The political formation of cultures

Outcomes such as the sharpening of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and the growth of Tamil nationalism in Tamil Nadu are often seen as political expressions of deep-seated cultural mores and cultural differences. Even if the levels of conflict or cooperation between ethnic groups may vary depending on changing political circumstances, the boundaries between these groups are themselves often taken to have been cast long before mass political movements mobilised people based on group identity.  If ethnic kin living in different states feel an affinity with each other and act on that basis, this is often considered a natural expression of group belonging. Ethnic mobilisers lend such views credence when they claim to express the enduring spirit of cultural groups.

Does identity-based mobilisation express a pre-existing cultural logic? Or does it form the cultures it claims to represent? My work on the Dravidian parties of south India points to the political salience of different visions of community in Tamil Nadu from the early decades of the 20th century to the 1950s. On the one hand, the main representative of pan-Indian nationalism, the Congress party, was much stronger than the political vehicles of Tamil nationalism through this period. On the other, many activists of the pan-Indian parties shared Tamil nationalist sentiments. The Dravidian parties mobilised behind appeals to the middle and the lower castes at least as much as to the glory of the Tamil language and the need for the greater recognition of this language. However, their relationships with the associations of particular intermediate and lower castes were fraught with tension, and such associations allied themselves as often with pan-Indian parties as with the Dravidian parties. If the Dravidian parties appealed to marginal groups, so did the communists, who spoke the language of class more than that of caste even while they drew much of their support from lower caste groups. These ideologically diverse political forces aggregated the concerns of a range of Tamil Nadu's major groups in different ways, and enjoyed significant pockets of support by the 1950s. The cultures of 20th century Tamil Nadu could clearly be incorporated into different political projects, articulating various views of political community.

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Himal Southasian