Chatterjee, Partha

Posted · Add Comment


Partha Chatterjee was born in Calcutta, the city where he would later do his undergraduate work, in 1947. After finishing a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Calcutta, he pursued a PhD at the University of Rochester in New York, which he completed in 1972. His work has been largely interdisciplinary, affecting critical approaches across the humanities, particularly history, through his roles as a founder and contributor to the Subaltern Studies group. Chatterjee has held academic positions and professorships across the globe, in Asia, Europe and North America. He is a sought-after lecturer as well. Currently he holds the title of Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, although very recently he was the Director and Professor of Political Science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in his birth city. As homage to his contributions to Subaltern Studies and on the eve of his retirement from the Centre, his contemporaries—including Anjan Ghosh, Tapati Guha-Thakurta, and Janaki Nair—edited a volume of essays, which are greatly indebted to his work.

Although he works primarily with Indian nationalism and identity, Chatterjee’s arguments about nation and its connection to colonization, modernity and Western philosophical thought have had a significant impact on the way scholars think of “nation” in many contexts. On the most basic level Chatterjee is interested in nation building post-decolonization. He asks, “Can nationalist thought produce a discourse of order while daring to negate the very foundations of a system of knowledge that has conquered the world?” (Chatterjee 42). Essential to this point is Chatterjee’s investigation of the birth of India as a nation in 1947. As Sanjay Krishnan notes, the crux of the issue with Indian national identity in its infancy for Chatterjee was that India’s

anticolonial thought in the strict sense combines a critique of colonial ideology with an embrace of the norms and valuations of the colonizer. The “India” so produced is continuous with the values and culture of imperialism even or especially where it appears most critical of imperialist domination (266).

In its continuity with an imperialist ideology, the postcolonial nation is troubled as a site of liberation from oppression. It reproduces systemic oppressions seen during the colonial period rather than erase them.

Poignantly, David Scott has said that, “Chatterjee is not in the business of policy-making. He is in the business, rather, of interrogating the conceptual apparatuses through which political claims are conceived and advanced” (47-48). Anti-colonial thought and its relationship to imperialist-infused nationalism does not stand alone as an area of investigation for Chatterjee. He has expressed interest in the relationship between secularism and Hinduism in national discourse in India as well as the role of gender in the foundation of an Indian nation. Additionally, he questions how and to what degree citizens participate in notions of nationhood, particularly in times of rebellion (William Wheeler), and equally, what democracy means in India for a peasant, proletariat or subaltern class.

Subaltern Studies Affiliation

Chatterjee’s participation in the Subaltern Studies group began in the 80’s with a conversation with important scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty. Chakrabarty had recently been to the University of Sussex to visit Ranajit Guha, who helped found in 1981 of the Subaltern Studies group. Guha and other future members of the Subaltern Studies group had been working to develop Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the “subaltern” beyond a simple implied translation as the Marxist “proletariat.” Subaltern came to represent those who were non-elites in a broad sense. This lower class position included markers of religious faith, gender, ethnicity, and race in addition to one’s labor position.

Guha and other scholars were highly influenced by both Gramsci’s work and also the work of Michel Foucault. For Chatterjee, Foucault’s notion of “governmentality” allowed him

to formulate the question of minority rights not as an externality—from the site of Force or Reason—but as the counter assertion of a refusal to be identified and subjectified by the discursive and non discursive apparatuses through which this public reason is deployed, and to stand, in effect, before the Sovereign in an attitude of Unreason,” (qtd. in Scott 47)

In engaging with Foucault, Chatterjee argued that the social and political had a normalizing power and this normalizing happened through discourses of the nation, specifically history. In that sense, Chatterjee took an anti-history position, recognizing that the history being written in India was a national one that favored an elite class. This argument placed him firmly in the camp of those who sought to deconstruct a European Enlightenment understanding of what history is. The way he and other Subaltern scholars sought to combat an Enlightenment historical framework was to engage in writing “histories from below.” As the above quote suggests, the history of the subaltern is external to that of an elite history. It is “unreasonable” in the face of Sovereign hegemonic dogma. This idea resonates with topics discussed earlier such as how the subaltern views his place within a political rebellion.

Scholars in Subaltern Studies as well as Postcolonial criticism have taken up this notion of unreason. Homi Bhabha’s essay “Unsatisfied: Notes on Vernacular Cosmopolitanism” makes direct reference and use of Chatterjee’s work. Bhabha states,

Are these forms of communal life part of the potentially subversive, subterranean concept of community that Partha Chatterjee has located for us in the unsurpassed contradiction between capital and community at the very end of his recent book, The Nation and its Fragments? A community that seeks to articulate itself at the “level of immediacy,” surviving in an interstitial zone of the indeterminate, between the private and the public, the family and civil society, always in danger of being peremptorily “nationalized,” or being considered an atavistic minoritarian voice. (196)

Chatterjee’s concept of the subterranean community helps Bhabha define vernacular cosmopolitanism, which incorporates both the international and intercultural exchange into a discussion of the vernacular local—what Bhabha might call a subterranean community. This concept seeks to have these two “worlds” exist and interact while simultaneously locating that exchange on the margins of the two worlds. A focus on the margins, although emblematic of Bhabhan thought, is informed by Chatterjee’s idea of the “interstitial zone of the indeterminate,” a place where political and personal spaces meet. Chatterjee, thus, becomes an essential theoretical tool for Bhabha’s argument that vernacular cosmopolitan exchanges retain the specificity of a local experience while interacting on a global plane.

Although I have outlined very briefly one example of how Chatterjee’s work is being used currently, there are numerous examples one could go to. Chatterjee’s arguments about nationhood and his contributions to Subaltern studies continue to be influential in academia, particularly in the disciplines of history, political science and literature.

–By Caroline Schwenz

September 2012


Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi. “Unsatisfied: Notes on Vernacular Cosmopolitanism”. Text and Nation: Cross-Disciplinary Essays on Cultural and National Identities. Ed. Laura Garcia-Moreno and Peter C. Pfeiffer. Columbia: Camden House, 1996.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “In Retrospect: Subaltern Studies and Future Past”. Subaltern Studies: Historical World Making 30 Years On. University of Chicago and ANU, 3-5 August 2011. Lecture.

Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? London: Zed, 1986.

(Ed.) Ghosh, Anjan, Tapati Guha-Thakurta, and Janaki Nair. Theorizing the Present: essays for Partha Chatterjee. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Krishnan, Sanjay. “The Place of India in Postcolonial Studies: Chatterjee, Chakrabarty, Spivak”. New Literary History. 40. 2 (Spring 2009), 265-282.

Scott, David. “A Note on the Demand of Criticism”. Public Cultures. 8(1995), 41-50.

Wheeler, William. “Partha Chatterjee”. Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts. Stanford University Library, 2007. Web. 15 September 2012.


Selected Author Works

·      A Princely Impostor? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2002.

·     Arms, Alliances and Stability: The Development of the Structure of International Politics, Macmillan, Delhi; John Wiley, New York, 1975.

·      Bengal 1920-1947: The Land Question, K. P. Bagchi, Calcutta, 1984. 

(With Asok Sen and Saugata Mukherjee)

·      (with Anjan Ghosh) History and the Present, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2002.

·      Itihaser uttaradhikar [The Legacy of History] (in Bengali), Ananda, Calcutta, 2000.

·      Locating Political Society: Modernity, State Violence and Post-colonial Democracies [in Mandarin Chinese, translated from lectures delivered in English], Taipei, 2001.

·      Partha Chatterjee Omnibus, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999.

·      The Politics of the Governed: Considerations on Political Society in Most of the World, Columbia University Press, New York, 2004.

·      A Possible India: Essays in Political Criticism, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997

·      The Present History of West Bengal: Essays in Political Criticism, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997.

·      The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1993. Translated into Turkish, Spanish, French and Japanese.

·      Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? Zed Books; London; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1986; University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993. Translated into Turkish and Spanish.

·      (with Gautam Bhadra) Nimnabarger itihas [The History of the Subaltern Classes], Ananda, Calcutta, 1998.

·      State and Politics in India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997.

·      Texts of Power: Emerging Disciplines in Colonial Bengal, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1995.

·      The State of Political Theory Research India, Calcutta, 1978.

·      The Wages of Freedom: Fifty Years of the Indian Nation-State, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998.

·      Three Studies on the Agrarian Structure of Bengal: 1860-1947, Oxford University Press, Calcutta, 1981. 

(With S. Kaviraj, S. Dattagupta and S.K. Chaube),

·      Social Science Research Capacity in South Asia, Social Science Research Council, New York, 2002.

·      With Gyanendra Pandey), Subaltern Studies VII, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1992.

·      (with Pradeep Jeganathan) Subaltern Studies XI: Community, Gender and Violence,

Permanent Black, Delhi; Columbia University Press, New York, 2000).

Websites to Consult

Center for South Asian Annual Lecture: Partha Chatterjee’s “Football and Political Identity in a Colonial City”


The Frantz Fanon Blog


Fukuoka Asian Culture Prizes—Archive Library


In Retrospect—Subaltern Studies and Futures Past


Postcolonial Studies Playlist




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *