Was Indian nationalism inclusive?

BARE FACTS: In this file picture a child looks on outside her home at a roadside slum area in Allahabad . Photo: AP  

Inclusiveness is the catchword in the current political and economic discourse, following the 11th Plan prescription to incorporate those who have remained outside the margins into the mainstream of development. This is a confession of the failure of democratic governance, on the one hand, and of caste-class partisanship in the process of nation building, on the other. It also testifies that a substantial section has not yet come under the ‘benevolent' umbrella of the nation. In a highly differentiated society, inclusiveness is indeed a process which takes place in three ways: politically through common struggles, socially by overcoming internal social barriers and culturally by identifying a common past by invoking indigenous cultural consciousness.

The attempt at inclusiveness is riven with internal contradictions, which account for the complexity, weaknesses and limitations of the inclusive process and tensions within nationalism. The concept of nationalism, in the Indian colonial context, becomes meaningful only when looked at beyond the overarching relationship between colonialism and the people, and the mutual relationship among different segments of society is taken into account. Overcoming these differences was integral to nationalism.

Inclusiveness, therefore, is a necessary strategy of nationalism, even with contradictory interests finding a place in it. The attempts to resolve the secondary contradiction within the umbrella of nationalism do not overlook the primary contradiction with colonialism. In this sense, the aim of nationalism was not limited to the attainment of freedom but, as Gandhiji envisaged, had to lead to the creation of a qualitatively different society, devoid of caste and religious antagonism. To a deputation of students in 1934, Gandhiji said: “The two things — the social reordering and the fight for political swaraj — must go hand in hand. There can be no question of precedence or division into watertight compartments here.” Nationalism was thus conceived as a combination of political freedom and social emancipation.

What nationalism sought to achieve was togetherness. The very first session of the Indian National Congress recognised it by identifying its purpose as providing a platform for people to come together. What brought people together were political struggles and public agitations. The various streams within the movement with different strategies and modes of struggles were efforts to ensure their rightful inclusion in the nation. People, however, consisted of diverse groups, castes, classes and religions with widely differing interests. What was conceived as nationalism, therefore, was bringing the people together, regardless of the differentiations. Although the anti-colonial sentiment ironed out some of these differences and interests, they were so diverse and sharp that the national movement, functioning within a liberal framework, was not able to find an effective solution. Therefore, India emerged not only impoverished due to colonial exploitation but also socially divided.

That India was economically backward was not surprising, but the fact that nationalism did not succeed in ushering in social and cultural solidarity left a deep scar. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, architect of the Constitution, underlined this failure in 1949: “We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy… What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principle of life … On the 26th of January 1950 we are going to enter into a life of contradiction. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life, we will have inequality.” While pointing out the political success of the movement by which ‘people' became members of a nation-state with democratic rights, Dr. Ambedkar was conscious that nationalism did not succeed in creating inclusiveness in the social, cultural and economic domains.

The roots of this failure can be traced to the early phase of national awakening, which suffered from a disjunction between political and socio-cultural struggles. To begin with, the renaissance which prepared the ground for the emergence of nationalism dissociated itself from political problems and, therefore, was unable to provide a critique of colonialism which warped the nature of Indian modernity. Most of the early renaissance leaders idealised development in the West. Hence, their ability to envision an alternative was limited. Later on, the national movement attributed primacy to political struggles, despite Gandhiji's constructive programme and untouchability campaign. Although both he and Tagore advocated the importance of cultural politics, the national movement concentrated its energies on political mobilisation.

Despite these early limitations, the importance of incorporating the marginalised sections and thus creating an inclusive society was on the agenda of nationalism. The different political formations which participated in anti-colonial struggles with different programmes and different social base were engaged in incorporating different sections into the mainstream of national life through participation in the anti-colonial struggles. Even when contradictions existed among them, they were struggling for inclusiveness in the nation. The social and cultural inclusiveness was sought through socio-cultural emancipation, economic inclusiveness through class struggles and political inclusiveness through political mobilisation. These three engagements of the national movement cover the history of the liberation struggle which was not limited to a direct confrontation with colonialism, but also aimed at the modernisation and democratisation of society although with limited success.

A major concern of the national movement was social inclusiveness. The divisive and oppressive character of the Indian caste system was antithetical to the spirit of nationalism and it was quite natural that only social awakening could address this question. Gandhiji gave equal, if not greater, importance to social issues and cultural struggles. In Gandhian programme, therefore, abolition of untouchability occupied a central concern. The ashrams Gandhiji set up and lived in became a symbol of social equality and also meant a subversion of the traditional, unequal social system.

The national movement was quite conscious of the importance of inclusion of the traditionally deprived groups for the actual realisation of the nation and initiated steps in social, economic and cultural fields to create conditions conducive for them to identify their interest with the nation. In pursuance of that, a series of struggles was conducted covering social, cultural and economic lives. Each one of them had the effect of creating a community, eventually forming a part of the nation. Although these struggles increased their social consciousness, none of them was sufficiently effective to transform the life conditions of the marginalised, possibly because these efforts were bridled by the interests of the ‘upper' castes and classes. The marginalised sections, could not, therefore, identify themselves with the nation. They were sceptical and distrustful.

The consequence of this marginality was the emergence of movements among the traditionally subordinated groups fighting to gain their rightful place in society. That happened in all parts of the country and among all depressed communities. Satyasodak Samaj in Maharashtra in the 19th century, the Dravida Kazhakam in Tamil Nadu, the Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sabha in Kerala and, indeed, the movement led by Dr. Ambedkar are some examples. Emerging out of the oppressed sections, they did not subscribe to the ‘upper' caste urge for reform, of either caste or religion, but stood for abolishing caste and superstitions based on religious sanction. In the vision of Dr. Ambedkar, the annihilation of caste was a necessary pre-requisite for social inclusiveness.

One of the weaknesses of the national movement was that it did not have an effective programme to ensure the inclusion of the depressed and socially excluded classes into the nation. Whatever was attempted in this field was very superficial inasmuch as it did not frontally contest the power of the ‘upper' castes and classes, the legacy of which continues even today. That anti-colonial Indian nationalism was not sufficiently inclusive is possibly one of the reasons why a substantial section of the population is still not a part of the nation.

The making of the Indian nation, as Surendranath Banerji envisioned, can be complete only when nationalism becomes inclusive on a democratic, secular and socialist foundation. In post-independent India, this has remained an unrealised dream. Given the capitalist hegemony over society and middle-class control over administration, the present urge for inclusion may yet end up as another popular slogan.

(Based on the Foundation Day lecture delivered at Assam Central University, Silchar. Author can be reached at knpanikkar@gmail.com)

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 12:00:51 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Was-Indian-nationalism-inclusive/article16817231.ece

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