Writers on Nationalism

Why Indian literature holds the key to the vexatious nationalism debate

We can learn from the diverse ways writers grappled with the idea of the nation before Independence.

India will begin its 70th year of freedom from British rule this Independence Day. The debates and discussions around the nation state, nation and nationalism, which raged debates earlier continue to influence much of the political discourse today. The recent controversy over so-called “anti-national activities” once again begs an examination of how writers looked at nationalism before 1947.

Nationalism for village people

Fanishwar Nath Renu celebrates India’s newly acquired freedom from colonial rule in his novel Maila Anchal (The Soiled Border) set in rural India. Renu drives home the point that the official handshakes, gestures and signatures which decided the fate of the nation meant and signified nothing in the real India, where the majority of Indians lived. Unable to grapple with the grand weight of history that was lifted from the Indian consciousness for the new nation state to emerge and define itself, the poor villagers went on with their normal lives oblivious to the sounds which were to shape India’s destiny later.

Do we term these Indians in Renu’s novel anti-national because they were unable to participate in the debates over a democratic Republic that was to be formed three years later in January? Or perhaps because they were unable to process the information and appreciate the enormity of what happened when the British decided to exit India?

In Imagined Communities, the seminal text on nationalism taught in university classrooms, Benedict Anderson defines the nation as “…an imagined political community…” He later adds caveats to his definition to talk about the limitations of a nation state, but there is still a fundamental gap between how a Western theorist propounds his idea of nation as an imagined “political” community and the way Indians grappled with the newly thrust idea of nationalism on themselves.

A social and not a political question

In his essay on nationalism, Rabindranath Tagore writes, “Our real problem in India is not political. It is social.” Ruminating further he details, “It [the nation] is the aspect of a whole people as organised power. This organisation incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient...man’s power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organisation, which is mechanical.” Later, he writes, “ When you borrow things that do not belong to your life, they only serve to crush your life.”

It is important to understand the fundamental difference between the ideas that define a sovereign geographical entity in the West as a nation, and those that are conceptualised by a freshly freed land with its boundaries artificially drawn by its colonial plunderers.

For a living and breathing civilisational entity as varied, rich and dense like India, the cultural and social contours of the Indian identity heavily interrogated the idea of a bordered unit within a few limiting lines that divided India across the religious and political spectrum.

Was it anti-national, then, to define India the way it was defined in 1947? Was it anti-national to destroy the essence of the Indian reality as a cultural civilisation and, instead, thrust a political, expansionary and inherently greedy idea of a nation-state that believes in usurping, taking over and annexing land?

The early debates

It is pertinent to revisit the debates which raged back in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century India, because the tussle between the definition of who is national and who is anti-national has become less informative and less argumentative, but more reactionary and more acerbic today. Those debates reveal the shared discomfort between what was felt when a nation-state (political) was thrust as a nation (socio-cultural) on the Indian identity on August 15, 1947, and what is felt now, in 2016, when we’re still wrestling with the question of who we are as a nation, with competing claims to truth.

A similar debate took place in 1909, when revolutionary-turned-philosopher Sri Aurobindo responded to Surendranath Banerji’s idea of nationalism as the “highest synthesis”, and wrote, “In India we do not recognise the nation as the highest synthesis to which we can rise. There is a higher synthesis, humanity…With us today nationalism is our immediate practical faith and gospel not because it is the highest possible synthesis, but because it must be realised in life if we are to have the chance of realising the others.” Aurobindo went on to explain how nationalism is but an intermediary stage in India’s life that must be reached so as to scale the true consciousness of national being.

We find a rather revealing explanation in Premchand’s Panch Parmeshwar, which sums up for us how Tagore’s “social” and “moral” entity and Aurobindo’s claims to “humanity” in defining the Indian identity merge in the idea of India. The panchayat, whose power rested in the “panch” and which, as an “organised power” – akin to a nation – asserted, “...while sitting on that seat of judgement you are no one’s friend or foe. You cannot think of anything except justice. Today I am convinced that god himself speaks through the voice of a panch.”

And so to the present

Between the nuances of these claims to defining nation and nationalism in the contrived corridors of history, one can resurrect the echoes of the present time, which discusses nationalism with equal fervor. While the dominant political voice today proudly asserts its fidelity to the idea of a cultural-national India, many voices claim subnational streaks defining the Indian consciousness.

While cultural nationalism talks of the “moral”, “human”, “synthesised” and “social” version of history that is intrinsically more cohesive and complimentary, subnational variations speak of an India that is more divided and at conflicted war with itself across various lines. Who is to decide which is more national and which, anti-national?

This question is often a matter of public scrutiny and debate. The argumentative tradition of Indian nationalism must allow the dissection of these ideas, the way Banerji and Aurobindo engaged one another.

In history lies embedded our present and the future. Perhaps not everyone will sound anti-national if we were to just be allowed to discuss freely and openly what the other side – whichever side we choose to be on – has to say. To quote Ghazi Miyan, “Tumri Ramayan Khuda ki Kasam…” For the sake of a plural and democratic India, let us talk and discuss nationalism from the perspective of diverse citizens.

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