Nehru and the Spirit of India by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a timely intervention at a time when India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy is being contested in political and intellectual arenas. The deepest and most far-reaching of these invisible impacts is the ideological impression Nehru left on the very imagination of India as a nation. Ever since India gained independence, the RSS and the political dispensations associated with it, the Bhartiya Jan Sangh and its successor, the Bharatiya Janata Party, have always questioned the vision and idea of India that has played a dominant role in the political and cultural imaginations of the nation.

One strategy adopted by the Hindutva ideologues in their discourse is to present Nehru as a secularist and marginalise his contribution to imagining the Indian nation and nationalism. Such a strategy seems to work perhaps because the idea of secularism is associated most often with state institutions and policy, and not so much with nationalism. This assumption operates much more in the grossly oversimplified discussions in the popular public discourse, particularly when nationalism and secularism themselves are presented as being necessarily opposed to each other.

The national and the secular according to Nehru

However, the specific history of Indian nationalism in the first half of the 20th century tells us that the Indian version of secularism was elaborated against two strands of communalism in pre-Independence India: the Muslim and Hindu communalisms, both representing exclusive imaginations of the nation as a political community. During this period of Indian politics, the term secularism was associated with certain ways of imagining nationalism as well – that is, India as an inclusive national community.

In this imagination, secularism was not just a negative attribute of distance, separation, and neutrality from religions and religious communities – the classical associations of the secular state – but a positive way of imagining the national community as belonging to all equally. While most leaders and intellectuals engaged in the anti-colonial movement contributed to the political imaginary of India as a nation that is not communal, Nehru engaged in the most sustained interrogation of this question in his The Discovery of India, a classic text of nationalist political thought. Another related feature of the Indian political discourse of secularism is the centrality of the idea of culture, often marginalised in the dominant discourse of secularism.

Nehru and the Spirit of India is a deeply felt engagement with Nehru’s works, particularly The Discovery of India. The book is centrally focussed on Nehru’s imagination of India as an inclusive political community. The main chapters of the book engage in three intertwined aspects of culture, history, and secularism. It is refreshing how the book approaches and interprets Nehru’s thoughts from a perspective that is different from both the so-called Nehruvian defenders of Nehru and the anti-Nehruvian critics of Nehru.

The Discovery of India is a deep engagement with India’s precolonial past. Nehru’s main quest is to understand the meaning of that past and what could it mean for Indian modernity struggling to throw away the yoke of brutal colonialism. In his book, Bhattacharjee shows how Nehru meticulously avoided the two extremes of uncritical glorification of the past and complete rejection of it – the two extremes that represented the political spectrum preceding Indian Independence.

Bhattacharjee reads Nehru as someone trying to arrive at a balance between the desirable continuity with the past and the necessity of breaking with the “dead wood and deadening habits” that might burden the quest for Indian modernity. For Nehru, the values that give vitality to the life of the nation – such as the spirit of truth-seeking, tolerance, and the capacity for synthesis – ought to be the necessary element of continuity that modern India should learn from its past. The “spirit of truth-seeking” that Nehru found in precolonial Indian intellectual culture convinced him that there was no essential conflict with modernity based primarily on scientific progress.

This way of approaching the Indian past also helps Nehru to question and dismantle the prevalent Orientalist binary of the East and the West, wherein the East was supposed to represent spiritual values and the West was supposedly the purveyor of science and technology; a binary to which several Indian thinkers were subject to. This often happened without questioning the binary itself. The debate of whether Nehru also engaged in this binary is discussed in this book. While Nehru might have got over these parochial binaries, modern India still seems to be steeped in them.

Culture and the ‘discovery’ of India

This book places culture at the centre of Nehru’s quest for the “discovery” of India. The most interesting idea that is explored at great length in this book is the idea of Indian culture as a kind of “encounter” in Nehru’s thoughts. The uniqueness of Indian culture – the element that differentiates it from other national cultures – lies in the unique capacity to assimilate and synthesise the others it encounters, without erasing the differences. Nehru sought to convey this idea through his now famous image of Indian cultural history as “some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.”

In other words, Indian culture is a product of the exchange and translation of traditions.

This question cannot be answered or even asked within the nationalist frame, as the nation is axiomatically assumed to have existed since time immemorial. The main feature of this culture is assimilative and inclusive capacity despite the structural exclusiveness of the caste system. Bhattacharjee rightly takes Nehru to task for his forced inclusion of the caste question within the parameters of diversity rather than interrogating it as a hierarchical structure. Another equally important feature of Indian culture according to Nehru is the space for heterogeneity within it. These unique capacities of Indian culture are what Bhattacharjee seems to have identified with the “spirit of India” in the title of the book.

How may this approach to Indian national culture be compatible with secularism? Compared with classical models of secularism defining themselves through a neutral space (free from the influence of religions or other ethnic denominations) of state action (law and public administration), secularism in India has also been understood as negotiating between its religious and ethnic diversity. In other words, how to think about the question of diversity alongside the question of the unity of the nation grounded in a common culture. Thus the idea of Indian culture is one through the spirit of accommodation but diverse through the layers of content – a la the palimpsest metaphor.

In other words, Indian culture is formally one but substantively diverse because of a long history of cultural encounters, exchange, translation, and assimilation. The value of this thought can be underscored by the fact that it is easier to understand and talk about diversity, but far more difficult and trickier to understand the ground of unity of a national culture or nation. The contemporary import of the book is that it seeks to recover the idea through an engagement with Nehru’s thought that it is still possible to arrive at the oneness of national unity through diversity rather than through the primacy of one community at the expense of all others. This is certainly a more cultured way of imagining and being a political community.

Mohinder Singh teaches political theory in Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Nehru and the Spirit Of India, Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, Penguin Viking.