Thursday, March 30th, 2023 01:13:26

WHOSE NATION? A Page from the Discourse of Nationalism in India

By Sushil Kumar 
Updated: December 24, 2019 3:52 pm

In1980s Margret Thatcher declared ‘There is no alternative’, no alternative to market-led economic growth. At the beginning of the 21 st century the World Social Forum replied “Another world is possible’, a world of social emancipation. ‘Another world’ challenged the familiar world, a world which was driven by forces of modernity, technology and progress.  Emancipatory politics viewed these driving forces of economic growth as forces of oppression. The book edited by a Portuguese scholar Da Sousa Santos Bonaventura and his colleagues titled as Democratizing Democracy: Beyond the Liberal Democratic Canon [Vol 1 published under the Reinventing Social Emancipation project], [2007] attempted to explore select features of ‘another world’. Its defining feature, as described there, was a zero-sum relationship between oppression and emancipation. The world of emancipation was not reached as liberals thought by moving stage by stage upward through the delivery of benefits and opportunities by the state. One reached there through a dialectical process when the oppressed social groups used their collective power against those in power.

This ‘conflict model’ of social change pushed out the Nehruvian ‘one party dominant system’ and became an integral part of post-Nehruvian political culture. It was against this background that Professor DL Seth of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, opened the book with his contribution.

India was most appropriately placed to play a leading role in emancipatory politics. Inventing institutions and processes for channelling action in performance of this role was the first task that scholars in India had on hand.  The focus of such academic activity  was at two levels: at the global level the focus was on discovering ways for negating social dysfunctions of neo-liberal, market-led economic growth; at the local level, this focus was on compounded dysfunctions of market economy, compounded with local oppressions. How did the market-led economic growth affect the existing local oppressions? Local-level operation of global market forces ‘glocalization’ was strongly favoured in India while at the national level the coupling of nationalism with state [leading to formation of ‘nation-state’] was strongly opposed. It was not realized by policy-makers then that the nation-state was an institutional bulwark against the inroads of destabilizing transnational global forces. Earlier, the cold war had a built-in mechanism for keeping these forces in check and so the focus of emancipatory politics was on class struggle. The post-cold war globalization pushed the state back and opened the flood gates for the entry of transnational de-stabilizing forces. The focus of emancipatory politics in India therefore shifted from class struggle to organized change through counter-hegemonic networks and linkages using peaceful and violent means.  A 2015 collection of papers edited by Stephan Feuchtwang and Alpha Shah, Emancipatory Politics: A Critique [OAC] elaborated the shift. The shift transformed the agenda of emancipation  and  appropriated into it naxalism, terrorism and arms smuggling. Emancipation was thus transformed into a threat to national security and as such lost its legitimacy, and in the process strayed away from its original goals. It dovetailed into non-traditional security concerns and was therefore accorded a high priority in defence studies.It got linked with Hindu-Muslim face-off also. In IDSA, New Delhi, an Associate fellow told his Director, as reported in one of its publications: ‘linkages exist between Indian and Pakistani militant Islamists on one hand and criminal networks like D-Company on the other’. One response to such transnational networking of security threats was the rise of a robust Hindu nation as a measure of national security [among its other imperatives].

My book Liberal Humanism and the Non-Western Other [Shimla, 2014] was a walk on the side-lines of this territory. The push factor [Chapter 1] in undertaking the walk was ‘strategic customization of humanities and social sciences for making ideological intervention’ for social change [p.1] Add fabricated history, fake news and twisted facts to the list. Should I roll back what I naively thought research was or roll it out? I felt a little privileged to undertake the walk because, during my years at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, I got some sense of controlled experimentation  on the issues involved in emancipatory politics.The first thing I noticed there was a loud cry against capitalism, colonialism and oppression. Anti-colonialism and emancipation coloured the walls of the university. There was a strong appetite for ‘new knowledge’, ‘non-disciplinary’, eclectic and ‘argumentative’, derived from the subjectivity of the oppressed, revealed through dialogue, conversation, and self-reflection, and communicated through evocative imagery as ‘wrinkled face’, ‘sunken eyes’, ‘closed lips’ and communicated through coded words like ‘gender’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘caste’ and such phrases as ‘innocence lost’. The emphasis was on active learning especially in areas which were salient to rights and freedoms of communities and individuals.Intellectual inspiration for generating ‘new knowledge’ came from works like Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 2: Life World and Science: A Critique of Functionalist Reason [Boston, 1987], P. Bourdeau, Practical Reason: A Theory of Action, Cambridge, 1998, and C. Offe, Contradictions of the Welfare State [Hutchinson, 1984].

The primacy of the state in initiating and implementing change was mooted by Bombay Plan [1944] and Peoples’ Plan [1946]. The structure of the economy was left open as contested space so that structural shifts and strategies necessitated by changing economic priorities could be aligned with the institutions and processes of politics and administration. Such an expanded role for the state was earlier emphasized upon by PC Mahalanobis, VKRV Rao, ML Dantwala, DT Lakdawala, and by the then US Ambassador JK Galbraith. The focus was on crafting an economic calculus for emancipation. That the calculations could go wrong under the impact of unfavourable developments in non-economic sector, was not brought into relief  by them even though the Malthusian demography had turned such economism into a half-truth and earned for economics a compliment, a ‘dismal science’. Hence ‘ideological economies’ needed to flag an agenda for the political component of political economy. My university took care to do this. It allowed the goals of public policy to be framed discursively by ‘argumentative Indians’ who whipped up supportive public demonstrations under media spotlight as a means for garnering democratic legitimacy. And the state machinery ‘passively’ incorporated these goals into public policy. The process forged a close link between emancipation and populism in the conduct of democratic politics. The crowd became a political force and was even feared by those in power. This gave the ‘oppressed social groups’ a new handle. In practice its use was monopolized by the unfolding dialectic between Hindu upper and lower castes. But this dialectic was seen as monopolization of ‘democratic’ politics by Hindus. It was at this point that Muslims in India extended the dialectic to their political ends.They harnessed the media to construct the image of Muslims as an oppressed minority which was eager to claim with lower caste Hindus a shared historical destiny in an evolving future.

It was against such an intellectual background that party activists including those close to Mrs. Gandhi carried home to her the imperative of historical continuity between Nehru’s vision and her determination to make India strong. They convinced her that Nehru too wanted to make India strong but his focus was on development and nation-building and not on nationalism or military build-up. Their message to her was that majoritarian nationalism would disturb domestic harmony while military build-up would de-stabilize regional relations. Together, these effects would be counter-productive for her political goals. The academic effort of the university was to fill in the details. This warrants a little elaboration.

Nehru imagined that India should render the use of its military power redundant by committing itself to civic behaviour towards other states and by actively working for peace in international conflict situations. He awakened from this imagination, awakened to realize the effects of power inequalities in an anarchic world of sovereign states. He realized that inter-state conflicts and use of military power was inevitable in such a world. He was awakened to this realism in domestic politics also. Conflict dynamics was no different here too. India was a land of numerous social diversities and they were highly unequal on different scales of power. The dynamics worked in circuitous ways through trade-offs among sources of power. The Hindus were numerous but weak, In the midst of such inequalities, the powerful actors used their superior power to keep themselves in that position. This was so in all conflict situations whatever be the level of such conflicts, global, regional or domestic. The imperative of conflict-resolution was therefore a more equitable distribution of power among political actors. It was articulated as India’s worldview also and appropriated into comparative politics and international studies, cultural and development studies. It was used to understand the cold war, ‘the West and the rest’, regional tensions and, above all, the Hindu-Muslim relations in India.

This was the ‘imaginary world’ Nehru thought he was living in and wanted to jettison.This worldview was double-edged; it was used by India and used against India. He felt that a more reasoned and pragmatic worldview should have been there.

Nehru’s ‘imaginary’ worldview was grounded on liberal values which pointed to power differentials as the cause of conflict. Non-alignment was its response to the cold war conflicts. A dynamic response to emerging social inequalities and the need to stabilize peace and cooperation among different sections of the society, was ‘egalitarianism of sorts’.It underlined equality in possession of power  as well as equality in material possessions.The aim was to match unequal talents with ‘equal citizenship’. It was not ‘same-ness’ as some people believed it to be. It was an effort to match difference with equality. The need was to devise a satisfactory formula for distribution of benefits and burdens. Liberal philosophers came forward and reflected on it. Their recommendations ranged from ‘strict egalitarianism’, ‘luck egalitarianism’, ‘difference principle’ to local devices for promoting re-distribution with justice. Such academic solutions to real life problems no doubt became debating points but were not enough in resolving the problem. When the countryside come to town and the people were blown off by competitive individualism to face large -scale rejections in competitive events, their negative sensibilities inevitably made their way into the public sphere.  Downward pull and promotion of mediocrity in social and intellectual life slipped into their agenda. This found an interesting expression in a Bollywood film. In Devadas, the hero injures the forehead of Paro, the heroine, who was boasting her beauty to him.The idea was that the scar formed there would desist her from doing that in future. The action was consistent with Surat al-Nur which restricted women from boasting their beauty.The Islamic fling could be justified in terms of Islamic egalitarianism generally advanced to deride social inequality among Hindus. In situations of large-scale rejections [ of boys and ladies in tests for competitive excellence] the negative [Islamic] formula helped the authorities in different institutional settings in preserving social harmony within their respective organizations. The cumulative result was standardized backwardness and mediocrity. The ‘downward pull’ on a ‘race horse’ held the magic key to democratic peace and legitimacy. But the peace was boring and the campus came to life only when semi-ideological postures lead to populist demonstrations and non-academic presence of political party leaders. In fact, the leaders should require the students first to legitimize their ideological position through dialogue and publication in academic journals.

One could recall that Nehru always ruled out India’s competition with other states, great powers or neighbouring states including China. The egalitarian logic was a part of it. Anti-majoritarianism was one of its expressions. The Hindu majority power could be balanced by extending support to regional and local parties grounded on social diversity.It was believed that coalition politics would negate attempts at political consolidation of Hindu majority. Such strategies were given an academic cover. It was against this background that a seminar was organized on coalition politics in the Institute of Advanced Study in 1970. Extra-parliamentary populism as a means to stall majoritarian statism proved to like the Charge of the Light Brigade, ‘half a league onward’, into despair. Even in the US anti-statism proved to be falling short of expectations. A recent book Shifting Grounds: Nationalism and the American South [2011] testified this.

Mrs. Gandhi came out of anti-majoritarian component of Indo-Islamic political culture which constituted Nehru’s ‘imaginary world’ and led to his painful disillusionment with his opposition to it. For more than a thousand years the elite -mass dividing line in India was both racial and religious. The Muslims were the ruling elite and the Hindus were the subject masses. The British colonial rule did not alter the structure of the relationship. Stretching over such a long span of time, it reconstructed Hindu-Muslim relations into an all-pervading consciousness of Hindu inferiority and subordination to Muslims. During the colonial rule, the Hindus were treated as different but not as inferior. It was not so with Muslims. How could Muslims make common cause with Hindus who were now poised to rule over them? Hence after independence they leveraged their support for the ruling party to rally opposition to Hindu majoritarian power. Further, they strayed away from gaining competitive advantage in arts, sciences and the skills and opted for institution-delivered advantages contingent on their minority status. This was the trend during the colonial period also when they wanted the colonial state to deliver to them separate electorates, weighted voting and finally a homeland. The aim was not competitive excellence but parity and better still dominance exercised through their institutionalized status in the system.

The post-globalization ‘nationalist turn’ signifying accommodation of nationalism into liberal thought found an academic expression in a recent book by Liav Logard, The Cultural Defense of Nations: A Liberal Theory of Majority Rights [Oxford: OUP, 2015]. It evoked tell-tale signs of transition in Muslim politics from democratic reform in Hindu society to confronting Hindu nationalism with a rival nation-idea for India by consolidating their solidarity with Hindu backward groups.  The origin of this strategy could be traced back to pre-Partition days when the Nizam of Hyderabad offered money to BR Ambedkar for converting dalits to Islam. One could go further back to the Communal Award which separated upper caste Hindus from lower caste Hindus. The Colonial State and the Muslim League were on the same page as both desired a split in Hindu majority. ‘Indigenous Islam’ was the new rallying point. Muslim voices were becoming loud in claiming that it was not Hinduism but Islam which was indigenous to India. Local Muslims were getting networked for wielding soft power by participating in conversation loaded with counter-hegemonic expressions. Islamism and Marxism were presented as mutually complementary and put on the same platform for consolidating the ‘nation of the oppressed’. The roadside Mazar was a site of Muslim-Dalit interaction on related issues. Pirs and fakirs symbolized freedom In my personal memory such dialectical denouement in Hindu-Muslim relations went back to the Day of Independence. I was then a student in a semi-urban school where class-rooms had thatched roofs and allowed rain water to drip in. I was a Boy Scout and was being groomed by a teacher for participation in Independence Day Parade in the Police Lines. In an adjoining room some students were singing the National Anthem when some of my classmates spoke this:‘angrezon se liya hai Pakistan, lar ke lenge Hindustan’[got Pakistan from English people and our fight now would get us Hindustan]. Should someone dig out the origin of this slogan to throw light on Hindu-Muslim relations from 1858 to-date?


By Sushil Kumar 

(The author is a former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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