Nationalism - 70 years after

  • Arunabha Bagchi

    April 20, 2016 | 12:15 AM
Nationalism - 70 years after

Our English language newspapers have been obsessed for months with the issue of ‘nationalism’ and the BMKJ (Bharat Mata ki Jai) test to prove it. The ‘Hindu’ twists to our nationalism and the BMKJ-test have been severely criticised by our political/social commentators across the board. The ideal of universalism has been praised, and both Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore liberally quoted. Even the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita were not spared. It all started with the suicide of the Dalit student, Rohith Vemula, on the campus of Hyderabad University and the arrest of the president of the JNU Students’ Union, Kanhaiya Kumar belonging to the OBC, on a ‘sedition’ charge. Both are premier institutions in India under direct control of the central government.

The ruling BJP was embarrassed with the sudden turn of events, particularly before the major elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh next year, and accused both these victims and their associates as ‘anti-national’. Then they cunningly came up with the simple BMKJ-test  to prove our nationalism  credentials. 

The storm of protest by our liberal intellectuals was only to be expected under these circumstances. Right from the moment the BJP came to power, the Sangh Parivar was testing the limits of tolerance of our countrymen for their intolerance, with their supporters lynching Muslims on suspicion of eating beef or trading in cows, along with a series of highly insulting insinuations against them. The initial reactions to the Vemula and Kanhaiya episodes also pointed to their callous attitude towards the marginalised Hindus in our country. Their silence over the killing of intellectuals for challenging superstition in our society also caused outrage. The English language press expressed disapproval of these and other tendentious actions of our present government and the Sangh Parivar in no uncertain terms. Their urban readers with the slightest sensitivity to human rights violations were uneasy with these developments. Election results in Delhi and Bihar showed that this dangerous strategy of the Sangh Parivar does not necessarily pay dividend.

This time, the tenor of most of the articles on the BJP&’s concept of ‘nationalism’ is, however, confusing to the urban readers. They are told that ‘Hindu’ as an ethno-religious concept is a late nineteenth century invention. But then so is the idea of the German nation, or that of Italy. We also learnt that nation-states are the direct consequence of the Industrial Revolution. It caused havoc in Europe, no doubt, but also propelled them and their American counterparts to unheard-of prosperity. Our rich and upper middle class parents leave no stone unturned for sending their children in droves to precisely those countries for even better life than they already enjoy in India. How could we convince the average urban middle class that this western idea of nationalism is bad for us? They would justifiably scoff at the Universalist pretension of those of us living abroad as a lame excuse for our fleeing India for greener pastures. Europeans immigrating to other parts of the world do not have any such pretensions.

When the Indian National Congress was formed by ‘Macaulay&’s children’, it was essentially a talking shop of Indian elites who did not want to serve permanently under their intellectually inferior British bosses. The Indian masses, living in far-flung villages, have always been oblivious to distant rulers and had no concept of nationhood. They roughly knew ‘Bharat’ as the vast area that connected all the places of pilgrimage, where the hugely diverse people seemed united in their devotion to the deity they visited. This was utilised by Bal Gangadhar Tilak to form a ‘Hindu’ unity of two conflicting movements Rs the Punjab-based Hindu revivalist Arya Samaj and the United Provinces-based conservative adherents of the Sanatan Dharma Rs to challenge the British Raj. Before this could become an all-India movement, Tilak was incarcerated and Mahatma Gandhi took over the control of the Congress Party.

Gandhiji also used religious appeal to instil a sense of Indian nationalism among all strata of the Hindu society in every village and town. Netaji explained best this miraculous achievement of Gandhiji: “When he (Gandhiji) talks to them about Swaraj, he does not dilate on the virtues of provincial autonomy or federation, he reminds them of the glories of Rama-rajya (the kingdom of King Rama of old) and they understand.” But Gandhiji went beyond this ‘Hindu’ unity by specifically including the Muslims and marginalised section of Hindus in the country to form a sort of universal ‘Indian nationalism’ by using the “syncretic and spiritual brand” of the Hindu religion. Gandhiji tried to appease those Muslims who had reservations about this Universalist approach by taking a leading role in the Khilafat movement started by leaders of Indian Muslims to force the British to maintain the Caliphate after the defeat of Turkey in the First World War. This camaraderie eventually fizzled out and became history after the partition of the country.

After Independence, the Congress maintained the conception of Gandhiji of India being a place for harmonious coexistence of various sects of Hinduism, along with Islam and Christianity, while introducing the Western concept of universalism based on secular individual identities. The experiment failed under the weight of its own contradiction. Even after seventy years of our Independence, the vast majority of the Muslims in our country remain segregated like the blacks in the United States, and the lot of Dalits has hardly improved. Meanwhile, the ‘Hindu’ unity that Tilak started continued in the background. Veer Savarkar provided the ideology behind this unity in his book Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? It was published in the early 1920s and characterised Hindus as the original inhabitants of the ‘land of the Aryans’. Thus it included all Hindu sects, along with Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Muslims and Christians were specifically excluded. Since his book was a reaction to the Pan-Islamic Khilafat movement, the real message was to forge an Indian national identity without the Muslims. This led to the birth of the RSS and the political wing Hindu Mahasabha. Gradually it extended to the student union (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), the labour union (Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh), Vishva Hindu Parishad and several other organisations that comprise the current Sangh Parivar.

Gandhiji was a unique phenomenon in history. He was an Indian holy man and an astute political leader wrapped in one. The Sangh Parivar is the mass movement based on this model at the group level. Hindu Babas have combined with political demagogues to give it an enormous appeal among the Hindus who are generally highly religious and steeped in superstition. Harking on Tagore, or quoting western ideas of ‘human rights’ and ‘free speech’ cannot counter their influence. They even accuse Tagore of writing our National Anthem as a eulogy to the British King George V when he visited India in 1911. Their clever move to propagate the BMKJ-test is perceived by the ordinary Hindus as harmless and logical. We are paying the price of the ideological bankruptcy of the Congress Party after Independence.

The only way to challenge the rise and rise of the Sangh Parivar is to devise an alternative ideology that appeals to the ordinary Hindus. Scholarly articles to establish the extreme divisiveness of our society would be of little help. Reinventing Ambedkar is not going to change the situation much. The hope of regional political groupings eclipsing the BJP in the next election would not provide a long-term solution either. These parties do not have any common ideology, and none of them have an all-India perspective. Their victory in 2019 would inevitably be a pyrrhic one. The BJP will remain the only national party and play the decisive role in our national destiny for a long time. Our intellectuals, who dread this Hindu monolith, must come up with inspiring thoughts to develop meaningful opposition to this one-party hold on our national polity.

The only way to challenge the rise and rise of the Sangh Parivar is to devise an alternative ideology that appeals to the ordinary Hindus.