Deconstructing India’s Colonial History Is key To Settling The Debate On Nationalism

Abhinav Prakash Singh

Aug 02, 2017, 11:47 AM | Updated 11:45 AM IST

Mohandas Gandhi, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Bhim Rao Ambedkar
Mohandas Gandhi, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Bhim Rao Ambedkar
  • The reconciliation of the competing versions of Indian nationalism is only possible when we deconstruct the colonial description of India and reconstruct it with a clear-eyed objectivity.
  • A recent suggestion by the vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to install a tank in the campus to remind the students about the sacrifices of our soldiers and to inspire nationalism has once again sparked the debate on nationalism in India. The debate on nationalism has been a recurring phenomenon since Independence, and the reason is that the nation and the nationalism debates are not yet settled in the country.

    Contrary to the popular perception, nationalism still is an ambiguous amalgamation of different ideas. This is because even during the freedom struggle there were several competing ideas and visions about nationalism. The intellectual renaissance in the nineteenth CE colonial India was neither linear nor homogeneous as we have come to believe due to the official propaganda in the Congress led post-Independent India. But the Congress and Mohandas Gandhi’s vision was not the only vision, which was popular. In fact, it was forcefully contested by the two formidable constructs; Hindutva and Ambedkarite.

    The Gandhi-Congress version of India was that of a composite culture, which was essentially rooted in the high-culture of the Urdu-speaking aristocratic elites of the Gangetic plains. It argued for diversity and secularism as the essence of India, which again basically meant giving parity to the Muslim minority with majority Hindus. The other one was that of the Hindutva. The last two centuries saw the culmination of a long drawn process of coming together of various strands/sects of dharma under a common unified identity – Hinduism.

    This is not to say that ‘Hinduism’ was non-existent before the colonial period but that Indian pagan traditions reaffirmed their ‘unity in diversity’ in the face of challenges from the Abrahamic expansionism in both of its versions of Islam and Christianity. And out of this socio-religious process was born the political construct of Hindutva. Hindutva was the political response of the Hindu society to the political Islam and the Western imperialism. It also attempted to answer the uniquely modern question of whether India is a nation or not? In this worldview, imperialism was not limited to the Western colonialism but extended to include the Islamic imperialism of the medieaval era as well.

    But apart from these two, there was a third vision as well which emerged as the articulation of the worldview and aspirations of the subaltern castes. This Ambedkarite view deconstructed the Indian society and received wisdom to argue for modernity. It rejected the claim of India being a nation and argued that India has to become a nation which can only be done by confronting the entrenched social hierarchies and associated discrimination and violence.

    The Congress in its earlier phase was limited to the educated upper-caste gentry of the urban centres. It was the arrival of Gandhi on the political scene which transformed the character of the party by mobilising the peasantry in favour of the freedom struggle. And even though, after the Poona Pact, Gandhi raised the issue of Dalit castes but that was largely confined to the issue of menial work in the cities. He especially argued against untouchability and pleaded for treating Dalits with respect. It was more of an appeal to the morality of the non-Dalits. But neither he nor the Congress ever took up the issue of economic relation between Dalits and non-Dalits like the issue of landless labourers, who continue to be predominantly Dalits. Doing so would have meant destabilising the fundamental power structures in the countryside and had the potential to jeopardise the Congress-led freedom struggle by antagonising the peasantry, both upper castes and other backward classes (OBCs). This had a significant impact on the policies adopted by the Congress after Independence like instead of land reforms, what we had was tenancy reforms. The tillers of the land, the agrarian labours never got the land.

    Hindu nationalism also suffered from the same limitations. Most Hindu nationalist groups defended the caste system as being integral to Hinduism though they too called for an end to its extreme forms like untouchability. There were notable exceptions like those rooted in the Arya Samaj tradition, who genuinely tried to break the caste barriers by incorporating Dalits and lower Shudras into Hindu rituals. This section was also the most vocal advocate of social reforms within the Hindu society and this was their major difference with the Congress, which argued that social reforms must wait for political Independence. But for most Hindu nationalists, the nationalism was derived from the desire to liberate the ‘Hindu nation’ from the foreign subjugation and reclaim the pre-eminent position of the ‘sacred motherland’ in the world.

    Both the Congress construct of nationalism and the Hindu nationalism were different from each other but shared an interesting similarity. The language they used, the symbolism they deployed were deeply rooted in the upper caste cultural milieu. This was the natural result of the social base of the leadership of both the formations, which was derived from the urban liberal upper castes in the case of Congress and more orthodox and traditionalist sections of the upper castes in the case of Hindu nationalism. Therefore, they both were not fully reflective of the plurality and complexities of the constituencies they claimed to represent. This meant that their ideology found it difficult to percolate to the grass-root as the masses found it difficult to connect to the language deployed by these nationalist discourses.

    The Ambedkarite construct of nationalism starts with the most important contradiction of the Indian society. It argued that it is the presence of caste itself which has prevented the growth of nationalism in India as people’s loyalty and concerns are limited by their caste concerns. Caste doesn’t allow free intercourse of the different sections of the society and emergence of the shared experience which is fundamental to the formation of a nation. So it this worldview that says castes are ‘anti-national’. Thus, destruction of the castes is pre-condition for the emergence of an Indian nation. Until this condition is met any assertion of nationalism is a fraudulent exercise in ‘nationalism without a nation’. This vision argued for a modern India of equal citizens and modern economic structures. Unlike the popular perception, Ambedkarite view doesn’t argue for a total break from the Indian history but builds upon mainly the non-Hindu past like the Buddhist or other nastika traditions, or on the subaltern traditions within the Hindu fold like bhakti traditions.

    What happened after Independence was that the Gandhi-Congress version of nationalism was the default official version and was propagated by the state institutions and universities. The challengers were not defeated but brushed aside from the state-controlled public spaces. But they survived and continued to expand albeit at a slower pace using the more grass-root route of propagation like pamphlets, small localised publications and political mobilisations. And they have been frequently at open contestation with each other.

    If once the Congress version enjoyed an advantageous position due to its advocates monopolising the political power, now Hindu nationalism has acquired that position. Ambedkarite view envisions itself in opposition to both of them and got a major boost after the 70s due to Kanshiram-led movement in Uttar Pradesh or more radical Dalit movements in Maharashtra.

    But they all suffer from a fundamental flaw. Indian response to Western Indologists and administrators characterising India as an ‘other-worldly, timeless, caste-ridden, spiritual society’, falls under two categories: one agreed with the description and argued for total break from the past to overcome this ‘shameful backwardness’. The other response also agreed with this description but argued that there is nothing wrong in it and that India must preserve this unique and superior characteristic. None of them questioned this colonial characterisation of India itself. Is India really the timeless, pacifist country lost in deep meditation of other-worldly affairs? Failure to ask this question and construct a counter view meant that the various articulations of nationalism in opposition to the colonial rule suffered from the same fundamental flaw. They either imagined a golden age, where these colonial stereotypes manifested themselves in their ‘pure form’ or imagined India as an eternally oppressive society, which has no hope of reformation and must be completely replaced by a new construct.

    And these two responses lie at the base of the competing versions of nationalism in India, depending upon from which side they derive their view of India. The reconciliation of these competing versions to settle the nationalism debate is only possible when we deconstruct the colonial description of India and reconstruct the history of India with clear eyed objectivity.

    Abhinav Prakash Singh is an Assistant Professor at the University of Delhi.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.