Politics and the Work of the Dead in Modern India
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Comparative Studies in Society and History
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This article provides a framework for understanding the continuing political potential of the anticolonial dead in twenty-first-century India. It demonstrates how scholars might move beyond histories of reception to interrogate the force of inheritance in contemporary political life. Rather than the willful conjuring of the dead by the living, for a politics in the present, it considers the more provocative possibility that the dead might themselves conjure politics—calling the living to account, inciting them to action. To explicate the prospects for such an approach, the article traces the contested afterlives of martyred Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh (1907–1931), comparing three divergent political projects in which this iconic anticolonial hero is greeted as interlocutor in a struggle caught “halfway.” It is this temporal experience of “unfinished business”—of a revolution left incomplete, a freedom not yet perfected—that conditions Bhagat Singh's appearance as a contemporary in the political disputes of the present, whether they are on the Hindu nationalist right, the Maoist student left, or amidst the smoldering remains of Khalistani separatism in twenty-first-century Punjab. Exploring these three variant instances in which living communities affirm Bhagat Singh's stake in the struggles of the present, the article provides insight into the long-term legacies of revolutionary violence in India and the relationship between politics and the public life of history in the postcolonial world more generally.
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