When did nationalism acquire its ugly manifestation? Looking to pre-independent India holds answer

S Irfan Habib reflects on the history of Indian nationalism and assembles essential writing on the nation by prominent Indians in a new book.

Nationalism is very much in vogue today, particularly in our part of the world. Benjamin Zachariah prophetically titled his 2011 book Playing the Nation Game: The Ambiguities of Nationalism in India. Perhaps he foresaw the variety of nationalisms that would emerge as a legitimating tool for anything that happens in the country. This form of nationalistic fervour is not new in itself. What is new is its state sponsorship.

According to this rabid form of nationalism, most of us are not nationalist enough, and need to be reminded and tested against this so-called nationalist vision as decided by the state. For people like me, nationalism had been a very natural part of my growing up, like for so many others: for us no conscious effort was needed to be a nationalist. We never felt the need for any symbol, not even the tricolour, to flaunt our nationalism. Our ultimate celebration of nationalism used to be through some of our film songs, particularly those penned by Kavi Pradeep.

Until the 1980s our nationalism was relaxed, it was neither aggressive nor adversarial. For three or four decades after independence, our nationalism remained an extension of the inclusive and composite ethos of the freedom struggle. One of the most nationalist moments in our lives used to be 11 am on January 30 every year when the siren sounded and we all stood in silence to pay homage to Bapu. This practice doesn’t seem to be in vogue any more.

Even two full-fledged wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971 did not evoke such a combative nationalism as we are witnessing today.

The current usage of the concepts of nationalism and culture in India has acquired some ugly manifestations. It is no more a serious concern about nation or culture, but a rather crude jingoism fed by a populist majoritarian exclusivism. An empowered section, which had remained on the margins of the process of nation building all these years, finds itself catapulted into the mainstream. Rhetorical nationalism has always been a useful tool to polarise people, it has been globally effective and has been used many times with disastrous consequences.

This appeal to people’s base instincts is being used by different world leaders, from Vladimir Putin, Shinzo Abe, Erdogan, Donald Trump to Narendra Modi. They have successfully polarised electorates with the fear of the “other”, who is projected as an enemy of the nation, of culture, a threat to the nation’s development and even its very existence. Our nationalism today needs an enemy, an object of hate to focus on. It longs for uniformity and hates any deviant behaviour or even questioning its so-called nationalist premise. It abhors diversity of cultures, views, eating habits, dress and even modes of entertainment. This paranoid nationalism, now patronised by the state, is the most lethal weapon being used against many of its citizens.

Eric Hobsbawm saw the emergence of this flag-waving nationalism in early twentieth-century Europe, where national flags were brandished against the foreigner. He found that the basis of “nationalism” of all kinds was the same: the readiness of people to identify themselves emotionally with “their nation” and the democratisation of politics, especially elections, provided ample opportunities for mobilising them. Echoing what we are going through today in India, Hobsbawm went on to say that when states mobilised this kind of nationalism they called it “patriotism”.

The ultimate aim of the original “right-wing” nationalism that emerged in already established nation states was to claim the monopoly on patriotism, and thereby brand everyone else as some sort of a traitor. Nationalism is being transformed into theology, where anything critical of this view could be dubbed blasphemous. There are people today who create a fetish around nationalism, even threatening free speech blatantly.

Shiv Visvanathan recently observed that “the transition from nationalism of the independence movement, which was a costume ball of ideas, to the uniformity of the nation state is complete”.

But this transition was not sudden, its seeds were sown in the pre-independence days, in the midst of the excitement of the freedom struggle.

We inherited a legacy from our freedom struggle that defined our nationalism and culture in an inclusive way, going beyond religion, caste, language and class and even region. It did confront challenges from Hindu and Muslim essentialists who were committed to polarising Indians around diverse identities. The struggle between those trying to find unity in India’s diversity and those seeking to compartmentalise India into different nations was intense from the early twentieth century onwards.

To properly comprehend the present majoritarian political and cultural upsurge cleverly wrapped in nationalist garb, we need to go back to the three crucial decades of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s of the freedom struggle. The inclusive legacy was challenged then by these forces while it was in its very formative stages. The idea of a secular, forward-looking India was an anathema to all those who conceived a nation around communitarian and regressive values – both Hindu and Muslim. It succeeded in dividing India, preceded by a huge loss of life and property.

Pakistan declared itself an Islamic nation, falsely collapsing nation and religion into one, and got a rude shock in 1971 when language and culture took precedence over religion, leading to the creation of Bangladesh. In India, all those who wanted to go the Pakistan way generated huge pressure to declare India a Hindu nation. They failed in their attempts, however, their backward-looking and divisive agenda continued to torment all those who were struggling to knit together a new independent India.

The right wing forces today, who most often present themselves in the nationalist attire, remarkably took no part in the process of nation-building.

When questioned about this past, they take refuge in the socio-cultural tasks they were engaged in, ignoring the fact that many others faced the wrath of the colonial regime, even sacrificing their lives. I noticed this recently at an exhibition at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. This exhibition profiled Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, one of the key icons of the right wing. There were around fifteen to twenty panels depicting his life from birth to education to social and political life. There were some that showed his active involvement with the Hindu Mahasabha in the 1930s and 40s and few others on his social and cultural life. None of the panels there showed any link between him and the freedom struggle or his participation in any of the anti-British movements.

A more detailed and explicit example from the colonial phase is the Gita Press, founded in the mid-1920s, with the overt aim of defending and propagating Sanatana Hinduism, while its covert political agenda found space in its journal Kalyan. The consensus among freedom fighters to build a progressive, secular and modern Indian nation was aggressively questioned by the Gita Press, with an active participation and agreement by the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. The mainstay of this social reform was to rake up divisive and regressive issues, using the Manusmriti to show women their place in a male-dominated Hindu society and drum up their exclusivist definition of nationalism based on the concepts of pitrabhumi and punyabhumi.

This religious essentialism, they believed, was necessary to counter Muslim communalism, seemingly indifferent to the fact that they were themselves helping the cause of the separatists. They conveniently peddled their own communalism as nationalism while Muslim communalism was dubbed as separatism. However, the fact remains that both of them were and are complementary and indispensable for each other’s survival. There were many prominent Congressmen who wrote for Kalyan and supported it in many ways. Most of them did it for the cause of Hinduism, which they believed was under threat. Jawaharlal Nehru was also approached by its editor, Hanuman Prasad Poddar, several times, but he refused to contribute and endorse their exclusivist and regressive vision.

Even before Independence Nehru spoke about these forces “which, under the guise of what people call culture, narrow our minds and our outlook. These forces are essentially a restriction and denial of any real kind of culture. Culture is the widening of the mind and the spirit.”

This kind of nationalism, the legacy of the freedom struggle that was challenged by the RSS and its cohorts from the 1930s onwards, is facing its most serious threat now.

We also hear these days that the country has changed and so the inherited legacy might be dated or out of sync with this “new” India. Even Gandhi is seen as dated today and we hear that we have to move away from this decades-old obsession with him. Of course the country has been changing all these decades since independence, yet there are some basic premises of nation building which will remain valid and relevant. Our nationalism reflected the collective pride of all Indians, no citizen felt left out from its ambit due to religion, caste, language or region. As Gopal Gandhi remarked “India is all Indians and all Indians are India”, and this sentiment is at the core of our Constitution.

Any departure from this fundamental ethos will cause unease and insecurity among people who constitute this nation. This idea of India and Indian nationalism was an outcome of intense debate and churning, which began in the early twentieth century. What is at stake today is the essence of liberal nationalism, which the nation has nursed through the last century.

Excerpted with permission from Indian Nationalism: The Essential Writings, edited by S Irfan Habib, Aleph Book Company.

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