India has never had a single dominant nationalism – and it won’t any time soon

The flag of the Indian National Congress. Nichalp via Wikimedia Commons

Ever since Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, plenty of ink and pixels have been spent trying to explain the ascendancy of Hindu nationalism in India. But while the BJP’s concept of “Hindutva” has sparked angry protests across the country, most recently at Jawaharlal Nehru University, there are plenty of other Indian nationalisms out there – and none has ever had a monopoly on national identity.

Bengali poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore once said that “India has never had a real sense of nationalism”. True, there was a very successful anti-colonial movement, but it didn’t necessarily create a unifying sense of nationalism amongst its citizenry.

The nationalism of this period was everything but mainstream. In spite of its pan-Indian appeal, the Indian National Congress, which was at the forefront of the independence struggle, could not forge a sense of common national identity. It was precisely the absence of a cohesive, all-encompassing nationalist ideal that led to the division of the country along religious lines.

Shaken by the surge of religious nationalism that saw the creation of Pakistan, the post-independence leaders of India tried to forge a sense of civic nationalism. Its foundational creed was freedom of speech, religious tolerance, equality, and individual rights – an ideal made for a country deeply divided along religious, cultural, linguistic, regional and ethnic lines. These noble aims won the Indian state a certain degree of legitimacy, but they didn’t necessarily win over the masses from their primary identities, which remain mostly religious, ethnic, and linguistic rather than national.

This means that whenever India’s divided communities feel that the state’s civic nationalist project is somehow falling short, they pour out into the streets to defy the state or challenge it – all the while voicing their own specific ideas of how and what India should be.

Interestingly, contemporary India is plagued by a miasma of voices who cannot agree on a unifying national identity. Indian nationalism has become a dog’s breakfast; it feels as if every day, a new group demands that the national imagination be reorganised according to its own vision and logic.

Nationalism and discontent

Judging by recent events, each of India’s ideological communities seems to feel entitled to target its grievances at another community in the name of nationalism. While various politicised secular groups see the government’s every policy position as a surreptitious move to turn India into a Hindu nation, the radical Hindus have not hesitated to sow the seeds of a religious majoritarian nationalism, one they think is long overdue.

Until recently, the competition to shape the country’s core national identity was primarily fought between the traditional left-leaning secular factions and rabid right-wing majoritarian Hindus. But the battlefield is now getting crowded.

Hindu nationalism: it’s not for everyone. EPA/Piyal Adhikary

The country’s Dalits, or “backward” caste, are advancing a reactionary nationalism from below, one which gives their community the kind of muscular voice it has never had. Not to be outdone, other economically affluent albeit non-upper caste communities such as Jats in the province of Haryana, and Patels in the western state of Gujrat have sought to unsettle the very fabric of the country’s civic nationalism by physically attacking the interests of the state – all in the name of quotas, reservations and positive discrimination in public services.

Intriguingly, one of the JNU students charged with sedition in the current nationalism debate has rejected this very ideal on ideological grounds, suggesting that “as a Marxist”, he believes not in nationalism, but in “internationalism.”

The defenders

In the meantime, the people in charge of projecting India’s military nationalism, its soldiers, are disenchanted by these “attacks” on the country’s unity. Angered by the lack of national pride among India’s civilians, retired soldiers have led “March for Unity” rallies to protest against those seeking to undermine Mother India. They rally under the slogans “Bharat Mata ka apmaan nahi sahega Hindustan” (India will not tolerate the insult of Bharat Mata, its national icon) and “Jo janani ka apmaan kare, doob mare, woh doob mare” (those insulting the motherland should drown) – attempts to forge a sense of inclusive nationalism that seems to be fast dissipating.

Then there are India’s “cyber-nationalists”. They can be easily found on a random visit to the comments column of any Indian news site, where they expound on the violence and mayhem they wish to bring upon those who don’t share their vision of national identity. Through their keyboards, they are effectively muddying the debate on the nature and character of nationalism in India.

All the while, their sophisticated pundit and politician counterparts wage their dogfights over nationalism on live TV while cloaking themselves in one ideological colour or the other, all in the name of Indian identity. This all seems to vindicate Tagore’s original claim: the nature of Indian nationalism has never been a settled matter, and it doesn’t look set to organise itself any time soon.