Book review: On Nationalism
Three essays that remind those who strive for pluralism how difficult the task remains
This is not a book; it is an argument. Historian Romila Thapar, lawyer A.G. Noorani and cultural scholar Sadanand Menon are deeply troubled by the turn India is taking, and in this short book they issue a stark warning.
Since the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, a new assertive nationalism has grown, one which sees the expression of different opinions as a sign of treason and encourages its adherents to oppose the dissidents vehemently, mocking them to leave the country, questioning the patriotism of those who no longer feel safe in the country.
In his introduction to these essays, Aleph’s publisher David Davidar writes what has been on the minds of many: “Nationalism cannot be reduced merely to waving flags…or penalizing people for not shouting slogans like Bharat Mata ki Jai.” A multi-everything nation like India simply cannot have one unified view of its nationalism. The freedom fighters who moulded Indian nationalism appreciated the granularity and nuances of Indian identity, a composite whole created by centuries of intermingling and cultural exchanges. Jawaharlal Nehru saw it as an “ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely...erased what had been written previously”. Rabindranath Tagore called nationalism “evil” and criticized it in his novels Gora and Ghare Baire and in his essay, Nationalism. And even though Mohandas Gandhi could not embrace Tagorean universalism, he would still write in 1921: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” That showed healthy confidence in oneself and openness towards others. Today’s nationalists lack confidence in themselves and are retreating into a shrill, narrower identity, the book’s essayists argue.
The three essays celebrate that pre-2014 view of India, which was at least premised on civility towards all, respect for the dignity of the other, and a syncretic understanding of a common adventure, of being Indians. It was not elite-driven; it was consistent with Indian tradition.
As Thapar demonstrates brilliantly in her essay, the nationalism that the BJP and its Hindutva project personifies is drawn from the Westernized notion of what constitutes India, which essentializes India as a nation of different and irreconcilable religions (or languages). She systematically destroys Hindutva by showing its nativism to be the result of a colonial project. The real Macaulayites, then, are not the “pseudo-secular” liberals whom the pseudo-patriots decry, but Hindutva adherents themselves—who derive their world view, in reality, from the one constructed by the triumvirate of Mill-Macaulay-Müller (James Mill, who Thapar credits with originating the two-nation theory, Thomas Macaulay, who authored the infamous Minute, and Friedrich Max Müller, the German Orientalist who saw Aryan—and hence Hindu—civilization as supreme).
Thapar reminds readers, quoting the late Benedict Anderson from Imagined Communities: Reflections On The Origin And Spread Of Nationalism, how nationalism was constructed by people who thought of themselves as a community with common perceptions that united them. Creating exclusionary zones and separating groups wasn’t part of the nationalist project. She lays stress on the way history is caricatured by its focus on dynasties and conflicts, missing the plurality that the experiences of women, Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalized groups has brought, enriching the narrative, adding new layers to that palimpsest Nehru wrote about. “Why do we not ask Dalits and Adivasis what nationalism means to them?” she asks (the answer is blowing in the winds that rose out of Una).
In his lucid and fierce critique, Noorani shows how the law of sedition has no place in independent India. It’s based on the racist, colonial principle, under which “ignorant and excitable” masses couldn’t be trusted with freedoms. He notes that the incremental steps of the drafters of the Constitution and court judgements (as in Romesh Thapar v. the State of Madras, 1950) defended freedom of expression until the 1962 Kedar Nath Singh case, which upheld restrictions on freedom of expression. It remains on the statute books, undermining the Constitution’s liberal, democratic aspirations, and the state uses it (as it did in the case of the Jawaharlal Nehru University students union leader Kanhaiya Kumar earlier this year). In his coda, Noorani excoriates the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh over the Bharat Mata ki Jai controversy, showing the spurious basis of the slogan’s emergence as a litmus test of patriotism, creating a new national myth built around a militarized mother-goddess.
In the final essay, Menon actually shows that the early illustration of the so-called Bharat Mata came from a gentle Banga Mata that Abanindranath Tagore drew at the height of the movement against the division of Bengal. But that soft, radiant image got militarized later into an armed Durga or Kali, by way of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Anandamath. He highlights five aspects that reveal the pernicious effect of the new nationalism: its “engagement with the past, with politics, with issues of gender, with constructions of culture, and with its fascination with violence”. He astutely contrasts the hypocritical veneration of “Bharat Mata” in a society that has overlooked “the barbarity of the jawans of the Assam Rifles on (Thangjam) Manorama Devi, to incessant mass rapes by soldiers in Kashmir, to the graphic and horrific brutalities…in Gujarat in 2002....”
Martha Nussbaum’s prescient The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence And India’s Future comes to mind. Menon also points out the online misogyny of Hindutva adherents when they face strong, assertive women with whom they disagree, such as Teesta Setalvad, Kavita Krishnan, Arundhati Roy and Shehla Rashid.
Menon offers countless examples from art—the hounding of M.F. Husain being the most famous—and cinema, and recalls the murders of writers Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi, praising the writers and artists who returned state awards.
The three essays present a bleak view of India (the book’s cover is appropriately dark grey) and remind those who strive for pluralism how difficult the task remains. Early on in the book, Thapar cites Eric Hobsbawm, who compares the role of history to nationalism with that of the poppy to the heroin addict. Little wonder then that the flag-waving, slogan-shouting patriots assert—my country, right or wrong. As writer G.K. Chesterton remarked, that is a bit like saying, “My mother, drunk or sober.”
The good news is that one day sobriety will return.
Salil Tripathi is the author of three works of non-fiction. His first book, Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull Books, 2009), noted the rise of Hindu nationalism and its impact on freedom of expression.
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