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‘The Battle of Belonging’ review: ‘Idea of India’ in peril

Shashi Tharoor’s The Battle of Belonging is a passionate defence of civic nationalism. He laments that, although enshrined in the Indian Constitution, this ideal is now under threat from an alternative vision of majoritarian nationalism that excludes certain categories of citizens and simultaneously attempts to impose uniformity on the “majority”.

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Betraying the Constitution

Tharoor argues that by not rising to the defence of a pluralist and civic notion of nationalism, Indians in general and the political class in particular will be not only betraying the most important legacy of the national movement but also jeopardise the unity of the country for the sake of an elusive uniformity. He contends that unity in a country as diverse as India can be achieved only by encompassing its multiple sub-identities within an overarching national identity that does not negate existing linguistic, religious, or regional sub-identities but subsumes them within the larger identity. This can be achieved only if the ideals of the Constitution, and not any primordial criteria, remain the touchstone of Indian nationalism.

That civic nationalism was not only a virtue in itself but also a necessity for India was the lesson that the framers of the Constitution imbibed from the long history of the freedom movement. Despite the trauma of partition they did not compromise on their cherished “idea of India” based on patriotism on the one hand and a commitment to the goals of liberty, equality and justice for all citizens on the other. Although reality never corresponded fully to the ideal it did approximate it to a sufficient degree during the first three decades of independence to make the ideal appear attainable. However, the ideal itself has since come under attack by forces attempting to change the yardstick by which an Indian’s nationalism is judged. Tharoor sees this derogation of the “idea of India” as a looming catastrophe and exhorts the people, especially its political class, to recommit themselves to the original principles of the Constitution.

Ghost of Partition

The initial chapters of the book argue that the recent popularity of illiberal and chauvinist nationalisms in both developed and developing countries is in part a reaction to the twin phenomena of neoliberalism and globalisation. This applies to India as well but there are additional features unique to the country that prepared the ground for the emergence of majoritarian nationalism. The most important of these that Tharoor does not emphasise adequately was the partition of the country based on Jinnah’s fallacious two-nation theory. This provided the opportunity for Hindu nationalist forces, which had remained marginal during the independence movement and had, in fact, collaborated with the British during World War II and opposed the Quit India Movement, to emerge as a viable alternative to the original pluralist conception espoused by the founders of the republic. Partition did so by radically changing the demographic balance in the country and by leaving a long-lasting impact on the Hindu psyche, especially in north India, which paved the way for the popularity of majoritarian conceptions of nationalism.

What the future holds

After analysing nine different forms of nationalism Tharoor distils them into two: ethnonationalism, including its ethno-religious variety, that is based on presumed primordial affinities and civic nationalism, and that Tharoor argues derives legitimacy “not from ethnicity, religion, language, culture... but from the consent and active participation of... citizens, as free members of a democratic polity.” (p. 31) It is a very important deduction, especially when applied to India, that civic nationalism and democracy are Siamese twins and one cannot exist without the other. The corrosion of democratic institutions and the erosion of civic nationalism go hand in hand. If one sees symptoms of the former as is the case today, then it is clear that civic nationalism is on the wane as well.

The Battle of Belonging is many books rolled into one. It deals with multiple interrelated subjects and provides examples that span several centuries and continents. It is full of erudition interspersed with personal anecdotes. You find the raconteur and the public intellectual, and Tharoor is an admirable example of both, vying with each other to catch the reader’s attention. But in the final analysis the book hangs together and the message is clear. Tharoor proclaims this message by asserting his vision of the India of the future: “It will be [an] India where you won’t get lynched for the food you eat, marginalized for the faith you hold dear, criminalized for the person you love, or imprisoned for making use of fundamental rights guaranteed by your own Constitution.” (p. 391)

But the return to the original ideals of the Constitution requires a political vehicle whose democratic credentials are impeccable, which has credibility with the population, and possesses the ideological and moral certainty to stand its ground in the face of adverse circumstances. Unfortunately, such a vehicle is sorely missing today.

The Battle of Belonging; Shashi Tharoor, Aleph Book Company, ₹799.

The reviewer is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University.

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