Theses Doctoral

Legacies of Colonial History: Region, Religion and Violence in Postcolonial Gujarat

Chandrani, Yogesh Rasiklal

This dissertation takes the routine marginalization and erasure of Muslim presence in the contemporary social and political life of the western Indian state of Gujarat as an entry point into a genealogy of Gujarati regionalism. Through a historical anthropology of the reconfiguration of the modern idea of Gujarat, I argue that violence against religious minorities is an effect of both secular nation-building and of religious nationalist mobilization. Given this entanglement, I suggest that we rethink the oppositional relationship between religion and the secular in analyzing violence against Muslims in contemporary Gujarat. The modern idea of Gujarat, I further argue, cannot be grasped without taking into consideration how local conceptions of region and of religion were fundamentally altered by colonial power. In particular, I suggest that the construction of Islam as inessential and external to the idea of Gujarat is a legacy bequeathed by colonialism and its forms of knowledge.

The transmutation of Gujarati Muslims into strangers, in other words, occurred simultaneously with the articulation of the modern idea of Gujarat in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I focus in particular on the role of nineteenth-century regional history-writing, in which the foundational role of Islam was de-emphasized, in what I call the making of a regional tradition. By highlighting the colonial genealogy of contemporary discourses of Gujaratni asmita (pride in Gujarat), in which Hindu and Gujarati are posited as identical with each other, I argue that colonialism was one of its conditions of possibility. One result of this simultaneous reconfiguration of religion and region, I argue, is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to inhabit a Hindu religious identity that is not at the same time articulated in opposition to a Muslim Other in Gujarat. Another consequence is that it is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for Muslims to represent themselves or advocate for their rights as Muslim and as Gujarati. How the reconfiguration of a Gujarati regional identity is imbricated with transformations in conceptions of religion is part of what this dissertation seeks to think about. Furthermore, I argue that the marginalization of Muslims in Gujarat cannot be understood through an exclusive focus on organized violence or on the Hindu nationalist movement.

While recent studies on Gujarat have focused mainly on the pogrom of 2002 to think about the role of the Hindu nationalist movement in orchestrating mass violence against Muslims in contemporary Gujarat, I argue that the pogrom of 2002 is but one part of a broader spectrum of violence and exclusion that permeates the body of the state and society. In addition, I suggest that one of the conditions of possibility for such violence is the sedimentation of a conception of Gujaratiness as identical with Hinduness that cuts across the religious/secular divide. Instead of focusing exclusively on the violence of the Hindu nationalist movement, I explore this process of sedimentation as it manifests itself in the intersecting logics of urban planning, heritage preservation, and neoliberal development in contemporary Gujarat. Through an analysis of the contemporary reorganization and partitioning of the city of Ahmedabad along religious lines, I show how it is continuous with colonial and nationalist urban planning practices of the early twentieth century.

Using ethnographic examples, I also argue that the contemporary secular nationalist discourse of heritage preservation is both complicit in the marginalization of Muslims and continuous with practices of urban planning and preservation that were articulated in the late colonial period. Finally, my dissertation demonstrates the enabling nature of neoliberal logics in the organization of violence against Muslims in Gujarat and argues that anti-Muslim violence and prejudice are enabled by and intertwined with narratives about the promises of capital and progress. Combining historical and ethnographic methods, this dissertation seeks to contribute to an anthropology of colonialism, nationalism, religion, secularism and violence in South Asia that is attentive to the continuities and discontinuities that are constitutive of the postcolonial present we inhabit.

By historicizing contemporary debates and assumptions about Muslims in Gujarat and describing some of the genealogies that have contributed to their sedimentation, I hope to have argued that colonial legacies have enduring effects in the present and that the question posed by colonial forms of knowledge and representation is not merely epistemological or historiographical but also a political one. Written as a history of the present, this dissertation is motivated by a desire to imagine a future in which Hindu/Gujarati and Muslim are no longer conceptualized as oppositional categories; in which Gujarati Muslims are able to represent themselves as Muslims and in their own (varied) terms; and where Hindus are no longer invited and incited to inhabit a subjectivity that depends on making Muslims strangers to Gujarat.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Dirks, Nicholas B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 16, 2013