Origins of Indian Nationalism(s)
A Reproduction of the Colonial Narrative
When Nietzsche said that “god is dead” (Nietzsche, 1882), he was popularly misinterpreted as an existential nihilist who was triumphantly proclaiming the death of religion in the age of scientific temperament and reason. However, a closer reading of his work would point out how he was talking about the crisis of faith that dawned on man after the scientific revolution. Religion has always attempted to answer heavy existential questions, but after the scientific revolution the responsibility of answering those questions fell upon science and reason (enlightenment) which clearly it was ill equipped to do- in the process creating a faith vacuum. This space was later filled up by forces of nationalism, as the tendency towards messianizing the idea of the nation intensified. This led to attempts at supplementing a religious sentiment to nationalism, which is very evident in the national histories throughout the 20th and 21st century.
The logic of democracy and nationalism might seem antithetical to each other, as the foundations of democracy is based on the quality of inclusiveness, whereas nationalism is characterized by exclusivity. However both democracy and nationalism have coexisted from the early days of nationhood. It is the interplay between the two forces of democracy and nationalism that characterize modern liberal democracy. It is this inclusive nature of democracy that creates a common space for the coexistence of the heterogeneous populace. However, in recent times we can see how democracy is subsumed by nationalism all over the world and especially in India, a point made by Tanzeem Ahmed in his piece on Asiaville (A State in Crisis: Nationalism against Democracy, dated 22/12/2019).
Widespread protest has erupted all over the country following the passage of Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB, now CAA) which is an amendment of the Citizenship Act of 1955. The act has redefined citizenship for individuals from Non-Muslim persecuted minorities who fled from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan before December 2014. India’s Home Minister Amit Shah has stressed on the understanding of chronology in which the events are supposed to unfold. According to him, CAA will be followed by implementation of nationwide National Population Register (NPR) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), which in its collective sense has been said to be a systematic design allegedly towards an ethnic cleansing scheme. This act benefits Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, and Christian refugees, and excludes Muslim refugees. There are different reactions across India to CAA. Protests had erupted across Assam and different parts of northeastern states when the bill was presented in the parliament, and after its passage the Anti-CAA movement has now spread into a pan-India movement. The protesters in Assam do not want citizenship to be granted to any refugees irrespective of their religion as the region has experienced demographic imbalances in the past due to migration which resulted in the loss of political space, culture and land. This Act also goes against the Assam Accord (1985) which was a prior agreement made with the Central government on migration and refugees from Bangladesh. In other parts of India, CAA is seen as a violation of the basic structure of the constitution, as the CAA discriminates on the basis of religious identity, which is the violation of Article 14 of the Constitution and attacks the secular foundation on which the nation was established. Protests against this act can be seen all over the nation as the government has had to come down with a heavy hand in dealing with the protesters, resulting in more deaths and injuries in a couple of weeks than months of protest in Hong Kong.
Nationalism is a strong force that defines the national narrative and culture of a nation. In the present scenario the understanding of nationalism has become highly polarized. There are two forms of nationalism that characterize the national culture that we see today. Firstly, the ‘Secular nationalism’ and secondly, the ‘Hindu nationalism’ are the two emerging forms of nationalism that can be seen to take over the political landscape of India. These two categorizations have also been explicated by Tanay Choudhury in his piece at Asiaville (Preserving Democracy: Ethno-Nationalism and Pan-Indian Nationalism, dated 01/01/2020). The purpose of this piece is to go beyond the current occurrences and glance back into history to provide a postcolonial narrative and understanding to the unfolding events. As such, to understand this phenomenon it is important to talk about the current discourses of nationalism(s) in India and its origins.
The idea of nationalism in India is relatively modern which can be traced back to India’s encounter with colonial rule. The roots of Indian secular nationalism reside in the anti-colonial resistance where nationalism established a common space to accommodate the heterogeneous nature of India’s anti-colonial resistance. Nationalism was understood as a secularizing force that brought together people of different faiths against colonial domination. It was through this anti-colonial resistance that the heterogeneous populace was united to fight against colonial domination, and in the process establishing a nation that is united on the grounds of secularism and the principles of which has been enshrined in the Preamble and the Constitution of India.
The historical evolution of Indian nationalism was primarily inclusive in nature which was based on the unification of different groups of people to form a community of citizen. However there are other ideologies that claimed to be Indian nationalism but were based on the collective identity of a particular religion, language and ethnicity. This form of nationalism discarded the heterogeneous nature of nationalism and subscribes to a homogenous national culture. Like secular nationalism, Hindu nationalism also had its roots in the colonial encounter.
During the British Raj in the early 18th century, the English took upon itself to conduct an ethnographic study of India as a way to understand her colonial subjects, which would in turn aid them in governance. The British understood that India was not a homogenous entity but a collection of complex heterogeneous identities. The colonial representation of the colonial subjects thus, actively sought to essentialize the differences that the colonialist thought characterized a particular group. In the process, the English misunderstood the complexities of the colonial society and presented an oversimplified view of Indian society. Subsequently, the colonial ethnographers understood caste and religion to be the key factors in understanding Indian society, so it was natural for them to classify and highlight these associations. Based on such broad generalizations, the British then objectified Indian society and codified the differences in the census; and due to the official nature of the census the categorization became essentialized and permanent. This classification made by the colonial ethnographers not only informed the colonial authority but also proved to be influential in shaping how the colonized perceived themselves.
In 1817, James Mill published “The History of British India”, which was very influential in the field of Indology. Mill classified Indian history into 3 stages: the Hindu rule under Gupta Empire, the Muslim rule under Mughal dynasty and finally, the British rule (Mill, 1817). This periodisation of Indian history based on the religion of rulers is highly problematic in today’s times. Mill generalizes the majority religion as the predominant culture missing out on the diversity of the narratives and thereby constructing a limited understanding of Indian history. Given Mill’s utilitarian intellectual background, it is not surprising that his understanding of Indian identity is static and unchanging as it is limited to religious and caste denominators, and overlooks the complexities of a heterogeneous Indian society. More over colonial historiography was the reproduction of dominant popular narrative and vastly overlooks the subaltern cultures that existed in Indian societies. This highlights the inability to comprehend the complexity of the heterogeneous cultures and in turn producing a limited history of Indian society. The colonizers perceived pre-colonial historical writing in India as lacking rational thought and historical consciousness, and thus presented a history that was considered rational and coherent. This classification not only informed the colonizers about their subjects, but was also instrumental in influencing how colonial subjects themselves perceived this historical narrative and identified with it.
On a similar front, Vincent Smith, a colonial historicist and a prominent Indologist, in his book “The Early History of India”, recognizes the Gupta empire as ‘the Golden Age of Indian History’ (Smith, 1908), which coupled with Henry Olcott’s assertion that the Aryans were indigenous to India, gave deep context to a group of emerging hinduva scholars who attempted to rewrite history and reclaim the Hindu Past as the Golden age of Hinduism. This reconstruction of the Gupta Empire as the Glorious Hindu past was instrumental in creating a historical consciousness which also served the basis to understand Indian past. However this alienated the Muslims, which equated Mughal rule as a tyrannical invasion which was characterized by misery and backwardness, thereby considering Muslims as outsiders. This line of thought was sustained and reproduced in the nationalist narrative of Hindutva anti-colonial resistance and created a historical consciousness that planted the seeds of Hindu-Musilm divide. Dayanand Sartaswati founded the Arya Samaj in 1875, which attempted to transform the colonial historiography into a nationalist consciousness, describing the Aryans as the original inhabitants of India and designating Mughal rule as the destroyer of the glorious Hindu tradition. In the early 20th century, members of Arya Samaj argued for the reorganization of Hindu Unity; and later in post-colonial India’s Sangh Parivar adopted and reproduced the notion of Aryan greatness and uncritical admiration of the Hindu past which was seen as a period of prosperity, progress and social unity. In his seminal work “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu”, Vinay Damodar Savarkar, a former anti-colonial revolutionary, talks about Hindu Unity as a mechanism of Nationalist integration, and considers Islamic and Christian traditions as illegitimate and foreign (Savarkar, 1928). Savarkar’s work continues to influence contemporary Hindu Nationalism and how India as a nation is imagined today.
By and large, in coming back to the ongoing crisis of the Indian state, the severity of the Anti-CAA protests and implementation of NRC cannot be understood in isolation, but it has to be understood in relation to the trajectory of events that have historically followed. The BJP-led imagination of India by way of ‘Hindu Nationalism’ cannot be said to be the essence of Indian nationalism as it is based on a narrow vision of India, bereft of its secular credentials that history has sanctified it with.
The removal of Article 370 and 35A followed by the lockdown in Kashmir since August 2019; the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and the construction of Ram Mandir in 2019; renaming Islamic names of towns to Hindu names; the passing of the CAA and the ensuing policies of NPR and NRC – all of this is an attempt to construct a homogenized nation scarifying its pluralist and secular roots. The forces of Hindu Nationalism have weakened the pillars of democracy but on the other hand the spirit of Secular Nationalism which is reflected by Anti-CAA and Anti-NRC protests has been successful in keeping democracy and the spirit of Indian diversity alive. Nationalism in its secular form that attempts at creating a coherent idea of a nation while at the same time generating an inclusive space for the accommodation of heterogeneous identities of the nation is what India has historically stood for, what has been compatible to its peoples and also what has been largely desirable by most people across history.
The author is a faculty member at the Shyambazar Law College, Kolkata.