To a certain class of enlightened Indian intellectuals, nationalism is, at best, an obsolete and irrelevant concept; at worst, a dangerous one. Having generously labelled themselves “liberal”, they find that liberalism, resting on an uncompromising assertion of the individual’s rights and liberties, sooner or later clashes with the notion of a collective entity such as a nation. That notion fares even worse when confronted with postmodernism, which “deconstructs” its very legitimacy. Communism and Islam, both of which share in their original form a world-conquering ideology, promoted transnational allegiances, respectively to the Soviet Union and/or China and to the Ummah (it is something of an irony that our desi Communists call themselves “liberal” too, when historically Communism has been radically opposed to any form of liberalism — that is one of the many paradoxes of Indian politics).
In India, however, the greatest opponent of nationalism has been our fuzzy, confused and infinitely elastic notion of secularism (“The Great Secular Confusion”, 19 March; “Bogeyman of Majority in India”, 2 April; “In India, is it Secularism or minorityism?”, 17 April). One way to study this conflict is to go back a little in time and revisit some of the ideas that animated the leading figures of India’s long struggle for freedom.
Bankim Chandra Chatterjee is a convenient starting point, with his Vande Mataram song and mantra that inspired generations of freedom fighters from all sections of Indian society—even some Muslims, as is little known but well documented at the time of the 1905 Partition of Bengal. There is nothing “secular” about India’s national song, even after the verses invoking Mother India as Durga and Lakshmi were chopped off. Nor about Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s revival of Ganesh Chaturthi, which proved to be effective in awakening nationalistic feelings cutting across caste barriers. In a 1906 speech at Varanasi, he said, “By the grace of Providence we shall ere long be able to consolidate all the different sects into a mighty Hindu nation. This ought to be the ambition of every Hindu.” At the same time, few leaders worked for Hindu-Muslim unity as much as Tilak. The same caveat applies to Sri Aurobindo (then known as Aurobindo Ghosh), who famously stated in his 1909 Uttarpara speech upon release from a year-long imprisonment in the Alipore Jail, “I say no longer that nationalism is a creed, a religion, a faith; I say that it is the Sanatana Dharma which for us is nationalism.” Or to Bipin Chandra Pal: “This ‘Mother’ in ‘Bande-Mataram’ ... applied the old, the sacred, the dearly-beloved term, to a new concept, that of the Motherland. Through this salutation has come into being a new cult in the land, the cult of patriotism.”
This concept of Indian nationalism, for we must now distinguish the term from Western brands of nationalism, was shared by more stalwarts of the time, such as Lala Lajpat Rai or Subramania Bharati, the latter composing high poetry turning the cult of the motherland into bhakti. Our modern intellectuals and historians have often accused all these leaders of having “communalised” the Indian freedom movement (of course turning a blind eye to the communalisation of Muslim politics). However, building an exclusively “Hindu nation” was never their intention. As Sri Aurobindo put it in 1908, “The new [Nationalism] overleaps every barrier; it calls to the clerk at his counter, the trader in his shop, the peasant at his plough; ... it seeks out the student in his College, the schoolboy at his book, it touches the very child in its mother’s arms. ... It cares nothing for age or sex or caste or wealth or education or respectability; ... it spurns aside the demand for a property qualification or a certificate of literacy. It speaks to the illiterate or the man in the street in such rude vigorous language as he best understands, to youth and the enthusiast in accents of poetry, in language of fire, to the thinker in the terms of philosophy and logic, to the Hindu it repeats the name of Kali, the Mahomedan it spurs to action for the glory of Islam. It cries to all to come forth, to help in God’s work and remake a nation, each with what his creed or his culture, his strength, his manhood or his genius can give to the new nationality. The only qualification it asks for is a body made in the womb of an Indian mother, a heart that can feel for India, a brain that can think and plan for her greatness, a tongue that can adore her name or hands that can fight in her quarrel.” Gandhi later echoed this attitude: “Indian nationalism is not exclusive, nor aggressive, nor destructive” (although the earlier leaders did not reject violence as a legitimate means to achieve freedom).
Indian nationalism is thus not about “Hinduism” but about acknowledging the cultural foundations of Indian civilization. As Subhash Chandra Bose put it, “Indian nationalism is neither narrow, nor selfish, nor aggressive. It is inspired by the highest ideals of the human race, viz., Satyam (the true), Shivam (the good), Sundaram (the beautiful). Nationalism in India has instilled into us truthfulness, honesty, manliness and the spirit of service and sacrifice. ... Even at the risk of being called a chauvinist, I would say to my countrymen that India has a mission to fulfil and it is because of this that India still lives.”
Most of India’s freedom fighters would have rejected the current slogan of secularism, as it runs against their very concept of the Indian nation.
Michel Danino is an author, guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar, and a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research
Other articles by the author:
The ‘secular’ solution for Ayodhya, 6 March 2018
The Great Secular Confusion, 19 March 2018
Bogeyman of Majority in India, 2 April 2018
In India, is it Secularism or minorityism?, 17 April 2018