An ideology that became a bridge for the diverse population of India, 72 years ago, is now becoming a wall between them. From unifying against a common enemy to finding enemies within our own people, is how the feelings of nationalism have translated over the years. A western concept that brought together various communities to struggle for freedom has now become the spark that can ignite a huge fire of communalism.
Nationalism, an ideology that promotes the interests of a nation and protects its sovereignty, has it evolved into a concept which promotes majoritarianism and protects the majorities in India?
What is nationalism?
Nationalism is an ideology and a movement that was conceptualized with the aim of promoting the interests of a particular nation and enhance governance of the state. It stands for maintaining sovereignty of a country and building a singular national identity. Nationalism, therefore, seeks to preserve and foster a nation’s traditional culture, and cultural revivals have been associated with nationalist movements. It also encourages pride in national achievements, and is often used synonymously with patriotism.
Before the arrival of the British, India was divided into many kingdoms and various emperors ruled over them. But these kingdoms were highly internalized and unified within their own empires. For example the Mauryas were the first to unite the country entirely by the virtue of capturing huge masses of land. Over time India was also amalgamated by a centralised empire, like the Guptas or the Mughals, who delegated responsibility to local rulers but exercised a supreme control from the centre.
Nationalism before the colonial times was mainly based on territorial sovereignty, but an important influence in these sentiments was religion. As ruling dynasties kept on changing so did the affluence of a particular religion. Before the Mughals came to India, majority of the population was following Hinduism, but after the arrival of the Mughals, Islam was widely propagated among the masses.
Thus, in the pre-colonial era the main source of nationalism was territory with undertones of religion becoming evident in the later dynasties.
With the arrival of the British in the 18th century, the “India” as left by the Mughals (the last dynasty to rule), buried their socio-religious divides and came forward to face a new, common enemy. People realized the hegemony that the British were trying to establish over the territory and thus started to revolt at micro levels. These revolts were brought against singular issues but did not question the structural existence of the British. The revolt of 1857 (the first war of independence) is one of the many fights that were initiated to tackle singular problems. But after the creation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 and the arrival of Gandhiji in 1915, the small, scattered territories started to become a nation.
Nationalism during this period came through as a struggle to fight the common enemy. There were still vast divides in the population, religion and caste being the most prominent ones. Perhaps, what united the people during the time was a common aspiration for independence; but these aspirations were also manifold: attaining independence was an umbrella goal, under which various people had their individual goals. The Dalits wanted socio-economic emancipation, and minority communities like the tribal and some religions wanted equal representation in the administration. All these desires formed communal nationalist sentiments which were to be provided space in the constitution in the coming years.
Colonial nationalism also unfolded in three major categories, that is the moderates, the extremists and the Gandhian ideology. The moderates preferred diplomatic talks and direct conversations with the British while the extremists were more aggressive and radical in their approach. Gandhian nationalism propagated the ideas of Satyagraha (insistence on truth) and Ahimsa (non-violence).
One of the major advantages that the British had over India was the Hindu-Muslim divide, which they used to their benefit by the infamous divide and rule policy. Many political parties started coming up around the idea of religion, like the All India Muslim League, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindumaha Sabha and many more. These parties played an important role in moderating the nationalist sentiments of the people. Although religion was deeply imbedded amongst the masses, the historic Lucknow Pact of 1916 between the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress conveyed the aspirations for an independent nation beyond the divides of the population.
The signing of the 1947 Indian Independence Act created the birth of two nations, India and Pakistan. The communal sentiments of the Muslim population in India nurtured a demand for a separate nation, which was obliged by the British. The partition was not inevitable but was surely predictable. A minority community feeling alienated by a majority community was the main cause behind the partition. But why did the nationalism of a united front against the British suddenly request a nation to be divided into two? The answer lies in the deep influence that religion has over the population. Even though the Indian National Congress promised a well-represented government, there were many others that demanded a Hindu Rashtra and a nation only for the Hindus.
The India under British was diverse but was administered in a proper manner with the presence of princely states and provinces, but after independence the nation developed a vague territorial boundary with multiple communities residing within that. Building a nation out of these states was itself a very big struggle because of the immense diversity that was present. By hook or by crook leaders managed to get these populations together, under a new nation which had only one common link between them- their historic struggle towards independence.
At the centre, the Indian National Congress was quite famous among the masses but at the state level, especially in the southern and the north eastern states, people preferred regional political parties. This blurred the concept of nationalism and intermingled it with communalism. Over the years the southern states and the north east have felt a sense of detachment from the northern states and the government at the centre.
In the more present times, the good old religion has been a major cause of radical nationalist sentiments coming into being. The growing popularity of parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena, has also contributed towards the rise of these radical nationalist sentiments. Be it the case of Ram Mandir or growing cases of mob lynching, the rise of nationalism being backed by communalism is evident. Another cause behind the rise of such sentiments is the surge of conservatism on a global level. Leaders like Trump, Boris Johnson and Modi are prime faces of the rise of the global right.
The rise of nationalism in India often comes across as majoritarian rule and asserting anything to the contrary will be a false statement. In the present-day India minorities do feel alienated and sometimes even suppressed. The only way to curb this rise is to promote communal harmony and work for the emancipation of all classes. It is a structural and principal change to be brought about in the society.
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An aspiring civil servant, a curious mind but also an avid binge watcher- Prerna is currently pursuing BA Prog in English and Political Science from Kirori Mal College. She belongs to Chandigarh but really enjoys the hustle of Delhi. Her favourite pastime is taking naps and recognises herself as a pro at it.