|The nation that is India - 2|
The anti-colonial elements in communalist politics naturally atrophied once the fields of nationalist mobilisation shifted to the political and economic planes. Gandhiji, who during his long period of struggle in South Africa (1893-1914), had united Indian settlers to wage passive resistance for their citizenship rights, could thus insist in his Hind Swaraj that a ‘nation’ had nothing to do with religion, and that Hindus and Muslims in India must live ‘in unity’. He felt that the Hindu leaders were wrong in opposing concessions given to Muslims in the Indian Councils Act of 1909. In spite of his own deeply religious beliefs, Gandhi held fast to this view of India, and, indeed, sacrificed his life in its defence. But if Gandhi was the most towering figure among those who saw India as belonging to all who lived in it, it also needs to be said that nationalist leaders of the stamp of Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the left and the revolutionaries shared the same vision, and with Gandhi made the birth of a free, secular India possible.
Communalism, divested of its patriotic credentials by the onward sweep of the national movement, inevitably generated a ‘two-nation’ theory, in which ‘the other’ nation was seen as the main enemy, and the British as possible allies. The RSS, founded in 1925, took over from the Hindu Mahasabha the slogan of "Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan;" and from Dr Sir Mohammad Iqbal’s speech to the All-India Muslim League in 1930, the notion of a separate Muslim nation took root until the Lahore Resolution of the League (1940) explicitly propounded the goal of Pakistan (minus the name). In his Autobiography, Jawaharlal Nehru made the insightful comment that majority communalism can cloak itself in nationalism, whereas minority communalism is easily identified for what it is. The nationalist ‘cloak’ too, like many masks of communalism today, were soon worn thin, and neither the Hindu Mahasabha nor the RSS, like the Muslim League, took any part in the major national struggles from the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930-31) onwards.
The partition of India in 1947, accompanying independence, was undoubtedly a setback in the battle for minds, in which, as we have seen, the nation dwells. It, however, remains an achievement — for which the national leadership of the time deserves the greatest possible credit — that India retained its secular character, and that the principles of the Karachi Resolution were largely incorporated in the Indian Constitution of 1949. There have been regrettable lapses and compromises in law, and still more in practice; but these cannot cast into shade the substance of the achievement.
Now that over fifty years have passed since partition it would be foolish not to recognise that the limits of the Indian nation, for good or ill, have been redefined. The two nations, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are realities; and there can be no more irresponsible a cry than ‘Akhand Bharat’ (undivided India), raised anew by the very elements whose cloaked two-nation theory contributed so much to the partition. No one can overlook the fact that our subcontinent shares a common cultural heritage; and there will hopefully be a time when that will be fully recognised on all sides, without embarrassment. But what is of primary interest to us today is to ask whether there is still a case for India as a nation.
One asks this question with a certain amount of sadness. Strong nations like the USSR and Yugoslavia have disappeared from the map. One sees British historians discussing in a clinical fashion whether and for how long Britain can remain a nation and not divide into England, Scotland and Wales as separate states. India, a much larger country, has a number of what the Karachi Resolution termed as ‘linguistic areas’; and people with a theoretical bend have long recognised these as prospective nationalities.
In 1920-21, when the Congress organised its provincial committees on the basis of linguistic territories, it took into account the powerful influence that the mother tongue exercises on its speakers in each region. In 1956, the reorganisation of states in effect redefined the Indian Union as a federation of linguistic regions. By and large the experiment appeared to be successful.
The undoubted economic growth, with the construction of basic industries, which India saw in the first four decades of freedom, sustained the faith in an India from whose unity all the constituent parts would benefit. Since the 1990s, however, the adoption of the processes of ‘globalisation’ and ‘privatisation’ are making the Indian state less and less relevant to economic growth. The situation has, therefore, now altered or is altering radically. Could the aspirations of the better-off states, or the anxieties of the less fortunate, both be met by the central government in such circumstances?
There is also the matter of cultural differences. The ideology that the BJP government is so intent on imposing on the Indian educational system — of the Vedas as the sole fountainhead of Indian culture, of Dravidian languages being derivatives of Vedic Sanskrit and of the Indus Civilisation being Aryan and not Dravidian, besides introducing an anti-Muslim and anti-Christian bias in the school curriculum generally — is of a manifestly divisive character. One does not know what impact all this would have on our national unity tomorrow. How would a Tamil or Kashmiri pupil, for example, respond to such parochial outpourings?
I believe that the Indian nation has a strong case. But it is linked closely to that of an economically active, aspiring welfare state; and it is equally closely linked to a scientific and secular frame of mind. Communalism and parochialism are its worst enemies, whatever nationalist masks these might wear. The Indian people, hopefully, will retain the vision of the Indian nation and reject everything that seeks to undermine it.
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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