Professor Tanika Sarkar, now retired, from the Centre of Historical Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University spoke on "Gandhi's nation" at the teach-in on nationalism on Thursday.

Explains Sarkar in the video above: “What I’ll do is to briefly contrast Gandhi’s national vision with a few alternative concepts. The contrast is useful to understand how Gandhi himself sometimes changed his ideas through open and honest debates with his adversaries. It also helps us to see more clearly the distinctiveness, as well as, sum up the problems in his own understanding.”

Focussing on two aspects of “Gandhi's perspective on the nation“, poverty and caste, she begins with the disclaimer that “...we exercise our critical and analytical faculties openly even when they problematise figures that we deeply respect ourselves, and I say what I say in that spirit.”

Sarkar touches upon Gandhi's secularism, his acknowledgement of his moral and spiritual debt to Christianity and Islam, and his belief that “Hindus must bear the primary responsibility for ensuring communal peace, for they have overwhelming numerical strength…”.

By way of contrast, she quotes VD Savarkar, the Hindutva ideologue who defined the nation as a continuous conflict against the Other. “Perpetual antagonism,“ he said, “creates and consolidates national identity and nothing unites a nation more than the presence of a common enemy.”

Expounding, Sarkar says, “The nation therefore needs an enemy – that’s the first condition. The anti-national is the first condition for the creation and consolidation of a nation according to Savarkar. His Indian nation was – he was admirably clear on this – unambiguously Hindu in its cultural essence and he said that the faith of all true Indians has to be born on Indian soil. So that immediately without his having to mention it separately, that excludes Muslims and Christians from entitlement to the nation.“

“Gandhi had two images to describe his ideal nation – very far from Savarkar’s insistence on perpetual antagonism," Sarkar holds. "His words trusteeship and Ram Rajya both admitted that there are inequalities among Indians, yet both suggested that love and mutual care is possible between those who have power and those who have none, but this hope was difficult to sustain at times, except at peak points of anti colonial upsurges, which drowned out all these differences for the time being and it is very important to see how he tried to come to terms with the intractable problems of social conflict and injustice. And we must give it to Gandhi that he always struggled with difficulties he never evaded them.“

On poverty Gandhi had a problematic position, believes Sarkar. While acknowledging the pervasiveness and centrality of it, he attributed it to a moral failing of the poor. “Machine-based production of an infinite number of objects breeds infinite greed which in turn creates poverty. While everyone shares this craze for modern and useless objects, the poor pay most dearly for it and their poverty is consolidated by their own unworthy aspirations.“

Sarkar points out that Savarkar acknowledged caste divisions, but then, using the metaphor of a family, said those differences do not matter. Gandhi, on the other hand, dwelt far more on the matter, As a devout Hindu he believed in the scripturally prescribed caste divisions, but denounced untouchability. While he was quite radical in his interactions with Dalits and untouchables, he never openly renounced caste systems.

Ambedkar, who opposed Gandhi's view of caste and called for its complete annihilation, also acknowledged that it was Gandhi who first brought the issue of untouchability to the forefront of national politics.

Towards the end of his life though, Gandhi's opinion on both these aspects changes, says Sarkar “He came to realise how class inequalities were mapped on to communal divisions. He also said that peasants have to struggle for justice for themselves, and landlords can help by fleeing. He said that trusteeship had failed and Ram Rajya was beyond realisation. He was big enough to admit the failure of his most cherished wishes,“ Sarkar says.

Where earlier he believed untouchability could be abolished through moral reasoning, “at the end of his life he agreed to accept a legal, constitutional prohibition of untouchability. Earlier he had never endorsed inter-varna marriages... now he advised upper caste girls to marry untouchable men..."

Sarkar concludes, “Most strikingly however I find his nation was capable of recognising its own contradictions and oppressions and feel guilty about them. This capacity for introspection, for recognising evil within itself, was the most important thing about Gandhi's nation. A nation that refuses to feel guilty about itself is a nation to fear deeply.“