Book review: Indian Nationalism – The Essential Writings, ed. S. Irfan Habib

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A review essay by Dr Kamalakar Bhat

Indian Nationalism

Title: Indian Nationalism — The Essential Writings
Editor: S. Irfan Habib
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2017)
Pages: 285
Price: INR 499 (Hardbound)

They used to say when history repeats itself, it becomes a farce. Well, history seems to have a way of throwing irony at us. At least that is what I imagine those commentators would feel who announced the last rites of the concept of nationalism with glee in the last decades of the previous century, amid the oft repeated phrase of globalization. While 20th century saw the rise of nationalism in the first half, it also saw its waning hold towards the turn of the century; many saw globalization as having sent nationalism to the side wings of the world theatre, but come 21st century, and nationalism is back on the centre stage with a vengeance.

The use of the word ‘vengeance’ is perhaps far from being fortuitous at the beginning of a review of a book on Indian nationalism. It is this side of nationalism, the angry, militant, violent side that has been its manifestation in India recently, and as the quotes on the cover page of this book signify, that seems to be the immediate context that has engendered the publication of this book. Readers need only to take a look at its cover page which prominently displays Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, ‘Is hatred essential to Nationalism?’ to understand the raison d’être that has occasioned it. The prefatory note begins by alluding precisely to this context – words that stand out in the first two sentences are: ‘hyper-nationalism’, ‘shrieks’, ‘frenzy’, ‘threatening’, and ‘tear apart’. The contemporary public discourse in India, surfeit with strident, insistent and persistent debates surrounding nationalism are surely the reason this book has been conceived and designed the way it has been. We have today a generation that is ready to go ballistic over nationalism, raise its emotional and nuisance quotient very high in defence of just the word with very little meaning, intent or content attached to the idea behind it. Perhaps it is to remind this generation of ‘nationalists’ that the book provides an account of the history of the idea in India and its various shades as it developed during the era that nation itself was in the making.

It is true that even the earliest theorizations of nationalism refer to the positive and the negative sides of this political concept. And this schismatic view runs through the entire history of scholarly attention to this idea. Every kind of duality may be found attributed to the idea – whether about its nature or meaning. Thus, we have good and bad nationalism, Western and Eastern nationalism, nationalisms of the oppressors and the oppressed, original and pirate, liberal and illiberal, civic and ethnic, etc. The grounds on which these classifications are made are different but in much of the scholarship on nationalism, an urge to employ a schismatic view is common. Such classical experts on nationalism as Hans Kohn, Anthony Smith, Tom Nairn, Ernest Gellner, Horace B. Davis and Eric Hobsbawm have all seen in nationalism some sort of ‘Janus Face’. Philip Spencer and Howard Wollman in their book Nationalism: A Critical Introduction, list thirteen contrasting distinctions to be found in the literature on nationalism. This book too, through its paratext, the essays included and the sections under which these are arranged reminds the readers that one can’t take the idea of nationalism as an unquestionably noble value (as some news anchors are wont to assert), or as a naturally beneficial and benevolent idea. Irfan Habib, noted historian, who has edited this timely collection of essays on “Indian Nationalism”, points out at the outset that nationalism is a double-edged sword which ‘…can be a binding force or a deeply divisive instrument used to cause strife around political, cultural, linguistic or more importantly, religious identities.’ If our polity had better use of its memory then, one doubts whether after the horrors unleashed by parochial nationalism at the dawn of independence, we would have ever allowed it to resurface and resurge.

In his “Introduction” to the collection, the editor expresses the purpose of publishing a book of essays on nationalism as occasioned by the environment of diktat, xenophobia, slogan chanting that has come to occupy the space of debate on nationalism. ‘Before we get carried away by this hollow jingoism, let us try to understand the history of nationalism in our country and the various forms in which it has existed.’ The book therefore brings together an eclectic selection of essays by freedom fighters, politicians, thinkers, poets, political activists, scientists, artists and cultural activists. The 13 sections contain contributions of 23 public personalities who have meditated on the nature of nation they imagined and the kind of nationalism they preferred, each in a different context, period, media, and for a diverse audience. What is significant about these essays – most of them brief, the longest being 15 pages – is that they are not only about nationalism but invoke notions of Indian culture, religion and history. They reference the various ideological cohesions contributing to a pluralist view of Indian nation by bypassing narrower identities – such as that of region, religion and language – and focus on forging a collectivity subsuming these parochial identities. Did they undermine the significance of religion and culture? Far from it, though the history of nation formation in the subcontinent reminds us how despite the best intent and efforts of many of its leaders, the ‘volk’ embraced loyalties less inclusive. As a reactive tool to colonial oppression, nationalism may have acted as an integrating and mobilising force, but invariably it has bred pervert and divisive faith, aggrandizement of narrow loyalties and, not to forget, regressive patriarchal patriotism.

One of the implicit suggestions in the book is that the present manifestation of nationalism has a long history and that concurrent to the pluralist imaginings of India, there were also those who wanted the Indian nation to be hegemonised by particular religious groups. This version of Indian nationalism was engineered through a wide variety of activities: religious, political, intellectual as well as social. Jawaharlal Nehru had cautioned against the shenanigans of these groups which, ‘under the guise of what people call culture, narrow our minds and our outlook. These forces are essentially a restriction and denial of any real kind of culture. Culture is the widening of the mind and the spirit.’ The legacy of this spirit that combined reason and scientism with historical and cultural sensibility must have really tapered off with time, else why would Indians forget the horrendous price paid at the time of our tryst with destiny?

The anthology has extracts from writings and speeches from late 19th to second half of the 20th century. The earliest being M. G. Ranade, and temporally latest being Jayaprakash Narayan. A majority of them were freedom fighters, which indicates that this collection has chosen to put together opinions about the concept at its nascence. From outside the political spectrum we have three poets, Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and Allama Iqbal, novelist K. A. Abbas and scientist P. C. Ray. The section headings are a thesis in themselves: Covering Origins, Orientation, Definitions, Values, History.

Irfan Habib starts with the “Early Liberal View of Nation and Culture” with an essay each by M. G. Ranade and Surendranath Banerjea. The first is an iconic figure who, through his Prarthana Samaj, aimed at launching societal reforms in India. Thus, his views of nationalism were coloured by his zeal to reconstitute the Indian society. It is not surprising that these early thinkers did not imagine their curative interventions as effecting rupture but a sort of suture. Surendranath Banerjea too was a liberal nationalist. A notable exclusion from this era is the towering political figure from Western India, Gopal Krishna Gokhale.

Surely, liberal nationalism was but only one side of the story? Irfan Habib is alive to this. His second section covers “Religion-Centric Nationalism”. There can be no doubt that in colonial India religion was one of the main platforms for anti-colonial as well as nationalistic struggle. In post-independent India, we have been fond of the secular narrative of India’s anti-colonial struggle and the pluralistic idea of nation as enshrined in our constitution. However, can we ignore the fact that religious nationalism held sway and resulted in the creation of two nations? The religious contour of much of the nationalist sentiments and activities may have been underplayed by the elite leaders, but the masses were never free from religious prejudices and loyalties. The anthology in this section also chooses to represent the less strident opinions belonging to this school of thought. Thus, rather than including such imaginings of nation as that of Veer Savarkar or Hedgewar, Habib focuses on ‘Bal-Lal-Pal’ along with Sri Aurobindo. Muslim commentators are represented by Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani and Allama Iqbal, the latter being an important voice of the two-nation theory.

The third section immediately counters the chauvinistic nature of the religion-centric views of nation by focusing on “Cosmopolitan Vision and Nationalism”. We obviously find here a long piece by Tagore, who was perhaps the best known critique of nationalism in India during the pre-independence era. As early as at the turn of the century, in a poem titled “The Sunset of the Century”, Tagore wrote, ‘The naked passion of the self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is dancing to the clash of steel and howling verses of vengeance.’ In the first of decade of 20th century itself he gives early novelistic expression to his views about the destructive potential of nationalism in Gora (1909) and later in Ghare Baire (1916). It is a comment of sorts that the only voice to represent the cosmopolitan view is that of Tagore and no politician is part of this section.

The fourth section continues this focus with essays covering “Inclusive Nationalism and Syncretic Culture”. Two thinkers included in this section are poet Sarojini Naidu and the scientist P. C. Ray. The focus of this section is on the composite culture that India is and how nationalism in India needs to be syncretic and civilizational rather than narrowly cultural or religious. The only woman’s voice included in the anthology, Sarojini Naidu’s, at once is seen to represent the mystic traditions of Hindu India but not restricted by the Hindu views. She is for Habib someone who articulates the syncretic traditions of India, who continuously spoke of yoking together the Hindu and Muslim streams of Indian society. The inclusion of P. C. Ray, a scientist, may on first glance appear as unusual, but the editor must be congratulated for this inclusion. While artists and writers are often seen to represent sane voices in India, one community whose valuable contributions to our intellectual traditions has been widely ignored, is our scientists. P. C. Ray’s piece in the volume only proves the weight of the intellectual might scientists have to contribute.

The fifth section, “Empathy and Nationalism” has two short pieces by Mahatma Gandhi. It is easily imaginable how difficult it must have been to include only two essays of Gandhi considering the dominance of his views in the official narratives of Indian nationalism. I find that Irfan Habib not only manages the constraints of editing a book in restricting Gandhi to just about five pages but also indicates his proportional significance in shaping Indian nationalism. Further, the hint at the ethical dimension of Gandhi’s political views in the section heading is also important.

The sixth section, “Combating Fissiparous Forces and Nation Building” has a lone voice in Sardar Vallabbhai Patel who was not exactly known as a prolific writer. The extract from his speech focuses on the importance of unity among Indians in the task of nation building. The Seventh section is “An Eclectic View of Nationalism and Culture” and again has a lone voice in Jawaharlal Nehru. The section covers the eclectic nature of Nehru’s views of Indian nation and reminds us of the centrality of Nehruvian ideas in post-independent India in shaping the nation as a tolerant, inclusive and non-divisive society. It may be a tribute of sorts to Nehru’s leadership and intellectual acumen that the Indian nation resisted the temptation to succumb to the powerful rightist forces for seven decades. Irfan Habib chooses to title the section consisting Ambedkar’s essays as “Nationalism Defined”. Not known as much of a definer of nationalism or Indian nation, Ambedkar wrote on a very wide variety of topics with special focus on the marginalised. It is during the debates on two-nation theory that Ambedkar published a book Pakistan or Partition of India. His writings no doubt expose the hegemonic nature of the mainstream ideas of nationalism. Ambedkar didn’t quite agree with the Gandhian or Nehruvian visions of India for he found in them a hesitation to admit caste as an important factor in defining not only Indian nationhood but its citizenship. He cautioned against the deification of the past.

The ninth section also has a single thinker and focuses on “Right Liberal View of Culture and Nationalism”. Three essays of C. Rajgopalachari are included here. The tenth section, “Revolutionary Vision of Nationalism” has pieces by Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh and M. N. Roy. The title of one of Bose’s essays is “Communalism is not Nationalism”. Bhagat Singh is represented by essays like “Why I am an Atheist”. The selections here seem to aim at undermining the attempt to appropriate them as rightist icons in contemporary India. The lone left voice is from the internationalist M. N. Roy. The eleventh section, titled “Indivisible Nationalism”, has essays by two Muslim freedom fighters who were opposed to the two-nation theory. While Jinnah finds no place in the anthology, it is alive to what he symbolises in the popular imagination in India – as the progenitor of the two-nation theory. Thus, the essays of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan focus on the ‘perils of narrow nationalism’. The 12th section has a single essay and by someone from outside the mainstream “nationalist” thinkers – K. A. Abbas. A journalist, film personality and a novelist, Abbas continues the viewpoint represented in the earlier section. What is significant is that these are essays from the post-independent era and that too as late as 1968. The last section titled “Nation and Nationhood Defined” has three essays by Jayaprakash Narayan. Again, these essays are situated far from the formative years of Indian nationalism, as they are from the 1960s and later. The implicit symbolism in this inclusion is perhaps in Jayprakash’s representative voice against the autocracy of the Emergency period. His fight was also against popular mobilization using frenetic anxieties of the people. Thus, the anthology finds an apt conclusion with JP’s cautionary commentary on nationalism: that aggressive nationalism is a danger to the world, especially when JP says, ‘…feelings of identity with a country’s past do not at all imply blind acceptance of or admiration for all that belonged to that past… the kind of emotional identification… is a delicate process requiring patience. Mutual respect and understanding and accommodation.”

Irfan Habib manages to do the impossible – represent within a few pages a very large and varied set of ideas. Readers might have several ‘would-have-liked’ inclusions to suggest. For example, one may wonder why the editor chooses not to include more recent contemplations on the subject. The lack of voices from various Indian languages is also an area of lacuna. Another is that most of the essays are either extracts or topical pieces and thus, while they are competent expressions about the subject of the book, sometimes they leave the reader with a sense of wanting more clarity. However, these are complaints no book of this size can ever hope to avert.

The reason why this book becomes important is its topical relevance. We are today seized by a never-quietening debate over “deshbhakti”. This book is a reminder about the evolution of the idea of nation and nationalism, its history and the diverse contours of its early elaborations. More pertinent to our time is its attempt to remind that nationalism is not a singular ideology, that there are many brands of nationalism and many accents to their imagination of nation, none of which need be predominant, none of which need be prescriptive. This book adds to the many efforts underway in our society today to tame the crude and muscular ways of describing and prescribing nationhood and its citizenship.




Kamalakar Bhat was born in Sirsi, Karnataka and had his education in Sirsi, Mysore and Pune. He is presently an Associate Professor at the Postgraduate Department of English, Ahmednagar College, Ahmednagar in Maharashtra, India. He is a bilingual writer and a translator between Kannada, English and Marathi. His publications include three collections of poems in Kannada – the first, Churuparu Reshime appeared in 2006 and won the PUTINA Award for Best Book. The second, Mugiyada Madhyahna appeared in 2010. His third collection of poems Jagada Jate Matu Kate was published in 2017. He has translated to English the poetry of several contemporary Kannada poets including S. Manjunath, Jayant Kaikini, Abdul Rashid, N. K. Hanumantayya, K. Sharifa, Mogalli Ganesh, and H. S. Anupama. He has also translated the poetry of the iconic Marathi Dalit poet Namdev Dhasal and published a reader on him in Kannada. He has translated a few prose works of K. P. Purnachandra Tejaswi and Ashok Hegde. He has edited the Kannada section of the online multilingual literary magazine


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