The Instrumental Past: Colonialism and Ethno-Nationalism in South Asia and Eastern Europe

Thursday, October 21, 2021, 11:00am - 12:30pm


Sadia Abbas (Rutgers), Tamara Sears (Rutgers), Jan Kubik (Rutgers), Marta Kotwas (UCL). Moderator: Faisal Devji (Oxford)

Sadia Abbas (Rutgers), Ruin-Man: Curzon, The Frontier and Unmixing
George Nathaniel Curzon brings together Indian and Afghan discourses of ruins and monuments with population management at the turn of the nineteenth going into the twentieth with effects that have reverberated through South Asia as well as the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. He was fixated on Russian dominance and the continued colonial control of India in a way that led him to solidify the notion of Afghanistan as a Buffer state/ frontier area, oversee the division of the North West Frontier Province in India in 1901, contribute to the Partition of Bengal, propose the Polish Soviet-border in 1919 that was more or less adopted during the Cold War. He presided at the Lausanne convention that led to the Greek-Turkish population transfer as well as the formalization of Sykes-Picot. He was at the same time drawing on the work of American historians of the Frontier at the turn of the century. The paper explores his thinking about ruins, frontiers and unmixing, tracing some of these connections and their reverberations in the present.

Tamara Sears (Rutgers),Building Past Futures: Religious Nationalism, Secular Modernity, and the Politics of Architecture in Postcolonial India
Over the past few years, the government of India has launched two major controversial reurbanization projects. The first is the Kashi Vishwanatha Temple Dham (KVT) project in Varanasi (Benares), which has resulted in the demolition of dozens of shops and homes and the displacement of hundreds of people in favor of clearing out space purportedly to facilitate pilgrim access to the city’s most sacred Hindu temple. Launched in 2018 and scheduled to be completed this year, the KVT project is being followed closely by the Central Vista Project in Delhi (2020-2024), which entails a radical reimagining of the capital center of Delhi, originally designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker almost exactly a century ago (1912-1931). This presentation situates these projects within a longer history of architectural debates, stemming back to the era leading up to Independence, concerning the relationship of secular modernity to religious pluralism, debates surrounding architectural revivalism, and the place of India’s pasts in realizing postcolonial futures.

Jan Kubik (Rutgers) and Marta Kotwas (UCL): “Mnemonic Warriors: Right-Wing Populist Constructions of Nostalgia in Poland”

How and to what effect do populist political actors engage in the politics of memory? Each of the four types of mnemonic actors (warriors, pluralists, abnegators and prospectives) identified by Kubik and Bernhard, employs a different strategy of using the past in politics. We argue that some of them invoke collective nostalgia. As Boym observes: “The nostalgic desires to turn history into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.” Drawing on Boym’s distinction between restorative and reflective nostalgia, we examine in particular how right-wing populists, often acting as mnemonic warriors, strive to construct the past in a specific way and “restore” it by promulgating radical nostalgia-inducing mythologies. Such mythologies, relying on the Manichean vision of social reality, serve to legitimate populist power but the resulting symbolic and political polarization weakens the workings of liberal democracy. To assess the effectiveness of this legitimating strategy, we also analyze the political and social consequences of the liberal emphasis on “irreversibility of time” and relative disinterest in nostalgia as an example of a counter-discourse. Poland, where the Catholic Church and ethno-populists are intense propagators of nostalgia, is our case.

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