Debate

Nationalism, then and now

Print edition : April 15, 2016

An RSS march in Allahabad in March 2014. During the last 50 years, the RSS has spread its net very wide by sponsoring a variety of outfits that can intervene in almost all aspects of social life. Photo: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP

Santiniketan, 1940: While Gandhi emphasised the emancipatory potential of nationalism, Tagore drew attention to the aggressive possibilities inherent in it. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A WELCOME consequence of the recent despicable incident of slapping sedition charges on the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is the widespread discussion it generated on the complex and multilayered character of Indian nationalism. I am not referring to the “shouting sessions” in the visual media, aired in the name of debate and news analysis, but to the efforts by students and teachers of several universities in the country to explore the meaning of nationalism and its changing contours. The notable and innovative of them were a series of sit-ins organised by the teachers and students of JNU in which scholars of different disciplines raised searching and provocative questions on nationalism.

Understandable because that is what a university is meant for. An academic venture it certainly was, but it was also a unique form of protest against the highhandedness of the state in the name of nationalism. What triggered this novel form of protest was the denigration and demonisation of JNU as an institution and its students in general as anti-nationals, terrorists and anarchists whose activities are nothing short of sedition. That even after about 70 years of independence from colonial rule, wrested after a popular and protracted struggle for civil liberties, it is rather ironical that the independent state should invoke the same laws which the colonial rulers had used to suppress dissent and deny freedom of expression. It is not fortuitous, though. It is occasioned by the communal right-wing takeover of the government of India by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the consequent resurgence of Hindu religious fundamentalism directed by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates.

The concept of nationalism

When the national movement was entering its mass phase in the 1920s, the different possibilities inherent in nationalism had come under critical scrutiny. The dialogue between Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhi, in the wake of the violence that erupted during the course of the non-cooperation movement, is a pointer towards the anxieties and apprehensions aroused by aggressive nationalism. While the latter emphasised the emancipatory potential of nationalism, the former drew attention to the aggressive possibilities inherent in it. A little later, Jawaharlal Nehru tried to explore the historical roots of nationalism in his highly acclaimed work, The Discovery of India, which is worth a read for every Indian. Except for these two instances, there was no notable attempt in this direction.

The other participants in the anti-colonial struggle did not carry forward the debate, possibly because nationalism had already become an influential sentiment by that time. There could be other intellectual and political reasons. For instance, was it because there were not many who could match the intellectual ability of these three? Was it also because patriotism was conflated with nationalism in popular imagination? The state was seen as an alien imposition and the nation, on the other hand, was considered a given by history. The intellectual engagement was more with the virtues of composite nationalism and its historical trajectory rather than with the possible pitfalls of nationalism.

I may digress a little bit into Chinese history by way of contrast. The Chinese, who had faced an equally complex situation, adopted a more pragmatic path. After the nationalist revolution of 1911, with the warlords emerging as centres of power in different parts of China, the authority of the state had declined and multiple centres of power had emerged. The nation lacked cohesiveness and there was nothing tangible to bind the people together. When Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the nationalist revolution, invoked the metaphor of loose sand to describe the Chinese situation, he was trying to indicate the unity and diversity of the country and its fragmented polity and the need to construct unity from diversity. In order to achieve that, Sun Yat-sen believed that the consciousness of being a nation had to be imbibed in the popular mind. Towards that end he undertook a journey across the country, reminiscent of the journey Gandhi undertook after his return from South Africa, although for entirely different reasons.

Gandhi’s was a journey of discovery, whereas Sun Yat-sen’s was an attempt to bring the disparate elements of the nation within the cultural-political logic of nationalism. But there was similarity in one aspect: both shared the conviction that they can realise their goals only if they identified with the masses. In Lord Attenborough’s celebrated movie on Gandhi, there is a frame which shows Gandhi discarding his upper cloth, which is a symbolic representation of establishing his identity with the common man. Sun Yat-sen could not make any such identity and hence his nationalist project went awry. Gandhi, on the other hand, not only empathised with the poor, but strove hard to approximate his lifestyle with that of the common man. It was this identification with the masses which enabled him to galvanise the nation to effect a transition from colonial rule to an independent India. In the amazing story of this transition lies the spirit of the making of modern nationalism of India.

Nation and nationalism

It is arguable that India as a nation did not exist before nationalism, even though efforts are afoot to establish its antiquity tracing back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Earlier, the claim had stopped with the Vedic times; with the new-found confidence imparted by Narendra Modi, the origin of Hindus has been pushed back at least by a millennium. Even if the claim is true, as Ernest Gellner remarked, “nations do not create nationalism; it is the other way round: nationalism creates nations”. Further, “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist,” says Benedict Anderson.

The invention of the nation is contingent upon the ability to imagine a political community on the basis of perceived common interests. In India this commonness was engendered by the controlled conditions created by colonial modernity. In contrast, the Hindu nationalists trace nationalism to the Vedic times. They are reading history in the reverse and thus celebrating presentism. The shining example of this distortion is the Hindi serial on the life of Asoka, who swears by Akhand Bharat every day.

There were several empires and kingdoms in India in the past—the Maurya, the Chera, the Pandya, the Chalukya, the Mughal, the Bahmani, and so on—but there were no nations or nationalisms. These kingdoms could at best generate dynastic patriotism, which is a medieval virtue. This does not mean that the spirit of nationalism did not draw upon the past. It did to a good measure from history, culture, politics and geography. The appeal to the past had two strands—secular and religious. Anti-colonial nationalism derived its credo from the secular tradition, which privileged the universalist trend in the Indian socio-religious thought. Therefore Asoka and Akbar on the one hand and Ram Mohan Roy and Vivekananda on the other became part of the nationalist pantheon.

The spirit of nationalism is difficult to define. Its inspiration lies in a variety of sources. Territorial patriotism, cultural identity and political tradition contribute to its making. But it is as much a result of structural changes in society as the rise of new classes and new technologies. As such, nationalism has different trajectories of manifestation in different countries. In Europe, it made its appearance through the formation of nation-states, whereas in India it is a product of the struggle against colonialism.

It was anti-colonialism that brought the people of India together on a common platform. The Indian National Congress at the time of its formation described itself as a platform for the coming together of the people of India. The conditions for the “coming together” were indeed occasioned by colonial rule, but Indian nationalism was not a dispensation of colonialism. Its emergence was not because of but in spite of colonialism. It was not a movement which was purely oppositional, but one which addressed the tasks of nation-building.

Apart from being a modern phenomenon, nationalism was also a modernising phenomenon. Its ideological legacy was liberalism, rooted in the Enlightenment values of humanism, rationalism and universalism. That is why the early national awakening in India was accompanied by a critique of social and religious practices which were not in sync with modernity.

The invocation of the practices of the past as represented in the religious texts was part of the strategy of reform and not an attempt to resurrect tradition. The approach to tradition was critical, innovative and instrumentalist.

A defining feature of anti-colonial nationalism, both in its ideological articulation and political practice, was secularism. It recognised the multicultural and multireligious character of Indian society and stood for non-discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or religion. The universalist and humanist traditions, as expressed in the Hindu religious scriptures and the teachings of 19th century reformers and the mutuality developed among the people through religious-social interaction, led to the notion of secular-liberal democracy. Liberalism was its political creed.

Throughout the national liberation struggle, its perspectives and practices were informed by the principles of liberalism, except among the revolutionary nationalists and the communists.

Even while fighting the British, the Indian nationalists remained great admirers of British liberalism as it provided a space for dissent and discussion. Both before and after Independence, attempts were made to institutionalise a political system based on fundamental civic rights like freedom of speech and expression. It promoted a sense of cosmopolitanism which served as a check on nationalism going overboard. The Indian Constitution, of which B.R. Ambedkar was the main architect, was conceived as an instrument embodying the democratic-secular-liberal principles. The Constitution, in fact, contains the essence of Indian nationalism.

Weaknesses of nationalism

In a highly differentiated society like that of India, the ideal is never the real. There were far too many fissures in society which impinged upon the political project of national liberation. The most glaring of them was the non-inclusiveness of the marginalised. The notion that nationalism was the expression of an overarching contradiction between the people of India and colonialism may well be right. But the “people” is an aggregative category which consists of an array of social and political groups with conflicting interests. When the interest of any group is seen to be compromised, nationalism suffers a setback.

Although the national movement took cognisance of social differentiations, no solution was found to resolve the internal contradictions. As a result, the marginalised sections of society, like the Adivasis, Dalits, minorities and women, were not adequately incorporated into the mainstream anti-colonial nationalism. Gandhi tried to overcome this through various strategies like persuasion, remonstration and outright disapproval and by launching a constructive programme. But their grievances could not be resolved within the limits of nationalist politics because its focus was on the binary contradiction between people and colonialism. The internal contradictions were not overlooked but were subordinated to the demands of primary contradictions.

Those who focussed on internal contradictions—caste, class and gender—and sought to recover the rights of the oppressed and the marginalised in society opted out of the nationalist mainstream. The critical attitude of “Periyar” E.V. Ramasamy and B.R. Ambedkar towards the national movement was mainly guided by this perspective. Raising the question of the limitations of anti-colonial nationalism, Periyar rhetorically and famously asked: Is the Brahmins’ rule swarajya for the paraya? Is the cat’s rule swarajya for the rat? Is the landlord’s rule swarajya for the peasant? Is the owner’s rule swarajya for the worker?

Unfortunately these questions still remain relevant. Nevertheless, it foregrounded the all-important question as to whose interest nationalism represented.

The question of the place of minorities also generated strain within the movement. The story of the national movement was not of an uninterrupted joyous journey to the secular goal. On the contrary, the progress of the national movement was offset by the simultaneous growth of religious communitarian consciousnesses, among both Hindus and Muslims. The roots of this separateness can be traced to the community-based religious reform movements in the 19th century. The early movements like the Brahmo Samaj and the Prarthana Samaj were universalist in their outlook. But later movements like the Arya Samaj tilted towards revivalism. Their penchant for cultural defence against colonialism earned them a social base. They played a powerful role, particularly in north India, in generating religious solidarity among Hindus.

Simultaneously, the Wahhabi and Aligarh movements helped the formation of Muslim religious consciousness. Based on this foundation, a religious view of the nation gained ground with the formation of political parties with religious association, like the Muslim League in 1905 and the Hindu Mahasabha in 1914. However, the national movement tried to distance itself from religious identity, but it did not entirely succeed in making the dissociation real. An undercurrent of religious identity persisted throughout the national movement, among both Muslims and Hindus. Was it a result of the inability to demarcate the cultural from the religious? Indian nationalism placed rather unwarranted faith on cultural synthesis, whereas cultural differences based on religion continued to be powerful. That colonialism contributed to the widening of the gulf is a different matter.

The Indian nation which emerged from the anti-colonial struggle was a fractured one, torn asunder by internal contradictions of religion, caste and class. Yet, anti-colonial nationalism did not compromise with religious fundamentalism which enabled India to emerge as a secular democratic republic, despite Partition and the formation of Pakistan. This success, though partial, can be attributed to the secular democratic character of nationalism that the anti-colonial struggle advocated and practised.

Rise of religious nationalism

At the same time, the religious element became an integral part of the political discourse. As a result, a new narrative of nationalism emerged—the narrative of religious nationalism. Although the Islamic state of Pakistan was formed in 1947, it took a long time for Hindu communalism to make its presence felt in independent India. The RSS, which was formed in 1925, had a fairly chequered career. It not only did not take part in the anti-colonial movement, but chose to collaborate with colonialism. This unpatriotic stand accounts for its initial unpopularity. The assassination of Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, who had links with the RSS, made it a political outcast. Until the imposition of the Emergency, the RSS was not able to make much headway. What gave it a fillip and helped it to enter the mainstream was the Emergency. The Emergency was not only an assault on Indian democracy; it also opened the way for the future success of communal forces.

The post-Emergency situation greatly helped the Jana Sangh (the earlier incarnation of the BJP) to wriggle out of its political isolation and untouchability. It also earned political legitimacy by being part of a formation created in opposition to the Emergency. The main beneficiary of this access to state power was the RSS. It used this opportunity to the hilt to spread its influence to areas to which it had no access earlier, like Dalits, Adivasis and the backward castes. That provided the springboard to launch the future offensive.

The waning of the liberal forces and the decline of the Left helped it to achieve its objective, namely the capture of state power. Consequently, today the RSS controls almost all apparatuses of the state. Although the BJP is technically the ruling party, the real power is vested with the RSS. Narendra Modi is a figurehead who acts at the behest of the RSS. It appears that a convenient arrangement has been worked out between the political and cultural sectors: the political leaders are given enough space and freedom to practise their right-wing ideas and the cultural mafia is let loose to pursue its divisive activities intended to bolster the cause of Hindu Rashtra.

The liberal-democratic-secular nationalism is under considerable strain today and it is being replaced through state intervention by an alternative discourse of nationalism based on religious identity. Such a possibility has been created by the sustained and silent grass-roots level work done by the hydra-headed RSS. During the last 50 years, the RSS has spread its net very wide by sponsoring a variety of outfits which can intervene in almost all aspects of social life. Posturing itself as a cultural organisation, it has managed to mark its presence on all important occasions in urban localities and villages. By doing so, it has succeeded in creating goodwill at the grass-roots level which comes in handy during the time of elections. Given this social reach, it is not easy to dislodge the RSS from power.

The cause of the BJP is also helped by certain structural changes in society during the last two decades owing to the neoliberal policies pursued by the government. One of the consequences of this policy has been the growth of a large crisis-ridden middle class. Its crisis has been mainly cultural, as it found it difficult to reconcile its new-found modernity with the inherited cultural backwardness. It sought the resolution of this conflict in the obscurantism and superstitions propagated by the Hindu fundamentalist organisations.

Narendra Modi’s hollow and meaningless rhetoric and the promises to turn the country into a heaven appeals to the vanity of this frustrated class. Modi has assigned to the corporates, both national and international, the privilege of presiding over this transformation of India into a religious state.

The combination of corporatism with religious fundamentalism ensures the RSS both material support and ideological inspiration.

Towards authoritarianism

The RSS, which controls most apparatuses of the state, is in the process of replacing the liberal-secular-anti-colonial nationalism with aggressive Hindu religious nationalism, which in the vocabulary of communalism is cultural nationalism.

It gives the impression that there is a disjunction between cultural nationalism and secular nationalism. In fact, it is a false dichotomy. Cultural nationalism is very much a part of secular nationalism. The problem is the way culture is conceived.

To the RSS, Indian culture is Hindu culture as defined by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in Hindutva and M.S. Golwalkar in Bunch of Thoughts. Based on these sources, the Sangh Parivar has been trying to forefront a concept of nationalism which is anachronistic. It is essentially anchored on what Meera Nanda calls the “fabrication of heritage through a domestication of the past”.

With scant regard to the historical experience of the people of India, it tries to freeze history to an imagined glorious period in which Bharat Varsha excelled the world, in science, technology, philosophy and what not. It is intended to give a false sense of pride in the past. It shrouds history in myth and science in saffron.

What we are witnessing is a transition from liberal secular nationalism to a religious fundamentalist nationalism. The future emerging out of this is rather frightening.

Reminiscent of Golwalkar’s demonisation of Muslims and communists as enemies of the nation, all those who raise voices of dissent are being targeted as anti-national. Kanhaiya Kumar, the student leader of JNU, is the latest example. He is unlikely to be the last. He was arrested for sedition for raising slogan for azadi from deprivation and oppression and kept in jail for nearly three weeks. Similar incidents are taking place in other universities and cultural institutions all over the country. They are not widely known because they are less publicised by the media.

In the universities of Banaras, Lucknow, Delhi, Rajasthan, Pune and so on students are being victimised for their political views. The vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University was insulted in the presence of his colleagues, and Amit Sengupta, a widely respected intellectual teaching in the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, has been shunted out of Delhi for expressing critical views on the suicide of Rohith Vemula. The Sangh Parivar seems to be searching for anti-nationalists in every nook and corner of the country. Amit Shah, the BJP president, discovered recently that JNU had taken an anti-national stand at the time of the Babri Masjid demolition. A climate of intolerance and intimidation has come to prevail in the country.

There is enough indication that the Indian state is moving towards authoritarianism. It is pointed out that most of the characteristics of fascism listed by Umberto Eco are already present in India. It may as well be. Nevertheless it is not yet a fascist state. The characterisation is important because our reading of the phenomenon determines the nature of resistance. Fascism will not allow citizens to assemble in a public space, to voice their opposition to the state. But the emerging fascist tendencies are unmistakable—authoritarianism, religious hatred, violence and presentism. Yet, there is still some manoeuvring space. It is possibly because the state machinery has not been fully hegemonised or coerced into submission. In this context, the Army, the police and the judiciary, though apparatuses of the state but expected to function impartially in a democracy, have a crucial role to play. The police are easily susceptible to the pressure of the government, as demonstrated by the chief of the Delhi Police in dealing with the students of JNU.

The heterogeneous character of the armed forces with an independent command structure and multi-ethnic composition, and an impartial and independent judiciary are the possible bulwarks against an authoritarian takeover.What is happening in India today is a deliberate attempt to transform the character of the Indian nation and Indian nationalism from democratic-secular-liberal to religious-fundamentalist. Those who oppose this project in order to safeguard the liberal-democratic character of the nation are termed anti-nationalists and charged with sedition. The success or failure of this communal agenda will largely depend upon the resistance from civil society. How civil society responds to this challenge is a matter of great consequence to the nation.

In these trying times, there are two sections of society the people look upon to lead the way for defending civil rights—the intellectuals and the media. It is a good augury that a fairly large section of intellectuals have come out in strength to oppose the attack on the freedom of expression and the saffronisation of institutions. They have been able to sense the direction in which the Indian state is moving. At the same time, the overwhelming majority have chosen to remain silent. This is true of the media also. While a section of the media has been critical, the others have been either “objective” or clearly partisan. Some have even chosen to be the flag-bearers and brand ambassadors of the government.

Long back, Rabindranath Tagore cautioned us that “nationalism is a great menace”. The time has come to ask the question whether we are living in a time when nationalism has actually become a great menace.

A letter from the Editor


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