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Irfan Habib

Mixed media by JYOTI BHATT

When Benedict Anderson published his Imagined Communities in 1983, with the subtitle Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, the text was widely hailed as an unanswerable critique of the claims to nationhood by peoples outside Western Europe. Very few readers of Anderson apparently had the patience to reflect that too much was perhaps being read in the new word ‘imagined’. Earlier writers had used words like ‘consciousness’, ‘belief’, ‘consider’ (the last in Seton-Watson, quoted by Anderson himself), to indicate that a nation comes into existence when large numbers become convinced that they form one. But in this respect, the nation is no different from any other ‘community’ or association, whether a religious community or family or tribe or caste or even profession. It is only in our ‘imagination’ that a fellowship in faith, or a common ancestry, or a similar way of doing things makes us see some of us as a community or a class. Indeed, it is our ‘imagination’ that makes us so different from animals.

If there is a point in Anderson’s book, of which a reminder would be useful, it is that consciousness of nationhood is of comparative recent origin: for the world at large, outside Western Europe, it is mainly a post-French Revolution (1789) phenomenon. But this was not, unlike what Anderson tells us, simply because the exciting ideas of the French Revolution first caught the imagination of ambitious individuals in Latin America, starting with Simon Bolivar. The crucial basis for emerging nationhood was provided by colonialism, which was no imagined phenomenon either for Latin America, or for Asia and Africa. Colonialism was ruthlessly exploitative, and it could be opposed only if people, who were oppressed, were brought together on the largest scale possible. The ‘nation’ provided precisely such a unifying platform.

Colonialism was also an unconscious agency for a momentous transfer of ideas. Based in Europe (and the United States), its economic framework rested on the capitalist economy of the metropolitan countries. It was necessary for colonialism itself that parts of capitalist infrastructure, such as railways, processing factories, and some technology, should reach the colonies; and that certain numbers of colonial populations should learn the languages of the rulers for convenience of governance. These steps opened the doors to the transmission of ideas and knowledge from Europe. Marx described this as a source of ‘regeneration’ of the exploited people (he was speaking in 1853 with reference to India), in contrast to the ‘destructive’ role that colonialism had simultaneously played in the sphere of economy and society of the colonial peoples.

This notion of a dual process of destruction and regeneration was challenged by Edward Said in his Orientalism, the first edition of which came out in 1978. Despite his disclaimers in the ‘Afterword’ appended to the 1995 edition, Said clearly argues in his main text that European studies of eastern countries and peoples fundamentally distorted the pictures of the latter’s true cultures. Soon, one began to hear of ‘colonial discourse’ and even ‘colonial knowledge.’ In Imagining India, first published in 1990, Ronald Inden asserted that "the agency of Indians, the capacity of Indians to make their world, has been displaced in these [Orientalist] knowledges (the plural shows that we are now in the framework of post-modernist ‘knowledge’!) on to other agents." Edward Said concedes in his Afterword that he did not wish to deny the ‘technical’ achievements of the ‘Orientalists.’ He should, however, have paused to examine what these technical aspects amount to. In essence, these flow from the assumption that non-European peoples can be studied by the same methods and criteria as the European. The concept of the ‘other’, the initial point of colonial discourse, was thus continuously undermined by the universality of the scientific method that the Orientalist needed to be committed to. That is often why the prejudices and aberrations of one generation of Orientalists were exposed and rejected by the next.


Several nations have been created, such as the United States, Ecuador, Bolivia or Congo, which had no previous existence as countries; but such instances belong to areas where for one reason or another there was no preceding accepted concept of country. Where such concepts have existed since pre-modern times, the country already existing in the popular mind becomes a natural candidate for nationhood. It is clearly for this reason that Ba’athist or Nasserite Arab nationalism has found it
so difficult to replace the separate nations of Egypt, Syria and Iraq with one, single, indivisible ‘Arab nation’

It is in fact the concept of universality that is of particular importance in the transmission of ideas from the West to the East. ‘Liberty’, ‘Constitution’ and ‘Nation’ were not just principles suited to Europe, but were applicable, under similar circumstances, to all of mankind. Countries in the East could also, therefore, become ‘nations’. When Raja Rammohun Roy, in an 1830 letter, asserted that India was not a nation because Indians were "divided up among castes," he implicitly accepted that India could become a nation if its people shifted their primary loyalties from caste to country. In 1870, Keshav Chandra Sen was already looking forward to this prospect in the light of India’s educational development and social reform. By the very name that the moderate Indian leaders gave to the organisation they founded at Bombay in 1885 — the Indian National Congress — the proposition that India is a nation was widely proclaimed.

But why was India chosen as the nation, and not individual territorial divisions within it? Perhaps it was because India alone was seen as a country. Several nations have been created, such as the United States, Ecuador, Bolivia or Congo, which had no previous existence as countries; but such instances belong to areas where for one reason or another there was no preceding accepted concept of country. Where such concepts have existed since pre-modern times, the country already existing in the popular mind becomes a natural candidate for nationhood. It is clearly for this reason that Ba’athist or Nasserite Arab nationalism has found it so difficult to replace the separate nations of Egypt, Syria and Iraq with one, single, indivisible ‘Arab nation’. The existence of India as a country had long preceded British rule. It was due undoubtedly in part to facts of geography, with the Indian peninsula separated by mountains and the sea from the Eurasian continent. Within the limits so set, cultural affinities had developed which led people to distinguish those in India from the rest of the world. Many of these affinities appear as aspects of the Hindu tradition. That the caste system and Brahmanical ideas and rituals were important among the culturally shared elements is undeniable. But it can be shown (as I have tried to do in a couple of essays) that the concept of India as a country is stronger in writers like Amir Khusrau (d.1325) or Abu’l Fazl (d.1603), writing in Persian, than in any identifiable preceding writer in Sanskrit. This is surely because the cultural affinities were not exclusively religious. Tara Chand, in his Influence of Islam on Indian Culture, observed that extensive political structures like the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire helped to generate larger political allegiances, and so made the consciousness of the country’s unity still stronger. Even in the eighteenth century, when he had lost all power, the Mughal emperor was seen as the natural sovereign of Hindustan. And when the rebels of Avadh, in the name of Prince Birjis Qadr, penned their defiant reply to Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of 1858, they spoke of the wrongs that the British had done to the princes of Hindustan, referring to both Tipu Sultan of Mysore and Maharaja Dalip Singh of the Punjab. In their words, it was "the army and people of Hindustan" that had now stood up to challenge the British. The 1857 rebels thus saw India very clearly as their country, and its people, their natural reserve of supporters. If the India of their perception was still not a nation, it was only because they did not yet have any notion of establishing a single state over the country — and a unified political entity is the crux of nationhood.

The unification of the country on an economic plane by the construction of railways and the introduction of the telegraph in the latter half of the nineteenth century, undertaken for its own benefit by the colonial regime, and the centralisation of the administration which the new modes of communications and transport made possible, played their part in making Indians view India as a prospective single political entity. Modern education (undertaken in a large part by indigenous effort) and the rise of the press disseminated the ideas of India’s nationhood and the need for constitutional reform. A substantive basis for India’s nationhood was laid when nationalists like Dadabhoy Naoroji (Poverty and UnBritish Rule in India, 1901) and R.C. Dutt (Economic History of India, 2 vols., 1901 and 1903) raised the issues of poverty of the Indian people and the burden of colonial exploitation, which was felt in equal measure throughout India.


In the earlier stages, one strand of nationalism also played with religion: it could supply a source of mass mobilisation when other instruments were lacking. Tilak’s agitations in the 1890s against the Age of Consent Bill and plague inoculation, together with his espousal of the Shivaji cult, offer classic illustrations of this tendency. Aurobindo Ghosh provided simultaneously the theoretical basis
for a ‘Hindu Nationalism’

We see, then, that three complex processes enmeshed to bring about the emergence of India as a nation: the preceding notion of India as a country, the influx of modern political ideas, and the struggle against colonialism. The last was decisive: the creation of the Indian nation can well be said to be one major achievement of the national movement.

The idea once propounded had to be defended against numerous critics. The Simon Commission Report (1930) pointed to India’s cultural diversities, its religious divisions and the multiplicity of its languages. One could retort by citing the classic example of Switzerland, a land of Catholics and Protestants and four languages. But beyond these technical quibbles was the stake that the people could be persuaded to see in a unified, free India. The real answer to the Simon Commission was, therefore, the Karachi Resolution of March 1931, in which the Congress spelt out the political, social and economic contours of the future free India in which the state would ensure ‘fundamental rights’ to all. The Indian state, it was pledged, would observe ‘neutrality in regard to all religions’, and the cultures and languages of ‘the different linguistic areas’ would be protected.

Religious divisions undoubtedly undermined this notion of a secular, single nation of India. That a divide-and-rule policy was of advantage to colonialism may be taken for granted. Such a policy could not, however, succeed if the seeds for division did not exist. The same new conditions, notably the rapid means of communications and the press, which had so helped the nationalist cause, also provided platforms for communalist propaganda, both Hindu and Muslim, on a scale and of a type no one could have imagined in the pre-1857 period. In the earlier stages, one strand of nationalism also played with religion: it could supply a source of mass mobilisation when other instruments were lacking. Tilak’s agitations in the 1890s against the Age of Consent Bill and plague inoculation, together with his espousal of the Shivaji cult, offer classic illustrations of this tendency. Aurobindo Ghosh provided simultaneously the theoretical basis for a ‘Hindu Nationalism’. Tilak’s senior contemporary Jamaluddin Afghani similarly propounded the doctrine of pan-Islamism to unite all Muslim peoples against European colonial powers — the unifying factor was again religion. Afghani’s exclusion of India from his scheme did not mean that the vision once propounded would not exert any influence on Indian Muslim minds.

p. 1 p. 2

 
 
Irfan Habib, an eminent Marxist historian, is known for his signal contribution to the study of medieval India and the making of the modern Indian state. He lives in Aligarh