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Book review: Bina D’Costa’s ‘Nationbuilding, Gender and War crimes in South Asia’ (London, New York: Routledge, 2011) May 17, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : Bangladesh, Gordon, Sandy, India, Pakistan , trackback

Sandy Gordon

In her new book, Bina D’Costa provides a convincing picture of the role of war, war crime (especially against women) and myth in the construction of modern South Asian nation-states. The story of the women caught up in the violence of 1971 is movingly told, in terms of how they originally suffered and how they continue to suffer due to family and societal ostracism, the re-emergence of the religious right in Bangladesh and the failure of the state to acknowledge their stories or suffering.

I liked a great deal about this book – its density, its extensive reading into the problem, its intellectual subtlety and especially its use of history.  Dr D’Costa argues convincingly that the atrocities of 1971 cannot be understood without reference to those of 1947; that South Asia is not just India, but constitutes a culturally inter-connected set of countries that interact constantly over porous borders; and that the analysis of nation-building should incorporate the micro-level stories of women as well as the macro-level ones.  This last is especially difficult to bring off analytically, and D’Costa accomplishes it superbly.

Women fighters during the 1971 war.

As I understand her argument, in the construction of the ‘nation state’, the state draws predominantly on the ‘primordial’ expressions of the predominant ‘nation’. It is these primordial elements that result in the most severe depredations against women.  But she also maintains modern nation states need a civic component  [pp. 30-31]. According to her, a ‘nation state’ is not just a nation or collection of nations; it must also encapsulate its nation or nations within legally defined borders and govern according to precise legal structures.

However, in her view, the origins of violence in nation state building, especially violence against women, are predominantly primordial: “An effective way to understand the importance of controlling and reconstructing national stories is through gender, which shows ways in which primordial sentiments are deployed or identities are inscribed on bodies.” [p. 31.]  This primordial quality is most in evidence where states seek to be defined mainly by a distinctive ‘nation’ – Japan stands as a good example.  According to her, other states, such as Australia and the US, are examples more of ‘civic’ nationalism, “where citizenship of a nation is achieved through a process of assimilation.”

Most modern states lie somewhere along a spectrum between civic-dominated and nation-dominated ideas of state.  Indeed, the very process of state building, which is essentially a modernist enterprise, opens up the possibility of a dialogue between civic and national ideas of state.  This dialogue is partly generated  because the legal forms of the state require far more precision than the primordial idea of nation, which often derives its force from its vagueness – which enables it to exclude or include, as the case might be.  It is also precipitated  because modern states are so globally interconnected that they require at least some international norms to enable them to function.

The case of Australia provides an interesting example of this dialogue in action. The Australia in which I grew up in the 1940s and 50s was largely an idea of a White, Anglo-Celtic, Christian  ‘nation’ – one moreover that had ‘disappeared’ the Aboriginal nations that both preceded it and still existed within its borders.

But the Australian nation state that exists today is arguably very different: it now incorporates the expression of an ‘idea’ of a state that is fair to all its many ‘nations’ and that decides between them through rule of law.  Or at least that is how it would like to be seen in its best moments.

The dialogue within Australia has been one that flows generally in the direction of a less nation-bound concept of the state and in favour of other, civic virtues.  I would also argue that the story of modern India is in part the story of such a dialogue.  At any one time, one or other side might be winning ground, depending on circumstances, but there is a growing consensus that ‘the law’ is something that should apply to all and that human rights reside in the individual rather than the social unit. For example, in a recent move, the Supreme Court ruled out any role for khaps (caste and sub-caste associations) in dictating individual rights within the ghotra (sub-caste grouping), including honour killings perpetrated on those who infringe caste marriage structures: a clear case of civic law clashing with communal law and asserting its predominance.

Pakistan’s recent history has by and large seen a flow in the other direction – from the civic to the ‘primordial’.  The introduction of the Hadood Ordinance under Zia and the recently aborted debate about the Blasphemy Law are cases in point.  And here it is interesting to note Ayesha Jalal’s implicit point that such ‘reverse flows’ can also be in reaction to challenges of modernism – in this case imposed by the British Empire – and the anomie it engenders, as well as by the kind of violent transitions discussed by Bina D’Costa.  (See Partisans of Allah, Harvard University Press, 2008). To take this further, it is interesting to note Maududi’s writings, and indeed those of al Banna, whom he influenced.  Both these thinkers bear the hallmarks of reaction to the modernising colonial enterprise. The Deobundi movement, now so influential in South Asia, also had its roots in such a reaction.

Bina D’Costa certainly accords due recognition to the influence of outside ideas in state formation, particularly in the theoretical chapters.  Elites, she correctly maintains, were prone to the modernising influences of colonisation. She also describes how ideas have flowed between feminists of the various South Asian states and the strength these ideas have derived from this cross-fertilisation.

According to her account, however, such elite transfer of ideas could only go so far.  The problem was that the elites who first ingested these ideas were themselves steeped in patriarchy and were thus not in a position fully to introduce rights for women.  They were also caught up in the compromises of nation building, whether as part of an anti-colonial push or post-partition.  This required that they compromise with conservative, indigenous forces.  Moreover, the colonisers themselves were caught up in patriarchy in all its forms, so any  ‘modernism’ they introduced could only go so far in respect of the rights of women.

These problems with elite-led reform come out especially in Dr D’Costa’s short discussion of the bhadrolok, the Bengali elite, which mainly consisted of Brahmin, absentee landlords residing in Calcutta.

The bhadrolok were important in Bengali intellectual life and in informing the subsequent idea of the Bengali nation, which was in turn utilised in the formation of Bangladesh. In defining the role and limitations of the bhadrolok, she paraphrases the work of Chatterji as follows: “The nationalist movements led by Western-educated local elites often restricted the more ‘radical’ demands of women in their efforts to present a united national front.  Therefore, these middle-class, bhodrolok (gentle folk) elite leaders failed to fundamentally transform the oppressive political structure they inherited from their colonial rulers.”

But there is also a different interpretation of what happened to bhadrolok women. I’m thinking here of the work of Meridith Borthwick (The Changing Role of Women in Bengal, 1849-1905, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).  Her interpretation is that the bhadrolok women gradually came out from the zenana (where they had been confined since pre-colonial days) under the influence of ideas generated by a modernising and more modern colonial state. In doing so, however, they found themselves entrapped in the attitudes of Victorian England to the role of women, so they were confined to a ‘home-making’ role rather than a wider role in society.

The key point here is that the state, albeit a colonial one, played a mediating role in regards to what might otherwise be called the ‘primordial’ perception of the purity of women and the zenana, inherited by upper caste, north Indian Hindus – many of whom had been zamindars to the Moghuls and who may have ingested ideas concerning the ‘purity’ of women, ideas not fully reflected in the experience of the southern states.

Elsewhere, Dr D’Costa describes the work of Tagore and other writers and artists as important in the formation of the idea of the Bengali ‘nation’.  Tagore was, however, steeped in English literature and educated largely in English (he attended an English public school and, like Gandhi, read law in London).  While drawing deeply on wellsprings of Bengali language and culture, his ideas were essentially syncretic.

This interpretation of Bengali ‘nationalism’ is then incorporated into the idea of a clash of ‘nationalisms’ after the formation of Bangladesh.  That ‘clash’ was supposedly between a more ‘secular’ Bengali nationalism and the more religiously oriented Pakistani nationalism – a clash which continues into modern-day Bangladesh in the form of the BNP-Awami League competition and the continuing incursions of the religious ‘right’, which is seen as tempering Bengali secularism.

One problem with this interpretation of Bengali nationalism is that it does not represent a ‘primordial’ expression of Bengali culture at all, but rather the syncretism that arose from the long and fairly intensive interface between Bengal and the British colonial power. Other, outside influences also need to be brought into play if a full account is to be given. For example, it is significant to our understanding of the Awami League and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that he and the party represented secular socialism as well as Bengali nationalism.

It might rightly be argued that this doesn’t matter at all in terms of Dr D’Costa’s analysis: for what she is positing is not so much that ideas of nation cannot change – they clearly can – but rather that this was the idea of the Bengali nation that happened to exist in 1971, and that was what mattered.

Such an argument is in itself correct, but does not, I believe, fully reflect what was occurring and is continuing to occur. Let me be more specific. What strikes me consistently throughout her account is the regularity with which the ‘problem’ of women is seen to reside in that of honour and purity (particularly of men), and that time and again – whether in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh – that ‘problem’ is sheeted home not always to the state but rather to the family, village, mosque or temple.  This is one of the most consistently painful findings of the book: that it was the women’s families, villages and workplaces that refused to take them back – surely a horrible double blow.

Certainly, as D’Costa claims, the state was not slow to feed from this propensity in its nation-building endeavours: that is what her story is about.  Moreover, as she also argues, many societies of many different religious persuasions possess highly patriarchal ideas of women’s ‘purity’ and of associated male ‘honour’.  That, indeed, is a reason she gives for her apparent under-emphasis of the role of religion [p. 188].

While I accept these arguments, I’m also of the view that her account of clashing nationalisms pays insufficient attention to a fundamental clash occurring throughout South Asia and elsewhere that can add a significant dimension to our understanding of what was and still is occurring. According to this account, a clash between modernity and tradition is also in play. Or to return to our original phraseology, a ‘dialogue’ is being conducted between ‘civic’ and ‘traditional’ virtues.

None of this detracts from Bina D’Costa’s essential argument about state formation during times of stress (1947 and 1971).  During such times ‘nations’ reach back to a supposed, unifying past.  And such times were certainly instrumental in the formation of the successor states to British India. But to understand ‘what happens next’, to analyse it and deal with it, we need also to add the dimension of the vital ‘battle’ between modernity and tradition, between secularism and religion and between different versions of how a state should work, especially in relation to its minorities – those considered outside its core ‘nation’.







1. Vikas - May 18, 2011

Two comments on the book review:

1. “Both these thinkers bear the hallmarks of reaction to the modernising colonial enterprise. The Deobundi movement, now so influential in South Asia, also had its roots in such a reaction.”

The “original” roots of Deoband were not entirely reactionary and certainly not a reaction to modernity. There are two reasons why I think this is the case. First, the Deoband seminary was founded in the aftermath of disestablishment of Islam as the British assumed paramountacy. So, its an instance of the society taking over responsibilities hitherto discharged by the state – supporting (Islamic) learning. Incidentally, Hindus used to contribute generously to Deoband as it was seen as a centre of learning rather than Islamic learning. Why? Persian, Urdu etc were languages used by the late 18th-19th cen Mughal elite irrespective of their religious affiliation. (The later development of Deoband movement took it in entirely reactionary direction you refer to.) Second, modernity was not around when Deoband was founded. The British were recovering only gradually from, what Ashis Nandy refers to as, “the shock of discovering themselves the rulers of a continental land mass”. The British were themselves not modern at that time. If anything Deoband of 1860s can be seen as a reaction to Christian missionaries and more than that their schools. But Christianity is/was not considered conterminous with modernity, even in its nascent phase.

2. “Tagore was, however, steeped in English literature and educated largely in English (he attended an English public school and, like Gandhi, read law in London). While drawing deeply on wellsprings of Bengali language and culture, his ideas were essentially syncretic.”

This seems to suggest the Tagore’s syncreticism can be explained by his English education. But I guess his Brahmo background informed his syncreticism, which in turn can be traced back to Raja Rammohan Roy, the greatest syncretist modern East has ever seen. Incidentally, the Raja belonged to a family Mughal high officials and was conversant with Persian and Arabic. The Raja’s syncretic enterprise began with him bridging Islam and Hinduism (East-East). Later he learnt Hebrew, Greek, and English and studied Christianity, which led him to East-West syncreticism. So, English education must have been only incidental to Tagore’s syncreticism.