A review essay by Dr Kamalakar Bhat
Title: Indian Nationalism — The Essential Writings
Editor: S. Irfan Habib
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2017)
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.