-Fascist cultural front in Europe, a few Indian literati spearheaded by writer Sajjad Zaheer decided that their London-based group, the Progressive Writers Association, needed to a have a base in India and take on the proportions of a movement. Thus was floated in 1936, the All-India Progressive Writer's Association (AIPWA), a broad alliance of liberal and leftist artistes whose first collective action was a manifesto condemning the march of fascism. It recognized that subjects of an colonial power had a more complex relationship to fascism than those of Western states: "we saw the ugly face of Fascism in our country earlier than the writers of the European country." The general agenda of the organization was to create a new culture, more specifically, a new national culture. A Marxist influence was prominent from the outset:

"It is the duty of Indian writers to give expression to the changes taking place in Indian life and to assist the spirit of progress in the country by scientific rationalism... All that drags us down to passivity, inaction, and unreason we reject as reactionary. All that arouses in us the critical spirit, which examines institutions and customs in the light of reason, which helps us to act, to organise ourselves, to transform, we accept as progressive." (Pradhan 1: x)

Acknowledging its roots in an anti-imperialist struggle, the PWA posited a necessary relationship to post-colonial nation-building while insisting on its difference from bourgeois nationalism. Before its leadership eventually became dogmatic and overcome by mechanical party-line rhetoric (alienating a range of writers from Manto and Ismat Chughtai, to Ahmad Ali and Mulk Raj Anand), we see the growth of a committed leftist front whose early history bears evidence of thoughtful debate on several issues.

A list of themes for plays by the PWA's sister organization, the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), runs like this:

(1) National Unity

(2) Food Crisis and how to solve it

(3)Grow more Food

and further down:

(6) Anti-Fascism

(8) People's Unity against Police repression


("IPTA Provincial Reports: Bombay", Pradhan 1: 159)

The question of national unity tellingly heads the list here, but that it is buttressed by issues like the food crisis and 'strike' already tells us something about the nature of this emergent discourse. Why art? An IPTA declaration tells us that art is " a means of portraying life and reality of our people, of reviving their faith in themselves and in their past and of rousing in them the will to live and the will to be free" ("People's Theatre Stars the People", Pradhan 1: 237, my emphasis). This statement emphasizes the political potential of the particular and the affective rather than simply appealing to the feelings of ordinary people. As Terry Eagleton comments, any oppressed group is bound "to generate a positive particular culture without which political emancipation is probably impossible. Nobody can... free themselves from bondage without a strongly affirmative sense of who they are" (37).

It is this recognition that accounts for the privileging of the national within the Progressive movement. Various accounts, manifestoes, and speeches make clear the historical and political context in which the Progressive nation is being theorized, as well as why it is to be distinguished from the bourgeois nation. Imperialism, capitalism, fascism ("the most violent phase of the imperialist system") as well as the divisive brainchild of British rule, communalism ("Fratricidal war") make the formation of a united front imperative. But confusions do emerge: documents use the rhetoric of mainstream nationalism, invoking, for example, "the sacred Motherland" of Bankim's patriotic elegy "Bande Mataram." Yet, elsewhere Bankim is dismissed as a reactionary, one who "concocted imaginary solutions in the social and political past, and that is why he appeals so much to our reactionaries in literarature, and to subscribers to upper-class Hindu politics" (B.Dey, "Notes on Progressive Writing in Bengal", Pradhan 1: 197). The fate of Tagore is similarly contradictory. Commenting on the difficulties facing the project of reclamation, Mulk Raj Anand writes that the past has to be rescued "from the maligning of Imperialist archaelogy on the one side and from its misuse by reactionary elements in our society, whether they be the narrow nationalist revivalists, the priestcraft, or orthodoxy ("On the Progressive Writer's Movement," 1:18).

In a Presidential address to the 1936 All-India Progressive Writer's Congress, renowned writer Premchand brings up the importance of the cultural-emotional and describes "our inherent sense of beauty" as literature's primary instrument. But aesthetics is inseparable from a natural and real sense of justice: "all that is ugly or detestable, all that is inhuman, becomes intolerable to such a writer. He becomes the standard bearer of humanity, of moral uprightness, of nobility" (1: 53). But, a little confusingly, Premchand goes on to say that beauty like everything else is not absolute but relative and gives the example of the ugliness of the rich man's garden which causes pain to those who realize that it is "tainted with the blood of workers" (1: 55). What Premchand may be suggesting here is that literature can as much construct a new aesthetics based on ethical imperatives as work with extant structures of feeling,i.e the particular/cultural is not a given but can be reconstructed with reference to democratic universals which do exist in human cultures. ("The Nature and Purpose of Literature,"1: 57).

And so the national leads without necessary contradiction to the international, and literature, declares a Resolution passed at this same 1936 Congress, "is not divisible in national, racial, or geographical boundaries" (1: 94). The historical exigency for a resolution like this is, of course, the building up of an international peace movement, a broad coalition against Fascism.(2) Interestingly another pamphlet talks about how war is intrinsically related not to nationalism, but to denationalization; global-scale militarism is part of the imperialist project and relies on a certain dulling of cultural identity to elicit participation from colonial subjects: "You cannot prepare 400 million people for war without first dulling their consciousness, bemusing their minds and whipping them into a frenzy of prejudice and hate" (2: 298). Interestingly, many essays produced by the PWA do use the rhetoric of 'us and them', 'inside and outside' in order to retrieve the resistant self. One such, tellingly entitled "The Penetration of Corrupt Ideas into Our Culture" maintains that colonialism is accomplished through a cultural war and to fight it, it is necessary to develop a critical consciousness that rejects the alien (2: 309). How then do these theories themselves avoid the revivalism and nativism they are so critical of? To a large extent, by seeing the task of reinterpretation as that of understanding the past through the needs of the present, of developing an interested reading in the service of the progressive. But this 'reading' would not be a naively voluntaristic one: "We are not being called upon to force the meaning of peace deliberately from our tradition, but to accurately study and bring to the knowledge of the world those things which undoubtedly imply the message of peace" (Anand, "Peace," 2:306, my emphasis).

The key term is "progressive," the meaning of which is tied to both nationalism and internationalism in very specific ways even as it is debated through the early years of the PWA and IPTA. In an address to the 4th A.I.P.W Conference, S. A Dange, the veteran trade unionist, defines fascism as a common international enemy "which aspires to enslave the whole world and destroy all national cultures" (3: 50). Explicitly anti-nativist, Dange credits the "fund of inspiration and guidance from foreign lands" which modern Indian literature has benefited from. In the context of imperialism and fascism, India is not described so much as a sovereign culture, but as "a vast economic edifice" vulnerable to further predation and exploitation of the hungry, naked, and shivering (3: 6). It is this local and immediate crisis that artistes must voice while allying themselves with global struggles. In the same essay, Dange calls for: "Not an imposed Akhand-Hindustan (Indivisible India) but a voluntarily united Hindustan of autonomous nationalities" (3: 7, original emphasis). As my discussion of the language question shows, this concept remains confused and under-theorized. Nevertheless, there is the recognition that national culture itself can be a heterogeneous and dynamic collection of various traditions and cultures yoked together by democratic and progressive ideals. (While eventually the term "progressive" comes to be defined exclusively as the Communist Party position and dissolves into proto-Zhdanovist rhetoric, the term was during the early years of these organizations, a contentious and contested one).

The 1952 draft prepared by the Communist Party's Central Cultural Commission, (many of whose members were involved with the IPTA and PWA) which was charged also with looking into the troubling question of a national language, signals several confusions over what constitutes nationality. The draft begins by asserting that nationality is determined by consciousness of national unity, itself built by resistance to foreign invaders. It is sustained by the formation of national markets which also leads to the merging of dialects and languages into more assimilative forms. In the interests of writing an anti-imperialist history, a crudely teleological account takes shape here, setting up the most reductive binaries between alien and indigene. The rule of the Mughals is thus described as "national oppression" where "the state was not a national state," (3: 167) and a religious work, Tulsidas' Ramayana, is said to play the role of the Bible "in developing the national consciousness of the Hindustani people" (3: 168). Although the draft is right to point to the crucial role that a popularized cultural text in the vernacular can play in developing cultural consciousness, by terming this "national consciousness," it willy-nilly equates the religious with national. The shift to then delineating Hindus and Muslims as one nation, is not explained, although its polemical value in demystifying divisive British language policies is clear.

Part of the problem, identified by critics of the draft in the "Discussion" section that follows, is the "Stalin says" syndrome, where history must fit into what "Comrade Stalin teaches us" (a phrase repeatedly used in the language question draft) or else undergo revision: "In the light of Comrade Stalin's work on linguistics, the theory of the origin of modern Indian languages...will have to be revised" (3: 171)! A critic of the draft--which was circulated for discussion-- points out that to see popular movements as national movements against Turkish foreign oppressors, is "to give the cover of Marxism to communal-chauvinist slogans"(3: 217). He also comments that language is only one of the factors in the growth of a nation, and history usually creates an amalgam of factors that vary contextually. Lalit Mohan Avasthi's note, for instance, asserts that the slogan of "a 'National Language' is a false and misleading slogan of blind nationalism.... to consider the necessity of a national language is a bourgeois view point" (3: 236).

This last note is the only one that actually considers the problem of nationhood outside the fairly narrow parameters that the language debate sets up. There is no need for a singular national language, writes Avasthi: the problem is blown out of proportion. Like the United Nations, officials of each state can work in their own language and use translators to communicate with other states; if, perhaps, by broad consensus, a common language is arrived upon, then that can be adopted as a common language but not otherwise. Getting rid of English as a colonial language and imposing Sanskrit instead makes no sense. The final note, by Mohamed Hasan, brilliantly critiques the draft for its vulgarization of Indian History in the interests of making a polemical point and for indulging in the same kind of revivalism as narrow nationalists: by deeming "culture to be a finished entity which took shape at a certain period of history....the theory that Indian culture and consciousness were born long before any type of 'foreign' impact, it resisted all 'foreign' influences, defended its language, culture, and national character" (3: 240). The way to unity, he ends sensibly, "is not by overlooking" historical processes.

Thus it is that we see in several of these documents, a concern with how to build an all-India character rather than take it for granted; intra-national communication becomes a precondition to international cultural understanding: "...cultural exchanges with other countries can really be effective and representative of our entire country when there are adequate cultural exchanges among our own provinces" (2: 307). "Alien" literature is not necessarily that which is outside the geographical terrain of the nation, but that which preaches narrow class interests, war, sadism, "communalism and false racist doctrines," passivity, fatalism, and conservatism in general. Material factors underlie the identification of the enemy: the enemy is outside because it exploits and extracts. Cultural strategies facilitate this process, and to unmask false, exploitative universalism, it is imperative to assert a particularity that is, finally, universal: "(Neo-imperialists) attack the national character of our literature by preaching that all culture is cosmopolitan, that it has no national characteristic and form. Those men who are crushing democratic liberties in their own land, come forward as champions of the rights of the individual" (Ram Bilas Sharma "Report to the Sixth Session," 3:135)

In attempting to think through the relationship of culture and consciousness, progressives in India have no choice but to engage with the issue of religion, which has aggressively asserted itself as both primary community identity and a putative national identity. But this engagement cannot take the form of a simple valorization of "community" or "emotion"; we would be then in danger not only of collaborating with regressive forces, but also of practicing a certain simplistic identity politics that marks, for instance, much academic multiculturalism in the US today. Left cultural work is made possible by the recognition that both reality and consciousness are historical and, as such, mutable and open to the most radical kinds of transformation. But we do need to be aware, as K.N.Panikkar suggests, that religion imposes limits on what is possible just as it may open up progressive ethical possibilities (17). Aijaz Ahmad makes the crucial point that the only way to make a program of cultural struggle meaningful and efficacious is to link it to a program of restructuring systems of property and governance "so that the people have a real, tangible stake in the anti-fascist struggle" (65). But we cannot assume that we will find what we need in 'other' traditions--be they subaltern, elitist, or "secular Hinduism". We cannot shy away either from a discussion of what "particularity" might mean, how a community could forge "common interest" and how cultural particularity could be developed in ways that would resist, for instance, casteist, ethnocentric, or patriarchal narratives of community . A weak and romanticized notion of community or culture is easily co-opted by regressive forces. The task of the Indian left on this dubious anniversary of a half century of a nebulous independence is to work with the heterogeneity of its own corpus, to nurture the debates and challenges from within and from fellow-travelers, and revive its capacity for non-ritualistic self-criticism even as it never forgets its irrevocable commitment to radical social transformation.


Ahmad, Aijaz Fascism and National Culture: Reading Gramsci in the Days of Hindutva." Social Scientist 21.3-4(March-April 1993). 32-67.

Eagleton, Terry. Nationalism: Irony and Commitment. Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature. Ed. Seamus Deane. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1990. 23-42.

Panikkar, K.N "Culture and Consciousness in Modern India: A Historical Perspective." Social Scientist 18.4 (April 1990). 3-32.

Pradhan, Sudhi ed. Marxist Cultural Movement in India: Chronicles and Documents. In 3 vols. Calcutta: National Book Agency, 1979.

(Priya is graduate student of Comparative Literature at Cornell University.)

1. Most of my references are to Sudhir Pradhan's pioneering anthology of documents from this period in a three-volume set entitled Marxist Cultural Movement in India. All references unless stated otherwise are to volume numbers and pages from this collection.

2. The Conference sent its greeting to "The Universal Gathering of Peace" held under the Presidentship of Romain Rolland that September in Geneva.

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