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Updated: Aug 14, 2021

Presented at the The Idea of Nationalism—an International Conference on Teaching History, Calcutta, 2016.

The arch reactionary Metternich is reputed to have denounced the idea of Italy as a nation by asserting that Italy was merely a ‘geographical expression’. By this gibe he still rendered a service by reminding his listeners that a geographically well-defined territory, or country, does not necessarily constitute a nation. In this context the word ‘nation’ means something substantially more than its earlier sense of simply a large group of people. In the seventeenth century, the English East India Company’s factors in India would speak of even the Banya caste as the ‘Banya nation’. It was the French Revolution of 1789 which by raising the slogan of ‘independence of nations’ inserted a crucial addition to the sense of nation, the sense not simply only of the people of a country, but within them also the wide existence of the aspiration to be, and to remain, independent, or, as John Stuart Mill later put it, ‘to be governed by persons from amongst themselves’. Metternich was simply denying that the Italians of the time really entertained such aspirations. Given this condition for the emergence of a nation, Benedict Anderson in his Imagined CommunitiesReflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, 1983, makes the nation into an ‘imaginary construct’, a product of wide dissemination of the use of the printing press, rather than any definable material circumstance in people’s lives.

What leads Benedict Anderson here to overlook real grievances that made for the rise of nations, including the process that took place in Latin America, with which he deals in detail, is the failure to understand the basic difference between foreign conquests of earlier times and the colonial expansion that ensued after Columbus’s discovery of America in 1492 and Vasco da Gama’s voyage round the Cape Good Hope in 1498. The earlier foreign conquests used to result essentially in the imposition of a foreign ruler and his courtiers and officials supplanting native rulers and their coteries. They then themselves settled in the conquered country, so that their plunder, like the extortions of their predecessors, remained within the conquered land. This was the case with the Norman conquest of England in 1066 or the Ghorian conquest of northern India, c. 1200, or even the extensive Mongol Empire of the 13th century spanning the bulk of Eurasia. The distinctive feature of colonialism, on the other hand, was the effecting of a continuous huge transfer of wealth and resources from the enslaved countries to the conquering countries, which Karl Marx captured so brilliantly in a passage in Capital, Vol. I (Moore-Aveling translation, edited by F. Engels, photo reprint of 1889 ed., London, 1938, p. 775): ‘The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the original inhabitants, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for commercial hunting of black skins, signalled the rosy dawn of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation’. Let us remember that to Marx primitive (or primary) accumulation meant expropriation of non-capitalist sectors or classes for ultimate conversion into capital — in other words, expropriation of non-capitalist economies. It thus included the exploitation of conquered countries or colonies, a process whose early stage has been so strikingly described above by Marx, which was followed by a long subsequent phase of ‘expropriation’ on an ascending scale as the colonial powers turned into industrialised capitalist countries, which sought raw materials in tribute from the colonies and simultaneously ‘de-industrialised’ the latter into becoming their markets.

On surface the invocation of ‘nation’ by each colonial power to justify its own nation’s superiority over the enslaved nations was a species of nationalism, and Anderson so treats it in his chapter ‘Official Nationalism and Imperialism’ (pp. 80-103). It was then very much like the chauvinistic ‘patriotism’ that Samuel Johnson had shortly dismissed as the ‘last refuge of the scoundrel’. There were also cases in Europe where within historically formed states there were dominant and oppressed nationalities, e.g. Poland within Russia, Slavic nationalities under Austria-Hungary, or Ireland under Britain. When within the Socialist Movement a debate on the issue of national self-determination took place in the period of the Second International, it was more or less concerned with this issue, as may be seen from the perusal of V. I, Lenin’s Rights of Nations to Self-Determination (1914) and J. V. Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question (1913), both of which only tangentially touched on the issue of national liberation from colonialism.

The fact is that in terms of populations involved, it is precisely the movement against colonial domination among the exploited countries which by converting oppressed countries into nations has created the largest category of nations. Of this India offers a signal example. Here we have been favoured with a long essay by Perry Anderson, issued as a book, The Indian Ideology, Gurgaon, 2012. Perry Anderson goes in respect of India far beyond where Metternich went in the case of Italy. He denies that India was even a geographical expression, a country, before the Europeans saw it as such in recent times. One might retort that as for foreigners, the Chinese have clear precedence over Europeans in the matter, for Xuan Zhuang (Yuan Chwang) in the seventh century, clearly describes the country of ‘Indu’ (name derived from Iranian ‘Hindu’) or India in as much geographical detail as one could wish. As for there being no term for ‘India’ in any Indian language, as Perry Anderson informs us, what about ‘Jambudvipa’ in Ashoka’s inscriptions (3rd century BC) and ‘Bhårata’ in Kharavela’s Hathigumpha inscription (1st century BC) both in Prakrit, as sure an Indian language as any, or the Indian poet Amðr Khusrau’s patriotic description of India (‘Hind’) with a listing of all its regional languages from Tamil to Kashmiri and Bengali to Sindhi, almost exactly 700 years ago? The fact is that India was widely recognised as a country by the knowledgeable among its inhabitants from quite ancient times, when, looking at its social and cultural uniformities, they could easily mark the universal presence of the inequities of caste system, or the prevalence of Sanskrit as the language of the learned (vide Amðr Khusrau with his high praise for Brahmans and Sanskrit).

Such perceptions of India as a country, however, did not make it a nation. What was needed was that there should be a recognisable widespread urge for its political unity. There is only a faint trace of such a sentiment in Akbar’s minister Abul Fazl’s argument (c.1595) that the policy of religious tolerance was essential for a multi-religious country like India (‘Hindustan’). It is only with the British conquest that the notion of common suffering and common resistance within India as a whole grew. We see its explicit expression in 1858, when the Rebels of 1857-58 framed their reply to Queen Victoria’s proclamation of 1858. They began with recalling the British destruction of Mysore of Tipu Sultan, and their subsequent acts of aggrandizement in India ending with the annexation of the Punjab and deposition of Duleep Singh.

The unifying memory of a common grievance in the loss of independent states was, however, only the starting point of India’s conversion from a country into a nation. The burden placed on India’s poor by colonial exploitation, the heavy tribute and de-industrialisation through Free Trade, were analysed by the early ‘economic nationalists’ (Bipan Chandra’s designation of them), such as Dadabhoy Naoroji and R. C. Dutt, in major works at the beginning of the 20th century, so that an increasingly large number began to see in the very existence of English rule the source of India’s impoverishment. It will be unrealistic, however, to think that the nationalists’ exposure of British exploitation alone could unify the Indian people. Ram Mohan Roy in a letter of 1828 insightfully remarked that Indians could not have patriotic feelings because their primary loyalties lay with their castes. Clearly, India’s social inequities needed to be addressed if its people were to feel a sense of unity. It is perhaps time that we should with greater emphasis recall the bold positions adopted by Keshav Chandra Sen (d. 1884), an opponent of the caste system, an advocate of women’s education and social rights, a critic of untouchability, and at the same time a person who, trying to unify the streams of Brahmo Samaj and Young Bengal, was perhaps the most conscious among nineteenth-century social reformers of India’s future destiny as a nation. Caste loyalties and divisions did not disappear — as the Cambridge school of historians have so constantly reminded us — but these tended to meet explicit and open opposition in the National Movement and outside of it, which proved crucial for the growth of national consciousness.

It is thus clearly pertinent to consider the role of ideas. In an early article Marx pointed to Britain’s implantation in India of scientific education, printing press, railways, etc., for its own purposes, but which would necessarily bring about a ‘regeneration’ in India, such that would lead to Indians growing ‘strong enough to overthrow the English yoke altogether’ (New York Tribune, 8 August 1853). As Gandhiji’s autobiography (My Experiments with Truth) makes clear, his own principal notions, from non-violence to dignity of labour and passive resistance, were founded on readings of modern western writers, not India’s past literature. There can be no doubt as to the western sources of Jawaharlal Nehru’s own thought, as his Autobiography in turn makes so amply clear. Earlier, the methods of analysis that the economic nationalists adopted were also those of modern classical economics.

The idea of ‘nation’, as we have seen, has impeccable western genealogy, with the French Revolution as its fountain-head; and such is the case also with ideas that defined the contours of what the nation should be like when its freedom is won. The words Bhårat Måtå, ‘Mother India’, are not to be found in any Indian text before the nineteenth century, for even the concept of one’s country as ‘motherland’ or ‘fatherland’ is an imported one. This needs to be said here only because our home-grown chauvinists of the Hindutva brand, with the full support of the country’s government that they now control, profess to see the ‘nation’ in the oldest imaginable texts, and weave around it a religiously oriented mythology.

The main fact to be emphasized is not, of course, the ancestry of the concept of ‘nation’, but the struggle which went into creating it. This could only be achieved if the masses joined it; and here Gandhi’s role has to be recognised as crucial. For the first time, in 1917-18, in the Champaran satyagraha, the Kheda satyagraha and the Ahmedabad textile workers’ strike, peasants and workers were drawn into the movement with their own demands, however modest. But it was not until the perspective of a larger land reform, based on the slogan ‘land to the tiller’, was offered, as urged notably by Jawaharlal Nehru in the Civil Disobedience Movement, 1930, that the National Movement also became a peasant movement. We cannot, of course, be unmindful of the role also of Subhas Bose, the Communists, socialists and revolutionaries, like Bhagat Singh, in this great turn towards the workers and peasants.

Before 1947 the test of loyalty to the nation was a simple one: opposition to British rule. No one who substituted for British rule some other opponent, Muslims or Hindus or caste-Hindus or ‘untouchables’, could be deemed a nationalist, or can be deemed today to have been a nationalist. The Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS and the Muslim League all fail on this simple criterion. Golwalkar, chief of the RSS wrote in We or Our Nation Defined (1939) that Muslims who constituted over a quarter of undivided India’s population, would not have any rights as citizens — ‘claiming nothing, deserving no privileges… not even citizen’s rights’. Savarkar in 1937 gained precedence over the Lahore Resolution of the Muslim League, in pronouncing a Two-Nation theory. The Muslim League in its own part forced a partition of the country in 1947 on the same thesis of a religious community being sufficient to form a nation.

In his Hind Swaraj in 1909 Gandhiji had not spoken of secularism, but he had denied that the nation can be linked to any religion and so had held that Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Christians ‘will have to live in unity.’ When the time of trial came in 1947 Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and others stood by their convictions and kept true to their vision of a secular nation, for which we should all be ever thankful to them.

The national project did not end with independence in 1947. Promises had been made to the people about what India would be like after Independence. The resolution on Fundamental Rights approved at the Karachi session of the Congress in March 1931, gave the promise of a welfare state with rights for peasants, workers and women and state ownership and control of basic industries. Although sixty-nine years have passed since Independence, the promises are yet to be fulfilled; and since 1991 despite celebrations of a higher rate of growth under the umbrella of ‘neo-liberalism’, we seem to be moving further away from the promises’ fulfilment. The national aspirations were partly given constitutional sanction when the designations ‘secular and socialist’ were given to the Republic by an amendment to the Preamble in 1976, but the ‘socialist’ part has remained on paper, practically forgotten by all who matter.

Clearly, nationalism does not mean just crying hoarse about the nation, but in its genuine form, represents an urge to work for the welfare of the people. How the nation really benefits from mere shouting, or rioting, or disputable ‘encounters’, or firing with pellets on civilians is surely debatable; and it is further debatable whether some authorities or special persons have the right to ban citizens from questioning dubious statements emanating from the army and police over the atrocities they might have committed against the nation’s citizens. On the contrary, it is in the interest of the nation that the true facts are established, justice is dispensed, and the guilty do not escape. The semi-fascist tendencies of the RSS and BJP based on naked communalism married to a worship of the corporate world, are now becoming daily manifest; and true ‘nationalism’ surely means that the nation should be protected from this onslaught on its basic values by all available means.

I should like to close this note with another important cause that also calls for our loyalty: internationalism. Are our loyalties, commitments, sympathies to be limited just to our own native land, our nation? Do neighbours mean nothing to us, and what of the brotherhood of the oppressed? Readers of Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography (1936) might have noted how troubled he seems to have been about the very concept of ‘nation’, as one separating us from the rest of humanity. Even in the Discovery of India (1946), in which he found virtues in old India that he had missed earlier, he mused over how in the Quit India agitation of 1942 ‘nationalism had triumphed over internationalism’ (1956 ed., London, p. 183). Even today one is troubled by the fact that the Quit-India resolution had to be passed at exactly the moment when Fascist aggression had reached its peak, the Nazis were at Stalingrad in Soviet Russia and the Japanese stood on the Assam frontier. One hopes the time was not chosen by the nation’s leaders just because it was the most critical hour for the Allies. I would wholly defend the Communists in the AICC for their vote against the Quit-India resolution, on this ground alone. There is no doubt that after gaining independence, India partly did its duty in aiding the cause of other victims of colonialism. Indeed, we can be proud of some of our record in the very first decade of freedom. We supported the freedom struggle in Indonesia, we stood by Egypt over the Suez Canal and stoutly opposed Apartheid in South Africa. But now, as one sees the Government’s statements and the media pundits’ pronouncements, we have no interest left in the world except for whatever serves any direct, immediate self-interest of ours or satisfy some deep-seated grouse that we entertain. Our self-interest, of course, often means little more than what our corporate oligarchs consider to be profitable or what can yield electoral dividends in India, something we see so much at play in our relations with Pakistan and Nepal.

It is, therefore, surely time to stand up and say that it is hooliganism not nationalism to shout down any one who dares to point to the misdemeanours directed against the nation’s own citizens or, indeed, others. Genuine nationalism calls for an anxiety to remove the nation’s blemishes and rectify misdeeds committed in its name. We also have to answer to the call of internationalism, which demands, above all, peace with our neighbours. True Indian nationalists would always revere the memory of the line of Englishmen from Octavian Hume to Ben Bradley, who stood by India against the interests of their own nation. A nation’s own critics, as these Englishmen were, could possibly also turn out to be its real benefactors.


Special paper by Professor Irfan Habib, delivered at The Idea of Nationalism—an International Conference on Teaching History, Calcutta, 2016, by Prof. Arun Bandhyopadhyay, University of Calcutta.

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