The Broad Mind | Exploring some aspects of nationalism in India

By Divya Gangadar

Nationalism need not mean a sense of belonging to a nation alone, but also to make use of that sentiment to introspect, debate, discuss and engage pro actively with one’s nation.

There is a need to re-engage in the debates of identity formation and to redefine nationalism both of which are dynamic concerns for an explicitly diverse nation like India. Indian nationalism has passed through several stages of growth and development. One needs to understand that nation, state and identity have independent meanings. National identity is the expression of nationhood and nationalism is a result of the expression of national identity. There is another word that emerges in this light; i.e. patriotism. Excessive patriotism can result in nationalism. A nation emphasises the consciousness of unity due to psychological or spiritual feelings, whereas, state on the other hand, emphasises political unity and has tangible attributes such as population, territory, government and sovereignty. A nation may lack a feeling of oneness among its people and yet remain a state.

Was there a sense of pre colonial identity in India? Scholars such as Norman Brown and Sunil Khilani generally agreed that there was some sign of pre colonial identity that existed in India. Its most striking characteristic was its native culture. There was a culture consistency seen, where identity was to be viewed in spectacle and ceremony. The empires and kingdoms such as Mauryas, Guptas, and Cholas cannot be called nation-states; and that they are more characteristic of ethnic states owing to the fact they failed to break free of their aristocratic and priestly bases.

There was an inflow of varied perspectives on the concept of nationalism. Partha Chatterjee drew attention to the anti colonial nationalism as seen in Asian and African countries. Chatterjee differentiates between material and spiritual domain of nationalism. The material aspect meant the outer domain of the nation, where the West has proved its superiority and the East has tried to follow. The spiritual aspect meant the inner domain of a nation which is unique to the East. Rabindranath Tagore claimed that more than political freedom, spiritual emancipation of masses was required. This perception of nationalism has challenged the universalist views put forth by Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner who opined that nationalism was a product of industrialisation and more suited to the industrialised economies. To further refute this view, Edward Said stated that countries in the East could also become nations; that these nations are indeed justified for their cause of nationalism, being entities of nationhood themselves.

Considering that nationalism is an ardent form of love of one’s own kind; where there is dislike and hostility to outsiders, both Ashish Nandy and Amartya Sen highlight the drawbacks to nationalism. According to these scholars, if nationalism insisted on the primacy of a national identity over all other identities; or expects all identities to be subservient to the interests of the national state, it can be dangerous leading to war and terrorism.

Nationalism through the Ages

The colonial background was an important part of the processes that led to a particular way of conceiving Indian nation. There is no denying that British colonial rule in India came with certain gains along with repressive and liberty eroding practices. Historian, Irfan habib, has referred to this notion as a dual process of destruction and regeneration. The construction of railways, roads, telegraph, new modes of communication made people view India as a potential single political entity. The spread of ideas and knowledge from Europe, growth of an administrative class, rise of an English language press, rise of vernacular press, the unifying anti colonialist agenda and movements for social and religious reform and cultural renaissance laid the foundation for the formation of a separate entity of Indian nation. This is in contrast to the ‘destructive’ role that colonialism had simultaneously played in the sphere of economy and society of the colonial people. He also highlighted three complex processes enmeshed to bring about the emergence of India as a nation: the preceding notion of India as a country, the influx of modern political ideas, and the struggle against colonialism.

In a nutshell, the design of nationalism and becoming conscious of an Indian National Identity involved intrinsic factors running parallel with each other. On the one hand, there was a divide between colonial India and the imperial power, and on the other hand, there was a rising elite and mass divide. The Constituent Assembly debates and the arrival of the Indian Constitution provided a methodical way of comprehending the diverse considerations for nationalism.

Redefining Nationalism

Economic globalisation in India has no doubt, led to an increase in economic opportunities and entrepreneurial avenues and the ruling elite are made up of large business corporations. The fruits of this economic growth have not been distributed evenly among all sections of society, due to which the concept of Indian nation as a whole gets challenged. The Naxal agitation and the disparity witnessed in the North East regions of India are a few examples. Moreover, nationalism gets multi-layered and gives additional scope for sub nationalisms.

One could ponder upon the views of Suhas Palshikar who stated that the bias in favour of the industrial sector and the rhetoric of lop sided development paradigm need to be seen as a continuation of the role of the colonial state. Today, the state is no longer the sole player in the affairs of a nation. The non-state actors like the Non Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) Multi National Corporations (MNC’s) social activists and the like also constitute as stakeholders and decision makers. They are significant in number and voice their opinion in public policy matters; ultimately moulding the nation. The central inquiry of nationalism that Indians need to ask on their sixty sixth year of Independence is no longer on how to attain freedom from British rule. Nationalism need not mean a sense of belonging to a nation alone, but also to make use of that sentiment to introspect, debate, discuss and engage pro actively with one’s nation.

Divya Gangadar is completing her internship at the Takshashila Institution. 

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.