Book Summary: The Nation's Tortured Body


    Axel, Brian Keith. The Nation’s Tortured Body: Violence, Representation, and the Formation of a Sikh Diaspora. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001.

This ambitious work of historical anthropology sets itself the task of "[interrogating] precisely how colonialism, the nation-state, and the diaspora are related" (22). To advance our understanding—and to challenge our received notions—of the convoluted connections between the Sikh diaspora and Sikh nationalisms, Brian Keith Axel employs an array of contemporary Theories: poststructuralist thinkers and body theoreticians will find much to savor here.

Axel’s study may be usefully characterized as a critical (but sympathetic) etiology of the struggle for "Khalistan" (the name Sikhs have given to a wished-for sovereign Sikh state which would be constituted in present-day Punjab) that locates the origins of that struggle in the Sikh diasporic experience. Axel argues that the Khalistani movement arises not so much from an attachment to an empirical place of origin as from conceptions of an "imagined homeland" that are produced by the social construction he calls "the diasporic imaginary": "the diasporic imaginary . . . indicates a precise and powerful kind of identification that is very ‘real,’ and specifies processes by which formations of temporality and corporeality have become integral to the relations of recognition and alienation forming the Sikh subject and the Sikh homeland" (154).

"Temporality" and "corporeality" are important here, because Axel is very concerned to analyze (a) how different time-structures have affected the formations of the Sikh diaspora and the Khalistani movement, and (b) the various figurations of the (male) Sikh body as the Sikh community, and the Sikh community as the (male) Sikh body.

In Chapter 1, "The Maharaja’s Glorious Body," Axel examines "the ways in which the Sikh body was reconstituted and gendered by colonial violence, [through a study of] the production and consumption of visual representations of the last ruler of the Sikh Empire, Maharaja Duleep Singh [who was deposed by the British in 1849]" (46). Chapter 2, "The Restricted Zone," which is "organized around the story of Khalistan between the 1930s and the 1990s, focuses on the dialectics of the diaspora and the Indian nation-state, considering most closely formations of space and temporality" (83). Chapter 3, "The Tortured Body" analyzes how "a political artifact of state violence—the tortured body—has become a central element in processes of a diasporic imaginary, designating a fundamental, and historically specific, aspect of not just Sikh subjectification but the formation of diaspora itself" (122). The chapter deals with the repercussions of the June 1984 massacre at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and the anti-Sikh pogroms that "spontaneously" broke out after Indira Gandhi’s October 1984 assassination at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards. Chapter 4, "Glassy Junction," examines "the creation of a specific kind of dialectic [of membership, consumption, and production] between the Sikh diaspora and the British nation-state" by scrutinizing the experiences of the Sikh community in the Southall section of London (161). Chapter 5, "The Homeland," reflects on the fraught relations between the Western academy and Sikh nationalisms: "The conflicts between Sikh studies and Khalistanis suggest another history of formation of the homeland, situated within a diasporic landscape, moving within and between North America, Europe, and South Asia. [The chapter traces] one genealogy of these conflicts, demonstrating their relation to procedures of the postwar U.S. nation-state and their implications for the production of knowledge of the Sikh diaspora" (201).