In defence of the Indian nation

Historians trained at JNU Malavika Kasturi and Mekhola Gomes, in two media responses in another platform, accused Kaul of ‘manipulating’ history.

Published: 03rd September 2020 05:32 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd September 2020 05:32 AM   |  A+A-

National flag, Indian flag

Unlike a nation-state, a nation is first and foremost a notion. (Photo | P Jawahar, EPS)

The recent days have seen an exchange among historians on ‘the idea of India’. In two popular pieces—the first written for this newspaper—JNU historian Shonaleeka Kaul has argued that there are references to a pan-Indian imagination since ancient times. While her first piece brought out evidence from ancient sources, her second article—in response to criticism—adds medieval sources, the writings of Al-Biruni and Abul Fazl that also refer to a pan-Indian space.

Historians trained at JNU Malavika Kasturi and Mekhola Gomes, in two media responses in another platform, accused Kaul of ‘manipulating’ history. They charged her with projecting the modern nation-state, a recent phenomenon, back into the hoary past, also drawing a parallel between Kaul and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. Kaul’s contention: India isn’t a colonial concoction, but has been seen by many across millennia as an entity that was in some senses a single whole amid diverse beliefs and practices.

Distinguishing between the notion of a composite Indian nation and V D Savarkar’s nation based on religion, both ‘modern’ imaginaries, Kasturi and Gomes wondered whether Kaul had the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, who in The Discovery of India argued for a continuity of the inclusive Indian nation since the hoary past, in mind. The implicit charge: she was playing to the right-wing gallery. This academic debate has wider implications.

Political implications: There are two aspects to it: the methodological, the business mainly of historians, and the symbolic, important for all citizens. Let me first address the popular aspect, as it matters more than esoteric debates. The idea that there is a historical continuity to the nation is a core belief of modern Indian nationalism. It becomes problematic only when it attacks marginal communities in the name of the nation.

There is no exclusive RSS stamp on the belief that India is a continuous entity, though the former may subscribe to this territorial sense of India without celebrating medieval circulations of it. Nationalist consensus: This nationalist conception of India was powerfully articulated, among others, by Jawaharlal Nehru. “To a somewhat bare intellectual understanding was added an emotional appreciation, … and the land of my forefathers became peopled with living beings, who laughed and wept, loved and suffered, … and out of their wisdom they had built a structure that gave India a cultural stability that lasted thousands of years,” Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India.

In this stellar work of inclusive nationalism, Nehru runs the reader through the millennia, heaping praises on the philosophical richness of ancient India as also the composite culture that brought Islamic features to further enrich it. Nehru’s central thesis: India saw many groups settling over time, but any short-term conflict within was followed by a grand resolution. Nehru’s focus was on India’s essential geographical and social unity. One wonders how the mere mention of the notion of India being alive through the millennia can be seen as a concession to ‘Hindutva nationalism’.

Any claim confusing the notion of a pan-Indian space since the millennia with the RSS has serious implications: the imaginary of a geographically united India becomes merely a Hindutva imaginary.
Such a claim, in one inadvertent stroke, elevates Hindutva to the sole idea of India today. Anyone disagreeing with it must now also disagree with a galaxy of nationalists believing that the nation marks a continuum.The historian’s craft: Speaking as a historian, is mentioning ancient evidence that refers to some sense of a pan-Indian imagination an ahistorical claim that sees the modern nation as timeless and unchanged? Not really. Historians know that meanings change over time.

What the Indian nation means today cannot be what Bharatvarsha meant in ancient times, when seen through the lens of professional history writing. Yet, one can argue that the nationalist imagination of modern India is not simply a colonial concoction; it harks back on past symbols that are repackaged in the service of the nationalist present, focusing on convergences rather than divergences. There were multiple felt senses of space in ancient and medieval India. Aryavarta, for instance, roughly the Delhi-Patna region, wasn’t a pan-Indian space. 

However, the nationalist imagination creatively repackaged the pan-Indian imaginaries to forge the modern Indian nation.Nationalism beyond the varsity: What is the way out, if some historians see past senses of a pan-Indian imagination as myths that can’t be seen as history? The answer has to transcend the university and be accessible to citizens. This takes me back to Nehru, among others. He was aware that ‘myths’ weren’t history.

But he also understood that they weren’t simply false. They were symbolic universes of meaning that could make those trained in history or those brought up on mythology construct a vibrant, national, public sphere. They teased out a world of continuity amid change.“Facts and fiction are so interwoven together as to be inseparable, and this amalgam becomes an imagined history, which may not exactly tell us what happened but tell us something equally important—what people believed had taken place, what they thought their heroic ancestors were capable of, and what ideals inspired them,” Nehru wrote.

“So, whether fact or fiction, it became a living element in their lives, ever pulling them up from the drudgery and ugliness of their everyday existence to higher realms…” It is time Nehruvians redeemed their pledge to uphold his ‘tryst with destiny’ and ensured that nationalist thought isn’t stripped of diversity by the polarised world of academia.

Vikas Pathak
Teaches at Asian College of Journalism. Holds a PhD in modern history from JNU 
(Also the author of ‘Contesting Nationalisms’.


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  • Sujay Rao Mandavilli

    Continuity does not connote authorship. Continuity with change has to be the mantra. Various Indian sub-cultures were constantly interacting with each other to produce new paradigms. The time has come to found a new 21st century school of Indology and a new 21st century school of IE studies. We need to create awareness. Sujay Rao Mandavilli
    1 month ago reply
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