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Contextualizing the Rise of Comparative Political Theory

By guest contributor Josey Tom

If the creation of subfields within a discipline indicates its development rather than its demise, then political theory is expanding and glowing in a new light. Founded in the mid-1990s, the sub-field known as Comparative Political Theory (CPT) attempts to decolonize the canon of political theory by incorporating non-Western political ideas, texts, concepts and epistemic resources hitherto ignored by political theorists. Roxanne Euben (University of Pennsylvania) who coined the term, introduced it as the project of bringing “non-Western perspectives into familiar debates about the problems of living together, thus ensuring that ‘political theory’ is about human and not merely Western dilemmas” (Euben 1997, 32). The subfield is a reminder that there are still songs to be sung by political theory beyond the West, lest the field’s only song be a dirge—a funeral song for non-Western political concepts, categories, and canons. CPT is the logical culmination of the geopolitical context of decolonization and internal debates about the aims and methods of political theory since the 1950s. These anxieties were amplified by trenchant critiques of eurocentrism by postcolonial and Subaltern Studies scholarship in an increasingly globalized and multipolar world.This piece will argue that CPT is an immanent critique in political theory that builds on the legacies of mounting internal critiques.

In an essay that attempts to chart the scope of CPT, political theorist Diego von Vacano (Texas A&M) explains the emergence of CPT in terms of both “critical disciplinary” and geopolitical factors (Vacano 2015, 467). The first contextual factor is the void opened up starting in the late 1970s by critical perspectives on modernity from Western Marxism, critical theory, the genealogical method of Michel Foucault, Edward Said’s study of orientalism, and the Subaltern Studies school, each of which challenged Western paradigms of modernization. The second factor is dissatisfaction with existing formal explanatory paradigms employed in the subfield of comparative politics. The third factor is the backdrop of end of the Cold War and contemporary globalization: The liberal triumphalism of Francis Fukuyama’s seminal 1989 article “The End of History and the Last Man” and the pessimistic prognosis of the post-Cold War era embedded in Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996) provided an opening for CPT to offer alternative paradigms.

However, neglected in Vacano’s broad contextualist account are the three important critiques internalto the discipline of political theory in the twentieth century. The method-centric critique emerged in the 1950s and 1960s from the behavioralist school, which sought to explain and predict political behavior in a value-neutral manner using quantitative methods, as well as from theorists who found their field on the decline. The second critique focused on the Western-centrism of political theory, and is exemplified by the writings of John Gunnell (SUNY Albany), Jeffrey Isaac (Indiana), and Bhikhu Parekh. This critique was fragmented, as dominant understandings of disparate concepts including modernity, liberalism, and universal human rights received flak from different parts of the globe. CPT should be seen as the third major critique of political theory: It is a collective and systematic effort to challenge the Western-centrism of political theory, especially by rethinking existing categories and concepts and incorporating themes, thinkers, and cultural insights from non-Western societies.

The First Critique of Political Theory

In the 1950s and 1960s, the behavioralist school triggered intense self-reflection in political theory. Seminal essays by John Plamenatz (“The Use of Political Theory” [1960]), Isaiah Berlin (“Does Political Theory Still Exist?” [1962]), and Sheldon Wolin (“Political Theory as a Vocation” [1969]) testify to a period of soul-searching within the discipline. While these writings questioning the basis of the field were “marked by the ashes of the Cold War” (Vacano, 468), other seminal reflections on the aims of political theory were written while the Second World War and the early Cold War were still in full swing—notably Leo Strauss’s most important essays on political theory (“Persecution and the Art of Writing” [1952] and “What is Political Philosophy” [1957]).

Alasdair MacIntyre and John Rawls also contributed to self-reflection of political theory through their meditations on political philosophy. In his essay “The Indispensability of Political Theory” (1983), MacIntyre employs the metaphor of a map to suggest that political theory illuminates the political landscape, helping people navigate their social and political world. Political theory does not diminish in significance despite its lack of comprehensiveness, just as a grossly inaccurate map still holds some practical utility (MacIntyre 1983, 32). In his work Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001), Rawls similarly describes four roles political philosophy has in a society, namely achieving social co-operation in divisive societies, orienting members of a political community, reconciliation, and carving out feasible political arrangements (Rawls 2001, 1-4).

What motivates all these writings is the hope and promise political theory offers for political life. Political theorists and philosophers ranging from Leo Strauss to John Rawls illuminated the gap between how political theory has been conceived and how it has been practiced. The emergence of CPT should be seen in light of the inability of political theory to live up to its promise and hopes for political life—both within Western societies and globally speaking.

Political theory has not been able to fulfill its potential due to a parochialism that limits or omits non-Western political constellations and concerns. An indispensable task of political theory is to contemplate desirable and feasible political arrangements that might ensure good life for peoples. But what if the proposed political arrangements are predicated on assumptions that privilege a particular part of the globe by effacing dimensions of race and imperialism? When Huntington wrote about the clash of civilizations and Fukuyama celebrated the triumph of liberalism, they were, despite their biases, performing what George H. Sabine regarded as a crucial function of political theory: “an estimate of probabilities and an estimate of values” (Sabine 1939, 5). Yet when Wolin conceptualizes political theory as a tradition embodying an “inherited form,” he is thinking about a rich inheritance that is definitively Western (Wolin 1969, 1070). If political theorists are tasked with generating political knowledge, they cannot ignore the ideas and perceptions of good life in non-Western societies. The gulf between the lofty visions of political theory and its exclusive character leads us to the second critique of political theory.

The Second Critique of Political Theory

The early 1990s saw the emergence of a critique of the ethnocentrism at the heart of the discipline of political theory. The first strand of this critique targeted particular Western concepts but did not implicate political theory as a whole; it limited its critique to certain categories in light of the non-Western political realities. For instance, scholarship emerging mainly from India challenged hegemonic Western understandings of secularism and modernity, pointing out their inadequacy for understanding non-Western social and political worlds (Bhargava 1999 and Kaviraj 2002). Also under scrutiny was the ethnocentrism embedded in liberal democracy. Bhikhu Parekh’s “The Cultural Particularities of Liberal Democracy” (1992) and “Decolonizing Liberalism” (1993) illustrated the provincialism of liberalism. Debates about Asian values versus Human Rights also questioned the universality of liberal democratic values. The second strand of this critique levelled loftier charges at the discipline as a whole, as exemplified in the writings of Isaac (“The Strange Silence of Political Theory” [1995]) and Parekh (“The Poverty of Indian Political Theory” [2010]). Criticizing the reluctance of American political theorists to contemplate the “events of 1989” in Eastern Europe, Isaac pointed out that political theory was a prisoner of Western European tradition, which, despite constituting a “secure reference point for our political thinking” engenders “intellectual conformity.” Parekh, meanwhile, lamented the absence in non-Western societies of a robust critique of the central categories of the West, despite an awareness of the ethnocentrism and limited explanatory power of those categories.

The Third Critique of Political Theory: Comparative Political Theory

While reflecting on the nature and task of political theory, Wolin also drew attention to its inherent limitations. Despite its sophisticated categories, political theory can offer only a limited understanding of political phenomena, as there exists a “vast range of political experience” that is inexhaustible by such categories (Wolin 2016, 21).Wolin reminds us, taking his cue from the neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer, that statements and propositions in political theory are, after all, “abbreviations of reality.” He uses the metaphor of a net to represent the concepts and categories that are employed to understand political phenomena: those suitable for explaining European contexts are often ineffective and erroneous in a non-Western context.

Abstractions are indispensable in the construction of theory. But the problem with political theory these thinkers highlighted is that its “abbreviations” long remained oblivious to non-Western lifeworlds. Abstractions in mainstream political theory continue to be informed by the social and political imaginary of West while ignoring the rest. The net is seldom cast out on the non-Western world. It is in this context that CPT assumes its significance: it functions as the third critique in political theory by pointing out the inherent bias of ethnocentrism that still besets the field’s canon, concepts, and methodologies.

If CPT is to bridge the gap between the promises and practice of political theory, it also needs to examine contemporary global political issues such as right-wing populism.CPT also remains a conscript of the East-West divide: it has yet to engage the strand of decolonial scholarship that shows the non-Western pedigree of concepts often thought to be European in their origins. Laura Marks, for instance, has argued that Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the “univocity of being” has its source in the great Persian philosopher Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina—a history that was erased when philosophy “underwent an ethnic cleansing.” An engagement with strands of European thought that have appropriated the intellectual contributions of the non-European world has the potential to rattle some of the basic assumptions of the subfield and to provide an opportunity to rethink the reluctance of CPT scholars to accept the universality of certain political ideas.

Comparative Political Theory has finally cast its net wide. The catch might indeed be splendid. But for the catch to reach the table, the net must be stronger and the sharks kept at bay.

Josey Tom is a Research Scholar at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. This piece is adapted from his M.Phil. dissertation, entitled “Comparative Political Theory: Contexts, Plurality and Political Action.”

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Towards an Intellectual History of Modern Poverty

by guest contributor Tejas Parasher

 

Picture 1In Chapter 3 of The History Manifesto, David Armitage and Jo Guldi support historians’ increasing willingness to engage with topics generally left to economists. Whereas the almost total dominance of game-theoretic modelling in economics has led to abstract explanations of events in terms of market principles, history, with its greater attention to ruptures and continuities of context and its “apprehension of multiple causality,” can push against overly reductionist stories of socio-economic problems (The History Manifesto, 87). Citing Thomas Piketty’s Capital as a possible example, Armitage and Guldi propose a longue-durée approach to the past that, by empirically documenting the evolution of a phenomenon (say, income inequality or land reform) over time, can disclose context-specific factors and patterns that economic models generally elide.

In this blog post, I ask what intellectual history in particular might have to gain (and contribute) by following Armitage and Guldi’s provocation and taking on a topic that Western academia has almost totally ceded to economics since the 1970s: the study of global poverty. Extreme or mass poverty in the Global South is a well-worn term in the literature on cosmopolitan justice, development economics, global governance, and foreign policy. Across economists like Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Collier, Abhijit Banerjee, and Esther Duflo, poverty is usually invoked as a sign of institutional failure—domestic or international—and a problem to be solved through aid or the reform of market governance. I want to suggest here that the contemporary dominance of economic analysis has foreclosed other approaches to mass poverty in the twentieth century. These are discourses that global intellectual history is uniquely able to excavate.

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Delegates at the London Round Table Conferences (1930-1932) on constitutional reform, representation, and voting in British India. Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Sept. 14 1931.

To illustrate my point, I want to turn to a common trope I have found while researching political thought in colonial India. Between approximately 1929-30 and 1950, the Indian National Congress and other organizations fighting for self-determination began to demand the introduction of universal adult franchise in British South Asia. The colony had seen very limited elections at the provincial level since 1892. Through a successive series of acts in 1909, 1919, and 1935, the British Government gradually widened the powers of legislatures with native representation, while keeping the electorate limited according to property ownership and income. In its report to Parliament in 1919, the Indian Franchise Committee under Lord Southborough emphasized that the ‘intelligence’ and ‘political education’ required for modern elections necessitated a strict property qualification (especially in a mostly rural country like India).

Against this background, extending rights to vote and hold office to laborers and the landless poor was anti-imperial both in the immediate sense of challenging British constitutional provisions and, more generally, in inverting the philosophy of the colonial state. Dipesh Chakrabarty has accurately and evocatively described the nationalist demand for universal suffrage as a gesture of “abolishing the imaginary waiting room of history” to which Indians had been consigned by modern European thought (Provincalizing Europe, 9). Indian demands for the adult franchise were almost always articulated with reference to the country’s economic condition. The poor, it was said, needed to directly participate in politics so that the state which governed them could adequately represent their interests.

M.K. Gandhi (1869-1948) began making such arguments in support of adult franchise soon after he gained leadership of the Indian independence movement around 1919. His ideal of a decentralized village-based democracy (panchayati raj) sought to address the deep socio-economic inequality of colonial society by bringing the rural poor into decision-making processes. Under the Gandhian program, fully participatory local village councils would combine legislative, judicial, and executive functions. As Karuna Mantena has noted in her recent study of Gandhi’s theory of the state, panchayati raj based on universal suffrage was seen to empower the poor by giving them an institutional mechanism to guard against the agendas of urban elites and landed rural classes.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, most demands for extending suffrage to the poor shared Gandhi’s premise. Even when leaders fundamentally disagreed with Gandhi’s idealization of village self-rule, they similarly considered the power to vote and hold office as a crucial safeguard against further economic vulnerability. In the Constitution of Free India he proposed in 1944, Manabendra Nath Roy (1887-1954), the ex-Communist leader of the Radical Democratic Party, argued for full enfranchisement and participatory local government on essentially defensive grounds, to protect “workers, employees, and peasants” from privileged interests (Constitution of Free India, 12).

By far one of the most sophisticated analyses of the problem of poverty for Indian politics during these decades came from B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), a jurist, anti-caste leader, and the main drafter of the Constitution of independent India in 1950. Ambedkar had been a vocal advocate for removing property, income, and literacy qualifications for voting and holding office since 1919, when he testified before Lord Southborough’s committee. As independence became increasingly likely from the 1930s, Ambedkar’s fundamental concern was to ensure that the poorest, landless castes of India had constitutional protections to vote and to represent themselves as separate groups in the legislature. Writing to the Simon Commission for constitutional reform in 1928, Ambedkar saw direct participation of the poor as the only way to forestall the rise of a postcolonial oligarchy: “the poorer the individual the greater the necessity of enfranchising him…. If the welfare of the worker is to be guaranteed from being menaced by the owners, the terms of their associated life must be constantly resettled. But this can hardly be done unless the franchise is dissociated from property and extended to all propertyless adults” (“Franchise,” 66).

During the height of the Indian independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s, there was thus an acute awareness of mass poverty as a key problem confronted by modern politics outside the West. Participatory democracy was in many ways the answer to an economic issue: colonialism’s creation of a large population without security of income or property, placed at the very bottom of networks of production and exchange that favored either Western Europe or a native elite. This was the population that Gandhi repeatedly described as holding onto its existence in a precarious condition of lifeless “slavery,” completely lacking any economic power. Only fundamental changes in the nature of the modern state, to make it accessible to those who had been constructed as objects of expert rule and as backward outliers to productivity and prosperity, could return dignity to the poor.

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File photo from the 1952 general election, the first conducted with universal adult suffrage. Photo No. 21791a (Jan. 1952). Photo Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India.

My intention in briefly reconstructing Indian debates around giving suffrage, self-representation, and engaged citizenship to some of the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world is straightforward: attempts to address the effects of inequality in the Global South through the vote and local democracy rather than exclusively through international governance and economic reconstruction need to have a central place in any story we tell about twentieth-century poverty. Before they were taken up in the literature on efficient economic institutions and the rhetoric of international aid and development in the early 1950s (a shift usefully analyzed by anthropologists like Akhil Gupta and Arturo Escobar), colonial narratives about Africa, Latin America, and Asia as regions of intractable, large-scale poverty, famine, and market failure informed the political thought of anti-imperial democracy. The idea that existing economic conditions in India were problematic and deeply unjust was the basis of giving greater political power to the poor. A global conceptual history of ‘mass poverty’ in the twentieth century can therefore situate popular Third World movements that sought to increase the agency of the poor alongside more familiar, and more hegemonic, projects of Western humanitarianism.

This brings me back to my earlier point about what we might gain by re-thinking, with The History Manifesto, the relationship between intellectual history and economics. Once we start to trace how the categories and variables deployed in economic analysis emerged and changed over time, and how they were interpreted and practiced in a wide range of historical contexts, we can access dimensions of these concepts that may be completely absent from economic modeling. On the specific question of global poverty, an intellectual history that documents how the concept travelled between Third World thought, social movements, and global governance might give us theories of poverty alleviation that entail much more than simply distributive justice and resource allocation. This would be a form of intellectual history committed, as Armitage and Guldi put it, to “speaking back” to the “mythologies” of economics by expanding the timeframes and theoretical traditions which inform the discipline’s methods (The History Manifesto, 81-85).

Tejas Parasher is a PhD candidate in political theory at the University of Chicago. His research interests are in the history of political thought, comparative political theory, and global intellectual history, especially on questions of state-building, decolonization, and market governance in the mid-twentieth century, with a regional focus on South Asia. His dissertation examines the rise of redistribution as a discourse of government and economic policy in India through the 1940s. He also writes more broadly on issues of socio-economic inequality in democratic and constitutional theory, human rights, and the history of political thought.

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Global/Universal History: A Warning

by contributing editor Disha Karnad Jani

Last week, in an essay on the state of global history, historian Jeremy Adelman asked, “In our fevered present of Nation-X First, of resurgent ethno-nationalism, what’s the point of recovering global pasts?” In the wake of last November’s election in the United States, and the slew of executive orders, hate crimes, and retaliatory moves by other governments that have followed, it is a fair question: have the unequivocal challenges to the project and paradigm of global integration put into jeopardy the very task of the global historian? Adelman concludes that the challenges to interdependence and “the togetherness of strangers near and far” levied by “the anti-globalism movement” must be met by historians willing to engage with disintegration as well—willing to listen to the “tribalists out there and right here.” In other words, it would not be helpful or honest to write another global history that does not account for the reasons behind the apparently widespread and domino-like backlash against sunny, cosmopolitan narratives about a world seen, as though from space, as a single swirling orb.

Global history is not necessarily the history of globalization. It is also not, as Adelman notes, “the history of everything.” It is “both an object of study and a particular way of looking at history… it is both a process and a perspective, subject matter and methodology” (Sebastian Conrad). Despite the myriad approaches to and existing volumes on this very subject, I want to return to the version of global history predicated on the interconnectedness and integration of our global present (and the anxiety around this present now quickly fading into the past). When the avowed raison d’être of a historical narrative that calls itself “global” is to explain how the world became so connected in the first place, dialogue among historians of global history has until now meant contending with the assumption that one is participating in this “moment.” The language of historiographical change is replete with the imagery of movement: the current, the turn, the shift, the trend—toward global history. Sitting still for too long isn’t great, but even worse is getting caught out of touch with the “out there.” Given the waning interest in foreign-language training and the desire to strengthen borders and drive out the “foreign,” if one had been proceeding all this time with an understanding of global history as tied to globalization – and its enduring possibilities for a new kind of humanistic citizenship, as Lynn Hunt suggested in her 2014 book—then one might imagine that a threat to that vision might mean a threat to the mission of the global historian.

What did one have to believe about the world to look around in 2014 and see a process of closer integration and interconnectedness? What did one have to ignore? In the news were rising deportations by the Obama administration, the prominence even then of an anti-globalization movement (granted, with a different character), and the success of far-right parties in the European Parliament elections in May 2014. These were not considered part of a single phenomenon as widely or nervously as similar, as much more large-scale events are now. Indeed, the difference seems to be regime change: anxiety about a wave of right-wing governments upending the post-war liberal project mark the advance of every major election in the wake of November’s unexpected win by President Trump. The democratically elected far-right cannot any longer be dismissed as the purview of the newcomers to the West, like Hungary and Poland, or those who lie outside its borders, like India. The jeering faces of Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, and Geert Wilders loom the morning after every Trump “win”—in congratulations and promise/warning. This is a critical distinction: it is only with regime change, with the “fall” of governments to illiberalism that a trend has taken shape and been given a name in the columns of commentators. Yet the persistence and violence of border regimes, right-wing successes, and anti-globalization have been a part of the before-time just as they are a part of this epoch—post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-insert-catastrophe-here.

It is at junctures like these that it becomes most obvious that our historiographical preoccupations lie flat on top of our anxieties.

Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori have sketched an overview of the field of global history as part of their exploration of the possibility of global intellectual history. The current flowed from Hegel to Marx to the present. In Hegel we see the world-historical, the paradigmatic, the antecedent to the global history of our own time (taking some slightly unsavory detours through the “universal”). Indeed, much work on transnational connections and “connected histories” contains an explicit challenge to the Hegelian view of history and all its apparently outmoded Eurocentrism: “Hegel himself might have ended the narrative of the self-realization of ‘reason in history’ with the European state, but others carried the project forward to examine the implications for other parts of the world of the claims of European modernity to universality.”

In 2000, the philosopher and intellectual historian Susan Buck-Morss wrote an essay in Critical Inquiry arguing that “Hegel and Haiti belong together.” In her essay and the book that followed, she demonstrates that Hegel and his contemporaries were aware of and critically engaged with the events surrounding the Haitian Revolution via the widely read journal Minerva. She asks why Hegel scholars, with few exceptions, have chosen to read the dialectic of master and slave in Phenomenology of Spirit as mere metaphor. She also asks, “To what degree is Hegel himself accountable for the effective silencing of the Haitian Revolution?” Buck-Morss notes that the political metaphor of slavery as the embodiment in Western political philosophy of “everything that was evil about power relations” came about at the same time as the “systematic, highly sophisticated capitalist enslavement of non-Europeans as a labor force in the colonies.” She then wonders, why has the uncanny relationship between Hegel and Haiti been ignored so long? “Not only have Hegel scholars failed to answer this question; they have failed, for the past two hundred years, even to ask it.”

Buck-Morss takes this simple observation—the absence, the unasked question—to untangle the meaning of universality in history. What kind of subjectivity was assumed to be held by the singular and universal protagonist of history that moves in Hegel’s work and that of his heirs? (You and I number among them, reader, if the trajectory of intellectual history proffered by Moyn and Sartori above is to be believed.) It is the same protagonist at the center of the teleology of Marxism and indeed, at the center of globalization (and the strain of global history with which it is associated). In place of this sort of universality, Buck-Morss suggests that asking the hitherto unasked question “creates the possibility for rescuing the ideal of universal human history from the uses to which white domination has put it…. If the historical facts about freedom can be ripped out of the narratives told by the victors and salvaged for our own time, then the project of universal freedom does not need to be discarded, but rather, redeemed and reconstituted on a different basis.” Indeed, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has written in Provincializing Europe, without Hegelian universals like history and freedom, “there would be no social science that addresses issues of modern social justice”.

Buck-Morss shows us that inquiring after the unasked question—refusing to take it on faith that Hegel and Haiti were worlds apart—can expand the possibilities of historical inquiry. Permit me an exercise in parallelism: If the historical facts about globality can be ripped out of the narrative of globalization told by the victors and salvaged for a time in which the Western academy seems to have woken up to the fact that “globalization” is neither telos nor panacea, then the project of global history does not need to be discarded either.

In reading this version of global history through Buck-Morss’s Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, I have tried to suggest that we make ourselves unhelpfully vulnerable as historians when we drive the stakes of our narratives into shifting sands. I am not suggesting here that global historians did not, or do not, see the complications or limitations of the approach. As I noted above, there are many ways to write global history, and hindsight will always see blind spots and stumbling blocks more clearly than those who were writing histories even a short while ago. I have been concerned here with a very specific feature of this field: a mission to write a story of the past shaped by an occluded and willfully blind cohesion. Orienting an historical approach around an assumption about the future “progress” of the world does little more than make us prone to hasty retreat as soon as that future is jeopardized by the caprice of the “real world.” In Buck-Morss and in Adelman’s essay, I read a warning. If a single, redeeming, and final world-historical force ever calls out to you, either plug your ears with wax or tie yourself to the mast, because there are other, more distant calls the siren song is doubtless drowning out.

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Historicizing Ghosts: Reimagining Realities in Nineteenth Century Popular Bengali Fiction

by guest contributors Senjuti Jash and Shuvatri Dasgupta

ghostsIn South Asian historiography myths, local legends, chronicles, and folklores function as primary sources for the writing of “history,” or itihasa, as Romila Thapar has illustrated. Within the broad genre of fiction, historians have traditionally used social novels or short stories, and have overlooked popular fiction dealing with ghosts and spirits. Residing in an alternative society to that of the anthropocentric one, in fictionalized narratives and anecdotes, ghosts represented the “other” of the Bengali “self” during the nineteenth century. In this piece, we explore ghost stories as texts which can inform a bottom-up approach to histories of the nineteenth-century Bengali mind.

Why did the spectral community find popularity in the fictional realm of the Bengali mind during the nineteenth century? The primary reason behind this are the cholera, malaria, and plague epidemics which wreaked havoc in villages and cities, wiping out more than half of the population in Bengal during the early nineteenth century. From 1839 onwards, these epidemics spread from Bengal to other parts of India, as John Hays has shown. As the number of discarded and diseased corpses increased, ghosts found a place in the Bengali psyche facing the realities of death in their everyday worlds. In this scenario, the discourses of science and medicine produced a space at the intersections of “rationality” and “spirituality,” and engendered these accounts, which were transmitted both orally and in print.

The category of “ghost” remained fluid: in some stories they were seen, while in some their presence was only felt. In the fictional narratives, an environment of phantasm was created with omens like black cats, moonlight, and veiled silhouettes. The spaces of deserted houses and dilapidated bungalows acquired a metaphorical organic significance in these discourses. In a Bengali proverb from Comilla (Bangladesh), roughly translated as “ghosts inhabit a broken-down house,” the house signified the human body crumbling under various incurable ailments, which attracted ghosts to make the ailing human one of their own.

Local legends from Rangpur (Bangladesh) dating back to the nineteenth century described the habitats of different types of ghosts in various kinds of trees, namely Palmyra, Tamarind, and Madar. Ghosts also inhabited trees like Banyan, Sand Paper, Acacia, and Bengal Quince. The allocation of habitats in the spectral world mirrored anthropocentric normativities associated with gender roles. For example, the male Brahmin ghost, namely the Brahmadaitya, usually inhabited tall evergreen trees like Aegle Marmelos, Peepul, and Magnolia, maintaining his social superiority over others even after death. Female ghosts inhabited smaller shorter bushes and shrubs like the Streblus Asper and others. The Brahmadaitya’s habitat in comparison with the female ghosts’ habitats illustrated not only his primacy on the social ladder, but also the gender normativities permeating into the “other” world from the human world. 

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An early 20th century edition of the Grandmother’s Tales. Image courtesy of GoodReads.

In a famous anthology of tales compiled in the early twentieth century titled Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandma’s Bag of Tales), the narrator was an old woman entertaining her grandchildren, with a barely-disguised didactic tone. These tales reflected an element of moral speculation attached to the gender roles of the ghosts. Female ghosts like the widowed Petni were portrayed as attracted to fish, given the nineteenth century Indian tradition of widows living an ascetic life with dietary regulations. The construction of this ghostly image functioned on two levels: the reflection of the past married life on the widowed “self” of the narrator, and the articulation of these suppressed desires through the representations of the “other” widowed ghost. This dual self-projection of the narrator served a greater purpose, as it participated in the ongoing discourse about the issues of sati and widow remarriage, contributing to larger debates about the rights and privileges of women in nineteenth-century Bengali society.

With the colonial government’s criminalization of sati and legalization of widow remarriage, as Lata Mani has shown in her seminal article “Contentious Traditions,” women became sites of conflict for redefining “tradition.” There was a clear colonial preoccupation with the state of women as a benchmark for appraising civilizational standards. For the colonial masters, the injustice and oppression meted out to Indian women in the form of sati became a corroboration of “British modernity” and a moral platform on which their “civilizing” endeavor could be justified. The “feminine” hence provided a space for renegotiating what was “Indian” and what was “Western.” The female ghosts were clearly no different. While Indian women gradually unified over shared demands for various rights, the ghostly women from the other world expressed their solidarities for these reforms through the figure of Petni indulging in fish.

In these fictionalized narratives, living women—especially the ones who were pregnant or had long lustrous hair—were portrayed as more susceptible to ghostly encounters. Also, medical conditions such as seizures, epilepsy, multiple personality disorders, and schizophrenia in women were diagnosed by the quacks as being possessed or inhabited by evil or unholy spirits. These women then were subjected to the autonomy of the exorcists. They were sexually exploited under the pretext of exorcism and were sometimes even forced to marry the exorcist as a favor in return. Since most of the oral tales were produced by female narrators, they served as a space to articulate and in turn resist the threats women faced from the community of exorcists and failed to overcome in the human worlds.

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An exorcist confronting a “possessed” woman. Illustration from Bhutude Kanda, by Rabidas Saharoy (1962). Illustrations by Maitreyee Mukhopadhyay and Debabrata Gosh.

The influence of colonial race theories was also clearly detectable in the world of horror fiction, as they emerged as a significant premise for British epistemic exercises. Significant segments of British and European intellectuals, even during the age of the Scottish Enlightenment, considered Indians to be closer to black Africans, or black Malays, than they were to white “Caucasians.” As Swarupa Gupta comments, there was “selective adaptation, internalisation and re-articulation” of the basic tenets of imperial race theory, interwoven with prevalent conceptions of Hindu caste hierarchy within the Indian milieu, after the Census of 1871 (Notions of Nationhood, 112-13). While ordinary ghosts, both male and female, were described as dark-skinned, the Brahmin male ghost was portrayed as fair-skinned, tall, exhibiting saint-like feet, and wearing sandalwood sandals. On one hand, widowed Petni was depicted as a very dark-skinned figure; on the other, the ghost of the Muslim man, known as Mamdo, was also depicted with similar adjectives. Additionally, he wore a skullcap and featured an unkempt beard. The image of the Islamic ghost succumbed to colonial stereotypes, resembled its human image and position in society.

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Petni catching fish in a river. Image from Embellished Memories website.

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s short story “Oshoriri” tells how a Bengali middle-class man from Calcutta mistook his low-caste dark-skinned Bihari servant in Ranchi for a “ghost.” The tale ends with a strong note on the social constructions of the aesthetic facade of a man in contradistinction to a ghost, and how this dichotomy was balanced on an understanding of Victorian notions of outward appearance. Hence, specific categories of low-caste ghosts were marginalized even in their death, as an expression of the powerful afterlife of the stringent specificities of “caste” and “religion” that even death could not transcend. Thus, the socioeconomic and political impact of colonial dominance was translated in the languages of the spectral world through the idioms of religious, social, and gender discrimination, and racial hierarchies.

Ghosts were not always scary or malicious. In some tales, like the Jola ar Sat Bhoot (The Muslim Weaver and Seven Ghosts), they emerged as benevolent figures helping poor peasants out of financial misery, while also representing the spirit of resistance against the oppressive British regime. However, the figure of the benevolent ghost was essentially limited to the sphere of rural narratives, since urban miseries appeared to be apparently incurable even by ghostly benevolence. In the urban narratives, the ghosts appeared more as a threat to the luxuries and comforts, such as electricity, enjoyed by the city dwellers. Socially constructed notions of hygiene associated with poverty, such as bodily stink and dirty fingernails, were regarded as threatening even to ghosts, let alone humans! The poor were outcast even in the domain of enjoying the privilege of ghostly attention in the fiction generated in elite and gentrified urban spaces.

Picking up the thread from where we began, these fictional tales hence remain an unexplored repository for the intellectual historian, portraying how the Bengali mind under colonial transitions revisualized worlds, relationships, normativities, and ideologies. These narratives, both orally transmitted in rural areas and through print in urban circles, generated alternative realities. On one hand, gender restrictions were subverted, on the other, racial hierarchies and rural-urban divisions were reiterated. Reflecting the transitions in a Bengali society caught in the middle of colonial ideologues and nationalist exceptionalisms, ghosts provided Bengalis the voice of hope, faith, and sustenance they needed at the turn of the century.

Shuvatri Dasgupta is a final-year master’s student at Presidency University. Her work revolves around locating the global in the local by analyzing the multilayered origins of cultural and political discourses—tracing their genealogies and contextualizing them in transregional frameworks.

Senjuti Jash is a postgraduate student in History at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her dissertation is about the global intellectual history of caste. She is interested in overcoming the barriers of time and space to discern the intricate webs of connectivities across polities, economies, and cultures in this global age.