Meghnad Desai writes: India doesn’t need a single story of nationhood

Written by Meghnad Desai

Updated: February 23, 2020 10:46:20 am

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has raised an interesting issue — the meaning of nationalism. He expressed the fear that nationalism is equated with Nazism, especially in Western countries. (File)

Mohan Bhagwatji is unusual in the long tradition of RSS sarsanghchalaks in as much as he raises issues which need widespread discussion. Given the fragility and complexity of Indian politics, this is not always a safe thing to do. When over four years ago, he raised the question whether reservations by jati status were divisive, he faced a storm of criticism as jati vote banks are the battle grounds of political parties in elections. The BJP had to quickly disown his remarks as Bihar elections were round the corner.

Once again, he has raised an interesting issue — the meaning of nationalism. He expressed the fear that nationalism is equated with Nazism, especially in Western countries. Obviously this is so because Nazism is just a shortened word for National Socialism. There was a Socialist Workers Party in Germany which was founded in the 1870s. Hitler took the same name for his party but added the word National, thus giving birth to the notion of National Socialism. Nationalism is no more Nazism than Socialism is.

Bhagwatji says that he was warned against using the word nationalism while in the UK, as this was an unwelcome word for the locals. The fact is that the United Kingdom is a Kingdom, not a nation. Over the last 50 years there has been a rise of Scottish Nationalism and Welsh Nationalism, which have secured devolution of power. But the English have a peculiar aversion to nationalism. The main allegiance is to the Monarchy, which is the fulcrum of the Constitution. The UK is after all the oldest continuous kingdom in Europe, going back to 1066. The main parties do not endorse English nationalism. English nationalism is an extreme right-wing movement which is nostalgic about the lost Empire, is White Supremacist and opposed to all non-white immigrants.

The UK has never needed to be a nation. But after 1857, the imperial historians developed an argument that India was not a nation, but just a collection of races and regions and linguistic groups. The English Clergy had argued that Hinduism was not a proper religion as it had no single Book or God. Hindu Renaissance led by Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda gave priority to defining what it meant to be a Hindu. Stories or histories of Indian nationhood were created by political movements.

The Indian National Congress in its early Loyalist phase had a syncretic story. India was a nation because by securing its boundaries and giving an administrative unity, plus English language, it was the British who had created a nation where there was none before they came. The Bengal Partition gave a fillip to Hindu nationalism as Anushilan Samiti was a religious nationalist movement, as was Abhinav Bharat in Maharashtra. Gandhiji used religion but in an ecumenical fashion. The Khilafat cause sought to combine Hindus and Muslims against the British suspected of planning to abolish the Khalif’s position. Gandhiji’s suspension of the movement after Chauri Chaura led to a major Hindu-Muslim split.

India is a civilisation. It does not need a single story of its Nationhood. India is large enough to accommodate many stories of Nationhood. Indeed each linguistic region has its own story of Nationhood. That is its strength. The task is to weave these multiple regional stories into a rich garland that is India.

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