To some thinkers, India was enriched and made strong by the breathtaking heterogeneity that had long been its hallmark; others argued that homogeneity was what made sturdy nation-states, and as far as possible, diversity ought to make way for a master narrative and a master culture, largely woven around a majoritarian religious principle. To some, as Shashi Tharoor puts it, India resembled a thali or a platter with “a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.”

This vision of nationalism was focused on transcending difference by looking to a shared, modern future – whatever India’s fragmented yesterdays may have been, everybody could now be an equal partner in shaping its tomorrow.

On the other hand, to proponents of what would become Hindutva, this was, to quote Ashutosh Varshney, the “opposite of nation building” for a “salad bowl does not produce cohesion; a melting pot does”. And if India had to become a melting pot, as opposed to a thali or a salad bowl, its regional cultures and local identities would have to make sacrifices for a greater cause. Hindutva was the pot, and it was the smaller cultures that would have to endure the melting.

Given that the freedom fighters had to rally Indians behind them and stand up to imperial might, it is understandable that the first of these visions was more popular – to take everyone along in a working consensus was wiser than to succumb to quarrels about which culture would become national, and whose identities would need to be renounced. Instead of one kind of uniform appearance, a joint cooperative effort was what they envisioned. As early as 1884, the poet and champion of the modern Hindi language, Harishchandra, explained this vision of Indian nationalism. Referring to all residents of Hindustan as Hindus, he declared:

“Brother Hindus! You, too, should not insist any more on all details of religious faith and practice. Increase mutual love and chant this ‘mahamantra’. Who lives in Hindustan, whatever his colour and whatever his caste, he is a Hindu. Help the Hindus. Bengalis, Marathis, Panjabis, Madrasis, Vaidiks, Jains, Brahmos, Mussalmans, all should join hands.”

The following year, the prominent Muslim reformer Sir Syed Ahmed Khan added his weight to this conception of Indian nationalism: “Remember,” he pointed out, that “the words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muhammadan’ are only meant for religious distinction, otherwise all persons whether Hindu, Muhammadan, or Christian, who reside in this country belong to one and the same nation.’

By 1909, Madan Mohan Malaviya too, in an address to the Indian National Congress, reaffirmed this position. “How ennobling it is,” he pronounced, “to even think of that high ideal of patriotism where Hindus, Mohammedans, Parsees and Christians stand shoulder to shoulder as brothers and work for the common good of all... we cannot build up in separation a national life such as would be worth living; we must rise and fall together.”

Perhaps the greatest support for this vision of modern Indian nationalism came from Mahatma Gandhi and the country’s future prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Though they disagreed on many things, the Father of the Nation and his protégé were more or less in agreement on the broad idea of what made the Indian people one. Ethnic nationalism would not work here because the subcontinent was bursting with ethnic diversity, and forcing any kind of rigid, overpowering uniformity over its peoples would break the nation before it was even born.

Religion, as far as Gandhi saw it, could mobilise people but could not serve as a sufficient or enduring basis for nationalism. It had value, admittedly, and there was civilisational unity among the people despite numerous differences – why else would men and women from across the subcontinent crisscross the land on pilgrim routes that encompassed Rameswaram and Benares, Jagannath and Haridwar? But this did not make India a land of Hindus alone – everyone who had adopted India as their home had a place in the nation.

As the Mahatma wrote, “Hindustan belongs to all those who are born and bred here and who have no other country to look to. Therefore, it belongs to Parsis, Beni Israels, to Indian Christians, Muslims and other non-Hindus as much as to Hindus. Free India will not be a Hindu raj; it will be an Indian raj based not on the majority of any religious sect or community, but on the representatives of the whole people without distinction of religion...”

“Religion,” he believed, “is a personal matter which should have no place in politics.” Naturally, the idea of nationalism as a commodity designed only for Hindus was as abhorrent to him as the notion that Muslims constituted a separate nation and could seek, for that reason, an exclusive territory on which to live.

Nehru, too, articulated nationalism in similar terms where diversity was not an impediment to love for one’s country, and inclusiveness and tolerance were, in fact, an ancestral principle once again elevated to the forefront as India reclaimed its destiny in modern times.

He, too, pointed to a certain civilisational unity. “Some kind of a dream of unity,” he argued in The Discovery of India, “has occupied the mind of India since the dawn of civilisation. That unity,” however, “was not conceived as something imposed from outside”, as the British had done. “It was something deeper, and within its fold the widest tolerance of belief and custom was practised, and every variety acknowledged and even encouraged.”

Various races, religions and ethnicities had co-existed from the dawn of time in India, and difference was accommodated within a larger tradition rather than subjugated or rejected. There was, in other words, room for everyone in India in the past, and the India of the future would reinforce such inclusive national ideals in order to make its way in the twentieth century and beyond.

To quote Tharoor again in this context, “The singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural. This pluralism emerged from the very nature of the country; it was made inevitable by India’s geography and affirmed by its history. There was simply too much of both to permit a single exclusionist nationalism” that was based on narrow parameters. Instead, Indian nationalism was birthed consciously by its leaders, in whose mind democracy, a liberal order, and enough space for coexistence would forge a unique nation in which everyone could thrive, and disagree, in liberty and peace.

If a nation was, as Marcel Mauss noted in L’Anee Sociologique, a society “where there is a relative moral, mental, and cultural unity between the inhabitants”, in India that unity was exemplified in the mature understanding among its peoples to preserve and cherish diversity.

This vision of nationalism was not without its challengers. VD Savarkar articulated in what is now a founding text of the Hindutva vision of India an ideology where “Hinduness” rather than a celebration of unity in diversity becomes the cornerstone of the nation.

This was not originally a religious argument, offering instead several political criteria. After all, Hindus themselves were hardly a united force. The 1911 census of India found, for example, that “a quarter of the persons classed as Hindus deny the supremacy of Brahmans, a quarter do not worship the great Hindu gods...a half do not regard cremation as obligatory, and two-fifths eat beef”. There was, in other words, no perfect way to define who was a Hindu and who was not on account of the sheer divergence of custom and practice within Hindu communities – ie, Hindus, too, could only be understood in the plural rather than the singular.

Savarkar offered an explanation for this state of affairs. The Hindus, soon after the Aryans arrived, had formed themselves into a nation. Over time, however, this was “first overshadowed and then almost forgotten” as culture and identity became fragmented. Lord Rama, who is treated by Savarkar as a historical figure, rejuvenated the nation, only for its unity to be crushed by the advent of Muslim invaders.

Leaving aside the lack of historicity in this argument, the point ultimately made was that what bound together the Hindu nation was the “blood of the mighty race” of the Aryans, so that “no people in the world can more justly claim to get recognised as a racial unit than the Hindus and perhaps the Jews.” That is why, he claimed, “the Nayars of Malabar weep over the sufferings of the brahmins of Kashmir” (when in fact the Nairs had little knowledge of where precisely Kashmir was or what its brahmins were doing). Meanwhile, though Muslims and Christians in India were converts from Hindus of yore, they were, nonetheless, disqualified from membership of the nation.

Why was this so? Hindus, according to Savarkar, were members of a single nation because no matter the countless diversities they counted within their ranks, no matter how fragmented they were, they saw India not only as their motherland (mathrubhumi) and fatherland (pitrubhumi, the land of their ancestors), but also as their holy land (punyabhumi).

Muslim and Christian converts might fulfil the first two criteria but they did not envision the subcontinent, defined since antiquity as the land between the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, as sacred – it was in Mecca and Rome and other foreign lands that their sacred sites were located. The Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, and others whose religions were born in India were all eligible to be members of the Hindu nation, but Christians and Muslims, whose faiths emerged in lands beyond India’s historical limits, were at best second-class citizens.

Savarkar’s heir, MS Golwalkar, built on this idea and rejected the notion of territorial nationalism, as promoted by Gandhi, Nehru and the freedom fighters from the very start. “In this land,” he declared, “Hindus have been the owners, Parsis and Jews the guests, and Muslims and Christian the dacoits.”

Religious resentment was pronounced in Golwalkar, who was suspicious of minorities. “They are born in this land, no doubt,” he wrote. “But are they true to its salt? Are they grateful...? Do they feel that they are the children of this land...Do they feel it a duty to serve her? No! Together with the change in faith, gone are the spirit of love and devotion for the nation.”

In essence, then, the Hindutva vision of the nation was perched on the twin notions of Hindu pride as well as an antagonism towards the ominous, disloyal “other” – nationalism, according to Golwalkar, was not “a mere bundle of political and economic rights”, it was a cultural idea in which some were included and some had necessarily to be left out.

But this predictably controversial Hindutva vision existed largely on the fringes of society. While the inclusive nationalism of Gandhi, Nehru and assorted political leaders came from direct experience of fighting for freedom, from a personal interaction with the people, Hindutva was constructed by thinkers who were not active participants in the struggle against imperialism and therefore could fabricate theories divorced from the lived experience and reality of the masses.

In actual fact, most Hindus hardly saw themselves as a fixed, united group who could transform that identity into a rock-solid sense of nationalism. Even the question of who exactly a Hindu was, in practical terms, remained frustratingly unresolved. In 1871, for example, a “committee of native gentlemen” defined as Hindu all those who believed in caste. But caste appeared among Muslims and Christians also. In the 1891 census, then, the Hindu was defined by exclusion, as “the large residuum that is not Sikh, or Jain, or Buddhist, or professedly Animistic, or included in one of the foreign religions, such as Islam, Mazdaism, Christianity, or Hebraism”.

Sir M Monier-Williams felt that the notion of a pan-Indian Hindu identity was “wholly arbitrary and confessedly unsatisfactory” for the simple reason that in practice, Hinduism was amorphous. Some, such as a census commissioner in princely Travancore, argued that Hindus were those who accepted the faith of the brahmins, which, however, ran into trouble when one considers the words of JW Massie, who as early as 1840 pointed out that to consider the brahmin as representative of all Hindus was as bewildering a statement as saying that the Italians represented all Europeans – there was too much diversity for simplistic statements to be true.

The Courtesan, The Mahatma & The Italian Brahmin

Excerpted with permission from the “Afterword” to The Courtesan, The Mahatma & The Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History, Manu S Pillai, with illustrations by Priya Kuriyan, Context.