The man who imagined community

Benedict Anderson's 'imagined community' is imagined, not imaginary; and as a community, it brings people together

Through centuries, battles have been fought to determine where one nation ends and another begins. Political boundaries certainly recognize one form of nationhood, but there are other nationalisms, of people who are united by the idea of belonging, of a community, of an imagined space, an imagined community.

That phrase—imagined community—has now become almost a cliché in academic literature as well as in journalism. In the afterword to a new edition of his monumental work, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson, who died this week in Indonesia, noted: “Aside from the advantages of brevity, imagined community restfully occlude a pair of words from which the vampires of banality have by now sucked almost all of the blood."

But its meaning is important not only for Indonesia, but other countries grappling with the idea of nationhood—from European nations terrified that their identity is getting transformed by refugees, by fear-mongering Republicans in the US worried about immigrants, and in India, where a unitary view, threatening diversities, is being imposed.

Anderson’s engagement with Indonesia began six decades ago. He had researched in Indonesia till 1964, as the country lurched towards anarchy under the mercurial leader, Sukarno. As Sukarno flirted with communists and the army became wary, Anderson returned to Cornell, wondering what lay ahead.

During the steamy summer of 1965, many analysts wondered if Indonesia would fall to communism. That period is now popularly known through Peter Weir’s 1982 film, The Year of Living Dangerously, based on Christopher Koch’s novel. The turning point was on 1 October 1965, when six senior generals were murdered. Sukarno was arrested and military forces led by General Suharto took control of the situation.

The Indonesian Communist Party was blamed for the coup and in the massacres that followed, between 500,000 and a million died. The army cracked down on suspected communists and other dissidents, ruthlessly crushing dissent. The Central Intelligence Agency called it “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century". This year, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was stopped from holding panel discussions on the 50th anniversary of the massacres or discuss Joshua Oppenheimer’s recent films about those massacres—The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. The writers discussed those in any case.

In January 1966, an initially anonymous paper called Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965, Coup in Indonesia was published, and came to be known as the Cornell Paper. Its authors were later identified as Anderson, Ruth McVey and Frederick Bunnell. They argued the coup was not an attempt by the communists to seize power, but an internal army affair; the communists had no reason to seize power through military means. But it contradicted the official narrative of nations falling to communism like dominos. The non-communist grouping, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) was formed a year after Suharto came to power, in 1967, and initially it included Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

Anderson was expelled from Indonesia during one visit in 1972, and could not return until Suharto’s fall in 1998.

From afar, he reflected on nationalism. In his view, nationalism emerged as speakers of vernacular languages rejected how the elite organized society and discovered the ties that bound them, and began to see themselves not as subjects, but as citizens. Print capitalism encouraged this development. The publishing industry enabled readers to imagine they were part of a particular shared experience.

Trying to explain Indonesian nationalism is not easy. The country is made of 17,000 islands, and some scholars say it is an arbitrary construct, pointing to secessionist movements. Indonesian nationalists point to the forging of a common identity during the fights against the Dutch and the Japanese. Whether the configuration was right is debatable—East Timor, annexed in 1975, became independent a quarter century later—and Aceh and West Papua, once known as Irian Jaya, have long resisted Jakarta’s dominance. (In An Empire of the East, Norman Lewis travelled to those contentious regions and showed how remote they were from Java, physically and culturally.)

Anderson’s argument was more profound. Even in the tiniest nation, there is no way every inhabitant knows every other inhabitant. Yet, in the minds of each individual there is an idea of nationhood, or communion, and that forms the imagined community. There are powerful forces that might divide people—language, religion, ethnicity—but a “horizontal comradeship" emerges, which is a positive force.

Anderson’s conclusions apply beyond Indonesia. The community is imagined, not imaginary; and as a community, it brings people together. Anderson found clues everywhere, including in popular culture and novels. As India ponders over the idea of India, it might not discover it in ancient rituals and scriptures, nor in outmoded patriotic gestures such as rising when the national anthem is played, but in its syncretic music, arts, literature and folk traditions; or as Salman Rushdie described in Midnight’s Children: “in a dream we all agreed to dream."

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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