Reimagining Indian nationalism
A discourse on “nationalism” is difficult primarily because a colonised nation’s political psyche tends to be dictated by the population’s desire for freedom and liberty. It is one common uniting factor which holds a promise – a pledge to throw away the yoke of colonisation, once Independence is achieved. India is no exception to that rule.
And, which is why Karl Marx got it so wrong when he thought that nationalism could trigger the much-needed class conflict and liberation of the working class. That did not happen in India. The founding fathers of the emergent Indian nation-state tried what Marx had feared, but failed.
Attempts at making India a nation was started by Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbai Patel, Abul Kalam Azad and a few others of their ilk. Nehru did not want the new country to be divided along linguistic lines. Vallabhai Patel could not tolerate a new India with princely states within its portals. Abul Kalam Azad wanted a curriculum for the young minds that could unify the country.
But they all failed. Nehru’s project of a new India that is “united in diversity” ignored the age-old lines of ethnicity and culture. He singularly failed in creating a narrative of economic egalitarianism that could transcend what the communists call “bourgeois-landlord” ruling class. Nehru and his political ancestor even failed to complete the bourgeois revolution of the country; forms of feudal culture continued to exist. Indian nationalism faltered at the altar of unenlightened self-interest and unreconstructed Congress Party right-wing.
The next effort at nation-building was undertaken by the “official” communist party of the day, founded either in 1920 or on 1925 (depending on whose calendar you follow) – though it was soon banned by the British. Members of the party were imbued with “nationalism” and came to communism via the route of the anarchist patriotic organisations of Bengal, the Punjab, and Maharashtra.
But they made two crucial mistakes in their endeavor to follow an internationalist line as opposed to more simplistic “nationalism”. The CPI agreed with Stalin on the aspect of Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1935 and then opposed the Quit India movement in 1942. In the first case, their rationale was based on blind faith in the direction of the Communist Party of Great Britain that had in its ranks Rajani Palme Dutt (a supporter of the Pact) and of course, Joseph Stalin.
On the Quit India movement of 1942, their logic was again not guided by the national interest of India but that of the Soviet Union, which was embroiled in the “Great Patriotic War” on the Eastern Front of Europe. Allied powers like Britain had to remain engaged on the Western Front to ease the pressure in the East, they argued.
However, the post-Independence period showed them fully engaged in peasants’ struggles, and working-class battles against the new “maharajas” of industry. Nehru’s government actually persecuted them. The biggest manifestation of that was the unseating of the first democratically elected government of the communist world – in Kerala, 1958 when EMS Namboothiripad was the Chief Minister – and Indira Gandhi was the Congress Party president.
With the passing of first generation leaders of the Independence movement, the wars against Pakistan became the leitmotif of “national endeavour”. Atal Behari Vajpayee’s description of Indira Gandhi as “Durga” showed that the RSS, whose adopted political outfit Jan Sangh, was seeking rehabilitation into the national mainstream.
They had to wait till the Congress Party “soft Hindutva” line played itself out by way of the unlocking of the Babri Masjid structure in 1987, which had a deity of the north Indian religious motif, Rama and Sita placed in it surreptitiously in 1948. The mosque had to be locked up on court orders.
This act of the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1987 was the trigger that RSS and what had by then become BJP, required to unpack their full tool-box of a virulent brand of nationalism. Prepared by the vilification of Pakistan – by its own follies and partly by Indian design – and as an extension, the Indian Muslims, the RSS-BJP and their various groups of religious thugs began their journey. And opportunity beckoned.
In 2014, for the first time, the BJP came to power on its own steam in New Delhi. The RSS parent of the BJP wishes to turn this strength into an opportunity of imposing their version of “nationalism”; simplifying it to “Hindutva”. Being conspiratorial by nature, and quintessentially undemocratic they cannot tolerate debates on those issues which they consider their own. The Ayodhya temple controversy is just one such issue.
The battle against Kanhaiya, Umar, Anirban, and their intellectual well-spring, the JNU is only the beginning of the whole exercise of social, political and cultural confrontation.
It can be called the prologue to a much wider canvas where issues of deprivation, dispossession, and disenfranchisement amongst the minorities and the marginal, is to be further ingrained into the Indian society, all in the name of Hindu majoritarianism. Being a “Hindu” then becomes the sole identity in an “us versus them” paradigm. This Indian “nationhood” is thus to be made distinctive through soft power of say, cricket victories over Pakistan celebrated in an obscene and raucous banner.
Hard “Hindutva” also has become evident. But there is much more to come. Meanwhile, one must read Benedict Anderson’s 1983 rendering “Imagined Communities” to know how subversive “nationalism” fails at the altar of predominant ideologies of the struggle for what Kanhaiya has so eloquently defined as “azadi”. As mentioned above, Marx’s mistake thus become evident as RSS’s brand of nationalism fails to subsume class/caste conflict and other fearless diversities of Bharat.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are strictly personal.)