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In India, a counterproductive discourse of nationalism

The founding principles of the Hindu religion are against the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. The kind of nationalism it speaks for is the assertion of brahmanical hegemony. Political Hindutva cannot bring prosperity unless it recognizes and addresses the fundamental problems in Hinduism itself, writes Aniket Gautam

Nationalism is derived from the term ‘nation’. It conveys a sense of commonality among people living in an area – common culture, shared history, common language, common ethnicity – along with a love for this togetherness. In the Indian context, nationalism emerged with the Independence movement. The Bengali educated elite, inspired by the Western concept of nationalism and nation-state, contributed largely to this sphere.

Nationalism in the West had emerged with the decline of the feudal system. The decline of the feudal social structure paved the way for modernity discourse, scientific advancement and industrial revolution. Therefore in the West, nationalism arose with the establishment of a modern nation-state. Nationalism in the West has to be understood in the context of a rising capitalist economy. Modernity interlinked with enlightenment were the precursor to a capitalist mode of production. Immanuel Kant in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” wrote, “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’ – that is the motto of enlightenment.”

During the nationalist discourse in colonial India, Rabindranath Tagore posed a sharp critique of the Indian variant of nationalism. For him, those who had adopted the Western idea of nationalism were highly self-interested and sought only political independence. Like C.B. Macpherson, he defined Western nationalism as possessive individualism. For him, India’s real problem lay in the social realm, not the political realm. Nationalism of the West, for Tagore, was individualistic, self-interested and centered on material gains and morality had no role. The social and political elites of colonial India were imitating it. Tagore was a proponent of moral and spiritual values which were inherited in the heterogeneous society of India. The Western notion of nationalism focused on uniformity and homogeneity, which were inapplicable to Indian society. Tagore called it a menace and a disease to practise nationalism merely for the political and material gains. He said that “nationalism is a cruel epidemic of evil that is sweeping over the human world of the present age”. He called it the “worst form of bondage”. Since he had this cosmopolitan vision, his alternative rested in the true realization of freedom at the individual and community level.

Benedict Anderson, in his book “Imagined Communities”, argues that the Western nationalism rose to prominence because of print capitalism (the business of printing) whose emphasis was on establishing the dominant majoritarian culture. By an “imagined community”, Anderson was referring to an identity that is collectively imagined in a nation-state – that is, nationalism – without actually getting to know each other. Partha Chatterjee ended up writing his essay “Whose imagined communities?” In this essay, he asked whether the imagination of the anti-colonial movements was colonized. He defined nationalist movements in the colonies as “derivative discourse” – derived from the European conception of nation-state and nationalism.

A demonstration of Hindu nationalists

Today, Savarkar’s conception of nationalism has been revived as the dominant discourse. His Hindu nationalism recognizes only Indic religions that, according to him, were ultimately born of the larger Hindu ideal. Savarkar’s ideal has no space for religions that originated outside the Indian subcontinent. This implies that religious identities play an essential role in formation of the homogeneous nation-state. For Savarkar, only those who considered India as their “pitribhumi” (ancestral land) and punyabhumi (holy land) were its patriotic citizens, while adherents of Christianity and Islam were not because they had their moral obligations to places outside India. The oppression of religious minorities is part of Savarkar’s ideal of Hindutva. It is highly majoritarian and culture-specific and allows no space for social mobility and urges militant nationalism.

Paul Brass viewed nationalism as the tool of the ruling class to maintain legitimate rule. Ethnic and religious identities could be manipulated and created whenever needed by the ruling elites. This is the instrumentalist view of nationalism. The majoritarian nationalist discourse in India today encompasses celebration of myths and a shared history. Nationalism does not only work as an instrument, wrote Eric Hobsbawm, it also acts as an “invented tradition”. Apart from the prevalent identities, new identities are invented by the ruling establishment to sustain the status quo. Shared traditions are invented to create the largest possible unity. Hobsbawm stated that nationalism is a result of social engineering.

This instrumentalist view of State-led nationalism is more relatable than other definitions in the context of the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party. There have been efforts to make the largest possible unity of the “Hindus”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to Muslims as infiltrators in a recent speech. He also warned Hindus that their wealth would be distributed among Muslims if Congress came to power.

The Indian state does not give primacy to any particular religion nor does it ask to propagate a particular religion. Officially, it is secular. The Indian variant of secularism is different from the West as it intervenes to remove social inequalities and constraints. India is not a nation-state because it fosters different nationalities. There exist multiple nations in India. Therefore it is hard to imagine one unified identity. Establishing a particular unified identity would thus be social engineering. Cultural hegemony is integral to this social engineering. The state, through its powerful civil society, helps in developing an artificial culture and distorted history. The mainstream media, newspapers, and the educated elite are part of it. Citizens unknowingly become “one dimensional” and start thinking in ways the state dictates. Dominant culture becomes their own culture. Interpretations and symbolism of certain historical accounts remain populist. It becomes high culture to follow the dominant and majoritarian culture. Even the imagination and ideas become hegemonized. The threat of this cultural homogenization was foreseen by Dr B.R. Ambedkar, who said, “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country … Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.”[1] He was concerned about the possible scenarios in a newly born democracy. Democracies have a tendency to favour the majority and tilt towards totalitarianism. For any democracy to perform well, the principle of liberty, equality and fraternity becomes essential.

The problem with the political Hindutva lies in its philosophy. Dr Ambedkar says, “In the Hindu religion, none can have freedom of speech. Everyone who lives in Hindu religion must surrender his freedom of speech. He must act according to the Vedas. If the Vedas do not support the actions, instructions must be sought from the Smritis, and if the Smritis fail to provide any instructions, he must follow the footsteps of great men. In Hinduism, conscience, reason, thoughts have neither any importance nor any scope. A Hindu must necessarily be a slave of either the Vedas or the Smritis or must imitate the great men. He is not supposed to use his reasoning. Hence, so long as you are a part of the Hindu religion, you cannot expect to have freedom of thought.”[2] A graded social hierarchy and inequality will not be questioned.

Given such a situation, is it important for India to have a certain kind of nationalism adopted and propagated? Or is it counterproductive?

Since we live in a heterogeneous society where caste plays the dominant role, the nation can only exist as an idea; its practicality will be questioned or it will lead to questionable outcomes. For Ambedkar, the formation of the Indian Republic was merely the achievement of a political objective; we had to address the social inequalities to prosper in moral and spiritual terms. He understood the core theme of Buddhism to be enlightenment. Being nationalist, for him, meant to be enlightened. This is the bare minimum in the larger paradigm that many nations of India can aspire to.

Nationalism is more than an ideological, psychological concept; it actually leads to ideological, psychological enslavement. It advocates for the unequal concentration of wealth and resources. A rigid caste consciousness always comes in the way of a consciousness of unified political Hindutva. Dr Ambedkar writes, “There is an utter lack among the Hindus of what the sociologists call ‘consciousness of kind’ [the ability to recognize another conscious being as being like oneself]. There is no Hindu consciousness of kind. In every Hindu the consciousness that exists is the consciousness of his caste. That is the reason why the Hindus cannot be said to form a society or a nation.”[3]

Caste consciousness among the citizens is so deep-rooted that even when they are deploying their collective national interests, they end up serving their caste-specific interests. Political Hindutva and caste consciousness cannot coexist. What is known as unified Hindutva is a brahmanical agenda. This has been propagated among the subalterns to avoid the question of annihilation of caste. To avoid demand for reservations, which is a consequence of caste, what the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) does is promote a consciousness of political Hindutva. When Rohith Vemula died, the state tried to erase his caste identity. It didn’t talk about institutional murder. Being caste blind will not let political Hindutva attain unification. One’s assertion of a Hindu identity is the validation of a caste hierarchy. Realization of being Hindu is the realization of one’s caste. Dr Ambedkar in one of his earliest encounters with Mr Gandhi said, “I have no homeland” and later on he publicly announced at the Yeola conference that even though he was born Hindu would not die a Hindu. The Savarnas don’t care about the Dalits who die in the drains and septic tanks. The majoritarian nationalism of the last few years was reflected in the complete negligence of the issues of social justice and democratic values. This sort of patriotism is limited to particular identities.

Ambedkar said, “India is a peculiar country and her nationalists and patriots are a peculiar people. A patriot and a nationalist in India is one who sees with open eyes his fellow men treated as being less than man. But his humanity does not rise in protest. He knows that men and women for no cause are denied their human rights. But it does not prick his civil sense to helpful action. He finds a whole class of people shut out from public employment. But it does not rouse his sense of justice and fair play. Hundreds of evil practices that injure man and society are perceived by him. But they do not sicken him with disgust. The patriot’s one cry is power and more power for him and his class. I am glad I do not belong to that class of patriots. I belong to that class which takes its stand on democracy and which seeks to destroy monopoly in every shape and form. Our aim is to realize in practice our ideal of ‘one man, one value’ in all walks of life – political, economic and social.”[4]

In conclusion, the majoritarian nationalism of political Hindutva doesn’t address social issues. Values of multiculturalism, recognition of group-specific identities, cultural assimilation and pluralism are alien to the Hindutva identity. The founding principles of the Hindu religion are against the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. The kind of nationalism it speaks for is the assertion of brahmanical hegemony. Political Hindutva cannot bring prosperity unless it recognizes and addresses the fundamental problems in Hinduism itself.

[1] B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Pakistan or The Partition of India’, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Volume 8, p 358

[2] B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Have you any freedom in Hindu religion?’, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Volume 17, p 128

[3] B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Annihilation of Caste’, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Volume 1, p 50

[4] B.R. Ambedkar, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Volume 2, p 598


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About The Author

Aniket Gautam

Aniket Gautam is a student of Political Science in Zakir Husain Delhi College, Delhi University

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