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Nationalism and the Constitution-Romila Thapar


Updated: Dec 3, 2021

This talk was delivered as the keynote address of The Idea of the Indian Constitution, 2019, Calcutta.

I know so little about the Constitution of India, just about as much as the average citizen knows. But from the little I know, I fear that we have failed to meet the expectations of the Constitution. Admittedly, societies cannot be changed in a short period, but what is worrisome is that we seem to be moving away from what we ourselves had proposed when we became a nation.

I am concerned about two things: that we tend to forget that the Constitution encapsulates an aspiration towards an intrinsic social and political change in society. Further, more frequently than not, we treat the Constitution as a document in the abstract, rather than that which should determine our lives to a greater or lesser degree.

When does a constitution become a requirement? The obvious answer is: that when a nation is created, it requires a document to mark this change. Not every nation has a codified constitution. But even where it is absent, there is nevertheless a tradition of registering the historical change by honing documents into an apparent constitution, and by acting as if there were such a document, a prime example being Britain. Nations that come late to nationhood work out such a code from the experience of earlier nations.

The world today is composed largely of nations. Each has had a historical turning point or time-marker that registers the change from what existed before, to nationhood. Kingdoms gave way more frequently than not to republican systems of various kinds based, in theory, on distributing power rather than concentrating it. Royalties and aristocracies faded out, or were overthrown and replaced by another elite drawn largely from the middle class. Their attitudes to power and their ambitions differed from those of the previous one, since power was thought of as having become more accessible. The preamble to the Constitution begins with the phrase, ‘We the people . . .’. This is a claim that reflects an aspiration.

The economy that nations endorse is no longer the same as the one of pre-nationalist times. Both capitalism and colonialism have displaced it. There are other aspirants too from lower classes and castes who overcame their hesitations and began to argue for rights. We in India were not a nation since time immemorial, as some maintain.  Terms such as desh and rashtra that are quoted to suggest this do not mean ‘nation’. They refer to territory in general, and by extension occasionally to a kingdom. The pre-conditions of a nation were absent in earlier times.

Indian nationalism has experienced two phases: the first, of anti-colonial nationalism, secular and inclusive of all, and aimed at independence from colonial control. The second I would not call post-nationalism but the phase that attempts to complete what nationalism had to do, namely, to construct a nation-state encapsulating the welfare of the entire people in an inclusive manner. Anti-colonial nationalism does not disappear but mutates into becoming the foundation of the nation-state. The intention of nationalism changed, for now it was concerned with ensuring the equal rights and representation of the citizens. It was a new type of state.

The crisis today is an erosion of this second phase. Religious nationalism is not a continuation of the earlier nationalism. Its intention is not to create a secular democratic society as envisaged in anti-colonial nationalism. On the contrary,the society endorsed by religious nationalism is one that is governed by the dictates of a single religion, and that is the religion of the majority. It segregates non-Hindus as alien in ancestry and religion; it priorititizes the Hindus. Rights therefore are unequal and do not include the entire people of India.

Nor is its central concern geared to establishing access to human rights for all and improving the social reality. Religious nationalism wishes to establish the priority and power of the majority community and is therefore described by many as envisaging a majoritarian state. Such a majoritarian state is a departure from the secular democratic nation—so the very basis of nationalism is shifted. Some therefore do not regard it as nationalism, a view that I am sympathetic to. Whereas others maintain that there is a range of nationalisms, that both the anti-colonial and the religious can be viewed as nationalisms. The point is: a national identity does not deny the many community identities but claims pre-eminence in relation to them.

The Dominion of India became the Republic of India in 1950. It mutated from being a colony into an independent nation. The Constitution encapsulates this mutation. It is the highest law of the state, the law by which the new society wishes to be governed, and it establishes the agencies of governance. The Constitution provides the frame of governance through the executive, the legislative and the judicial. This is historically significant, since earlier forms of governance did not necessarily separate these. Kings, for example, claimed to be the source of all authority. The Indian Constitution gives citizens the right to justice, equality and liberty. It declares India to be a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic. The socialist aspect, which was never absolutely firm, faded after 1991, and the secular aspect has been virtually knocked out after 2014. It remains to be seen whether the democratic aspect will survive. This has enormous consequences for us because majoritarianism cannot be equated with democracy.

Becoming a nation is no small change—it is a substantial transformation. The new elite—a mixed bag of corporates, bureaucrats and politicians—has appropriated the power of the old by either continuing with the earlier institutions of authority, for example, the inequality of caste discrimination; or creating new institutions of power, for example, electoral politics.

The new elite seeks legitimation, and one form of achieving it is through the writing of history. The colonial interpretation is questioned by nationalist history writing, focusing on the identity of the new elite, and is either modified or rejected. When nationalism is qualified as being of a specific kind—religious, racial, or relating to language—that description draws from the identity of the majority community, more directly from its elite sections. Attempts are made to seek legitimacy for the claim of the majority community by re-writing history in such a way that it validates a hyper-nationalism, even if such a history is fake. The achievements of the community being given primacy are said to be the foundations of the nation’s history, often excluding the achievements of others. History is made into an agency of political power. We are familiar with this contention from the 40-year-old confrontation over the content of history textbooks in schools. Predictably, a committee to rewrite history was set up in 2018.

History is essential to nationalism.The past,used for current political purposes, requires to legitimize and justify the present. My favourite quotation is from Eric Hobsbawm: history is to nationalism what the poppy is to the opium addict. This is so pertinent, because the history that is reconstructed and distorted to serve an extreme form of ‘nationalism’can become an opiate’s hallucination. This applies particularly to ‘religious nationalisms’ in which mythology plays a central role.

Why is history so important to nationalism? The major changes implicit in the coming of nationalism emerge when a society moves towards a new form of nation-state, a change that occurs at a specific period in its history. This needs to be explored and understood. Nationalism brings about an altogether different form of governance, with a fundamentally different relationship between the citizen and those that govern, and this in turn determines the society we want. This new relationship is still in the making in India.

In the old system, there was the maharaja, or the sultan, or padshah—or the distant and alien administrators of colonial times, in all of whom was vested the powers of governance. Their subjects were the praja—literally, children.  Paternalism and all that it connotes was the flavour of governance. Governance was the prerogative of concentrated power in one source.

Nationalism, tied into democracy, changed this to governance by representatives of the entire society—at least in theory—and without the intervention of either royalty or deity. To avoid the concentration of power among a handful, it was separated and distributed through various agencies. Equally important: the concept of people being subjects of a colonial state was replaced by granting each person the status of citizen. This was encapsulated in a distinct relationship between the citizen and the state, a relationship that had a new meaning. The citizen was guaranteed rights by the state; in return, the citizen performed stipulated duties. This relationship was confirmed by the Constitution.This relationship has changed marginally in present times, and not nearly enough.

The rights of the citizen in relation to the state are the human or fundamental rights, namely, the state guaranteeing to the citizen the right to food and water, employment, education, medical facilities, choice of religion, and social justice with an emphasis on gender justice. The duties of the citizen require observing the laws as worked out by his/her representatives, and maintaining the integrity of the state as envisaged in the Constitution. When the state hesitates or begins to withdraw from guaranteeing these rights, we know that it is withdrawing from its commitments as stated in the Constitution.

One of the reasons why the state may cease to honour these rights and duties is when governance turns to hyper-nationalism to justify its actions. Nationalism then becomes a politically volatile identity and qualified by any one among an assortment of terms. To add a qualifying adjective to nationalism means that it has been converted into something else, usually majoritarianism in favour of the identity used to qualify it. This means that a majority that is identified by religion—or whatever else—has priority in the governance of the society.

This is one reason why the question of secularism is tied to nationalism. Secularism has been defined most frequently as the coexistence of all religions and the separation of religion from state. But secularism has to be viewed in a larger context, and as having a wider meaning and application as an essential component of nationalism and democracy. Secularism supports the exclusion of the qualifying label that diverts nationalism. In a secular state, all communities that draw on religion continue to coexist, but the central identity is that of citizen and as citizen in relation to state. Where there is a conflict between the two, that is, between the practice of religion and the laws of the state, there the latter will prevail—it will give priority to citizen rights over the observances of religious communities, irrespective of whether the religion is that of the majority or the minorities. Informal personal religion will be substantially unaffected, but the formal social institutions that religions build and support may come into conflict with civil laws. In such cases, civil law will hold, and be applicable to all religions. This is often problematic, particularly with laws relating to marriage and inheritance, and solutions have to be sensitively negotiated.

To narrow the meaning and application of nationalism, and to deny that it of necessity includes secularism, is to seriously curtail or even negate democracy itself. The denial of secularism opens the way to majoritarianism. Democracy is the rule of the majority but it cannot be a predetermined majority. Those that constitute a majority can and do change with every fresh issue being discussed. Majoritarianism means the rule of an existing majority brought together by a single identity of religion, or language, or whatever. Democracy is then replaced with an authoritarian system evolving out of the pre-determined majority community; this is frequently transformed into dictatorship, drawing support from that specific majority. This has been the experience of many countries.

But let me return to the Indian Constitution: it refers to the agencies of power, the procedures, and the rights and duties of citizens. I would like to remind us of what Granville Austen said about it: for him, it was essentially a social document that is both the conscience and the instrument that directs people towards their goals, namely, a more equitable society preserving national unity and maintaining a democratic structure. The Constitution documents our present and guides us to the future through the proposed laws. But such a future is possible only if the essentials are adhered to and not altered adversely or discarded. There can be a lapse between the Constitution and the activities and ideology of those in authority, and where this is so, it needs pointing out.

What hopefully points towards the future is the unequivocal statement [Articles 14,15, and 21,] reiterating the equality of every citizen with no discrimination of religion, race, caste, sex, place of work, and so on. It is stated that no one shall be deprived of their life or of their personal liberty, except of course if the procedures of law demand this. This too would involve a trial followed by a judgement.

This is countermanded in two ways. One: every time a mob takes to lynching a person, which also takes on the character of a testing of strength, the law versus the mob. Two: when people are arbitrarily arrested and kept in prison without a trial. Who then is acting against the law, in this case? Where the government shows a hesitation or a disinclination to put leaders of the mob on trial, or when the trial is not held, should this not be seen as the agency of governance retreating from its duty? Is this not a breach of the Constitution?

Article 21 states that the right to life incudes various human rights, including a speedy and just trial, the availability to all citizens of water and food, of occupations, of health care and education. These are worth thinking about because we encounter them in our everyday lives. These are precisely the concerns that differentiate this period of history as the period of nation-states, and different from pre-modern times. In earlier times, there was little discussion of rights and duties, neither on the part of the state nor on that of each inhabitant of the country. The delineating of the rights of the citizen in relation to the state marks the historical change.

Let’s go through them one by one.

Why is a speedy trial not possible? This is a fundamental function of the judiciary. Its power is precisely to pass judgement on those that are suspected of having broken the law or to intercede between those in conflict. It becomes a more complicated issue when it refers to the freedom of thought, speech and expression. As long as this freedom is not exercised through violence, in which case it presumably becomes a criminal case, the matter is made the basis for debate.

The plea in the Constitution for equality of all citizens stumbles at the very start where it meets with caste discrimination. This has been declared illegal, yet we know that this declaration does not hold. Having been central to Indian social structure for two millennia and in all religions as practiced in India, it cannot be dislodged in a hurry unless we devise a system in which it becomes redundant. We have, on the contrary, strengthened it by making it central in practice to elections, and to status in a large number of jobs. Discrimination against the avarna categories—Dalits, lower castes, adivasis—continues. Reservation re-iterates it indirectly.

The close link between religion and caste began with the segregation imposed by upper castes, with attempts to codify this discrimination in the Dharma-shastras going back two millennia. It was more effectively codified through the British Indian Census in the nineteenth century. Historically, this segregation of the avarnas is common to most formal religions in India—Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh—barring the Buddhists and Jainas, although perfunctorily among them too. The Census, often included the avarna as Hindu; but the other religions claimed that their religion did not support caste discrimination, even if it was rampant in practice. The attempt was doubtless to create a single social identity of upper-caste Hindus, governed by the same law—an attempt that is being made even in our times. Yet, apart from religion, the customary laws regarding marriage, occupation, inheritance and rituals are rigidly diverse among the higher castes of the formal religions. Could the solution lie in abolishing the differentiated laws and subjecting every citizen to the law of the Constitution?

The Dharma-shastras excluded the avarnas; being untouchable or of the lowest status, they were, by and large, consigned to their own ways of belief and worship. The same did not apply to the other religions where the avarnas—the pasmanda, the chuhra and the mazabhi—were socially segregated but recognized as people of the same religion. It is ironic that a popular myth among caste Hindus today is that they have been victimized for the last thousand years,for which there is little historical evidence, but they forget that they themselves and their upper-caste counterparts in other religions victimized the avarnas for two thousand years and many continue to do so.

Article 21 of the Constitution refers to occupation as a human right, requiring the state to guarantee employment to the citizen. This calls for more attention. The emergence of recognizable nationalism dates to roughly the time that sees the rise of capitalist societies and the middle class, to over-simplify it somewhat. The current globalization assumes the pre-existence of capitalism and reflects its more advanced form. It functions in a free and competitive market. Economies have now to be viewed both in terms of the domestic economy as well as their relationship with the international economies that can intervene in the domestic economy. Does the requirement of nationalism that stipulates the economic sovereignty of a country obstruct this relationship? Such questions suggest uncertainties about the future of nationalism remaining within its current form and purpose. It may possibly have to transform into something else, should that become necessary.

There are consequences that may follow from current globalization and that are linked to nationalism. Among those highly visible and clamouring for attention are migrations and populism. The pressure on people to migrate from anywhere to somewhere hopeful is greater than it has been before. In pre-modern times, migrations tended to be smaller in number and not so distant. Modes of transportation, unfamiliarity with the new areas and the limited choice of occupations on arrival were obstacles to migration. Transportation has become faster, and the areas to which migration is directed are generally the more economically advanced countries that need labour. Migrants, whether enforced as slaves or voluntary as paid labour, were settled in large numbers in various parts of the world. The process continues and with the participation of the professional middle class as well.

The outcome has taken many forms. A partial link appears between migrations and populism. When wealth takes a dip in more prosperous countries, a scapegoat has to be found and the migrant comes in handy. The reasons for people to migrate vary. Some politicians refer to migrants as termites, others say they should be transported back to where they came from. There is the constantly projected populist fear of biological admixture defacing the image of the golden age of a pure and homogenous population. No concession is made to the fact that the admixture of populations has been a common factor in the history of every part of the world. Without migrations, historical change would have been limited to much of a sameness, and lacked the great cultural leaps that have led to civilizational achievements.

\ But Brexiters want Britain to go back to the age of king Alfred, and never mind if he allowed the cakes to burn. The Trumpeters want American blacks to be slaves again. We want to go back to hustling cattle as we did in vedic times.

When the imagined past cannot be reincarnated and the present does not turn into utopia, there will be a feeling of having been let down and there will be more lashings out. That is when scapegoats have to be found. These are often the local minority communities who are accused of cornering jobs and daring to live with a dignity that should not be permitted to them. Whatever ails the society, its cause is attributed to such communities. They are deliberately enveloped in a fog of hatred, and are made into the enemy within society. Whether they came as migrants or not, they are segregated as alien. They can therefore with impunity be leached from society.

Populism is the articulation of a particular kind of culture that emerges from the middle-class besotted with the power of numbers. Belonging to the numerical majority allows them to usurp authority. There is an insistence on their culture being the national culture, to which others must conform. They do conform, because in part they do not wish to be left out, and in part out of enormous fear, since non-conformity can be fatal if the majority so wishes. Once the identity is clear as to who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’, then other social groups are marginal.

Few understand that the presence of the Other, the minorities in various ways, have always been and still are, an essential and inevitable part of every society. Societies are like amoeba—parts break off, parts mutate. The constant interface between these parts is what shapes them and also shapes the amoeba.  The recognition of this is essential to the self-perception of both.

Where this is not recognized, the result is a change in the values that are the texture of society. Violence and violent solutions to problems become the norm. Altercations are settled not through a legal process but by violent solutions, often in accordance with the wishes of the mob. Those who do not conform to these wishes are dealt with quite brutally. Even when the law comes into action, its procedures are so slow that punishment is easy to evade. If one is charged with criminal activity in a court of law, one can still be free on bail and participate at the highest level in society, provided the particular majority community so wishes. Some even applaud assassins as heroes. In such a situation, democracy could be flushed out with ease and be replaced by majoritarianism with all its implications.

Can we change this mindset of claiming that the majority community is the identity that represents all the citizens? Can we be made more independent in our thinking as through how we educate ourselves? Are we going to treat access to education as the right of the citizen or is it to be treated merely as an agency to enforce a particular ideological teaching? We have the example of the Cultural Revolution in China and its disastrous results, not all of which have been cleared away.

Is there a better process of educating ourselves than the present one, that might make us think, and think differently? Can we work out distinctive programmes for every level of education? For example: at the level of primary school, children must be familiar with basic reading, writing and maths. At this stage, are women teachers more effective perhaps since they are used to handling children directly? If women become the primary educators, this might begin to change the general mindset towards women.

School is where caste discrimination and patriarchy can be eroded. Teachers at this level are not restricted merely to teaching a subject—they are icons of much else in the world of the young. How conscious are they that they should be communicating at least a vision of a different world to the young, and socializing them to explore such a vision?

The language of instruction is crucial. It is not a question of knowing three languages. What has to be considered is the range and depth of concepts that languages convey, and which languages provoke a greater range of thinking and a handling of complex ideas. Of all the languages widely used all over today, I would argue that English does this better than most. I have since long been an advocate of two languages: socialization through education in the mother tongue or regional language, and English as the other language. But my insistence is that the two be taught not just as two languages but bilingually, if each has to be effective in its own way.

The bilingual aspect is absolutely necessary wherever the purpose is access to knowledge. The intellectual and emotional content of the two languages in the mind of the child can open up new visions of life and people. Knowledge has to be questioned, otherwise it stagnates. If what is taught in schools is to be truly effective, it must start with teaching children that they have a right to ask questions and indeed are required to do so. The spirit of enquiry and the need to question what is being taught is alien to those whose sole intention is to impose an ideology.

It is not required that universities be proliferated in large numbers. The document of the New Education Policy makes it clear that the intention is to allow private finance to establish schools and universities in larger numbers, and drastically reduce the responsibility of the state to do so. In such a situation, universities become businesses and social accountability disappears. The control of the corporate sector working in tandem with a dictatorial government could decimate the very purpose of education. The downgrading of public universities ensures that their students are substandard, and, for no fault of theirs, quality education will be restricted to privately financed universities. Those that can afford the fees of private universities will be properly educated while large numbers of students will be deprived of quality education that is expected of the better state universities.

An uneducated or badly educated society is a prescription for populism. Poor quality education exaggerates the fear of various insecurities. A major innovation in educational policy was the introduction of Reservation. It is now time to assess the impact it has had, both as a pattern of education and in changing social mindsets, and how it can be improved. The debatable issue remains as to whether it should be caste-based or based on parental income. Would there be a case for subsidizing parents so that children can have a proper schooling?

If I may conclude on a personal note, let me say that I grew up on the cusp of Independence and my formative years were the early forties. We were submerged in the concepts generated by anti-colonial nationalism. We recognized that it meant the construction of a new kind of society—the society envisaged in the Constitution. In the sixties, when I began work as a professional historian, I had the strong feeling from contemporary debates that we were inching towards that society. It was this feeling that nurtured many of us when we set about putting together what became a world-class university, the JNU. Today, that feeling has been eroded, because the sense of exploration towards a better future that had sustained our efforts is no longer there. The University is being academically dismantled. Are we to be left holding onto the rags of history? Was our faith in nationalism and its accompaniments of a secular democratic society, misconceived?  It is for you and the next generation to judge.


Romila Thapar is an Indian historian as well as an Emeritus professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her principal area of study is ancient India.

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