Benoy Kumar Sarkar and Japan
With few exceptions, male Indian nationalists from the 1890s on defined their predicament in terms of two great intertwined shortcomings: the lack of manhood and the lack of a state. The more cosmopolitan among them read the problem as part of a wider Asian predicament: the condition of the ‘little man’ cowed down by the hulking physicality of the imperial West. The powerlessness of their nation in the world was, after all, an extension of their own powerlessness in the streets and beds of colonial cities, or, for that matter, the vulnerability of Asian immigrants in America. In all these places, they and those with whom they identified were forever at risk of being assaulted or brushed aside by soldiers, sailors, policemen and railway guards, not to mention civilians wearing the most basic badge of the racist state: white skin. Moreover, powerlessness in the world naturalized their humiliation in their own country, because as the sovereign state became the necessary fulfillment of nationhood and modernity, it became self-evident that only those endowed with agency on the world stage truly deserved the dignity of manhood at home.
After the Japanese naval victories over Russia in 1905, however, manhood-in-the-world came to the rescue of the castrated-at-home. The equation of ‘Asian’ with ‘weak’ and ‘effeminate’ was undermined, because not only had an Asian race prevailed over Europeans, it had done so in the form of a state, equipped with all the paraphernalia of modern statehood: steel ships, long-range guns, admirals, diplomats, the rhetoric of tactics, strategy and national self-interest. The heavily armed state, able to project power across the sea, compensated for feminized immobility and passivity of the native in the colony. Moreover and almost miraculously, this development had coincided with the radicalization, intensification and popularization of Indian anti-colonial agitation, especially in Bengal, following the Curzon administration’s decision to partition that province. For Bengalis armed with pens, newspapers and a few unreliable pistols and grenades, 1905 was – at least retrospectively – the Year of the Asian Man.
It is in this context that we might locate Benoy Kumar Sarkar, the most prominent Indian social scientist of the period before independence. Sarkar was a brilliant and, within the limits of the colonial predicament, renowned scholar-activist. He took the entrance examination for Calcutta University at the age of thirteen and stood first (in 1901), received the prestigious Ishan scholarship, plunged into the National Education project (eventually playing a pioneering role in building up the engineering college of Jadavpur University), lectured extensively in the United States, Italy and especially Germany (where he spent some of his most formative years), and left a sizable population of former students and admiring colleagues when he died in 1949. He read, published and lectured in German, Italian and French in addition to English and Bengali, and experimented with new methods of teaching Sanskrit. Drawn deeply into revolutionary political thought after the partition of Bengal, Sarkar developed quickly into an enormously prolific writer on Indian nationhood, culture and history. He also became a ‘China expert’ of sorts, and a leading theorist of Pan-Asian solidarity, internationalism and cosmopolitanism. In a contentious intellectual and ideological setting that included Ghurye and Sarda, Nehru and Savarkar, Sarkar articulated a concept of the Indian people that drew from cosmopolitan as well as Volkisch imperatives, seeking to negotiate Darwin and Gobineau on the one hand and Manu and the Mughals on the other, with Nietzsche and Mill mediating, as it were. The tensions within and around those boundaries of Indianness are still with us.
Beyond the hagiographies that have appeared periodically since his death, Sarkar’s life and work have not been rigorously examined, although that may be changing. He makes tantalizing appearances in Pankaj Mishra’s recent book on Pan-Asianism. Manu Goswami has made a more sustained and scholarly study, arguing that colonial internationalisms like Sarkar’s should not be trapped within the narrative of national histories that culminate in the establishment of sovereign states. The problem with Goswami’s analysis is that she tends to detach Sarkar’s world from its local place of manufacture and utility. The nation-state is not extricable from the internationalism that Sarkar pursued, not least because for Sarkar, internationalism was largely a way of talking about nationhood. The sovereign nation-state, not a radically reordered world, remained the keystone of his postcolonial Utopia.
Sarkar matters not because his scholarship has stood ‘the test of time’: much of it is highly dated by present-day analytical criteria. That, of course, is where its value lies. Sarkar represents a particular moment in the intellectual history of Indian modernity, when two broad cultural and political projects came together for many – but not all – nationalists. One was the project of opposing, rather than reinforcing, Orientalist narratives of essential difference. The other was the imperative of restoring the nation to the world. India had become disconnected and isolated from Hegel’s world-history, they perceived, and imperialism had reinforced that ghettoization with its political order and its order of knowledge. Their task was to break out of the ghetto, which both reflected and exacerbated the problem of their emasculation. These considerations shaped Sarkar’s vision of the kind of state that was most conducive to racial dignity, imbuing it with an obsessive militarism that tended frequently to override other concerns, such as questions of sovereignty, legality and anti-colonialism itself. The pursuit of racial equality through the nation-state was, in other words, not entirely compatible with the pursuit of racial justice, although Sarkar insisted on both.
The fact that Japan was a central object of Sarkar’s admiration made these contradictions and complications all the more inescapable. Japan was already a colonial power, and its disregard for Chinese sovereignty was as egregious as that of the Western powers. Such ‘equality’ sat very uneasily with Sarkar’s Sinophilia: no reconciliation could be credible here. Rather than attempt to reconcile Japanese aggressiveness with Chinese passivity, Sarkar generally made a temporal separation: the Chinese predicament represented the humiliating Asian present, while Japan represented a model of the future. There was, however, considerable ambivalence. Sarkar’s vision of justice – or rather, injustice – in the world was inseparable from race, which for him was largely a consciously shared political predicament. While Japan appeared as the Asian champion, the methods of its power and the politics of its self-identification – particularly its tendency to affiliate itself diplomatically with the Western powers – also raised the specter of deracination, from which Sarkar recoiled. China, by contrast, was more pliable: it could be either India’s Asian fellow-victim, or a vision of greatness that, while clearly imperial, was neither suspiciously distant from Asia nor tainted by a recognizable colonialism.
Sarkar’s primary interest lay in appropriating Asia for his vision of a manly, or ‘energistic,’ Indian nation. This could be done in two ways. One was to participate vicariously in Japanese imperialism. The other was to extend, as far as possible, a historical and cultural Indian claim upon Japan, not to mention China. Other Indian scholars, like Sarkar’s friend and eulogist Radhakumud Mookerjee, had already shown their eagerness to make similar claims upon Southeast Asia. Consequently, the India that Sarkar envisioned became hard to separate from a certain language of modern politics and history, which might described as a rhetoric of conquest. This expansionism cannot be brushed away as merely metaphorical; for the Koreans and the Chinese, it was already quite real. The restoration of the masculinity of the colonized, however, was seen as requiring not just a state, but a counter-imperial world order that troubled the very men engaged in imagining it.
The utilization of Japan to construct a state based on militarism and imperial fantasy, a manhood based on violence, and a race based on conquest indicates, first of all, the limits imposed by ressentiment nationalism on liberal cosmopolitanism. In Europe and in Germany in particular, such limits constituted an interwar outlook: that of a humiliated nation longing for blood, fire and ‘wholeness’ even as it experimented with republican institutions and revolutionary ideals. Similar but not identical considerations saturate Sarkar’s Romantic yearning for a state of war. Secondly, it reflects a particular facet of the fascination that Japan – the first modern Asian state, the perpetrator of terrible atrocities, and the victim of unspeakable horror – has held for Indian onlookers in the twentieth century, right up to the more or less simultaneous moments when Japan lay devastated and India emerged from colonial rule. From Rabindranath Tagore to Radhabinod Pal, Japan was an object of great desire and alarm: a sign of much that was missing from the colonized nation, a theater of revenge, and simultaneously, the representation of the cannibalistic nature of the world in which they moved. They spoke from Indian realities; the Japan they imagined was never very far away. Not surprisingly, the desire to walk in Japanese shoes (with Hindustani hearts) proved unsustainable for nearly all of them.
The State of War
In the early 1920s, Sarkar reviewed a number of new books on Indian nationalist politics. These included Verney Lovett’s A History of the Indian Nationalist Movement. Lovett was an ICS man whose political sympathies were clear. He had co-authored the Rowlatt Act, and prepared the official history of Indian sedition for the colonial government in 1918. He dismissed out of hand the idea of dominion status for India, calling its British advocates naive. India, he explained, could not be kept in the empire without direct British rule, because even the moderate Indian nationalists were closet extremists. He was not a man Sarkar might be expected to befriend, and Sarkar began his review by noting that Lovett was a straightforward imperialist. He then agreed with Lovett’s assessment that there was no real difference between Moderate and Extremist in Indian nationalist politics: you were either a ‘patriot’ or a ‘traitor.’ He continued:
‘In the background of all this [revolutionary activity] the reader has to visualize a thoroughly disarmed India. And since her patriots have accepted the challenge of the British Empire their methods of work are naturally twofold. In the first place, they try by hook or by crook to equip themselves with arms. Secondly, they seek to improvise ways and means of acquiring a training in military maneuvers. Military discipline is achieved not only in this very process of financing the movement, but also in organized attempts to kill off persons in the British service undesirable to them, as well as their secret agents.
From a reading of the book one rises with the conviction that a state of war exists in India between the people who are its natural leaders, and the foreigners who have managed to get possession of the country. This belligerency, chronic and old as it is, is not recognized as such in international law, because the rebels have not yet been able to smuggle, purchase or steal enough arms and ammunition for one or two dramatic military demonstrations. But India’s efforts to attain political emancipation in the teeth of the formidable opposition of the enemy are patent to all who study warfare and the ‘halfway houses’ to war. The…book is a record of this struggle, especially of the crisis that is coming to a head, from the other side of the shield.’
Sarkar thus read Lovett’s book with a certain satisfaction. Clearly, there was a convergence between what the imperialist saw, and what the nationalist wanted to see. From his position within a regime looking to justify its repression, Lovett described the nationalist challenge as a radical, unified and effective threat, and implied that it was nothing short of a war against the empire. Sarkar is happy to agree, because the rhetoric of national war strengthens his position that India is not only an extant nation, but nearly an extant state. War not only produced race and nation, it was a prerogative and a sign of statehood. It set political violence and the community that practiced it above the illegitimacy and insignificance of mere terrorism. The lack of wider recognition for this state of war was, therefore, equally irritating to both Lovett and Sarkar, and the latter needed something substantial and undeniable to reify his people.
But where might the ‘disarmed’ find their militarism, by which Sarkar meant the ability, the will and an undeniable eagerness to make war? Where was the spectacle, without which the rhetoric of war fell flat? For middle-class nationalists, the past was the closest armory and theater. Anticipating Romila Thapar, Sarkar denied that Ashoka’s Mauryan state had been pacifist, or that ‘the citizens of India’ at the time had been bound by Buddhism: dhamma was not Buddhism. And even the Buddha was recovered for militarism and his disciples converted into quasi-Jesuits: ‘Shakya wanted his followers to be moral and intellectual gymnasts and move about like fire,’ Sarkar declared. In his extensive writings on early Indian religion, he carefully downplayed whatever was mystical and ‘quietist,’ highlighting the rational, worldly, activist, organizationally inclined elements, from humanitarian intervention to the killing of tyrant kings. The nature of the individual and of society had to be rescued from the Orientalist obsession with difference, and reimagined to fit the modern European or American state of the period between Napoleon and the First World War.
Tellingly, Sarkar identified the capacity for organization, movement and war as signs of civilizational virility, and virility as a particular kind of gendered citizenship. ‘[Kalidasa] was as great a nationalist or patriot or jingo as was the Roman [Virgil],’ he declared. The Gupta era was ‘an epoch of all-round success in arms and arts,’ and that, for Sarkar, made it ‘the period to conjure with even in the twentieth century.’ The combination of ‘arms and arts’ constituted the heart of his definition of a successful national culture. Literature, to be noteworthy, had to be national and nationalist. The ‘jingo’ state (with its immediate association with the overwrought machismo of Theodore Roosevelt and Kipling), its institutions and mentalities were thus never allowed to drift far from the center of things. Regarding the Arthashastra, he wrote:
‘The compiler was Kautilya, a Bismarck or Richelieu of India. The militarism of the Hindus would be evident to every reader of this book. Women with prepared food and beverage were advised to stand behind the fighting lines and utter encouraging words to the men at the front. This is out-Spartaing Sparta. There is here indicated a real ‘universal’ conscription like the one which was more or less witnessed during the recent World-War.’
The militarist-statist counter-history that Sarkar was constructing for India was thus eclectic and accommodating in its Western references, incorporating Sparta, Richelieu and the Great War in the same paragraph. In ‘Hindu Institutional Life,’ Sarkar again put forward his ‘militarist’ perspective on Indian social organization:
‘It is alleged that the Hindus have ever been defective in organizing ability and the capacity for administering public bodies. Epoch by epoch, however, India has given birth to as many heroes, both men and women, in public service, international commerce, military tactics, and government, as has any race in the Occidental world. Warfare was never monopolized by the so-called Khatriya or warrior caste in India, but as in Europe, gave scope to every class or grade of men to display their ability.’
Sarkar’s dismissal of the idea that warfare in early India was a Kshatriya preserve is a typical critique of the Orientalist vision of caste, but it is more than that. It also indicates a view of war as the definitive national activity, which not only includes the entire race/nation, but allows the nation to discover and become itself. Caste is rejected precisely because it goes against modern notions of horizontal citizenship and popular sovereignty. In the process, war becomes a basic democratic phenomenon: an experience of citizenship in which all can participate. This formulation is similar to not only the Israeli mythology of citizenship-through-military-service, but to less obvious national militarisms (like the American) and also the more extreme (like the German and the Japanese). ‘[T]here was nothing against the Bramana [sic] class as such being drafted for the regiments,’ Sarkar writes about the Mauryan state. ‘The whole nation could be drilled at need.’ Magadh became Prussia.
The eclecticism on display in Sarkar’s writing is not random or careless. In each case, Sarkar posited a national romance of militarism. American and German militarisms, perhaps obviously, are not identical, and the former is not straightforwardly Romantic. Sarkar, however, wanted both models for his Indian project: he was loath to pass over a useful discursive resource on account of the finer points of ideology. In ‘The Songs of Young Bengal,’ he warmly noted Hemchandra Banerji’s odd but enthusiastic poem about America, in which the poet wrote: ‘Her hu-humkar yells cause the earth to quake / Disembowel she would the globe, as it were / and reshape it fresh at her own sweet will.’ Hu-humkars (a war cry associated with Indian epic literature) and world-disembowelings (which presumably referred to the more assertive American foreign policy since the war with Spain) did not alarm Sarkar in the least. Both the poet and the fan saw these not only as evidence of a healthy shaking-up of European power, but also as energism, which was a valuable cultural development in its own right, and an essential ingredient of modern statehood.
What was this energism? Sarkar himself described it as a quality ‘of the organic body, nature of flesh and blood, health-basis of struggles.’ While it conformed to Sarkar’s early-twentieth-century fondness for biological models of social behavior, it was also a form of masculine vigor, or the willingness to act in the world: an essentially Nietzschean quality of the powerful Self. It was undeniably a gendered Self. To drop out of history and the ‘world’ – to be relegated to the ‘private’ sphere of the home and the domestic shrine – was also to be stripped of manhood. Sarkar was no crude woman-hater: in ‘Manu as the Inspirer of Nietzsche,’ he (and Nietzsche) managed to temper the notorious misogyny of the ancient Indian ‘law-giver’ into a more palatable modern patriarchy, depicting Manu’s ‘code’ as being ‘gallant’ and ‘reverent’ to women even as it provided a Dionysian alternative to the suffocating femininity of Christianity. Sarkar quoted Nietzsche from The Antichrist: ‘All those things which Christianity smothers with its bottomless vulgarity, procreation, woman, marriage, are [in Manu] treated with earnestness, with reverence, with love and confidence.’ Alert as always to exoticizing discourses, he added that Orientalists who came from the cheek-turning culture of Christianity could hardly assign a peculiar passivity to Hindus. Sarkar’s contempt for the ‘soft’ or unworldly aspect of Christianity is a direct contrast with Gandhi: both men sought to affiliate themselves with one part of western tradition and to reject another, and both sought to Orientalize the west, but they made diametrically opposed choices because of their different readings of gender and dignity.
As in the thinking of other Romantic nationalists elsewhere in the world, Sarkar’s relationship with Nietzsche was a twisted mess. Sarkar conceded that nineteenth-century Indians were ‘emasculated and demoralized,’ and India ‘an asylum of incapables, a land of vegetating animalcules, or of mere stocks and stones.’ Salvation through energism was possible, but it was intertwined the rediscovery of the state, particularly since ‘Nietzsche finds greater truth in the mercilessly correct view of inter-statal relations given by the Hindus than in the hypocritical statements of Occidental statesmen whose actions belie their words.’ Indeed, ‘Old India has contributed its hoary Manu as the master-builder in order to boss the super-men who are to architecture the Occident of the twentieth century.’ Reinterpreting Manu was not, however, the only relevance of Nietzsche to the discovery of ‘Hindu militarism.’ Energism and militarism were explicitly connected to the ressentiment that informed Sarkar’s vision of the world of race and power: in what might be considered a tactical misunderstanding, what Nietzsche abhorred became, for Sarkar, something to cultivate.
That deviation from Nietzsche was rooted in Sarkar’s conviction that the disease itself could generate the cure. In ‘The Psychology of the Semi-Slave,’ Sarkar wrote about imperialisms that were vigor-sapping but also productive of rebellion:
‘Normally [the ruling race in a colony] has no troubles except what may be created by the disarmed militarism and impotent insurrections of the subject race. But the daily life of people in a ‘sphere of influence,’ a Morocco, Abyssinia, or China, is a perpetual menace to the peace between the powers. For it is subject to [a] thousand and one restrictions, imposed without law and resented without vigor, all the more serious because of their extent being boundless and significance mysterious. Such spheres are necessarily the eternal storm-centers of the world.’
Moreover, he suggested (citing a cluster of resolutions passed by the American Friends of Freedom for India in 1920), particular colonial institutions – such as the stationing of an ‘unnatural’ body of troops (i.e., men without wives) in India – had generated readily visible forms of gendered demoralization: a plague of venereal disease, homosexuality, and a prostitution in which Indian women were set apart for the use of white men. The idea that military prostitution threatened the masculinity of native men has not received adequate attention in the scholarship on the Contagious Diseases and Cantonments Acts; Sarkar’s writing indicates that it was a humiliation that closely fit the connections between nationalism, patriarchal notions of ‘our women,’ and the dynamics of sexual gain in a racial hierarchy.
Combating this racial and gendered degradation required a compensating spirit, which Sarkar identified not only as nationalism, but also as resentment itself. The Great War had transformed the resentment of the emasculated into something potent, Sarkar perceived, not least because it had opened up new spaces and opportunities for manhood: ‘[T]he war,’ he wrote, ‘has given Asia the one thing she needed – a complete change in the diplomatic grouping of powers and in the values obtaining in the political psychology of all nations.’ The reference to political ‘psychology’ is worth noting. It is, on the one hand, a fashionable deployment of the rhetoric of psycho-science to the study of groupings like ‘race’ or ‘nation.’ On the other hand, it refers to operationalized ideology in imperial relations: the racism of imperial powers, and the inclination of the colonized to resist (rhetorically, politically, militarily) the assumptions of automatic privilege or deference that they had been taught. War, resentment and the need for revenge, in that useful twist on Nietzsche, become the stuff of vigor: to be prized, not avoided, in the colonies. In the modern world of empires, ressentiment becomes the only alternative to slavery and hegemony.
That, of course, is a rather Fanonian formulation of the purifying and constructive power of violence, which presumes that violence does not so much derive from an extant position of strength, as generate strength. Sarkar’s efforts to systematize the idea are visible in his use of the word ‘vindictiveness.’ Railing against Orientalist characterizations of China and the Chinese as docile, he writes:
‘To treat the Chinese as a pacifist race is the greatest…practical joke…in historical literature. The truth is the exact opposite. If the Chinese have not been an aggressive people, one would have to define afresh as to what aggressiveness means. The people and the rulers of China have exhibited warlike and vindictive [emphasis mine] habits in every generation. Even the Buddhist monks used to form themselves into military bands whenever the need arose. The martial characteristics of [the] Chinese have really been as conspicuous as those of the proverbial fighting races of India.
A race, whose collective consciousness is persistent enough to demand and achieve a continuous overflowing and cumulative enlargement, is certainly not a conservative stay-at-home, and war-dreading people.’
Sarkar’s use of words like ‘militarism’ and ‘vindictive’ is not a casual imprecision with language; nor should it be taken as the deployment of quaint jargon with no meaning beyond the text. An ideological project is embedded in his rhetoric: in the process of rejecting essential difference and Orientalist clichés about the feminized East, Sarkar enters into a moral inversion in which aggression and vindictiveness become good. This is part of a disquieting connection between fascism and anti-colonialism: the need to reject colonial discourses of subjugation and weakness produces an infatuation not just with the strong state and hypermasculine culture, but also with illiberal political structures and impulses. The insistence on a violent Orient is part of Sarkar’s attempt to restore Asia to world-history by restoring history – imagined as the stuff of statecraft and expansionism – to Asia.
The inversion, however, is never fully credible even to its own articulators. A note of hysteria creeps easily into Sarkar’s rhetoric of ‘vindictive’ China, for instance, and into his declaration that ancient Indian rishis were skilled at ‘burning, killing and fighting.’ (His embarrassed biographer Haridas Mukherjee explained that such language should not be taken literally, but merely as a sign of Sarkar’s ‘human manner.’) Also, the counter-discourse that Sarkar puts forward never fully cuts the tie with Orientalism: it falls back on the Martial Races theory. The idea of an aggressive Japan is no less attached (or attachable) to Orientalist/racist discourse than is the idea of a docile China, an unworldly India, or as Sarkar himself admits in his discussions of American racism, the ‘Yellow Peril.’ Consequently, Sarkar puts himself in a position where he must both deny and assert the reality of the Yellow Peril:
‘[T]he persecution to which innocent Orientals have been exposed in America…evidences that America and Europe are birds of a feather so far as aggression is concerned. In Young Asia’s political psychology, therefore, the ultimatum of American Labor to the Orient for the ‘crime of color’ affords the same stimulus to vindictive will and intelligence as does the steady annihilation of enslaved and semi-subject races by dominant European Powers and the notorious postulate of the ‘white man’s burden’ that pervades the intellectuals, journalists, university circles and ‘upper ten thousands’ of Eur-America.’
Cracks then begin to appear in the rhetoric of vindictiveness and in the culture of the state of war, with Sarkar revealing the ambivalence of his desire:
‘Reprisals and retaliations are undoubtedly justifiable weapons in literary as in material warfare. It is out of vindictiveness that people have resort to them. And surely Asia today is pervaded by the spirit of revenge; for the mal-treatment that she has received at Eur-America’s hands is profound and extensive, really ‘too deep for tears.’ But no system of values can look for permanence on a war-basis. War is a force in social economy only because it raises issues and clarifies the surcharged atmosphere. Life’s dynamics however must proceed to erect new structures on the new foundations created by the change in status quo.’
Elsewhere, he acknowledges that vindictive militarism is an unfortunate and temporary necessity brought about by the politics of race and empire, and even suggests that vindictiveness is itself a form of impotence:
‘[T]hrough the impact of the war, an intense wave of militarism has enveloped all ranks of the Asian and African peoples from Manila to Morocco. The vindictive nationalism of the last two decades has been lifted up to the spiritual plane in Asia’s consciousness.’
Sarkar thus speaks in the same breath of the onset of militarism, the decline of ‘vindictive’ nationalism, and a new ‘uplift’ to a ‘spiritual plane’: militarism, in this counter-formulation, is linked to spirituality and held up as the opposite of vindictiveness.
The tension was not so much resolved as extended through two simultaneous narratives of war. In one, Sarkar made vengeful threats. In the other, he adopted a rhetoric of conquest that was not so much vengeful as natural. European imperialism in the world and American racism at home would force Asians to strike back, he warned:
‘[T]hrough all the ages territorial expansion, dynastic prestige, commercial monopoly, military renown of digvijaya [world conquest], and so forth, have dictated the call to arms. Now that there remains no more of land, water, and air to be seized except possibly on Mars, the peace of the world is being recklessly staked by the aggressive races on the colour of the skin. It is in this way that the organic struggle for self-assertion maintains its continuity by changing its camouflage and ostensible motive from generation to generation, and that might establishes its historic right to rule mankind. Young Asia is fully conscious of the situation and has been preparing itself to contribute to the grand cosmic evolution from its own angle of vision.
For the present, Asia’s retaliation may easily take the form of an economic boycott of the United States. It is unfortunate that Americans should have lost the moral hold on the Orient when can least afford to do without it. Is it expedient for America to have a discontented Asia to reckon with now, in view of the fact that the possibilities of the Orient as a playing field for American enterprise cannot be overlooked even by those to whom Latin America is looming large? A monumental world-problem is hanging on the capacity of the American brain to rise to the height of the occasion and bring about a fair adjustment between the claims of Young Asia and the right of the United States legislature, from the platform of interracial justice and good-will.’
Sarkar links anti-Asian racism in America to the phenomenon of racial death, or rather, survival, in the colonized world: Asians will refuse to die like the savages of the world, and the West must come to terms with their natural determination to survive, which is itself inseparable from action and expansion. It is not a simple cause-and-effect link between Asian tenacity and Western racism. Rather, the two are pieces of the larger problem of race/empire, which will generate a backlash – in the form of economic boycotts and, implicitly, race-war – with which the West will eventually have to contend. He cited Ludwig Gumplowicz’s theory of Rassenkampf, or ‘race struggle,’ both as a critique of Western racism and as a defense of the Asian urge to conquer. In ‘A Call to Cosmopolitanism,’ Sarkar wrote: ‘Young Asia wants Eur-America to remember the historical fact that the duration and extent of oriental aggressions into Europe have been greater than those of [the] European into Asia.’ It would be difficult to find a better example of the contorted nature of the cosmopolitanism of ressentiment. Having articulated a reasonably consistent position of justice premised on equality, Sarkar slips into a self-defeating rhetoric of threats, taunts and muscular nationalism: ‘remember, we humiliated you more than you humiliated us.’
The equality (if not surplus) of historical humiliation was necessary, because a very large part of Sarkar’s polemic is a plea for Orientals to be recognized – and treated – as humans and kinfolk of Europeans. If there is something pathetic about this, it is a colonial predicament: a residue of the very mendicancy that Sarkar decried in Moderate politicians, that cannot be fully disguised by the ink expended on ‘conquest and expansion.’ With military conquests unavailable or restricted to Japanese adventures, Sarkar had to focus mainly on metaphors of conquest and expansion. Writing of the science of ‘Young India,’ he insisted that ‘Jagadish Chunder Bose’s comprehensive analysis of the ‘responses’… is but the theoretic correlate of the modern Indian sadhana (strivings) for conquest and expansion.’ Europe was already India’s ‘sadhana’ in the colonial era, of course: it certainly was Sarkar’s. But that sadhana – which was perilously close to mimicry – could be imbued with dignity if it was recast in terms of digvijaya, i.e., injected with militarism, vindictiveness and ‘spirit,’ which meant national spirit and not some metaphysical irrelevancy.
Asian conquests could thus be differentiated politically from European conquests, but only very tenuously. Both were natural, after all, except that one was also legitimized and energized by justice. Since nationhood in this perspective came with the choice of ‘conquer or be conquered,’ there was, potentially, the Japanese option: joining the colonizers in their project of racist imperialism. After the Great War and the creation of the League of Nations, Ramsay MacDonald had proposed that at least some of the European colonies in Africa be made over to India under the League’s provision for ‘mandates.’ MacDonald wrote that either the plan would fail and be reversed with no harm done, or it would ‘stamp India with a dignity which would command for it a position of unquestioned equality amongst the federated nations of the Empire.’ Sarkar scoffed at the idea, not out of solidarity with Africans, but because he believed that Indians had already done their bit for British imperial ventures.
For a man who wanted India to be counted as an actor in the world, MacDonald’s proposal could not have been entirely without appeal. Sarkar himself had declared (in a review of Vincent Smith’s Oxford History of India) that international relations were normatively, not pathologically, a matter of matsyanyaya: the ancient Indian ‘law of the fish’ (i.e., the axiom that big fish eat little fish). There can be no doubt about which side of the fish-law he wanted to be on. But Sarkar recoiled from the condescension implicit in MacDonald’s idea, and from the language of the ‘experiment,’ which cast the colony in the role of a specimen even as it gave it the trappings of power and prestige. Moreover, the plan involved the League of Nations, for which Sarkar had nothing but contempt: he saw it both as a European imperialist front and as an infringement of the principle of sovereignty. His rhetoric of Asian decolonization, after all, was premised on an unequivocal declaration that ‘The expulsion of the West from the East is the sole preliminary to a discussion of fundamental peace terms. Within this militancy, or rather militarism, the League could only be a Western-capitalist plot. Conquest and expansion were worthwhile only if initiated by Asians themselves, in their own interests.
Sarkar’s anti-imperialism was seriously complicated by his reliance on that rhetoric of conquest, manifest not only in the state of war based on matsyanyaya, but also in a citizenship based on Rassenkampf. His determination to see the Crusades as an Asian aggression against Europe (or a European defence against Asian aggression) is fully aligned with his tendency to identify with the aggressor over the victim. It is not that he was unaware of a moral problem, but that the colonized man’s need for power outweighed or inverted moral considerations. ‘Internationalism’ became inseparable from aggressive acquisition: when Sarkar describes Ashoka as an ‘internationalist,’ he means ‘imperialist.’ (‘He brought the whole of Western Asia, Egypt, Greece and Macedon within the sphere or Hindu culture.’) This reflects the contorted construction of cosmopolitanism by nationalists: engagement across borders veered easily into fantasies of domination and hegemony.
The Japanese Conundrum
For an ideologue who saw 1905 as the great turning point in the history of the modern world, Japan was irresistible in more ways than one. Its naval victory over Russia that year was literally spectacular: people looked on, especially in the colonies, and they readily made connections between their own struggles and the battles of Port Arthur and the Tsushima Straits, between their own racial-political predicament and that of the Japanese. Japan was the resurgent Asian Self, waiting to be owned by the emasculated. It was not, however, an easy claim to stake. The Japanese themselves appeared ambivalent towards their admirers, and the admirers proved to be fickle.
For Sarkar, Japan and Japanese were admirable not only because they had defeated Europeans in war, but also because they had shown themselves to be masters of their own cultural fate, having bypassed crucial philological roadblocks on the way to modernity and world-history. ‘Japan did not wait for the revolution of scientific terms in the Japanese language before she proceeded to assimilate the standard European and American works on medicine, engineering, and metallurgy,’ he wrote. Having pursued precisely this type of cultural development himself in his work on ‘national education’ since the Swadeshi years in Bengal, Sarkar pointed out the relevance of the maneuver to Indian modernizers and institution-builders:
‘The paucity of technical terms in the [Indian] vernaculars is only an excuse of [imperial] ‘politicians’ who have no other weapon with which to combat Young India’s theory of knowledge except sheer obstinacy and the Satanic will to retard human progress by any and every means. [N]o philologist has yet ventured to assert the capabilities of the Japanese language as an instrument of modern expression are richer than those of any of the Dravidian or the Aryan languages of India.’
As in linguistics, so in science: Japan had actively pursued modern technological knowledge since the Meiji restoration without waiting for a colonial spoon-feeding. Such bypassing was not merely academic. It was closely related to the state of war that Sarkar imagined. As an ‘active’ form of learning, it was the opposite of passivity: it required improvising continuously in one’s own national interest, rather than waiting for knowledge to be invented and handed down by others. Moreover, although Sarkar emphasized working outside the apparatus of the colonial state in India, his vision of decolonization retained a major role for state or quasi-state intervention in the form of bureaucracies of language and education, and emphasized the need to create and control the institutions of national governance. Japan after 1905 demonstrated that when European knowledge was acquired by Asians through such self-motivated tactics, it ceased to be European. The state of war was thus already, and definitively, free.
Whether that freedom belonged to Japan alone, or to other colonized people as well, remained unclear. Commenting on Russian strategic and political prospects in Asia after 1905, Sarkar wrote:
‘Having eliminated France from the Asian game or rather having localized French ambitions within fixed areas the British proceeded to strengthen the new friendship of Japan on the morrow of her victory [in 1905]. For Japan was the strongest of the powers likely to compete with her in China and the Chinese waters. Besides, Japan might eventually become the rallying-ground of rebels and political refugees from India and Burma. The British overtures could not but be welcomed by the Japanese themselves as the line of least resistance was the only advisable course for Japan. She needed, furthermore, the backing of a first class European power. She agreed, therefore, to help England put down revolutions among the Hindus and Moslems of the British Empire, and glibly proclaimed the policy of the open door in the Far East.’
Evidently, for enthusiasts of Asian decolonization, the Japanese were not an entirely reliable asset. But because they mattered as a strategic calculation to the Russians and the British, they also mattered to the political position that Sarkar was engaged in assembling, which had to do with restoring a broken model of the world at least as much as it had to do with justice. The establishment of links between Asian and European affairs was a vital part of Sarkar’s strategy of returning a political margin to its rightful place in world-history. This remained operative when agency in diplomatic affairs continued to reside primarily with Europe. Even when it was less than impressive, a militarized Japan ensured that Asia was not relegated to total passivity in its own history. The Japanese may act against the interests of their fellow-Asians, but they acted, and they did so on the world stage. That was ideologically valuable.
Moreover, in spite what the Japanese government may have promised its British ally, the hope remained that Japan would function at least occasionally as a voice for racial justice in the world, as it had done at the Paris peace talks after the Great War. Japanese diplomats had, of course, spoken in their own national interests at the Versailles. Nevertheless, the rhetoric was of racial equality, and Sarkar extended it into a larger context of Asian subjugation:
‘The only protests can come from Japan in regard to Eastern Asia, if at all. But they are bound to be too feeble. Little Nippon is dazed by the extraordinary changes that have taken place. Even her own independence may be in danger. She cannot any longer look for self-defence in the mutual competition among the Great Powers, for virtually there are no Great Powers left. The complete annihilation of German influence in the Pacific and the Far East is certainly not an unmixed blessing to the Japanese people or to the Asians as a whole.’
Japan thus remained the Great Colored Hope, and the very tenuousness of that hope – Japan’s ‘dazed’ condition – provided a point of identification for other Asians struggling to come to terms with modernization and weakness. Sarkar continued, for instance, to seek a balance between his empathy for China, the Asian victim that was potentially a great power, and his admiration for Japan, the Asian victimizer that was already a major power but otherwise a victim, bullied by the West since Perry’s arrival in Tokyo Bay in 1853. ‘Altogether…Japan has been ‘more sinned against than sinning’ in her Chinese policy,’ he observed, ‘but of course, so far as the infringement of China’s sovereignty and territorial rights…is concerned, it is useless to weigh the powers in the balance and find which is the greater sinner.’ The defensiveness reflected not just an outlook on the world of race and international power politics, but a tension within the colonized nationalist, who can (and has to) identify with the victim even as he wants to be on the side of the powerful and the victorious. The appeal of Japan was precisely that Japan was both a winner and a loser.
Sarkar’s ambivalence about just what (and who) modern Japan represented gives away his uneasy conscience over what it meant to be a winner (or to use his own rhetoric, to be both ‘vindictive’ and effective) in the world. His reaction is related, in that sense, to Rabindranath Tagore’s critique of Japanese imperialism. Sarkar’s narrative, however, was much more of an apologia than Rabindranath’s, because he accepted the imperatives of competing races and nation-states. It was thus more internally conflicted. The Yellow Peril became the ‘white peril’ in Sarkar’s disturbed rhetoric, explaining and partially excusing Japanese behavior:
‘The elementary need of self-preservation thus happens to induce Japan to resist by all means any further advance of Eur-America penetration in the Orient. The nightmare of this ‘white peril’ is the fundamental fact of Japanese politics, internal as well as international. Japan can hardly be blamed for trying to snatch a few pieces of the Far Eastern loot for an Asian people.’
Like other apologists for Japan, Sarkar implied that for Koreans and the Chinese, the loss of sovereignty to other Asians was less damaging – and historically less meaningful – than the aggression of Europeans. At the same time, Japanese policy remains a form of looting: Sarkar cannot bring himself to embrace Japan.
Even Sarkar’s interpretation of the Russo-Japanese War betrays his ambivalence. On the one hand, he proclaimed its significance as a real shift in race/power, but on the other, he denied that it constituted a new pattern. In ‘The Event of 1905,’ he wrote:
Even the success of Japan was due to the fact that Russia was not actively assisted by her Christian brethren against the non-white pagan. The last war has also shown that the grouping of belligerents by colour, race or religion is yet as far from being a question of practical politics as it ever was in history. The problem of each Asian people will then have to be fought out separately against its own official enemies with the support of such Powers, Oriental and Occidental, as may for the time being be interested in its fortunes.
Sarkar thus remained reluctant to declare that the Russo-Japanese War was the start of a reliable Asian political resurgence. It was, and it was not. In the sense that he and other Asian cosmopolitans were excited by the spectacular demolition of the white monopoly on modernity, it was meaningful. But Sarkar also knew that the circle of cosmopolitans was small and not especially effectual; in the realm of statecraft and policy-making, racial purpose and solidarity remained elusive. In other words, whereas the ideological and polemical significance of the rise of Japan was great, the political significance might not be.
In a similar vein, the Japanese victory was both miraculous and mundane, and Sarkar was by no means certain which is more desirable. The victory was politically miraculous. It is at the level of the miracle that Japan’s emergence as a modern Asian nation and a world power was fragile, unreliable, suffused by pessimism. But as a sociological and racial phenomenon, it was mundane, because the mundane is also the level where the mumbo-jumbo of racial difference fell apart and produced a reliable basis for dignity:
‘[T]he Asian civilization with which Japan started on the race about 1870 was not essentially distinct from the Eur-American, but…it was slightly poorer and ‘inferior’… because it had not independently produced the steam engine. Thus, scientifically speaking, there is nothing miraculous in the phenomenal developments of new Japan.’
That split between the miraculous and the mundane informed Sarkar’s attitude towards Japan as a racial entity that is Asian but not necessarily of or with Asia. It generated, for instance, a sharp resentment towards Japanese racial attitudes: specifically, the perceived Japanese tendency to leave Asia behind for the company of Europe. A miraculous Japan was an attractive image for colonized Asians because it carried the possibility of transcending the crippling handicaps of race, but it also allowed the Japanese elites to assume that they – unlike other Asians – had already transcended race and taken on a different political destiny.
The more powerful and ‘miraculous’ Japan became, therefore, the harder it became for the colonized to identify with it. The difficulty was ubiquitous among Indian admirers of the Japanese miracle, although the reasons varied considerably. Rabindranath, as is well known, became increasingly critical of what he saw as the Japanese determination to replicate the worst aspects of European civilization. In the 1920s and 1930s, writers of Bengali children’s literature praised (and envied) the modernity of Japan’s cities but simultaneously resorted to Orientalist exoticization, and concluded that the Japanese were simply unnatural: unsmiling automatons, or flowers without fragrance, as Ashoka Mullick wrote in ‘Japan and the Japanese.’ (It was a rather different deployment of nature from Sarkar’s reading of Gumplowizc.)
Sarkar’s own reaction was to argue that the Japanese had become partially deracinated by their success in the world. He wrote:
‘Since 1905 Japan herself has indeed been anxious to proclaim to the world that she is different from, and superior to, the rest of Asia in her ideals, institutions, and methods. But this notion is confined within the circle of a few diplomats, professors who virtually hold diplomatic posts, and such journalists as have touch with prominent members of Parliament. It is, in fact, preached in foreign languages by a section of those intellectuals who have to come across, or make it a point to write for, Eur-American statesmen, scholars, and tourists. The masses of the Japanese, and these diplomats themselves at home are always conscious of the real truth.’
The real truth – the racial-political predicament – was thus both strength and weakness, with the latter predominating. This ambiguity inevitably reminded an Indian nationalist of a familiar weakness:
‘[Japan] must varnish her yellow self white in order that she may be granted the dignity of a ruling race. The Japanese bankers and officials, captains and policemen are therefore compelled to have the Eur-American paraphernalia of public life. This is abhorred by most of them in their heart of hearts. But they must swallow it because this is the price of their recognition as the only ‘civilized’ state of Asia.’
Intriguingly, the complexity of fitting Japan into his map of resurgent Asia compelled Sarkar to reverse his general tendency to distinguish between the ignorant masses and the intelligent vanguard, and fall back into a more conventional concept of national authenticity: the masses were wise, and the elites foolish or hypocritical. In an instability within Sarkar’s narrative of the modern, manly state of ‘Young Asia,’ the Japanese masses become the repository of a racial knowledge that the elite have forfeited. There are then two kinds of deracination: a bad/weak one which is politically aligned with colonialism and imperialism, and a good one (‘Young Asia’), which is nationalist-cosmopolitan but also flawed, in the sense that it lapses easily into the former category. The former is explicitly associated with power and insider-status, but the latter – while marginalized by the existing racial order – is tainted and embarrassed by the nakedness of its desires. Modern Japan is necessarily a fantasy of the militant Indian nationalist, but it is not necessarily a flattering one.
Sarkar’s critique of his Japanese counterparts quickly becomes a critique of mimicry, sycophancy and self-hate that Bankim would have appreciated. It comes also with the old nationalist dilemma of how to be similar while also being dissimilar: Asians must have states, states must have railroads and battleships, but precisely for those reasons, perhaps their citizens should wear kimonos or dhotis. ‘Japan has learnt by bitter experience that the white nations would not admit her into their caste of first class powers if she were to appear to them in ‘native’ kimono and geta,’ Sarkar remarks in an essay on 1905. He is not really interested in what the Japanese wear, of course. Clothes stand for political affiliation, and deracination – for him as for other Indian elites wrestling with colonial culture – is mainly a matter of disloyalty to the victims of racism. Clothes stand also for an awareness of colonial power relations, i.e., for the consciousness of humiliation.
What Sarkar was implying, like Bankim in Kamalakanta, is that national consciousness in a colonial world is false unless it comes accompanied by that paradoxical sense of shame, and by the desire to assert a contrarian pride and to take the side of other humiliated people. Race becomes the boundary of the humiliated community. The perception that the Japanese had turned their back on the humiliation of the colonized – i.e., on the racial politics of Asian identity – is also why Sarkar identified much more strongly with China than he did with Japan. China remains a civilization even when it is politically ‘fallen,’ and Japan never quite escapes the suspicion that it is a well-armed barbarian, located geographically, politically and even culturally on the fringes of Asia. Sarkar read the condition of modern Japan – not accepted by the West, and self-distanced from Asia – as an insularity, which, for him, was a particularly unfortunate predicament for a nation. To be insular was the condition of the savage, the backward, and the literally unworldly: the opposite of his cosmopolitan-nationalist-masculine vision of civilization. It was, in fact, a double isolation, because the Japanese state was apparently cut off not only from the world but also from its own society, which remained Asian. These layered isolations constituted a kind of sickness, which could be described and even treated with the language of modern medicine:
‘Japan must also have the logic and psychology of the whites with regard to the rest of Asia. The present Japanese view about Chinese and Hindu civilizations, so far as it is jingoistic, is merely an aspect of this compulsory Occidentalization. Unless this claim of separateness from the Asians is strongly put forward, the Occident would hesitate to treat Japan as a peer. [Young Asia]…does not condemn Japan, but rather pities her isolated condition. The establishment of another Japan on continental Asia is the only possible therapeutic for the current international pathology. And to this the political doctors of Young Asia are addressing themselves.’
The call for ‘another Japan on continental Asia’ may appear alarmingly similar to the rhetoric of Japanese imperialism, but the resemblance is superficial.  It is actually the opposite: Sarkar wants a Japan that is self-identified with the political aspirations of the Asian mainland. The notion surfaces in another essay, in which Sarkar wrote:
‘Every inch of Asian soil has to be placed under a sovereign state of the Asian race, no matter whether sovietic-communal, republican, monarchical, democratic or autocratic. For the present there is the urgent call for at least another Japan of fifty, sixty, or seventy million people on continental Asia, able to work its own mines, finance its own administration, and man its own polytechnic colleges.’
Here also, the desire for ‘at least another Japan’ gives away Sarkar’s inability to come to terms with Japan as it existed. As an icon of modern, industrialized Asian statehood, Japan is too valuable to eschew from the fantasy of freedom, and he wants more. But by declaring that he wants a continental Japan, he implies that he wants a Japan that is integral – politically, geographically and culturally – to Asia. The specification of a population for this imaginary country returns us to Sarkar’s obsession with militarism: like a military planner, he has calculated what numbers and institutions are required to overturn an existing imbalance of power in the world. Such planning was a common form of fantasy for middle-class Indian youth in this period, when the state was in the hands of other men. A young Nirad Chaudhuri, planning a free Indian military right down to the caliber and loading-mechanism of the guns, but straying down to the harbor to ogle British warships, is another example of this armchair citizenship of the colonized male. Imagining virility had to be a matter of precision: a global chess game, or a war game.
Indian Men and Japanese Ships
Indian aspirations remained at the heart of the game: Japan and China mattered to Sarkar primarily because he could ‘go there’ in the past as well as in the present. (He had visited both countries in 1915-16.) He made frequent, explicit equations between Bushido (which might loosely be described as the culture of the Japanese warrior) and ‘Kshatriya culture in India.’ He referred, for instance, to ‘the general Bushido morality of the Hindus,’ and in ‘Hindu Materialism,’ declared:
‘Take militarism. Hindustan started the cult of Kshatriyaism, which in Japan is called Bushido. The first Hindu Napoleon, Chandragupta Maurya had a regular standing army of 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, 9000 elephants, and a multitude of chariots. A race which can organize such a vast fighting machine and wield it for offensive and defensive purposes is certainly not over-religious or unpractical or other-worldly.’
Sarkar backed up the assertion with references to Sanskrit and Puranic texts (not to mention Megasthenes), but he was engaged in mobilizing, for modern India, modern rather than early Japan. He was also engaged in rejecting the peculiarity of caste and the sealed boundaries of race and culture, so that what was evidently Japanese or Indian could be appropriated or exported convincingly, and Kshatriyas and Mauryan infantrymen could sail on Japanese battleships. As an intellectual maneuver, it extended his rejection of Orientalist narratives of cultural difference: far from diluting Indian nationhood, Sarkar’s insistence on similarity produced a set of openings through which the nation could enter the world.
The attempt to appropriate Japanese militarism was not without its contradictions, because when Sarkar wanted to emphasize the democratic nature of early India, he typically downplayed the institutional significance of the Kshatriya (and caste in general) in favor of the narrative of the citizen-soldier. Nevertheless, the need to identify with an extant Asian state of war and assert a continuous culture of Asian militarism took precedence over democracy and justice, in a compromise that colors – and compromises – Sarkar’s vision of a post-colonial world.
The Bushido-Kshatriya equations, after all, were not a theory of coincidence, or of an Asian essence. They were an Indian claim upon Japan, and as such, a narrative of what Sarkar – taking his cue from the historian Radhakumud Mookerjee, who he had known since their days at Calcutta University’s Eden Hindu Hostel – called ‘Greater India.’ The connections between this old nationalist fantasy and Sarkar’s vision of the decolonized world have evaded those who have focused on his ‘Pan-Asian’ or ‘internationalist’ convictions. It was in an essay titled ‘Greater India’ that Sarkar insisted, ‘Hindu thought is even now governing the Bushido morality of the Japanese soldiers.’ Not even China was safe from the ink-stained fingers of the soldiers of Greater India:
‘The Kushans were Scythians or Tartars of Central Asia naturalized on Indian soil. Through them the northern frontiers of India were extended almost as far as Siberia. Along with this territorial expansion, Hindu missionizing activity was greatly enlarged owing to direct political sovereignty or spheres of influence. Central Asia was dotted over with Hindu temples, monasteries, hospitals, schools, museums and libraries. It was through this ‘Greater India’ on the land side that China, the land of Confucius and Laotze, came within the sphere of influence of Hindu culture.’
Perhaps obviously, Greater India (which was almost unbounded – it extended from Siberia to Madagascar to the Philippines) was simultaneously cosmopolitan, nationalist and colonialist. It reflected an irresistible desire to be in and of the world, but it was not premised on reciprocity, and its vision of the past not only served the political community of the present, it also extended the boundaries of that community into the past. It appealed to Sarkar not only because it took Indians out into the world under their own agency, but also because it brought home to India what was most competitive and ‘energistic’ in ‘Asian culture,’ feeding both his determination to (re)claim the world as India’s oyster, and the militarism that permeated his vision of freedom.
Greater India was not antithetical to historiographical acts of generosity: greatness could be shared. China could be endowed with a historical empire, ‘Greater China,’ which included Tibet, Sikkim, Burma and Vietnam, and that empire could be legitimized in a way that would have horrified Burmese or Vietnamese nationalists. Siberia, Burma, Indochina and quite a few other places are made over promiscuously to both China and India in Sarkar’s writing. That an Indian nationalist would so willingly concede Burma, Sikkim and Tibet to China indicates a temporal and historical distance from freedom: Indian independence and its foreign policy considerations were so remote from Sarkar’s thinking in the 1920s that he could make these sweeping gestures towards China, which already had some sort of sovereign existence. It can also be regarded as rhetorical overkill. Mainly, however, it suggests a fondness for grand narratives of civilization, nationhood and spheres of influence that steamroller the littler narratives of resistance and peoplehood. Little narratives did not matter very much: they had no use when they could not be incorporated into big countries. What mattered was that Chinese ‘imperialism’ in the past, like Japan’s in the present, was a pre-packaged state, a culture and an ideology of militarism that could signify a past – and implicitly, a present – in which to be an Indian nationalist was also to be a cosmopolitan. In this state and world of the past, present-day Indian men could walk in a particular mode, which might be described as the familiar ‘Vivekananda posture.’ (Rabindranath spelled out the posture in his 1901 story Nashta Nir, in which the nationalist Bhupati imagines his cousin Amal striding along the Embankment in London: ‘Erect, head high, Young Bengal!’)
Moreover, for a colonized elite that had already made a virtue out of the need to learn from the world, an important principle of pedagogical power was at stake in these formulations of the past. In a time when Indian (and Chinese) students, intellectuals and revolutionaries frequently traveled to Japan to learn, and Japanese intellectuals like Kakuzo Okakura came to India to teach, Sarkar reversed the direction of tutelage by imagining a past in which Japan and China were the pupils and India the teacher: ‘ever since the very dawn of their civilization, the constitution, social hierarchy, poetry, architecture, painting, divinities, and even folklore and the superstitions of Japan have been either Chinese or Hindu.’ In ‘The Cycles of Cathay,’ he wrote:
‘The most active period of the ‘holy alliance’ between India and China was between the fifth and seventh centuries. The Chinese received not only the religion and metaphysics of the Hindus, but also medicine, arithmetic, dramaturgy, folk-festivals, and musical instruments. The greatest epoch of Chinese civilization is the age of the mighty Tangs and brilliant Sungs. It was an era of Renaissance in poetry, painting, philosophy, pottery, and what not. This was a direct product of Hindu influences.’
Chinese vindictiveness of the past and Japanese militarism of the present could be made to stand on Indian foundations. Matsyanyaya or the law of the fish, Sarkar reminds us in an essay on China, is a ‘Hindu political philosophy’: Asian militarism was an Indian invention. The ideological pay-off is not hard to discern: while Japan could not be disowned in spite of its suspect racial politics, it could in fact be owned by reaching back in time and culture.
To be fair to Sarkar, it should be noted that he was writing well before the Japanese military acquired its particular notoriety: the atrocities of Manchuria and Nanjing were still in the future, unimagined (by him, at any rate). He was groping for a particular form of cultural contact: one that was not attached to racism and expropriation, and not entirely closed to the two-way traffic of knowledge. But in its language, this contact slipped frequently into the terrain of ‘hegemony’ and ‘colonies,’ racism crept into the assumptions of unequal cultural borrowing, mimicry and inauthenticity, and it did not rule out violence and coercion, because that colonial model of ‘international’ contact retained a fierce hold on a man in Sarkar’s historical position:
‘Hindu activity in China was promoted by sea also through Indian navigators, colonizers, and merchant marine. This maritime enterprise gave to India the cultural hegemony ultimately over Burma, Java, Siam, Annam, and Japan.’
The references to maritime activity are not throwaway lines in the work of a scholar excited by the Russo-Japanese War. As an Indian nationalist, Sarkar would of course have been aware of the importance of sea power in the history of the British colonial conquest. He, like many other Indian intellectuals (Radhakumud Mookerjee being the most prominent), would have ‘felt’ the lack of a navy as a major part of the nation’s historical weakness, and regarded navies of the past – Chola armadas, Maratha ‘admirals,’ and so on – as evidence of historic dignity. I want to suggest that warships of the past and present mattered because they represented movement itself: being able to leave a landlocked inferiority and travel, armed and erect, across a blue liquid curvature that had been colonized by white men as much as any land. This too was a transgression of empire, which was predicated on unequal movement. Only some races could travel at will: then as now, all passports are not equal, and visas are not granted on an equal-opportunity basis.
Sarkar – a boy from the provincial boondocks of Malda who had gone on to lecture in Germany and America – had, of course, done a great deal of traveling himself, but such exceptional and vulnerable mobility only reinforces the awareness of inequality, produces a sense of statelessness and generates an insatiable appetite for more movement. Vivekananda is an obvious case in point, but I think the observation can be made for other colonial elites who went, or wanted to go, abroad. When Rabindranath flew to Iran and Iraq in the 1930s, for instance, he was highly conscious of the connection between his borrowed (KLM) wings, the masculine physicality and vigor of the (Dutch) pilots, his own status as a brown man and a colonial subject, and his kinship with the victims of British aircraft then engaged in bombing the inhabitants of the region.
Only some races have ships of their own – warships in particular. In his thinking about Japan, and even in his remarks on the rise of American power, Sarkar made the connection between the modern technology of mobile warfare, racial self-assertion, and only secondarily, justice. Even with the rise of Asia, white Americans would not meet the fate of the Aztecs and Incas because they were ‘militarized and navalized to the nth term,’ he remarked. He understood that the power of modern weaponry was also the power to articulate racial privilege, or to articulate race itself. But he refused to disavow those privileges. His remarks on America retained a suggestion that the Native Americans (even more than the Burmese) did not count because they had not turned the fact of their race into a political position of race, backed up with ships. They were landlocked, self-isolated from the world, and therefore naturally fated to die. Thus, although Sarkar was concerned with justice, the concern was limited by his investment in modernity and civilization. Only the modern/civilized of the world – including ‘Young Asia’ – were fully deserving of justice; only those men who could think in terms of world war were fully deserving of ‘world peace’. For others, calculations applied that were not far removed from Gobineau and Darwin.
The Other Side of the Coin
In 1946, Michio Takeyama, a Japanese veteran of the war that had just ended, wrote a short novel titled Harp of Burma. It was ostensibly what we today call ‘young adult’ literature, i.e., a book written for teenagers. Below the surface, however, Harp of Burma was entirely more ‘serious,’ rooted in the experience of traumatized veterans and a devastated society in ways that go far beyond the military camaraderie and sanitized violence of war stories for adolescents. John Dower has noted that Takeyama’s novel is an early sign of the Japanese attempt to come to terms with defeat and occupation. It is also an attempt to come to terms with the state of war itself: a tentative questioning of the model of modernity and citizenship that Japan had embraced since the later nineteenth century, which Sarkar too had embraced – although, as I have sought to underline, not without qualms.
Harp of Burma follows a unit of Japanese soldiers in Burma when the tide of the war had already turned against Japan. The Japanese occupation forces in Burma were then caught up in an overwhelming calamity. Overextended, their supply lines cut, their air power exhausted, pushed into a grossly unwise new invasion (of India), and with Japan itself besieged, they were reduced to a starving, sick and beaten force, retreating before the British-Indian drive towards Malaya. They were very far from the Tsushima Sea of Sarkar’s imagination. Takeyama does not dwell on their misery: he gives us, for the most part, a story of homesick but cheerful soldiers that could easily have been published before the war. There are no references to the intense resentment of officers and hatred of the army that we find in post-war Japanese veteran’s literature like Hiroshi Noma’s novel Zone of Emptiness, and there is no brutality of occupation; the Burmese themselves are absent from much of the story.
Two thirds of the way into the novel, however, there is shift. One Japanese unit, having surrendered to British troops who treat them humanely, decides to encourage another unit to surrender rather than fight it out in what would be a futile and bloody battle. They dispatch a corporal named Mizushima – a gifted musician with a harp and a talking parrot – to talk to their fellow-Japanese. Mizushima fails to return from his mission, and his old comrades, interned in a POW camp, are unsure whether he is dead or alive. Then an unrecognizable Buddhist monk with a harp and a parrot appears near the camp fence, and although he will not speak to them, he sends them a letter. This letter – Mizushima’s letter, detailing what had happened to him – forms the final one-third of the novel.
It is, as his old comrades (who read it aloud) declare, an astonishing letter, not only because of the fate that Takeyama imagined for his emissary, but because of its ideological significance for the Japanese model of Asian resurgence. Mizushima had reached the other Japanese unit, but the soldiers had called him a coward and a traitor and thrown him out of the cave they insisted on defending to the death. Having failed to avert the battle and wounded in the shelling, he wanders through the jungle and is rescued by head-hunting cannibals, who nurse him back to health but, naturally, want to eat him when he is better. Through a combination of luck and persuasion, he manages to avert this fate, only to have the cannibal chief insist that he marry his daughter. This danger too is averted (the chief withdraws the offer when he learns that Mizushima has never taken a human head), and Mizushima is allowed to leave.
The soldier falls in with Burmese monks, witnesses Burmese funeral rituals, immerses himself in the beauty of the land and the culture, and stumbles across fields strewn with the Japanese dead, who he tries in vain to bury. There are too many, he concludes with despair. He spies on a British military hospital and a mortuary, and hears from the Burmese about the terrible travails of the retreating Japanese. He enters a Buddhist monastery; he enters also a statue of the Buddha through a hidden entrance in the foot of the Buddha. He finds himself transformed: he realizes he has actually become Burmese and a Buddhist monk, and is no longer pretending in order to hide out among them. He resumes his abandoned task of cremating and burying the bodies of the dead soldiers, absorbing their desolation into himself. ‘I shall not return to Japan,’ he writes in his letter.
Mizushima’s letter is an extraordinarily rich text, in part, because it overlaps existing narratives of the modern experience of empire. The story of being captured by cannibals who might either eat you or marry you is, for instance, not simply a bit of comedy, but a recognizable trope that we find from John Smith in the ‘New World’ to Dudhnath Tewari in the Andaman Islands: a narrative of the combined fear, attraction and nervous amusement at the prospect of falling out of civilization and being swallowed by the jungle beyond the colony. Such narratives also convey, as Obeyesekere and Said have suggested, the European subject’s secret desire for apotheosis, and the construction of the tropics as a world where ordinary whites suddenly became gods or supermen. There were colored versions of these fantasies – the Indian middle class of Sarkar’s era certainly had theirs, typically formatted as children’s literature – and Japanese modernity and imperialism had generated a particularly vivid one. The opening of the Japanese soldier’s eyes to the beauty of the occupied country parallels John Flory’s love of Burma; Takeyama, like Orwell, was suggesting that disillusionment with empire – and falling out of the community of colonizers – opens new windows of love and aesthetics.
It is a rich text also because Takeyama suggests the possibility – and the necessity – of transformation, not just of the citizen-soldier but of the nation-state itself. Like an Orientalist Buddha that Herman Hesse might have recognized, Mizushima says:
‘We Japanese have not cared to make strenuous spiritual efforts. We have not even recognized their value. What we stressed was merely a man’s abilities, the things he could do – not what kind of man he was, how he lived, or the depth of his understanding. Of perfection as a human being, of humility, stoicism, holiness, the capacity of gain salvation and to help others toward it – of all these virtues we were left ignorant.
I was harassed by tormenting questions. Why does so much misery exist in the world?
I never cease to marvel that the people of Burma, though certainly indolent, pleasure-seeking, and careless, are all cheerful, modest, and happy. Free from greed, they are at peace with themselves. While living among them, I have come to believe that these are precious human qualities.
Our country has aged a war, lost it, and is now suffering. That is because we were greedy, because we had only a superficial idea of civilization. Of course we cannot be as languid as the people of this country, and dream our lives away as they often do. But can we not remain energetic and yet be less avaricious? Is that not essential – for the Japanese and for all humanity?’
Takeyama understands that the chances of rebuilding the nation-state along those lines – ‘energetic and yet [not] avaricious’ – are slim. It remains uncertain whether the ‘traitor’ who refuses to return to his homeland, who refers to himself as a Burmese monk, and yet devotes himself to burying the rotting bodies of his erstwhile comrades and continues to use the pronoun ‘we’ to refer to the Japanese, is or is not a deserter. The soldier who has been systematically torn down by the experience of misery, death and redemption must live outside the nation-state, burying the victims of the nation in an endless task that is both a penance and a healing of the world: a rather different medicine from what Sarkar had prescribed for Japan.
Takeyama was not alone in thinking along these lines in post-war Japan. Whereas he clearly drew his inspiration from Buddhism, the philosopher Hajime Tanabe looked westwards, towards Christianity in general and Kierkegaard in particular. Unlike Takeyama, Tanabe was well-known in the world of letters: he had lectured extensively in Europe, especially Germany. He and Sarkar had, in fact, been in Germany at exactly the same time: the early years of the Weimar state, with its characteristic swirl of republican politics, labor radicalism, angry veterans and anti-democratic ressentiment. Tanabe had been a member of Heidegger’s circle of colleagues, and it is not altogether surprising that he (along with other faculty at Kyoto University) was subsequently accused of having entertained fascist sympathies and encouraged the Japanese state of war. It was during the war that he developed his philosophy of metanoesis or zange, which placed a heavy emphasis on the total self-abnegation of the individual. Tanabe wrote:
‘Zange is…a balm for the pain of repentance. Through zange we regard ourselves as truly not deserving to be, and therefore enter fully into a state of despair leading to self-surrender. After the submissive acknowledgment and frank confession of our valuelessness and meaninglessness, of our rebelliousness in asserting ourselves despite our valuelessness, we rediscover our being. In this way, our being undergoes at once both negation and affirmation through absolute transformation.’
James Heisig has argued that those who accused Tanabe of facilitating Japanese militarism by devaluing the individual missed the point of zange, which is rooted in Tanabe’s broader concept of the ‘logic of species.’ A large part of the logic of species is a theory of the relationship between the individual, society and the world, and the implications of this relationship for freedom and responsibility. The individual, for Tanabe, did not spring unmediated from the world in the form of a world-citizen or cosmopolitan. The community – usually articulated as the nation – remained a necessary medium. This dynamic might be read as an endorsement of the reality of the nation and its prioritization over the individual. Tanabe, however, emphasized two positions that deflate that interpretation. One is that the community was not closed or insulated: it existed to facilitate contact with the world and interpenetration with other communities. The other is that the individual must be free both from the contingencies imposed by the community, and for the contingencies of community. Moral responsibility thus devolved clearly to the level of the individual actor.
Self-abnegation by the individual citizen thus did not imply the abdication of the conscience to the state. It indicated the acceptance of responsibility by the individual for the actions of the community, and a commitment to act upon the community. For Tanabe at the end of the war, zange was a process of introspection and repentance: a necessary death that would produce rebirth and regeneration in the form of love, and as Heisig noted, the possibility of a radically reoriented world-history:
‘Against all the culture-worshipping voices of intellectuals raised to invigorate the national spirit for the restoration of Japan, [Tanabe] insisted that it was necessary for Japan to commit itself positively to a sociohistorical praxis based on love – an idea that began in the form of ‘nothingness-qua-love’ and evolved into a triunity of ‘God-qua-love,’ love of God, and love of neighbor – and aimed at world peace.’
The self-obliteration of the individual – the Mizushima phenomenon – would not recuperate or reinforce the community; it would initiate its total reformulation and repositioning in the world. Such prescriptions were not altogether ignored in postwar Japan, just as the concerns of ‘rubble literature’ were not insignificant societal forces in postwar Germany. As Dower has noted, however, introspection and repentance were generally marginal responses to the catastrophe of the vindictive community: ‘we were deceived by our leaders’ was the more pervasive response in Japan (as in Germany). The very structures of state, community and national culture that had earlier been mobilized for war were remobilized for the post-war state.
For Indian nationalists, the Japanese experience at the end of the Second World War continued to be a spectacle. While it was a less exciting spectacle than what they had seen or imagined in 1905, it again provided opportunities for contemplating the Asian state of war as a political and moral entity. There was little rubble in India, but Japanese rubble, like Japanese warships, could be borrowed and utilized to modulate the distances between East and West, Self and Other, the citizen and the state, the nation and the world. The wreckage of Japan could be incorporated into the vision of the Indian nation, but in ways that were significantly different from what we find in the preceding decades. The model of insurgent nationhood that had begun to fall into place after ‘the event of 1905’ had been destabilized suddenly by the events of 1945.
It is useful, at this point, to remember Justice Radhabinod Pal at the Tokyo War Crimes trials. Pal was the sole Indian on the tribunal; he was also the only judge to find all the defendants ‘not guilty.’ He soon became a hero for the Japanese right wing, although the left too has attempted to stake its claim. Pal’s famous (or infamous) dissenting judgment was based on two main planks: he argued that the criteria for guilt were established ex post facto (he objected especially to the punishment by death of individuals who had not been proved to have committed specific criminal acts), and he pointed out that the victorious allies had turned a blind eye to their own atrocities. In a well-known essay, Ashis Nandy has made the intriguing suggestion that Pal was motivated more by his understanding of ‘Hindu law’ than by his knowledge of international law. Pal was, in fact, not only a highly accomplished jurist, but also an amateur historian of ancient India.
This brings us back to Sarkar, who shared Pal’s scholarly interest in ancient Indian cultural codes. They were similar men in many ways, with similar backgrounds and professional trajectories in the interwar colonial state. Both men were part of ‘Young India’: born in the same year, erudite, worldly, reformist, impatient with tradition, and for that reason, also obsessed with seeking out reassuring continuities between the ancient and the modern. Like Sarkar in Europe and America, Pal in Tokyo was something of a fraud: the representative of a nation-state that did not quite exist. Pal’s intervention at the International Tribunal was, very likely, supported by a political sympathy for Japan that Sarkar would have understood instinctively. But if we look closely at Pal’s remarks in Tokyo, we find that he wrote: ‘The name of Justice should not be allowed to be invoked only for the prolongation of the pursuit of vindictive retaliation.’ As an indictment of Western bona fides, this is familiar; as an ideology of international justice, it is not.
In his study of Pal in Tokyo, Nandy has emphasized that the Indian judge was not excusing the crimes of the Japanese leadership, and suggested that his position reflected his ‘Hindu’ conviction that ‘responsibility, even when individual, could be, paradoxically, fully individual only when seen as collective and, in fact, global.’ On the one hand, only individual perpetrators could be punished, and acts committed on the battlefield could not be contextualized (and thus either excused or magnified by, say, pointing to a greater good or evil). On the other hand, Japan’s crimes did not belong to the Japanese alone, but to the modern world. Even after making allowances for Nandy’s tendency to essentialize, it is fair to say that in 1945, those Indians who were most inclined to empathize with Japan were backing away simultaneously from state-enacted ‘vindictiveness’ as a political faith, and from the imperatives of a national masculinity invested in the state that was bound only by the ‘law of the fish.’
For Sarkar, the Second World War left a mark of dubious depth. There is no doubt that he was shocked into certain revisions of his view of modernity and the nation-state: ‘World-War II which compelled the hyper-civilized peoples to march back to the caves in which the paleolithic races had flourished furnishes us with an occasion for re-examining the foundations of this traditional view of science and philosophy regarding the illiterate,’ he wrote shortly before his death. In a related vein, he revised – or at any rate, adjusted – his vanguardist vision of ‘Young India’: the expertise of the intellectual and administrative elites of the world had proved to be terribly narrow, he wrote in the same essay. As an active force in society and politics, this gendered expertise – now seen as the basis of a pathological ‘hypercivilization’ – could not be equated with ‘human values’ and ‘culture,’ or prioritized over the values and knowledge of illiterate peasants and laborers of dubious gender.
Sarkar wrote that essay (‘The Social Philosophy of a New Democracy’) as the Constituent Assembly of India was nearing the completion of its task. At that critical moment in the history of modern India, which he recognized as being at least as momentous as 1905, he urged Nehru, Ambedkar and their colleagues in the Assembly to follow through on their radical inclinations:
‘It is impossible to assert that the peasant as a class in his moral obligations and sense of duty towards [society] is on a lower plane than members of the so-called educated class. The rights of the illiterate ought to constitute in social psychology the foundation of a new democracy. A universal suffrage independent of all considerations as to school-going, ability to read and write or other tests should be the very first postulate of social economics. It is orientations like these that democracy needs today if it is to function as a living faith.’
This is a different idealist from the man who had, after the First World War, described elite militarism as the engine of democracy and the proving ground of citizenship. He had not, of course, discarded the masculine priority to the extent of disavowing the state itself; that would have been too Gandhian even after Hiroshima. But some of the romance had gone out of the state of war, and the project of ‘world-conquest’ it signified. It can, of course, also be suggested that with India having become independent, the politics of vindictive militarism had become somewhat less pressing.
It is useful to remind ourselves how remote an observer like Sarkar was from the concerns that animated Tanabe and Takeyama at the end of the Second World War, and also how relevant they were to him. A reader of Sarkar or Nirad Chaudhuri (or Bankim for that matter) might immediately notice a paradox: the war-obsessed nationalist represented a nation with no experience of war. That lack of war functioned as an innocence or naiveté, but it would be foolish to resort to the cliché that those who have experienced war become anti-war. If that were true, there would have been no German militarism in the interwar period. What is more relevant is that for Sarkar and other Indian nationalists, the lack of an easily identifiable history of war was precisely that: a historical lack.
Theirs was thus a very particular reactionary position. It was only partially affiliated with Volkisch thought, pre-Great-War Romanticism, and the Japanese cult of race-spirit-state-military unity. In Europe, that attitude could survive and even flourish as an interwar mentality for assorted fascists, but the turning-away had already commenced: as Paul Fussel noted, it was difficult, in 1918, to speak the words ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ without a wince of irony. In India, however, irony derived not from masculine excess, but, as the satirical writing of Sukumar Ray and others indicates, from the colonial curse of effeminacy. A large part of Indian nationalism was (and remains, in spite of Sarkar’s moment of hesitation in 1949) essentially a permanent pre-war attitude, that of a nation waiting for its war. It is hardly a coincidence that Savarkar insisted on calling the 1857 revolt the ‘First War of Independence.’ With such an unconvincing ‘first war,’ another one was badly needed, and the avowed cosmopolitans among the nationalists felt the need most acutely.
It can, of course, be said – following Kwame Anthony Appiah – that cosmopolitanism necessarily begins with a primary commitment to one’s own community. But the gregariousness that Appiah saw in his Ghanaian nationalist family is perhaps not the major mode of cosmopolitanism for middle-class natives contemplating their place in the world, particularly when manhood is at stake. What made emasculation such an effective curse is that colonialism in India had generated the desire for organized violence but not the opportunities, even in the age of revolutionary terrorism. A few poorly-aimed revolvers and grenades only affirmed the condition of impotence, and reaching back to the third century BC was not an adequate compensation. Solace had to be found in the wider world of heavy guns and warships, even if these were in the hands of those whose political ‘color’ was susceptible to instability and disappointment. The nation-state, in other words, had to be imported from the world of international power relations, and then redeployed in that world. Major alterations in the structure of international power relations were only rarely a primary consideration in the narrative of ‘internationalist’ ressentiment, which remained resolutely focused on national self-assertion along established lines until the very end of the Second World War.
February 26, 2013