Marginalia On Radical Thinking: Interview with Tamal Dasgupta

Tamal Dasgupta is a founder of the Journal of Bengali Studies, and we recently discussed  his journey out of Marxism and towards a Left Nationalism specific to Bengali Hindu people of India. 

Skepoet: Tamal, would you like to describe your political journey to me?

Tamal Dasgupta: Sure Skepoet, I have been thinking along that line for some time. I guess my trajectory towards a formulation of a Hindu left needs to be mapped if i want to understand precisely where I stand now: I come from a family of communists.  My grandfather joined Communist Party of India in early 1940s, my father is still actively with CPI-Marxist.  I was in the students’ wing of CPI-M while studying in college.

A number of factors contributed to my conversion: first was a mix of Anarchism and Trotskyism to which I was exposed while looking for answers to what went wrong in the regimented communist movement. Then I noticed that mainstream left of India was never sufficiently indian, and I turned to Hinduism in order to understand why left is hinduphobic in India.

Then i came up with an idea of compradorship dominating the Bengalis who in turn were dominating the left movement in India.

What do you think of the editorial I wrote for the first issue of the journal?
S.: In your editorial you make it clear that Bengeli nationalism should be separate from any form of ethnic supremacism.  How do you think this can be done?

T.D.:   Skepoet not just left nationalism, even certain varieties of rightist nationalism and almost all varieties of centrist nationalism oppose ethnic supremacism. Prioritizing and focussing on one’s  own communal identity doesnt necessarily entail a belief in the superiority of one’s community vis-a-vis others.

Even in case of rightist nationalism, you will note that all forms of fascism are not necessarily like Nazism in believing in an ethnic superiority.
So a celebration of one’s own identity without a xenophobia/hatred/contempt towards others (not even towards a rival community like Islam is a rival of Hinduism in our country) is an ethical possibility. The ethical model of the indian epic Mahabharata is somewhat the same. One must save one’s kindred as duty without any feeling of self-pride and hatred/contempt towards others.

Let me add that a sharp criticism of the Bengalis is a distinct feature of this left nationalism, or Hindu left that i am trying to postulate.Nationalism is not patriotism. Nationalism is in fact something very different from a narcissistic, naive and complacent masturbation of the self-aggrandizing parochial discourses of ethnic supremacism.

S.:  What positions that the CPI-Marxist advocate that turned you off from that party?

T.D.: So far as the question of CPI-Marxist (and Indian communist parties in general) is concerned, I shall strongly suggest that you read my article “Understanding Hi-story” in that issue of JBS and tell me what do you think of my critique of the communist movement in Bengal. Particularly about CPI-Marxist, this has been a party of thugs and robbers and rapists and it has singularly destroyed Bengal through its regime for last 34 years. I mean we don’t need an academic discussion to prove that point that its misrule was a disastrous event in Bengal. It monopolised recruitments in all government offices and institutions including colleges and universities, and me and my wife had to get a job through their channels and thats how we came to New Delhi looking for university jobs.

S.:  In some personal correspondence with me, you indicated that you are influenced by the Eurasian movement thinker Alexander Dugan. How do you see Dugan being useful for left nationalism?

T.D.:   About Dugin: he is speaking of a fourth theory after the failure of liberalism, fascism and communism. I think his national bolshevism as opposed to western liberalism, his emphasis on the past traditions (though an uncritical celebration of the past is to be rightfully distrusted), natural traditionalism (green agenda) are interesting developments in nationalist thoughts. The entire Arktos experiment on myth, post-rational post-enlightenment mysticism are indeed important from the point of view of a new form of left/postleft communal, identarian, nationality oriented politics.

But I know so very little about Dugin. Am so eagerly looking forward to the release of his book in English.

Anyway, do let me know what do you think of Indian communist movement. I consider it (as you will find in that article “Understanding History” as well) as a movement of anti-national collaborators, not to speak of the standard regimented totalitarian intolerant quasi-fascist undemocratic structure of its marxist and maoist varieties (speaking from my previous anarchist-trotskyist viewpoints, which I have not yet discarded totally).

S.: Do you think the Marxism in India has been a source of lingering Euro-dominance?

T.D.:  Not really euro-dominance. Soviet and Chinese, these two were the main spheres of influence, communist party of Great Britain initially acting as the courier of the Soviets.

S.: I see, so you think Indian interests were lost in the proxy war between the Soviets and the Chinese sphere? Also, what do you make of the Naxalite issue?

T.D.:  In india, the mainstream left space went to staunchly anti-national communist parties since 1930s, a process that was complete by 1940s. Naxals are well within a continuous anti-national, hinduphobic tradition of the communist movement of India.

S.: Let’s refocus: What role do you see Bengali nationalism playing within the larger confederation of nations within India?

T.D.:  Apart from the obvious function of protecting the interests of the Indic Bengalis worldwide, it should provide a template for similar movements (nationalist, post-marxist, post-enlightenment, revivalist, green) in other parts of the world. Within india, it should have the potential to provide the take-off point for a Hindu left, as I envisage.

S.:  How would a Tamil left or a Punjabi left be different from a Bengeli left?

T.D.:   It would be disastrous to use terms like Bengali left and Punjabi left, because of the inherent ambiguities in such phrases (any Bengali speaker who is also a leftist will come under that blanket category of Bengali left). I am least bothered about the existing left in India, there are many Bengalis and Tamils in that spectrum. They are not nationalists. and they are hinduphobic.

So first rephrase your enquiry and I shall answer.

S.:  Okay, I see the concern there:  how would a non-hinduphobic left nationalist movement differ in the various Indian national-ethicities?

T.D.:  The cultural content will most obviously distinguish them from each other. also, their interests and concerns and focus areas will vary, just the way Russian nationalism will be different from Ukrainian nationalism. What Freud called “narcissism of minor differences” comes to play a role in differentiating neighbouring ethnic communities who otherwise may share some Witgensteinian “family resemblances.”

S.:  How do you see left nationalism in India differing from Hinduvta?

T.D.:  Roughly, these differences will be along the lines of differences between, say, Christian left and Christian right.

S.:  What are the most pressing issues for Bengalis in India right now in your opinion?

T.D.:    Steady loss of identity, culture, heritage, history, nationality and sense of community because of the dominance of left-liberalism, and also grave threat from Islam (which can turn the hindus of Bengal into a minority, given the present trend of demographic changes and infiltration patterns form Bangladesh).

S.:   Do you see the central government or the congress party doing anything about this?

T.D.:  Congress has a long history of compradorship; and moreover it has been, since the days of the hegemony of M K Gandhi and J L Nehru and eversince the expulsion of Subhash Bose, a singularly anti-Bengali establishment, so whatever they’d do, it would be against the interests of the people of Bengal, that’s for sure.

S.:  Anything you’d like to say in closing?

T.D.:  In closing I would say that the Hindu left that I am trying to envisage academically and culturally (and may be later, politically) will restore the Bengalis to their context, their culture and history: it will revive the spirit of revlutionary nationalism that left an indelible mark on Bengal’s history and India’s struggle for independence, it will give birth to a forward looking, post-englightenment, cultural revivalist, naturalist/green and democratic Hindu discourse that may pioneer a new kind of understanding of Hindu and Indian identity in other parts of our country. That Bengaliness is a concrete manifestation of Hinduness, and we belong to a commonly shared space within indian history and culture along with other Hindu cultures and communities and linguistic nationalities (Slavs with a common Orthodox identity or Gaelic people with a common Catholic identity are some parallels which give a rough idea about what we Bengalis share with other Hindus) will constitute a focus area in the Hindu left discourse of Bengali nationalism. Hindu left can as well reverse the process by means of which the revolutionary space within Indian politics was occupied by the comprador forces of communists (the communist movement of India and its numerous derivatives, break-aways and satelites have been almost invariably collaborationists and staunchly anti-Hindu), and rescue the revolutionary and radical space from the ideologies of rabid Hinduphobia. Hinduphobia has been a characteristic feature and a pre-condition and a qualifying criterion of the left of India (and not Indian left, because this segment of Indian politics always doggedly resisted any “Indian” identiy, and the very word Hindu is a vulgar term for almost the entire existing left spectrum in India). Internationally, we may yet discover a revolutionary, postcommunist, nationalist, egalitarian, green side in the Hindu history, culture and identity. Hinduism is currently much maligned by the leftists of India as an unqualifiedly fascist and evil thing, and a Hindu left may be able to call their bluff, calling the compradors as compradors, and exposing the modus operandi of the bastard children of Macaulay and Muzaffar Ahmed.

Marginalia on Radical Thinking Series can be found here, here, herehereherehereherehere, here hereherehereherehere  herehere, here, and here

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Posted on April 23, 2012, in Interviews, Philosophy and Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Interesting interview. I’d raise concerns about unifying nation and religion. All cultures have had united religions, but they were top-down and reinforced regressive power structures. European and American nationalisms tend to be religiously pluralistic today, though of course that is still being contested by the U.S. Christian Right. I think the Christian Right has actually lost that battle and Rick Santorum’s defeat proves this.

    While I advocate Christian, Islamic, Atheist, neopagan, Hindu etc. revolutionary movements, this must be undertaken with an explicitly pluralistic politics, an anti-xenohobic mutual recognition of differences. In other words, revolutionaries need to work across these lines, as well as within them. An inside/outside strategy, if you will.

    The swipes at “neoliberalism” and “loss of culture” worry me as he seems to not allow for a Bengali Atheism, for example, as a legitimate viewpoint. Yes, atheists usually have phobias about religion and these need to be overcome via pluralistic mutual recognition, but the problem of xenophobia isn’t unique nor even more exaggerated among atheists than among Hindus.

  2. An error correction, Skepoet:
    In the interview, “me and my wife had to get a job through their channels and thats how we came to New Delhi looking for university jobs.” should be read as “me and my wife had to get a job through their channels, which we refused to do and thats how we came to New Delhi looking for university jobs.”

  3. Let me clarify to Radicalprogress: I am a nationalist, green, anti-capitalist, postmarxist, atheist Hindu.

    Bengal’s Sankhya philosophy (one of the greatest schools of thought that ever originated in ancient India) is atheist, so is Buddhism, and Hinduism accepts atheism as a part of its diverse faith systems. In Indic cultures, atheism and dharma are not mutually antagonistic. However, though am an atheist, I dont rule out mystic, magical dimensions of experience and cognition, as I espouse postenlightenment, postrationalist thoughts as well. But yes, I am an atheist. The God we think of is our own making, even if God exists (which I doubt), humans cant conceive him, and whenever we try to conceive him, it will be our own making. So atheism seems the only plausible option!
    I am an atheist in two senses; first, god probably doesnt exist. Second, even if he does, most probably he is not remotely identical with what humans have come up with so far. Our respective gods are our own makings.
    Being a posthumanist (which is to say, I am different from the usual breed of atheists who will unthrone God only to crown the Man in his place), I continue to challenge and deconstruct the human concepts of god, which is not to say I overlook the innermost necessities which gave birth to such concepts, and such gods :)

    Our gods are, after all, our indispensable inventions. Being a Bengali, I cant imagine what my world look like if Durga, Kali and Radha Krishna are suddenly withdrawn from it :)
    In other words, there is a category difference between the atheism of enlightenment triumphalism, and a postenlightenment atheism that rejects god, precisely on the ground that it acknowledges human frailties, and the limitations of human faculty, perceptions and sensory apparatus and the unreality of gods conceived by such human measures.

    I think postenlightenment (Enlightenment in the European sense) thought provides me an avenue where I can approach my legacy, my dharma, and my history without any obfuscation. Being a postenlightenment postrationalist radical, i can apporach Hinduism without caring for the pre-enlightenment stuff of mumbo jumbo and blind superstitions, racism, hierarchy, untouchability, and ancien regimes, while being acutely aware of the human origins of them and avoiding the (exaggerated) vilifications of them by enlightenment triumphalists.

    So, this postmodern atheism forms a continuum of history where I can approach my Hindu identity is a spirit of sympathy, and often in a spirit of celebration. Hence, this postenlightenment atheism proves a very useful tool to talk to the fellow believers as well :)
    I dont disown god under any circumstances, I just consider him a human invention and see no reason why he should be discarded for being one: after all, frailties, fantasies, imaginations, desires, mystic and mythical moments- they are an indispensable part of any sane existence. And god has been a part of our existence that way
    While talking of atheist Hinduism, I would like to add that Buddhism was perhaps the most important reformation movement that Hinduism has ever known in history, and there is more to Hinduism than Veda…

    Shakta and Vaishnavism, two dominant schools of Hindu philosophy in Bengal, are non-Vedic (Chaitanya the great sage, who gave us Gaudiya Vaishnavism, himself opposed Veda on a number of occasions as is written in his definitive biography by Shishir Ghosh), and both have their origins in the atheist Sankhya philosophy, in the Purush-Prakriti (Man-Nature) dualism.

    Though Buddha was not the first person to negate god; he was the first to negate the authority of veda, no doubt, about which Sankhya philosophy is rather tactful and timid. But negating god was something which the philosopher-sage of Sankhya did for the first time, before Buddha. And Buddhism draws heavily from sankhya, we all know. Take this for example: Vajrayana of Buddhism and Shakta faith of Hinduism are bafflingly difficult to separate. Buddhism is in our blood, we being the people of East India, we are all buddhists by lineage. How shall i be deprived of the original faith that my forefathers knew, just becuase today i am a hindu, after inheriting a tortuous history where Buddhism was erased from public consciousness by a certain socio-political conterrevolution?

  4. Thanks for your answer, Tamal. I’ll respect your “nationalist, green, anti-capitalist, postmarxist, atheist Hindu,” by offering my own, ex-pentecostal religious naturalist planetary social ecologist. As an ex-Pentecostal, the power of non-rational experience is my birthright. I’ve also delved into a variety of quiescent mystical traditions, such as my current involvement with Quakerism and an ongoing interest in Buddhism. I do not advocate state atheism, but I do advocate state secularism and social pluralism. I realize that in some ways Bengal may be far ahead of the US in respect to religious pluralism.

    I even claim that in some sense I am *more* Christian than my supernaturalist kindred, since I embrace an ethical communism that originated for me from the Gospels, whereas they embrace capitalism without any religious warrant. Zizek’s “only an atheist can be a true Christian” makes a certain kind of sense, though I differ on some things from him.

    On nationalism, we will have to disagree, though perhaps that is contextual. In the US, “Americanism” is cancerous, it drives us to insane abuses of power in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Mexico, etc. I have considered becoming an expatriate due to my general alienation from the US mainstream. Racism is a huge barrier to any nationalistic pride for me.

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