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Independence Day Special: Patriotism

What does it really mean? A love for your country, your nation, your homeland? At the risk of getting all tukde-tukde about it, we can’t really talk about patriotism without splitting a few hairs.

Nilanjan Das

We asked a clutch of eminent citizens the question, and they all had very different answers. Or you could say they all agreed that it depends on who you are: a filmmaker or an author, a teacher or a soldier, a singer or a diplomat. And though we are all Indians, perhaps it matters where you are from too: from the North or the South, from the Capital or the periphery, from Calcutta or Allahabad—Kolkata or Prayagraj. Or Kashmir.

Several of our contributors are at pains to point out that patriotism is something quite distinct from nationalism. Something older, subtler and perhaps more authentic. For others, the nation is the ancient, authentic source of our identity. Is there a distinction between the topophilia we feel in our ‘native place’ (or the place we actually live) and the collective allegiance we share for a national abstraction? Or is this just a sentimental continuum? Similarly, parochialism, prejudice and xenophobia shadow the love of place and seem to scale up or down from the smallest social unit to a subcontinent.

Indian patriotism has survived all these contradictions and ironies—sometimes it seems that it thrives on them. Once upon a time we were exhorted to see a singular person, as the manifestation of India herself. It didn’t last long. A billion patriots are unlikely to warm to a single slogan. One more reason to celebrate Independence.

IT’S ALL ABOUT LOVE

FROM OUR BRAVE FREEDOM FIGHTERS TO MODERN India’S ARCHITECTS, PATRIOTISM HAS BEEN ABOUT LOVE—SIMPLE LOVE—OF India AND OF INDIANS’ ‘TRYST WITH DESTINY’

BY GOPALKRISHNA GANDHI

LOVE? SORRY, INDIA TODAY’S editorial gaze will say. Very sorry, but no. Not love, please. Any word but love. It is too romantic, too evangelical, lifted from a godman’s sack of stock words. After love will come devotion, then harmony, then peace, and… None of those marzipans, thank you. This is about India’s Independence Day, its historical magnetism, its political message. And we are not children.

Fair enough. Love is the kind of word that floats in and out of assembly meetings in schools, pulpits, satsangs. It belongs to the ‘sacred’ columns of the newspaper-on-Sunday, family magazines. It is weak, pale, anaemic as a description of our bonding with India that is Bharat and also Hind, on Pandrah Agast. Magical, that date is, marking our ‘stepping out from bondage, stepping into freedom’. Something unfurling about that date, something swirling, freeing, liberating, as with the tricolour that swings out of its tightened knot at the tug of the lanyard.

As a definition of patriotism, love does not work. It has too much of the roseate heart in it.

And yet, speaking for myself, I will say, emphatically, that I believe patriotism is about love.

It is about love of our country that Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote, in a moment of rapture, in terms of our land being awash with clean and cleansing waters, bearing fruit aplenty—sujalam, suphalam. It is for our country, dearly beloved to us, that Rabindranath Tagore incanted jaya he, jaya he, jaya he and which Iqbal, immortally, hailed as Sare jahan se achha, in whose lap play a thousand rivers, as did Dwijendralal Roy in his Dhano dhanya pushpa bhara, ‘with wealth and seed and blossom filled…’. These are celebratory songs, though not without a hidden pang of anxiety about that plenitude, that blessing coming under a cloud.

Nothing but love, pure and simple, unalloyed and unquenchable, informs every word of another composition, the fifth in that patriotic sequence, which joins the other great four in the nation’s repertory of patriotism—Kavi Pradeep’s 1962 outpouring Ae mere watan ke logon… It is soaked in love that has had a twist, a throb of adversity, through the fiery ordeal of a reversal in war.

Tipu Sultan, Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja, Jagannatha Gajapati Narayana Deo II, the ruler of Paralakhemundi in today’s Odisha, Rani Velu Nachiyar of Sivaganga and Veerapandiya Kattabomman of Panchalankurichi in Tamil Nadu, loved their land, saw themselves as its hand. They loved their freedom, which they saw as a slice of the freedom of India.

Like these braveheart freedom fighters of the 18th and 19th centuries before them, the autumnal Dadabhai Naoroji, who wrote with measured pain about Poverty and Un-British Rule in India; the defiant Aurobindo Ghose, who made Bande Mataram newspaper the nation’s masthead beyond the song; the cerebral Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who worked till his body collapsed for India’s right to self-rule; and the impassioned Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who said, in a brilliant mix of Sanskrit and Urdu, that Swaraj was his janmasiddha haq—his birthright; the intrepid Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal, Tilak’s associates in the triumvirate of ‘Lal Bal Pal’, did what they did because they loved India. Plain and simple. Each of them loved fighting for her freedom. And were ready to die fighting that fight.

“If I should die By our Mother, let me die, Fighting for my land…”

And then, with those friends, stopping near an armed sentry, to hurl those lines with the greatest gusto at the man, snapping tiny fingers at him and yelling and dancing in “cannibalistic exultation, with the poor fellow looking on helplessly…”.

E.M.S. Namboodiripad, joining much older people at the incredible age of 25, founded the Congress Socialist Party in 1934 and the peasant movement called Tebhaga Andolan of 1946-47 Bengal, commemorated in sketches by the remarkable Somnath Hore, one of them of a woman and child, Mother India at her most real. It was about a passionate commitment to India’s greatness in justice. As was the dedication of a young man who would enter patriotism’s pages, as from a corner, a shy smile lighting his face as he famously escaped from prison in the pitch of night, to be hailed in time with ‘andhere mein ek prakash, Jayaprakash, Jayaprakash’.

Each time it is recited, Tagore’s opening words in ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…’ raise goose-bumps. But nowhere nearly as much as his Bengali original does: Chitto jaetha bhaya-shunno… followed by uchcho jetha shir

The voiding of fear of the Raj was part of the love for India. It held India’s and Indians’ heads high. Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were fearless because of their love of India, of India’s self-respect, her dignity. When young Vinayak Damodar Savarkar slipped away from his boat offMarseille to escape arrest for patriotic—read ‘seditious’—activities; when Matangini Hazra fell, shot, not letting fall from her hand the tricolour of freedom she was holding, they were powered by the same emotion. And we have Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the very personification of that patriotism of love. Sugata Bose tells in his biography of Netaji how the young Subhas asked his mother: “…will not any son of Mother India, in total disregard of his selfish interest, dedicate his whole life to the cause of the Mother?”

When the 24-year-old barrister, clutching his first-class ticket, was thrown out of the train in Pietermaritzburg station, a sense of his Indian-ness rose like a volcano in Mohandas’s being. As the train, which had ejected its lawful occupant, hissed out of that South African station, it did not realise that it had just begun another quick-moving train, a railgaadi that, in Harindranath Chattopadhyay’s pulsating song, was going to chhuk-chhuk-chhuk-chhuk a historic chain of movement after movement—in Passive Resistance, Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience and, finally, Quit India, to be led by Mahatma Gandhi for Swaraj, and not just for that of India but for colonised people across Asia and Africa.

In that progression of the struggle grew a crucial, defining nuance: the disobedience was to be civil, civilised and civilising. It was to be completely, even self-denyingly, non-violent. And why so? For if it did not, it would corrode itself, invite counter-violence, end in the destruction of its body, mind and soul.

Today, we may well ask: Is our patriotism about love, simple love, of India and of Indians’ ‘tryst with destiny’? Without doubt, it is. One glimpse of the pride with which India saw Chandrayaan-2 launched on July 22 will tell us that is exactly so. As will the landing around the moon’s ‘south pole’ on September 7.

But is that love of India about a love that is whole, healing and hateless?

Now we can talk, a relieved India today may say to me. You are late to come to this question, but, yes, now we are on track.

Love with hate. Those two are today two sides of the same country. Two fervours in one vein, two emotions in one heart—a most unnatural and unhealthy state for a Republic to be in.

This is, of course, so not just in India, but in many countries. For the terrorist, love of ‘the cause’, hatred for ‘the cause’s enemy’ and vengeance are a creed. The men who flew their planes into New York on 9/11 and who sneaked death into Mumbai on 26/11 loved hate. As did, we may be sure, the young man who blew himself up with 40 CRPF personnel in Pulwama.

Their types, medieval in brutality and modern in technology, exist the world over. They can be expected to strike repeatedly, at targets as ‘hard’ as state arsenals and as soft as social carnivals. Nation-states have to fight them with the speed of light. With nation society’s—our—understanding and backing of the nation-state.

But suspicion, strife and hate within us have morphed the legacy of our independence struggle into something altogether different. It has given hate-lovers and love-haters a new vocation in life today, an ideological, intellectual, political, cultural force. It types history, paints geography, sculpts politics. It seeks and makes heroes, it needs and finds villains. And it is celebrating a new heroism— from forest cell-hole, mosque and temple alike.

Who is loved today, passionately, in the name of patriotism?

The man who vows revenge.

Who is hated today, passionately, in the name of patriotism?

The person who speaks for humanity.

Who gains by this?

The terrorist, the house-divider, the nation splitter, the power-hungry. What suffers?

The Republic, as Ambedkar envisioned it.

In his Kalinga Edict II, Asoka says: sa me paja—all people are my children.

Saffron and green were not divided but held together by the white in our tiranga, with the blue of Asoka’s wheel of dhamma at its centre. Every time Jawaharlal Nehru unfurled that flag on the Red Fort, he looked at its quickening flutter with rapture and—love. Jai Hind!

THE FAITH OF A WARRIOR

IN TODAY’S WORLD, WHERE ‘PATRIOTISM’ AND ‘NATIONALISM’ ARE USED INTERCHANGEABLY, DEFINING THESE TERMS IS NO LONGER A SIMPLE MATTER

BY LT. GEN. D.S. HOODA

ONE MIGHT THINK THAT EXPLAINING the concept and meaning of patriotism would come easy to a soldier. After all, we are the most visible symbols of a group that displays its commitment towards the country by being forever ready to sacrifice lives for the nation’s honour. However, in today’s world, where ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’ are often used interchangeably—and the subject has acquired an emotive character—defining patriotism is no longer simple. Personal biases may also creep in, and it could be argued that my perception of patriotism could be completely different from another soldier’s.

A possible way around this predicament is to look at the issue of patriotism from an organisational, rather than individual, perspective. The military is not an ad hoc group of people, but a profession with a unique and distinct character. Morris Janowitz, in his classic work, The Professional Soldier, states, ‘[A] profession is more than a group with special skills, acquired through intensive training. A professional group develops a sense of group identity and a system of internal administration. Self administration… implies the growth of a body of ethics and standards of performance.’ In a military, individual inclinations are subordinate to the group identity and professional ethic of the organisation. It is this professional ethic of the Indian military and its link to patriotism that I will attempt to describe.

In the military, we are completely comfortable with displays of love for our country and our flag. The Indian tricolour flies in every unit and over each post on the border and drapes the coffins of our martyrs. The national anthem plays during all formal and informal events, and we stand tall and proud. We are willing to lay down our lives to defend India’s territorial integrity, both from internal and external threats.

But we also do not see patriotism in merely symbolic or geographic terms; it is also in the promoting and defending of India’s national values.

Walter Berns, in his book, Making Patriots, defines patriotism as devotion not only to a country but also to its principles and, equally importantly, an understanding of these principles. To this, I could add the practice of the principles as enshrined in our Constitution; and this is where the military stands out. Equality, secularism and fraternity are essential parts of the military’s culture, not merely because they are morally desirable, but because they are indispensable to our way of life.

All men in uniform are equal. There are soldiers of all castes, creeds and colour; Jats, Brahmins, Mahars, Sikhs, Muslims, Rajputs, Marathas and Nagas play together and fight together. Whatever be the caste equations back home, they are left behind when a soldier puts on his uniform.

There are no more or less important jobs among soldiers. In battle, infantry soldiers always lead the attack to rout the enemy from their defensive positions. Behind the infantry is a group of cleaners, barbers, drivers and cooks who constitute the ‘immediate replenishment team’. After the objective is captured, this team carries forward the essential resupplies of ammunition, water and food for the infantry soldiers and brings back the wounded for treatment. Victory depends on each and every person of a unit working together.

Within the military, there is an easy and equal acceptance of all religions. Religious practices are encouraged and, in a single class unit, there is generally a compulsory mandir, church or gurudwara function on Sunday mornings. As officers, we adopt the religion of the soldiers we command, and it never conflicts with our own religious beliefs. In units with a mixed religious composition, there is a common prayer hall called the Sarv Dharam Sthal, in which the statues of Lord Rama and Jesus, the Guru Granth Sahibji and the photograph of Holy Kaaba nestle under the same roof. This concept of the Sarv Dharam Sthal has now found universal acceptance throughout the army.

The Constitution promises each citizen ‘fraternity’ in assuring the dignity of the individual, and the unity and integrity of the nation. Fraternity is a sense of brotherhood among all communities, and this concept has been well known to soldiers throughout history. The military is known as a band of brothers, a term used in Shakespeare’s Henry V, in which the king exhorts his soldiers with these words before the battle of Agnicourt in 1415:

From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered— We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother

We are all brothers in uniform; status, community, wealth and background have no meaning. When I was attending the Higher Command course, my list of good friends included names like Xerxes Adrianwalla, Azad Sameer, Satya and Chacko Ipe. We were all like one big family, celebrating each other’s successes and sharing moments of grief.

You may well ask why I talk here about the Constitution of India. It is because every officer and soldier, when they enter service, takes an oath swearing that they will “bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India, as by law established”. We also see the military as a microcosm of India, and we feel that it is our patriotic duty to promote, within our own organisation, the values and principles on which this country was founded.

alter Berns has defined a patriot as being “more than a citizen or mere inhabitant of a nation; he has to be devoted to his nation and be prepared to defend it”. As soldiers, we are willing to lay down our lives in defence of India and are thus automatically patriots. But we do not flaunt this; in fact, any excessive display or talk of patriotism is actually discouraged. One reason for this is that a debate on patriotism could sometimes acquire a political colour, and politics has generally been taboo as a subject of discussion.

The second reason is more functional. Patriotism, while always present at the back of your mind, is not considered a major factor with which you can motivate men who are going into battle. As S.L.A. Marshall points out in his well-known book, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War, ‘It should not be expected that pride in a uniform or belief in a national cause are of themselves sufficient to make a soldier steadfast in danger…it is unworthy of the profession of arms to base any policy upon exaggerated notions of man’s capacity to endure and to sacrifice on behalf of ideals alone.’

There have been many studies on what makes men willing to walk into a hail of gunfire, fully aware that many of them will not be alive to see the next day. Most of these studies point to unit cohesion and the quality of leadership as key determinants of success in battle. Military values like courage and honour also have a powerful influence on how soldiers act when facing imminent death. ‘When rewards become meaningless and punishment ceases to deter, honour alone retains the power to make men march into the muzzles of cannon trained at them’, writes Martin Van Crevald in his book, Transformation of War.

Therefore, the military focuses on providing good leadership and inculcating the values of courage, loyalty, honour, integrity and unit pride among its officers and men. A unit that can perform competently in war would be best accomplishing the duty that a nation requires of it. This was clearly reflected in the Kargil War, where junior leadership and unit cohesion led to victory against seemingly insurmountable odds.

There is a lot of debate these days on nationalism versus patriotism, on symbolic patriotism versus blind patriotism. The arguments on both sides are well known, and depending on which side of the ideological divide you sit, you could easily defend your viewpoint. However, what is important is that nobody should be forced to adhere to somebody else’s brand of patriotism. As George Orwell wrote in his essay, ‘Notes on Nationalism’, ‘By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.’

For those of us who are or were soldiers, true patriotism lies in defending the integrity of the nation and protecting the principles and values on which our great country was founded. This is demonstrated not only in the Indian military’s performance in battle, but also in the character and professional ethic of our organisation.

THE LANGUAGE OF BELONGING

IF PATRIOTISM IS A LOVE OF SOMETHING ONE IS WILLING TO DIE FOR, NATIONALISM—PRIDE IN AN ABSTRACT NOTION OF NATION—IS SOMETHING ONE IS WILLING TO KILL FOR

BY ALOK RAI

IT IS A SIGN OF THE TIMES that Dr Johnson’s lapidary utterance—“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”—is enjoying a sudden revival. This revival, however, is marked by some tweaks that might spring from ignorance, or malice. Thus, someone was tempted to substitute “liberalism” for Dr Johnson’s “patriotism”. However, there is little room for ambiguity as to the actual words uttered—Boswell was at hand—but there is some ambiguity as to what he might have meant by it. Apparently, there are local political resonances—as well as some suggestion that what prompted the good doctor’s ire might have been the “patriotism” of the American colonists, fighting for freedom from England, who were happy to utter the high rhetoric enshrined in their Declaration of Independence—life, liberty and all that stuff—with no consciousness of any contradiction there with their status as white slaveholders.

However, irrespective of what Dr J might have meant, for our present purposes, his words are insufficient. Patriotism is altogether too mild, and it is nationalism that demands our attention—for it is nationalism that is, pace Johnson, the first refuge of the scoundrel. From Orban in Hungary to Netanyahu in Israel, from Erdogan to Salvini to Trump to our own, homegrown, self-proclaimed “nationalists”—clearly, nationalism is the flavour of the time. And there is little that the “antinational” “urban naxals” can do—when they are not busy subverting the state and bringing down the established order, that is—except to suck on it. However, I have no intention to dabble in such inflammatory matters, so I will restrict myself to a pedantic lexical exercise, exploring the specificity, and the distinction, between nationalism and patriotism.

Patriotism is by far the older idea—deriving as it does from “patria”, or fatherland. (Sorry, sisters, but “matriotism” doesn’t have the same ring, does it?) However, the crucial thing here is that patriotism is understood typically under the sign of love—love of one’s country, one’s people, etc. And this “country” is certainly not the “nation”. One classic expression of this sentiment is Yeats’s poem, “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”:

...my country is Kiltartan Cross, My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor...

This enables us to remark another characteristic of “patriotism”—that it is a love of something that one is willing to die for—as in Horace’s famous utterance, which Wilfred Owen mocked in his bitter World War One poem—Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori. Owen’s poem is an unblinking description of a soldier choking to death in a mustard gas attack, and ends with a bitterly ironic reference to Horace: it is sweet and beautiful to die for one’s country.

The morbidity that shadows love in evocations of “patriotism”—“the sands of the desert are sodden red, and what have I done for thee England, my England”—is substituted by rather different emotions when we enter the territory of “nationalism”. Here, instead of the love for particular things that informs patriotism, nationalism is characterised by the emotion of pride—pride in a somewhat abstract notion of the “nation”. And, equally significantly, instead of the “dying” that seems to shadow patriotism, nationalism is something that one is willing, and perhaps required, to kill for. Patriotism is, essentially, defensive, conservative; nationalism is, of its very nature, aggressive and aggrandising.

There is a set of Hindi terms that captures, rather beautifully, the argument that I am trying to make here. Thus, our best term for the “nation” in nationalism is rashtra—and, for me, the hard, syncopated consonants—shtr—tell me all that I need to know about the emotions at play there. The term that carries the sense of country is “desh”—but that final “sh” still sounds too distant—and it is the folk “des” that seems attuned to the necessary intimacy of patriotism. Kishori Amonkar’s “aavo mhaaro des” would be all wrong with a terminal “desh”. And there is a beautiful raga that I call Des—though I have heard it called Desh, too. I wait with dread for what Raga Rashtra will sound like—drums, certainly. Massed voices, chanting slogans. And sundry sounds—bones being broken, flesh pulped with iron rods.... Very post-romantic.

Typically, in this kind of context, people invoke “the idea of India”—which is, variously, affirmed, endangered, eulogised, traduced. However, in light of the lexical distinction that I am trying to explore, I propose that we work through “the feeling of India” instead. I expect that very soon we will encounter the local affinities that give patriotism their characteristic emotional tone. Thus, the “India” I feel patriotic about is inextricably bound to the specificity of my location in the heartland—with its chaotic heterogeneity and its deep cosmopolitan culture, produced by the settling together of diverse peoples over the millennia—qafile baste gaye, Hindostan banta gaya. There is the crush of humanity that assembles every winter, as if by instinct, on the banks of the river. But there is also the hot summer wind—the loo—against which one huddles behind reed chiks—which filter the harsh summer light, and are associated with the snatched romantic moments of deeply conservative societies. There is also the paradoxical privacy of the mango orchard, the amraaee— and the delicately erotic allure of the world conjured in the music of the poorvi ang—the light showers of saawan, the jhoolas: barsan laagi kaari badariya / bagiyan mein jhoole pare.... Of course, the gardens are only an ever-distant memory now, but this is the “India” that informs my patriotism. But I suspect that the emotional and visual content of the patriotisms of different people—people from different parts of the country—will each be unique. And that is fine.

Nationalism, on the other hand, cannot, by its very nature, accommodate this heterogeneity—and the attempt to fold it into some triumphant singularity—“New India”—must inevitably entail violence. I hear sounds of the Rashtra Raga starting up—it sounds like the stamp of boots, entering the Valley—but meanwhile, the image of the angry Hanuman that has sprouted on a million car windows is future enough for me. The image of Bharat Mata has undergone a fascinating evolution, all the way from the fragile maiden of the Abanindranath Tagore painting to the flag-waving warrior-maiden image of the Hindutva imaginary. I fear that the visual analogue of the “India”, no longer Bharat, that we see bellowing all around us—angry fists, pumping the air—might no longer be containable within any imagination of the “feminine”. Might I suggest, in all humility, that our culture provides us with a possible solution in the figure of the Ardhanarishwara—an androgynous divinity that is, after all, uniquely Indian?

A NEW SORT OF FREEDOM

NARENDRA MODI HAS TAKEN IndiaN NATIONALISM TO THE 21ST CENTURY. HE HAS BUILT THE BRIDGE BETWEEN THE FREEDOM STRUGGLE AND CONTEMPORARY ASPIRATIONS

BY SWAPANDAS GUPTA

AS A RULE, GENERALS ARE NOT MEANT TO AGONISE OVER THE NATURE of the war they fight. In 1933, shortly after the bitter Civil Disobedience Movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi had led to a complete break down of the relationship between the Congress-led nationalist movement and the British Raj, Jawaharlal Nehru posed a question which he left unanswered: “Whose freedom are we particularly striving for, for nationalism covers many sins and includes many conflicting elements?”

What prompted this self-doubt in the mind of one of the foremost leaders of the Congress is not all that puzzling. In 1933, Nehru was in the throes of his radical phase and deeply influenced by the socialist currents in Europe. In all likelihood, he perceived the struggle for Independence as part of a larger political struggle against economic exploitation and imperialism. The reality, however, was not as red as he may have desired. While the Mahatma kept his gaze firmly on a just struggle for Ram Rajya using non-violence, the message of nationalism translated in unique ways at the grassroots. It was not merely a question of whose freedom, but what sort of freedom.

To the masses, Gandhi was a saint who combined political leadership with a moral force. He provided the symbolic leadership. At the same time, the actual movement was viewed as a battle for the liberation of Bharat Mata from a thousand years of slavery. The imagery of the nationalist movement—from chants of ‘Vande Mataram’ to the twinning of Bharat Mata with gau mata—was explicitly Hindu. This had been so since the beginning of the 20th century, when Aurobindo equated nationalism with the sanatan dharma and Lokmanya Tilak twinned the celebrations of Ganesh and Shivaji into platforms of self-rule. Religion, wrote historian William Gould in a study of nationalist mobilisation in the 1930s and 1940s, “helped to provide the necessary framework, space, discipline and mobilisation, and in the process the political meaning of ‘Hinduism’ was refined as an idea… (The) Hindu people were represented as being coterminous with the Indian nation”.

This didn’t imply that India was perceived as a land for Hindus—or what is now described as Indic religions. It meant that the understanding of Indian as essentially Hindu—used in the loosest and predominantly cultural sense—was part of the national common sense.

It is pertinent to recall this facet of the Indian nationalist legacy in the context of a raging debate since the 1990s. Contemporary ‘secular’ scholarship has attempted to demonstrate that the assertive Hindu mobilisation that began with the Ayodhya movement and which found some reflection in the elections of 2014 and 2019 was a sharp break from the ‘idea of India’ that had moulded India’s emergence as an independent country. This is highly debatable.

In any case, the invocation of ‘idea’ in the singular is deeply problematic. In a country as large and varied as India, there were multiple currents. There were enlightened constitutionalists such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale who felt that freedom had to be preceded by social and political modernity. They were wary of uncontrolled mass involvement in politics. Then there was the poet Rabindranath Tagore whose love for India’s folk traditions was accompanied by his sharp rejection of nationalism and endorsement of universal values. Some Muslim activists had misgivings over both the very idea of nationalism and even a united India. And finally, there were the likes of Periyar and B.R. Ambedkar with a sharp focus on social liberation, particularly the destruction of the caste system.

The India that regained its political sovereignty in 1947 was not born of a single idea of nationhood. It embraced many and, often contradictory, currents. The Nehruvian consensus that dominated the intellectual space till the 1990s was one of the important inputs. As was Hindu nationalism that, in political terms, was a subterranean current but held a greater sway over popular mentalities. Gandhi recognised the importance of forging a rainbow coalition and insisted that the first government of independent India should also include non-Congress notables such as B.R. Ambedkar and Syama Prasad Mookerjee.

In today’s India, the belief that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a political interloper who has muscled his way to the centre stage taking advantage of the venality and leadership shortcomings of the Congress and other ‘secular’ forces is prevalent in some circles. It is based on two questionable assumptions.

The first of these is the mistaken belief that the terms of India’s post-Independence narrative were set in stone and incorporated both the preference for a ‘scientific temper’ and the constitutional consensus. “The day of national cultures is rapidly passing,” Nehru wrote with astonishing certitude in his An Autobiography in 1936, “and the world is becoming one cultural unit….” The real conflict was between traditional cultures, often defined by faith, and the “conquering scientific culture of modern civilisation”. In practice, this implied that India’s civilisational heritage, while important as decorative trappings, was secondary in the construction of a modern India. For Nehru, the big dams and modern steel plants were the ‘temples’ of modern India whereas the older temples of faith epitomised irrationality, superstition and regressive beliefs. For the Nehruvian, the acceptable Hinduism was abstruse spiritualism and high philosophy; the lived Hindu faith centred on rituals and caste-determined customs had no place in modern India’s public life. Indeed, the latter were perceived as an impediment to progress.

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