Understanding the ‘Modi’fied nationalism


Muhammed Midlaj P.A

Debates around nationalism have been triggered recently, especially after the Pulwama attack, when many who criticized Modi for the tragic failure of Intelligence and operations, were stigmatized as subversive of their nation. As far as the populist narratives of Hindutva are concerned, scrutinizing Modi’s acts become nothing, but besmirching the nation, as he is presumed as ‘India’. In fact, the Hindutva could turn Pulwama attack into its favour by making it an opportunity to silence the dissent and there emerged Modi’s mantra ‘if you are not with me, you are an anti-national’. So the questions such as what is nationalism, and what makes one anti-national in the thinking of Hindutva, should be scrutinized and its answers become more relevant like never before. Taking the Christchurch mass shooting in New Zealand into recognition in this context, the back-handed support the white supremacists got from the Hindutva nationalists also denote that there have been transactions between white nationalism and Hindutva brand of ‘Cultural Nationalism’, but the hegemonic nature of latter becomes more dangerous as it raises serious threats to popular nationalism in India. 

The hazardous part of this ‘Modi’fied nationalism is the double-standard of its exponents. The ‘Rambhumi’ articulated by Hindutva nowadays got so naturalized by them, that it has reached to a level where people think it is quite natural and feel no adverse in listening to the call for the formulation of a Hindu nation unlike in the case of minority communities, where they would definitely be stigmatized as anti-nationals or as being subversive of their nation.

Evolution of nationalism in India

Isaiah Berlin described nationalism that it formulates “the essential human unit in which [human] nature is fully realized is not the individual, or a voluntary association . . . but the nation”. According to him, for the nationalist, “one of the most compelling reasons, perhaps the most compelling, for holding a particular belief, pursuing a particular policy, serving a particular end, living a particular life, is that these ends, beliefs, policies, lives, are ours”. So, in brief, nationalism is an abstract concept which ties people in unity beyond their diversity of different religions, classes, and cultural and ethical backgrounds.

Nationalism in India has its own history which was formulated out of the craving for independence from its colonial past. It is undisputed fact that nationalism has played a big role in the formation of India as a nation-state as its definition was articulated by J.M Blaut, that nationalism is a kind of political struggle for state power, typically a group of community seeking to form an independent state, to expand a state’s territory by annexation or colonial occupation or semi-autonomous region, struggles against another group or community wishing to prevent this from happening. In essence, the Indian nationalism came out of numerous social, political and economic movements being part of the freedom struggle against colonial powers and the history of these movements can never be confined to a particular community or religion as propagated by Hindutva nationalists because its past belongs to a shared history of different people belonging beyond the frames of religions, communities culture and ethnicity. Though there is a severe critique that the nationalism itself is a product of the west, the formation of Indian nationalism cannot be merely attributed to the European concepts alone, as the new social and political atmosphere emerged in India because of the British conquest and a collective sense against it had a great impact on it.

The fact that the colonial interests of British also helped in the formation of Indian nationalism by originating a sound sentiment against them among Indians, and thus creating a political and social base for a reconcilable freedom struggle, is an irony in itself. As said by Edwyn Bevan, “The British Raj was like a steel frame which held the injured body of India together till the gradual process of internal growth had joined the dislocated bones, knit up the torn fibres and enabled the patient to regain inner coherence and unity”. The British who established uniform political administration for their own colonial interests caused the instinctive formation of idea of India as a nation. Though, it is in 19thcentury the idea of nationalism and national consciousness went up to the pan South-Asian context, to be precise, its first phase was backed by the intelligentsia who could get contact with modern education in Calcutta and Bombay.

A.R Desai in his book ‘Social Background of Indian Nationalism’ says that the growth of Indian bourgeoisie also helped in the formation of Indian nationalism. In the latter half of the 19thcentury, the number of educated classes in India multiplied and Industrial bourgeoisie opened out as a result of the rise of Indian industries. The interests of the British and the Indian industrialists subtended each other resulting participation and organizing of programs of the latter in the Indian freedom movement.

In the second phase, Indian nationalism was urged by the famine and agrarian unrest which came out of the economic troubles between peasants and landlords, insurrection for jobs, and British revenue policy. During this period, the Indian National Congress under the leadership of liberal intelligentsia demanded the secular and democratic needs as representative of the civil liberties and also tried to secure the interests of Indian bourgeoisie such as the Indianization of political-administrative machinery and the stoppage of economic drain which attracted and led middle class Indians to organize various movements against colonial powers. To quote A. R. Desai, “Indian nationalism was the outcome of the new material conditions created in India and the new social forces which emerged as a result of the British conquest. It was the outcome of the objective conflict of interests, the interest of Britain to keep India politically, economically subjected to her and the interest of the Indian people for a free political economic and cultural evolution of the Indian society, which was intruded by the British rule”.In brief, the history of Indian nationalism belongs to the consciousness of Indians from peasants to bourgeoisie against the colonialists, which made it  inclusive of all heterogeneities of Indians from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and its later phase is solid ought to the secular and democratic thoughts of Nehru and Gandhi. So there can be no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, religion and region as once remarked by Gandhi that India is all Indians, and all Indians are India.

The most important thing to be notified is that the secular Indian nationalist identity is completely new-born considering the history of its evolution particularly and India broadly, as it has emerged as an antithesis against British colonialism. There was no single monolithic identity as Indian before British colonialism. According to Romila Thapar, the single monolithic identity ascribed to Indians based on a particular religion, whether it is Hinduism or Islam, was a purely colonial construct, as there weren’t any single monolithic religious identities in India, especially Hindu identity, but there were different identities belonged to various religious sects. It was James Hill, the famous colonial historian who first ascribed Indians identities based on religion, in his book ‘The History of British India’ where he reduced Indian history merely on the basis of ruler’s religion and classified it into Hindu civilization, Muslim civilization and British period. Harbhans Mukhia sees James Hill’s classification of Indian history based on religion as ‘essentialization’ neglecting other identities on which the monolithic religions had no say, even in Medieval India.  Later other colonial historians used the same pattern denying the diversity of India and it influenced Indian historians as well. There emerged on these historical perspectives, new religious identities such as Hindu nationalism, which is also known as Hindutva and Muslim nationalism credited to Hindu Maha Sabha and Muslim League respectively and later two nation theory. 

Distinguishing Hindu nationalism

The hegemonic nationalism of Hindutva is also secular of its kind, but Hindu is the primary citizen. As elucidated by Savarkar India had to be Hindu’s pitribhumi(ancestral land) and his punyabhumi(the land of his religion) so that his/her ancestry could never be invaders like Muslims or Christians, but Aryans who are now considered indigenous by Hindu nationalists. This concept of Aryan foundation of Indian civilization which excludes minorities like Muslims and Christians who are considered ‘outsiders’ has been denied by Indian historians like Romila Thapar but, ironically, these historians are shown as ‘culturally polluted’ by cultural nationalism of Hidutwa. According to these ‘culturally polluted historians’ the foundation of Indian civilization is definitely Harappans in ancient Indus valley and Aryans are considered outsiders.  Ultimately what Hindutva aims, as said by Richard H. Davis, is an autonomous national sovereignty, which they address as Hindurashtraor Ramarajya, the righteous regime of Rama, based on an “assimilative Hindu cultural nationhood”.

Hindu nationalism resembles more with Italy’s Fascism as it had so much to follow on, borrow and imitate from The National Fascist Party of Mussolini, which came first with the ‘national’ and ‘social’ policies in Italy and was rooted in Italian Nationalism. Marzia Casolari an Italian researcher, who collected the speeches of Savarkar, one of the early exponents of the Hindutva, during the time he delivered while he was the president of Hindu Mahasabha from 1937 to 1942, has analyzed his admiration for Hitler and Nazi ideologies based on the ethnicalpurity of Aryans in Germany. In 1939, Savarkar commented, “the Indian Muslims are on the whole more inclined to identify themselves with Muslims outside India than Hindus next door, like Jews in Germany”, during the 21stsession of the Hindu Mahasabha. He was of opinion in support of colonial historical perspectives, that Muslims are outsiders and are very aggressive religiously, who have been actively part of the destruction of Hindu religion, the lifeline of India. Now Modi has created an environment which could enable the ‘otherisation’ of Muslims to a larger extent, in collective consciousness deep down by reshaping it.

Hindu nationalism, which is an outcome of right-wing Semitisation of Hinduism as said by Romila Thapar,was definitely formulated on the basis of false consciousness as in Marxist theories, and later dominated the collective consciousness of Indians. The process the exponents of Hindutva undertake now is the desemioticisationof nationalism in public psyche as proposed by German literary critic Renate Lachman making the nationalism losing its substance what it was meant for, and reshaping into a new entity called Hindu nationalism. They create a pseudo-nostalgia which is a form of forgetting in public psyche, and thus make a sense of collective identity and assert the Hindu supremacy using the selective history of ideal and glorious past of India. The politics of nostalgia has been well delineated by D Muro, which was visible as well in the last American presidential election Donald Trump won. In this context, forgetting and remembering also become very pertinent, as these have been used as an instrument of domination by Hindutva through which they determine what are to be included and excluded in public psyche, influence the social frames of collective memory and deny the history of India during Muslim rulers. So the renaming of Aurangzeb road in Delhi, Allahabad city in U.P and so on, needs to be scrutinized as a part of defamiliarisationof Hindutva on Muslims and India’s Muslim past which it uses to produce ‘forgetting’ in the collective consciousness. In Hindutva’s process of resemioticization, that is placing Hindutva in the context of Indian nationalism and reshaping it into Hindu nationalism, it raised Ayodhya Ram temple or Babri Masjid issue as the keystone of defining Indianness making Hindu-Muslim binary though historical facts proving there was a temple are yet to be found.

Modi government could reshape collective consciousness into a smaller extent that the government shouldn’t be questioned and into a larger extent that questioning government institutions like the army needs to be considered an anti-national act, while Indian democracy and its constitution provide the citizens with the freedom to question nationalism itself. Even the mere symbols of nation like national anthem are forcefully implemented and those who stand up against such implementations are branded as anti-national hitting the headlines quickly, when it is assumed that these national symbols must not surmount the idea of nationalism. Recently Modi claimed to revoke ‘national pride’ in connection with loksabha election that opposition parties are competing to become heroes of Pakistan and terrorists and their supporters are praying they somehow get rid of the ‘chowkidar’. So it is in this context the loksabha election in 2019 is considered to be India’s crunch time to secure its secular and democratic values and becomes more relevant as never before.

Muhammed Midlaj P.A is currently pursuing Master of Arts in English from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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