It is highly perplexing to see why it should be so controversial that Modi called himself a Hindu nationalist. It is also saddening to see how casually many of us use and understand a deeply meaningful phrase like that.
In the west, Nationalism is often studied in two models- Civic or Liberal Nationalism and Ethnic or Cultural nationalism. In Civic or liberal nationalism, though the need for a national identity is recognized, the basis for such identity lies in political structures that are conducive to a liberal, democratic society based entirely on the will of the people. On the other hand you have cultural nationalism based on ethnic identities- the most common source of mass violence, civil wars and war crimes all over the world. The conflict between a nationhood defined by liberal political structures and one based on some common ancestry- in language, race, religion etc- is very real for countries and regions where the common cultural traits militated against the establishment of a liberal society. The most economically developed and well educated citizen could be racist, as in the case of the Nazi, because of his/ her nationalism. This obviously meant that there was nothing in the common ancestry, which simultaneously required a nationalist to be liberal and rational. There have been some exceptions to this, like the Puritan revolution in England which was the only non-secular revolution that bolstered scientific spirit and liberty. Therefore, the dichotomy between a civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism became so relevant in the west.
Increase in minority radicalism in many western countries has woken up liberal societies to the problem of fully ignoring cultural traits in identifying their citizenry. David Cameron’s famous criticism of multiculturalism two years ago was a clear acknowledgment of this problem. But there was little in his speech that helped identify an alternate basis for a British national identity. What does it mean to be ‘British’, ‘German’ or ‘French’ culturally or ethnically? There is no common culture historically in any of these countries that is entirely divorced from Christianity or race or some other sectarian factor. The French can only come up with a vague “open socialization” as a common cultural trait to restrict the wearing of burqas. I’ve even heard of love for pets as common to ‘British culture’. But these are weak indicators with no sound historic or social basis. Language probably comes closest as a basis for national identity in the west. John Howard mooted speaking English as a criterion for Australian nationality. But these are cosmetic commonalities. Cultural commonality should be such as to induce nationalism. An Australian citizen can speak the best English and still feel no connection with Australia if some minority religion is the most dominant aspect of his culture.
So, western nations are grappling with this difficult question of balancing their liberal outlooks with the need for some common cultural identity. In India however this conflict should have been irrelevant, if not for some of our Constitution-framers’ blind adaptation of liberal nationalism with little realization that it is our common Hindu culture that allows for liberalism and equality to thrive in India. The western-educated leaders of Independent India who had no genuine association with Hindu heritage saw the nationalism on based Hinduism as a moral equivalent of Muslim nationalism and therefore, in the name of secularism, decided to burry all marks of Hindu identity in building a liberal nation. It is important to see that in India there can be no muslim nationalism for two reasons. For ‘muslim nationalists’ religion is such a significant part of the muslim culture that all other cultural traits revolve around religious prescriptions. More importantly purity of religious practice is derived from the foreign origins of the religion thereby rendering a very essential component of India-its geography- irrelevant to their identity. As M.J. Akbar narrates about the philosophy of Shah Waliullah, the father of “Muslim modernism” according to some:-
“He sought ‘to confirm to the habits of customs of the early Arabs and the Prophet himself’ and to abstain from the customs of the Turks (ajam) and the habits of Indians…Two and a half centuries later, there is an interesting variation to the proposition ‘nearer to Arabia, closer to Allah’. In the first instance it reinforced a system of ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ Muslims, the latter being converts from Indian cultures…the explosive growth of signs of external identity is evident in the sub-continent”
When the basis of your religious identity lies in differentiating yourself from the rest and deriving purity from foreign practices, no amount of liberalism and equality is going to help build a common nationalism. As Bimal Prasad explains, referring to Swami Vivekananda’s praise of Islam (Pathway to India’s Partition-The Foundations of Muslim Nationalism):-
“Though this shows remarkable broadmindedness, the type of integration based on a synthesis of Hindu philosophy and Islamic social organization…even if a syncretic approach was developed, this type of integration, particularly in religion, could not have received any appreciation from Muslims with their faith in superiority of their own religious doctrines and deep concern with maintaining their separate identity.”
This does not mean that Muslims cannot be nationalists. They can, provided they recognize their mode of worship as just one of the many aspects of the common culture.
If there can be no nationalism based on Muslim religious identity, how can there be Hindu nationalism? Before this is answered, it is important to understand why there can be no nationalism based on any other individual aspect of culture in India. There is no language, custom or habit common and strong enough to bind India as a nation. Any nationalism on the basis of these is bound to lead to balkanization in a manner similar to religious nationalism. Therefore it becomes essential to identify that which is truly pan-Indian.
There can be no better explanation of what is Hindu nationalism than by its own founders; the great stalwarts of the freedom struggle whose intellectual might few liberal contemporaries could match. The most lucid explanation is offered by Bipin Chandra Pal in his book “Nationality and Empire”. First he explains the basis of the collective Hindu Race-consciousness:-
“In the Hindu’s philosophy there are endless appearances but One Reality…and the Hindu’s view of other races, other communities, other religions, and other cultures, is that these like his own race or community or his own religion or culture, are all parts, moments and manifestations of that One Supreme Unity which fulfills and realizes itself through these endless difference and diversities…Even as advocates of Hindu culture and Hindu civilization, we can not, therefore consistently with the teachings of Hinduism itself, refuse to admit that our culture and civilization, and at their best, have so far rendered only a few notes of the Universal humanity which includes all the different races and cultures of the world”
He explains the “Hindu Philosophy of nationalism” further:-
“And we claim to understand this philosophy better, because from of old, our holy men have known and revered every human individual, whatever his colour, creed, country or caste as Narayana himself…The collective life of various tribes, races and nations of the world, is equally regarded by the highest Hindu thought, as diverse vehicles and manifestations of Narayana…to seek absolute isolation from other races or peoples under a false idea of superiority or independence-is also equally, to impair and obstruct the fullest self-revelation of Narayana in history and humanity…This is the philosophy of nationalism, as it is understood by the highest Hindu thought. It is for this reason we hold that Hindu nationalism implies neither selfish conflicts with, nor arrogant isolation from, the other nations of the world.”
Therefore, as identified by Bipin Pal and many other theorists of Hindu nationalism, the most significant binder of Indian national identity is the universalist-outlook of the Hindu. It is a way of thinking as much as a way of life. It is truly a uniform trait. Hindu nationalism can never therefore be religious, linguistic, racist or geographic. All these individual aspects of culture- language, race, religion, geography, custom- derive their Hinduness because they are carriers of this Universalist way of thinking. They don’t have independent Hindu identity. Bipin Pal calls this the “personality of the people” rather than Mazzini’s “individuality of the people”. It is the individual who claims affinity to religion, caste, creed or language. For the Hindu, these are each a small part of his larger cultural personality and therefore do not fundamentally affect his collective consciousness. It is hard for many to accept this because this collective consciousness is not as tangible as a mark of religious identity or the accent of a language. But it is as real if not more.
While nationalism based on religious identity or any other sectarian identity can never be conducive to national integrity, nationalism founded purely on political models can never survive as long as a part of the nation places its own sectarian identity above liberal values and in fact uses constitutionally guaranteed liberties to perpetuate such an identity. Such a nationalism impedes a very significant purpose of nationalism as a political ideology- fostering patriotism. We should realize that in Hindu nationalism, we have the only nationalism based on common culture which is totally conducive to a liberal, equality-based society. There is no need to have a sui-generis liberal nationalism which was a historic need of foreign nations whose past and culture militated against diversity and liberty. Hindu nationalism rests on equality and liberty in their widest sense and at the same time provides the most vital emotional link that can bind a nation. There can be no other viable nationalism in India other than Hindu nationalism.
How we have faltered in our understanding of Hindu nationalism is best illustrated by our treatment of the song ‘Vande Mataram’, penned by the “father of Hindu nationalism” Bankim Chandra. When Rabindranath Tagore recommended the truncation of the great song by saying “no Mussulman [Muslim] can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh’ [the nation]”, he followed the same liberal nationalism that many in the west are having a serious rethink about, for fostering sectarian identities at the cost of the common cultural identity of the nation.
The first two stanzas of ‘Vande Mataram’, that are not objected to; praise the more material, non-cultural aspects of mother India- her streams, fields, trees and smile. The emotional connect however is established and the fire of patriotism is lit only in the latter stanzas that raise her to divinity. India or the motherland is not named as a goddess in any of the Hindu religious scriptures. No Hindu text refers to the nation as synonymous of Goddesses Durga (Dashapraharanadharini), Lakshmi or Saraswati and yet to the Hindu there is no apparent contradiction in treating her as such. It is this attitude that defines a Hindu. It is here, in the fiery verses of ‘Vande Mataram’, that the inextricable link between Hinduism and Nationalism is found. By allowing a section of our society to remain detached from this emotional bond with the nation, we have permanently put national integrity under threat.
As David Cameron says of the British in his speech “we have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.” We, as Hindus, have also failed to provide a vision of society to which all its citizens want to belong. Any possibility of amending this lies only in Hindu nationalism and nothing else.
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