India Uncut

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Sunday, May 29, 2005

Two kinds of nationalism

Nationalism and identity politics, one would think, would normally go hand in hand. In the Indian freedom struggle, though, they were separate. The kind of nationalism that the Indian National Congress espoused was built around something less tangible but, ultimately, more substantial. In a fine essay in the Telegraph, Mukul Kesavan writes:
[T]he Congress recognized that its claim to speak for the nation was thin. It had no organization, no mobilizational ability and no plebeian members. It got around this in two ways. By seeking out members from every community, the Congress tried to prove it was representative of India’s diversity. Also, realizing that the template of European nationalism wouldn’t fit a subcontinent as diverse as India, men like Naoroji and Dutt tried to replace the identity politics that supplied the ballast of European nationalisms (blood, soil, faith, history) with secular grievance: by demonstrating that British rule hurt all classes and communities, they laid the ground for a properly anti-colonial nationalism.
Kesavan's essay is about "three pivotal moments that shaped early nationalism in India", and the third of them is the split between the Extremists and the Moderates of the Congress in 1907. What brought that about? Kesavan writes:
The dispute between the Moderates and Extremists is not a clash between political moderation and political extremism, or nationalism and communalism. It is a conflict between proponents of two different sorts of nationalism. The Extremists take their cues from handy versions of European nationalism, based on the idea of a homogeneous People seeking self-determination and self rule. Inspired by the central European nationalisms of the mid-19th century, Lal, Bal and Pal saw no difficulty in appealing to a larger constituency in the name of an agreed history, a revived culture and a resurgent People. The Extremists are best understood as Orthodox nationalists.

The Moderates disagreed with this view not principally out of timorousness or loyalism, but because they saw the impossibility of achieving an Indian consensus on history, culture and the idea of a People. They had gone to great lengths to create a pan-Indian party powered by a sense of anti-colonial grievance (it is no coincidence that the great critiques of colonial exploitation are written by Moderates) and they were determined not to risk that achievement on the altar of a Mother India derived from Hindu iconography.
That battle, of course, has been revived in our modern times. The BJP and the sangh parivar have revived the nationalism based on identity politics, while the Congress, sadly, has lost its identity, and stands for nothing in particular. Which version of nationalism will prevail? Does the nationalism that the Moderates stood for in 1907 hold any relevance today, when there is no anti-colonial battle to fight? Or are we reaching an age when we can look beyond nationalism of any kind?

I hope the answer to that last question is yes. And I think that much-maligned process, globalisation, will be responsible for it. More on that later.
amit varma, 1:25 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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