CULTURE & MAKING OF A NATION

Print edition : July 15, 2011

Subramanya Bharati. Nationalist consciousness is well represented in his works. -

Even when all objective conditions are met, a nation like India can achieve nationhood only when cultural equality is established.

ISSUES relating to the emergence of nationalism and the formation of the Indian nation have gained prominence in academic and popular debates in the last couple of decades. Almost all aspects of these phenomena have aroused intense scholarly disagreements: from the question of the antiquity of the nation to the struggles for the inclusion of the marginalised. The debate has also generated considerable public passion owing to its political implications. A positive dimension of the debate is that it has enriched the field of inquiry, both empirically and theoretically. Under the influence of internal developments and global pressures, new paradigms and modes of explanation have been sought to conceptualise the formation of the nation in a variety of ways. In the process, much of the past has been discarded, but much more has been retrieved or invented. The rapid rise of Hindu communalism and the increasing influence it commands and the almost unresisted entry of multinational capital have made it necessary to revisit the terms of the existing debate. Neither the anti-colonial character of nationalism nor the Hindu civilisational explanation seems to tell the whole story. Therein lies the importance of invoking the role of culture in the making of the nation.

So far, historians and other social scientists have focussed attention on the anti-colonial movement as the source from which nation and nationalism took shape. In doing so, they took a modernist view of the nation, overlooking to some extent the legacy of pre-modern community life. As a consequence, the complex relationship between nation and nationalism and the process by which primordial identities gave way to national identity were not adequately addressed. Their focus has been on the objective factors that made nation and nationalism possible. As a result, the political and social aspirations of ethnic communities were almost overlooked and subjective factors did not figure in the understanding of the making of the nation. More importantly, culture did not receive adequate attention until cultural nationalism propagated by Hindu communal organisations forced the issue. The pendulum has now swung the other way. Cultural studies have now replaced the study of culture. In the process, it has become such a catch-all concept that it has now become an omnibus in which anything and everything can be incorporated. In this context, the collaboration between social scientists and linguists would be rewarding to develop a theoretically well-anchored conceptualisation of the study of culture.

Footloose capital

The nations and nation states that emerged out of the political settlements after the Second World War and the dissolution of colonial empires are currently being subjected to considerable strain. The interest of footloose capital to hop, step and jump has made national boundaries more porous than before. If capital created nations and nation states, its changing interest is undermining their existence. The history of capital demonstrates its movement in the quest for profit. The interest of commercial capital drew adventurers out of their countries, which led to geographical discoveries. Scientific inventions and the interest of commercial capital coalesced to enable the discovery of Asia and Africa by Europe. However, neither Asia nor Africa could perform the same feat because such a combination did not fructify in these regions. The progress of capital through different stages of its development industrial and financial has now reached the stage where it is knocking on the doors of every nation. Mahatma Gandhi had advised in favour of keeping the doors open so that the wind could freely flow from outside, but in the present conditions in which footloose capital is reaching out to the world, the doors are not likely to last long.

This process, however, is not one in which nations have an opportunity of equal participation. On the contrary, it is based on unequal relations. The global cartels that control the capital are the monopoly of some, and the rest of the world only provides the field for their operations. In other words, the relationship inherent in globalisation is not based on equality, as the term seems to suggest, but on domination and subordination. The processes by which both domination and subordination are brought into being are extremely complex in nature. They involve political influence, economic control and the cultural presence of globalising forces which affects the identity of the nation. As a consequence, the way a nation looks upon itself begins to change. Indian society is a prime example of this change. Colonial rulers following their ideologue James Mill propagated the idea that Indians were an immoral, corrupt and devious people, which eventually Indians themselves started to believe and now they have taken to practising it as well, if the innumerable scams around us are an indication.

In all historical situations of domination, resistance has found articulation in different forms, both violent and non-violent. But resistance in a globalised world has several limitations. First, the beneficiaries of globalisation look upon the operations of global capital as an opportunity for modernisation. At the altar of modernisation, therefore, either consciously or unconsciously, they willingly sacrifice the interest of the people. As a result, resistance in the political and economic fields is not likely to be forthcoming. In these circumstances, the only possible site of resistance is culture, which, however, is being rapidly colonised. Cultural colonisation is so intense and widespread that the living conditions of not only the upper strata of society but even of the lower sections are being affected. Although the discontent arising out of this intrusion has not yet been adequately channellised, opposition to it, particularly in the field of culture, is now being articulated. This is because of the role culture plays in the making of a nation.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.He traced the origin of the nation to the epic times when Ramachandra unfurled the umbrella of sovereignty at Ayodhya.-

Nation is a political and not a cultural construct; yet, a nation cannot come into being without its people having a sense of cultural belonging as a shared experience. Culture in itself does not create a nation, but it enables the transformation of different existing identities into a national identity. Antony D. Smith refers to this reality: The ideologies of nationalism require an immersion in the culture of the nation rediscovery of its history, revival of its vernacular language through such disciplines as philology and lexicography, cultivation of its literature, especially its drama and poetry, and the restoration of its vernacular arts and crafts, as well as its music, including the native dance and folk song.

Composite outlook

In India, such a process of immersion in the culture of the nation took place during the period of renaissance although with limitations and weaknesses. The intellectual enquiries of the 19th century were concerned with cultural retrieval and regeneration. The endeavours of the intelligentsia of this period were all centred on cultural or social issues. Attempts were made to revive, enrich and simplify vernaculars. Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, a Sanskrit scholar of great repute, prepared primers in Bengali, and by the end of the century, new vernacular textbooks appeared in almost all languages. At the same time, considerable interest was evinced in ancient Indian theatre, dance forms, and so on. In the process, the cultural and civilisational character of the nation received considerable attention. Much before the emergence of political consciousness, initiatives for the defence of indigenous culture against the intrusion of colonial rulers had found articulation. The search for the cultural resources of the nation resulting from such initiatives was not sectarian but composite in outlook. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy put forward this composite view in unambiguous terms: It would hardly be possible to think of an India in which no great Mughal had ruled, no Taj been built, or to which Persian art and literature were wholly foreign. The opinion of Coomaraswamy was echoed in many quarters, the nationalist intelligentsia generally subscribing to such a view of the past, which eventually manifested as the cultural understanding of Indian secularism.

Simultaneously, the exploration of the cultural resources of the nation was increasingly moving towards the religious domain, the intellectual groundwork for which had occurred during the renaissance. This development not only tended to blur the distinction between religion and culture but also to establish an identity between the two. Over a period of time, with the help of Hindu history, nation was redefined in religious terms, in the process undermining the territorial and secular nationalism. Such a tendency, both conceptually and organisationally, became quite strong in the 1920s and developed further thereafter.

This indeed was not a sudden development in the 20th century when the anti-colonial movement entered a mass phase and the possibility of sharing power became a reality after the introduction of the diarchy in 1919. In fact, the building blocks of a Hindu nation were already laid in the second half of the 19th century. Even if it did not fructify, Vivekananda had expounded its philosophical rationale in Vedanta, and Dayananda Saraswati had provided the structure of a social organisation for reformed Hinduism. By the end of the 19th century, a Hindu consciousness and indeed a Muslim consciousness as well had developed, through the experience of the Hindi-Urdu controversy, cow protection agitation, the religious militancy of the Arya Samaj, particularly in Punjab, and so on. Therefore, the argument that a leap forward in Hindu communalism in the 1920s was in response to a new threatening level of Muslim organisation, preparedness and militancy is not historically tenable. This argument overlooks Hindu preparations in the 19th century and the efforts to redefine the nation in religious terms.

Religious identity

Much before the Hindu communal ideology took a leap forward in the 20th century and located a Hindu nation in religious traditions, the imprint of religious identity had already become well marked in the consciousness of the intelligentsia. The debates on public issues in the letters to the editor columns of Bombay Gazette and The Times of India bear ample proof of this widely shared consciousness. The example of Bhaskar Pandurang Tarkhadkar, who described himself as a Hindu while putting forward a secular critique of British rule in 1843 in his letters published in Bombay Gazette, is an index of the nature of self-perception. Similar instances can be cited from among Muslims and Parsees. The melas organised by Nabagopal Mitra, popularly known as National Mitra, with exhibitions of indigenous crafts as one of its principal features, carried the epithet Hindu. The clubs set up in several towns to discuss national and social issues were named after the religion of the participants. Innumerable such instances of public expression of religious identity can be cited which indicate either an open or a subterranean religious consciousness.

Odissi dancers during the Bhubaneswar Mahotsav 2011 in May. While several upper-caste forms were accorded national status, tribal dances and Dalit music did not receive the same consideration.-LINGARAJ PANDA

The relationship between culture, religion and nation was explored by many, both among Hindus and Muslims, during the course of the 20th century. Radha Kumud Mookerji, an erudite scholar of ancient Indian history and the author of the celebrated treatise The Fundamental Unity of India, undertook to demonstrate in a series of lectures that the roots of the Indian nation could be traced to the principles and ideals of Hindu culture. He identified the Indian nation with Bharat Varsha, which he claimed was conceived as a single territorial unit in ancient times. Mookerji's view was not limited to the existence of nation in antiquity but extended to the process by which nationalism became a part of popular consciousness and how religion and culture played a significant role in its realisation. Among Muslims, both Mohammad Iqbal and Mohammad Ali Jinnah based their arguments for a separate Muslim nation on cultural distinctiveness.

Mookerji's argument is important not only for the religious character he attributed to the nation but also for tracing the process by which Hindu identity became a part of popular consciousness. According to him, two factors contributed to this development: religious pilgrimages and Sanskrit. Pilgrimages fulfilled multiple functions: expanded geographical consciousness, strengthened and sustained a person's love of the country, and helped develop the sentiment of patriotism. The expansion of geographical knowledge and the new cultural experience that pilgrimages afforded opened up the universe of the nation. Mookerji, therefore, argued that pilgrimages created awareness about an identity between religion and culture and helped cast the nation in a religious-cultural mould. Language played a very critical role in this process as a means of communication and dissemination of ideas. According to him, Sanskrit literature contained within it all elements that are needed to develop the different interests of national life, mental or moral, spiritual and practical for the dissemination of patriotic and nationalist ideas. It was around this nucleus that the idea of a Hindu nation was constructed later by Hindu communal ideologues such as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. His inspiration for doing so most probably came from the theories of ethno nationalism with which he became familiar during his incarceration in the Andamans. Savarkar traced the origin of the nation to the epic times when Ramachandra, the brave and the good, unfurled the umbrella of sovereignty at Ayodhya. According to him, Ramachandra received national allegiance not only from the princes of Aryan blood but also from Anaryans such as Hanuman, Sugriva and Bhibhishana. It was truly our national day, for Aryans and Anaryans knitting themselves into a people was born as a nation.

A cultural construct

The arguments advanced by Mookerji and Savarkar share some ground with the theoretical formulation that nation is primarily a cultural construct and that it existed much before the emergence of the ideology of modern nationalism. In this context, Partha Chatterjee has suggested that anti-colonial nationalism creates its own domain of sovereignty within colonial society well before its political battle with the imperial power. It does so by dividing the world of social institutions and practices into two domains the material and the spiritual the spiritual is an inner domain bearing the essential mark of cultural identity. Chatterjee goes on to argue that nationalism declares the domain of the spiritual its sovereign territory and refuses to allow the colonial power to intervene in that domain.

This formulation raises the question whether culture was a domain in which nationalism could refuse to allow the colonial power to intervene. An alternative view recognises culture as a dynamic field in which contestation took place from the very beginning of colonial domination. The contestation took place precisely because colonialism tried to intrude into the cultural domain as a strategy of control of the colonised.

The intrusion was attempted through the cultural infrastructure that the colonial state brought into being and through the active participation of native collaborators. The idea of whether nationalism had the power to refuse to allow or it could only resist or contest the colonial intervention deserves a much more critical appraisal. Refusing to allow and resisting or contesting are entirely different processes for which different resources and strategies are required. Anti-colonial cultural resistance was, in most cases, not successful because of the cultural and ideological control exercised by the coloniser.

Chatterjee rightly assumes that nationalism launched a historically significant project of fashioning a modern national culture that is nevertheless not Western. But it was the result of a dual cultural struggle, simultaneously against traditional and Western culture. Nationalism did not have at its disposal an insular cultural space; such a space had to be created. The colonial attempt at hegemonisation practically touched almost all areas, though in varying degrees. What nationalism, therefore, tried to do was to counter the colonial culture not by resistance alone but by creating an alternative, however feeble the attempt was. Why a possible alternative did not strike root is entwined with the cultural sensitivity and ability of the middle class. It is as much a contemporary issue in the era of globalisation as historical.

Use of cultural forms

Historians have primarily addressed the issue of culture within the parameters of the creative realm in two ways. First, the expression of nationalism in culture, both in form and content, and second, the use of cultural forms and practices for nationalist mobilisation. The former is abundantly manifested in literature, painting and several other realms of creativity. In the works of Premchand in Hindi, Tarashankar Bandhopadhyaya in Bengali, Subramanya Bharati in Tamil, Vallathol Narayana Menon in Malayalam and Raja Rao in English, the nationalist consciousness is well represented. In the realm of painting, Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose express the nationalist ethos.

DONGRIA KONDH DANCERS performing at the concluding day of the Tribal Dance Festival in Bhubaneswar in December 2010, and (facing page)-PTI

The use of cultural forms and practices, particularly theatre and music, performed an instrumentalist role during the anti-colonial movement, but some people fashioned their content and communication to suit contemporary needs. Harikatha and Burra katha in Andhra Pradesh, Ottamthullal in Kerala, Yakshagana in Karnataka and Jatra in Bengal explored nationalist possibilities in different cultural forms.

The attempts to relate culture and nationalism during the colonial period betrayed two general tendencies. The first was homogenisation and the second was exclusion. As a part of the first, a national culture was invented which invariably comprised the practices of the upper castes. The revival of Hindu classical tradition, be it in music or dance, privileged an Indian culture which was earlier the preserve of the upper castes. What is national, therefore, came to be equated with the Brahminical. In the process, the cultural practices of the lower castes were excluded from the national. Nationalism by definition is inclusive, but Indian nationalism did not develop an inclusive character based on equality. Secondly, the cultural perspective was very elitist, as a result of which culture was defined in terms of either mental refinement or the creative. Everyday practices and the creative elements within them were not reckoned as culture. As a result, the symbolic representation of the nation was confined to the achievements of the privileged, and the life of ordinary people did not figure in the nationalist pantheon. While Koodiyattam, Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Carnatic music and several other upper-caste forms were accorded national status, the dances of tribal people and Dalit music did not receive the same consideration.

The anti-colonial movement and the post-Independence state took a modernist view of nation and nationalism, which enabled the acceptance of democracy and secularism as the guiding principles of the nation. A consequence of this, perhaps unintended, was the marginalisation of ethno-nationalist aspirations and subjective concerns as expressed in culture. This to a large measure happened in the name of homogenisation and the creation of a national culture. The consequence has been cultural marginalisation and even oppression, which has led to discontent, alienation and revolt. The cultural plurality India is rightly proud of also denotes cultural inequality in practice. The result is that India is not yet a multicultural country that respects the cultural equality of different strata in society. The cultural perspective of Hindu fundamentalism is the best example of this tendency. What the practitioners of this fundamentalism are aiming for is not cultural equality but cultural domination, which in effect deprives the nation of its cultural diversity.

In the making of the nation, culture affords multiple possibilities. A popular and revivalist tendency is to romanticise the past and attribute to it a religious character, which in turn opens the doors to a supremacist ideology. An alternative view would recognise the culturally plural character of society as evolved through complex historical experience. More ideally, it could lead to a multicultural society by accepting the equality of all constituent cultures of the nation. All these possibilities are inherent in the relationship between culture and nation. As Ernest Gellner observed, Nations as a natural, god-given way of classifying men, as an inherent though long-delayed political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures: that is reality, for better or worse, and in general, an inescapable one.

India is not yet a nation; it is a nation in the making, as Surendranath Banerjea, an early nationalist leader, observed almost 200 years ago. Even when all objective conditions are met, a nation like India can achieve nationhood, even if inadequately, only when cultural equality is established.

K.N. Panikkar is a former Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This essay is the text of the inaugural address in a seminar on the Role of Culture and Language in the Making of a Nation organised by the Department of Linguistics, University of Mumbai.

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