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Nationalism then and now

Children carrying swords during a Ram Navami rally in Durgapur, Bardhaman district.  

Indian nationalism and Hindu nationalism are two different things. While the former is unconcerned with a person’s religious or cultural identity, the latter imagines the nation as an exclusive community of Hindus. From the time of Independence till now, this distinction has never been in doubt.

But today there is a move by flag-bearers of Hindu nationalism to equate it with Indian nationalism. What exactly is the provenance of these two nationalist ideologies? Who were their earliest proponents? What role did either play in India’s freedom struggle? These are some of the questions that author and dramatist Shamsul Islam dwells on in Hindu Nationalism and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a fine primer on the history and dynamics of Hindu nationalism.

Islam cites extensively from the works of historians and thinkers who themselves are part of the Hindu nationalist canon, such as R.C. Majumdar and V.D. Savarkar, to interrogate many of its claims. For instance, he shows how Majumdar contradicts the Hindu nationalist claim of India being a ‘primordial nation’, given the historian’s observation that the idea of India “had no application to actual politics till the sixties or the seventies of the nineteenth century.”

Indian nationalism was born in opposition to British colonial oppression. Its most significant moment of resistance was the 1857 mutiny, in which Hindus and Muslims battled together against foreign rule. Islam cites Thomas Lowe, a British army commander, who observed that “the cow-killer and the cow-worshipper, the pig-hater and the pig-eater” fought together.

But this nascent Indian nationalism that was composite in nature underwent a process of bifurcation in the “third quarter of the nineteenth century”, notes Islam. Two things played a role in this: a ‘divide and rule’ policy adopted by the British, and the bickering between the elites of the two communities “for securing a favourable place in the eyes of the victor”. Together they created a “scenario in which only competitive Hindu and Muslim varieties of nationalism could flourish.”

Islam’s book also raises interesting questions: If Indian civilisation is more than 3,500 years old, why is it that only a period of 500 years (the period of so-called Muslim rule) is closely scrutinised by Hindu nationalists? What about the period before?

It might be interesting to read Islam’s book alongside his primary sources: V.D. Savarkar’s The Indian War of Independence of 1857 and R.C. Majumdar’s Three Phases of India’s Struggle for Freedom.


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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 9:44:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/nationalism-then-and-now/article18072121.ece

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