Indian Nationalism: The Memories Of History – Part I

Indian Nationalism: The Memories Of History – Part I Indian thinker, statesman and nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi (centre) with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (left) and Vallabhai Patel (right). (Keystone/Getty Images)
  • Introducing the first in a five-part series of essays on Indian nationalism.

    First up, an exploration of fundamental terms like nation, state, patriotism and nationalism – which have come to occupy a central place in Indian politics today – through the prism of nationalist and Nehruvian/Marxist politics.

Why has nationalism become such an important topic in the Indian political theatre? Why does it arouse so much passion? Is it just a political slogan whose shelf life is limited to the next election? How is Indian nationalism related to the ‘idea of India’? Is patriotism the same as nationalism? Is Indian nationalism the same as Hindu nationalism? Why does the concept of ‘Bharat Mata’ continue to capture the national imagination? Why is nationalism an anathema to some of our intellectuals? In fact, what is nationalism?

Answering these questions is not merely an academic exercise but lies at the core of the Indian identity. These answers hold the clue to what India was and what India wants to be. They define India’s relationship with the world and with its citizens. They define what it means to be an Indian citizen and describe the relationship of an Indian citizen with the Indian state and the Indian civilisation.


Before we proceed, let us define a few terms that have caused a lot of confusion. There is a difference between a state and a nation. A state (‘state’ and ‘country’ are synonyms) is defined as a territorial unit with a system of government and administration. The state has an exclusive right to use of violence to protect its territorial sovereignty and maintain peace within its boundaries. The symbols of the state are its flag, emblem, currency notes, parliament, police, courts and many others. The state is sovereign because it is not subject to another power, and has the supreme authority to administer the area under its control. Loyalty to the state is called patriotism, and a person loyal to the state is called a patriot.

However, a nation is not easy to define. It is an abstract concept; its essence is intangible. Scholars have defined a nation as a “group of people possessing in common a rich legacy of remembrances…to have accomplished great things together, to wish to do so again”, “a community of sentiment”, “a psychological bond that joins people”, “a shared solidarity”, “an imagined community” and so on. The manifestation of a nation is subtle. It works in the realm of values, customs, traditions, behaviour and belief systems of the people. There is an inherent conservatism in a nation because it relies on the past and on the wisdom and achievement of its ancestors. Loyalty to the nation is called nationalism, and the person loyal to a nation is called a nationalist.

A nation may have different states – Britain and New Zealand – joined together with the same values and traditions but yet separated. The state may also have a different nation – China and Tibet – with two sets of people living under the same state but having entirely different cultures and histories. Some countries like these are called a nation-state, like Japan, where people are united by a common history or rather a common interpretation of history, and living together under the Japanese state.

Appropriation of Memories

The definition of a nation requires a certain interpretation of the terms “rich legacy of remembrance” or “community of sentiments”. The terms “remembrance” or “solidarity” are associated with memory, meaning recalling something from the past. The stuff of this memory is created from the playground of history. The history is the past; what can be recalled are the memories of history. Once the memories of history can be appropriated to a certain ideological framework, then everything from nation, nationalism, state and civilisation can be appropriated to that same ideology. Accordingly, the past can be remade, and the future built. This is the arena where the titanic struggle is being played out in India.

Now there are two sides arrayed in this ideological struggle – the nationalists on the one hand and Nehruvians and Marxists (we will explain in Part II why they have been clubbed together) on the other. The Indian nationalist claims that there is a certain common memory of India derived from the deepest sources of Indian traditions, culture, literature and philosophies which supersede any regional or community-based memories of the people. Even the regional or tribal memory is intimately connected with the common memory. This common memory makes India a nation.

The Nehruvians and Marxists assert that there is no such common memory, and that every community and region have different memories. Even if there is a common memory, it has to do with Hinduism and, therefore, not worthy of being called ‘common’. The Marxist calls this common memory communal and reactionary.

So here is the difference at a basic level – when a nationalist says he is Indian, he is not only identifying with the Indian people and their present culture but with the Indian people and their activities throughout history. However, when Nehruvians and Marxists say they are Indians, they identify with the citizen of the Indian state that came into existence in 1947. According to Marxists, people hopelessly divided by caste and class could not possibly have a collective historical identity.

Marxists and Nehruvians claim that India was never a nation. Instead, it is a union of different nationalities, brought together by an accident of history – the conquest of India by the British. They claim that rather than our common civilisational heritage, it is our common problems that unite us – the problems of economic inequality, caste and communalism.

The Nehruvian wants the Indian citizen’s allegiance to the Indian state, not to the Indian nation. The very idea of Indian nationalism is moot. Since India is a union of different nationalities, then Indian nationalism, by definition, would take the forms of religious, regional, linguistic and sectarian categories, popularly called Hindu nationalism, Muslim nationalism, Tamil nationalism, cultural nationalism and so on. What the Nehruvian state wants from us is patriotism to the state – follow the laws of the state, pay your taxes, perform the civic duties as a citizen of the state. Any talk of nationalism is reactionary.

Indian nationalism is an ideological challenge to Nehruvians and Marxists. The workers of the world form one nation; therefore, the solidarity of the Indian working class should be with the working class of other nations rather than the bourgeoisie of his country. The idea of India based on a certain unified civilisation is an anathema to Marxists because their conceptual apparatus is not trained to think in terms of civilisational terms. Nationalism has been variously described by Marxist thinkers as a “metaphysical cliché”, “false consciousness”, “invented tradition” and so on. “The theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s greatest historical failure”, declared Tim Nairn, one of the leading Marxist scholars on nationalism.

In Part II, we trace the evolution of the Nehruvian ideology in shaping the modern Indian state, and the role of Marxists in it.


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