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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 43 New Delhi October 15, 2016

Beyond Constricted Nationalism

Sunday 16 October 2016


by suranjita ray

The dexterity to create a buzz about nationa-lism is essentially meant to consolidate what the ruling political class consents. The Hindutva ideologues campaign for a Hindu Rashtra as the ideal of nationalism.The angst that many citizens feel is due to the drum-beating of ‘Hindu Nationalism’ which is identified with the culture of the Hindus. The raging controversy over bigoted nationalism has led to rising intolerance of the tradition of nonconformity with the claims of cultural supremacy of Hindus by the Hindutva ideologues. The nonconformist are called anti-nationals.

It is quite evident that the nationalist project today is not about what nationalism means, as much as it is about who can be branded as an anti-national. Any deviation from the majoritarian understanding on nationalism is not just rejected blatantly, but subscribing to an alternative view is also branded as anti-national. Ironically, nationalism has become an inordinately contested issue, which every generation of citizens of this country will have to deal with. Humanistic morality based on equality, dignity and inclusiveness cannot remain confined to abstract ideas but needs to be embodied in a nation. (Naussbaum, 2015: 9) It is therefore important to protest against the politics of Hindutva and Right-wing rhetoric which believes that India is a Hindu Rashtra, and preaches Hinduism—not merely as a religion, but a culture, and the Indian way of life.

Understanding Nationalism

Since the idea of nationalism emerges from its practice, it has varied connotations. Its concep-tion has undergone a process of evolution. As a movement, it has grown and will continue to grow. The concept of nationalism that developed in India during the anti-colonial struggles had numerous and competing visions of nation, nation-building and nationalism. Indian nationalism in all its complexities unfolds the different versions that can co-exist, even when they are contrary, in a plural and multicultural society. Nationalism was conceived by the freedom fighters themselves as a graft in progress. The assertions for rights, equality, freedom, dignity, and justice for every citizen saw the progress of a democratic and egalitarian nationalism that provided space for negotiation of difference of opinions, thoughts, perceptions, and ideas. The commonality to struggle for freedom from the colonial powers provided space to the common citizens to associate with the task of nation-building. The latter has always been a process of continuous contempla-tion, inquisition, reviewing, and restructuring. While Indian nationalism was never homoge-nous, and the ideologies of the freedom fighters were debated, the patriotism of those who disagreed with such ideologies was never interrogated. Today, one’s patriotism requires the sanctity of the political leaders. And many are engaged in its controversy to benefit from the politics of bigotry.

While it is important to acknowledge the long-term reforms, the constitutional inter-pretations of a ‘nation’ becomes significant. The Constitution privileges the citizens of this country without any discrimination—‘We the people of India ....’. Unprejudiced and unbiased, it makes the state and society democratic, by constraining them from practising violation of justice, liberty, and equality. This elucidation of the basic principles enshrined in our Constitution merits objective reflection. The government and people should uphold the principles of the Constitution by reason, to preserve the social, economic, political, and cultural plurality and cohesion. Only then can rights, freedom, and dignity of every citizen be protected. Nation and nationalism without such protections will be endangered.

Therefore nationalism can never become the monopoly of any one class, group, caste, class, community, religion, or a particular culture of society. Nationalism in the normative discourse derives meaning from freedom or aazadi (though the word aazadi has been bruised in the recent controversies). An all-round freedom ‘implies not only emancipation from political bondage but also equal distribution of wealth, abolition of caste barriers and social iniquities and destruction of communalism and religious intolerance. This is an ideal which may appear utopian ....but this ideal alone can appease the hunger in the soul’. (Bhagat Singh, cited in Bhaskar, 2016: 14) Even though not everybody agrees to confine nationalism to what has been articulated during the freedom struggle, nobody denies that ‘freedom’, which is the gain of long years of struggle and sacrifice, cannot be pushed to oblivion.

It is the people, the ordinary, their diversities, their trust, and their ideas that make the nation. With the death of ideas, a nation dies. Celebrating nationalism is celebrating democracy and freedom, and indeed,it is celebrating pluralism.Hence, no understanding of nationalism can be subjugated to the monopoly of the mainstream ideology which discards an alternative perspective. Domi-nant theories cannot be imposed ostensibly to legitimise the ideology of political parties. Nationalism can neither be institutionalised to a discourse that is insensitive to debates and analytical studies nor can it become inimical to the freedom of interpretation and understanding. (Ray, 2015) Debates that include divergent, plural, and multiple viewpoints or perspectives and interpretations weave together a holistic understanding. Thus legitimisation of a hegemonic political culture, which suppresses democratic space from engaging with alternative perspectives, needs to be contested.

The democratic tradition of debates not only makes Indians argumentative but also makes the term nationalism more progressive and revolutionary. Although anti-colonial nationa-lism is believed to be humane, compassionate, and pro-people (Mukherjee, 2016: 12), several scholars argue that the successful re-assertion of the traditional dominance as nationalism and its transformation into state, and the historic attempt and the failure of the submerged masses—the Dalits, Muslims, tribals and other marginalized communities, to emerge as a political nation, ensued ‘Nationalism without a Nation’. (Aloysius, 1997)

The open lectures by many rational scholars in the ‘freedom square’ at JNU and elsewhere to revisit the idea of a nation and nationalism in the context of denial of debates, dissent and disagreements with the dominant discourse focused on the understanding of nationalism beyond its territorial or constricted cultural idea. It is important to contest the majoritarian discourse as it is a threat to the plurality of the Indian society, its history, politics, economy, and culture.

Dominant Discourse

The ideology of Hindu Nationalism campaigns for Akhand Bharat (Hindu Land). The attempts of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Government to rewrite the history of the freedom struggle, reinterpret the making of the Constitution, reinvent the idea of India, and appropriate the nationalist leaders for political gains calls for careful analysis. Even to arrive at certain general propositions, it is critical to develop an analytical approach or methodology to evaluate analysis itself, and its finer nuances, which takes us towards creative thinking and an adequate understanding.

The contributions of Mahatma Gandhi cannot be reduced to Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, wearing of khadi, or discourses deprived of philosophy, ethos, principles, morals, conscience, and politics. Neither can Jawaharlal Nehru be seen merely as a national leader or an architect of the Planning Commission, National Development Council, and Community Development Planning. His thrust on science and modernity and vision for a ‘socialist pattern of society’ that prioritised democratic freedom, secular ideas, human dignity, and social justice are values which will be cherished by human civilisation across the ages and cannot be confined to the contents of text-books of social science. Despite divergences on issues of national importance the freedom fighters worked in convergence and congruence for a common cause, and not against each other. As freedom fighters, they had a vision, a dream, a hope, and their sacrifices are above acknow-ledgements, celebrations of centenaries, and appropriation by any political party. Appro-priating B.R. Ambedkar selectively as anti-Muslim, or casting him as Hindu, and a vegetarian, while ignoring his stands for the annihilation of caste, his views on Brahminism, Hindu religion, and demand for social justice, or praising Jawaharlal Nehru selectively at the international stage while underplaying his historical legacy in forums within the country, on the idea of a secular and rational India, only exposes a chauvinistic nationalism. What is worst is that an immense divide has emerged, and those who do not conform to the chau-vinistic vision of the majoritarian construct—Hindu Rashtra—have come to be known as anti-nationals or traitors.

We see the rise of communal nationalism, one of the worst fears of some of the leaders of the freedom movement. This causes concern. The Hindu zeitgeist, who have taken the centre-stage in transferring nationalism into an end value, have created an increasingly hostile, polarised, conflicting, and parochial atmosphere. A conformity that has vitalised the intolerant gaurakshaks to brutally assault the Dalits and Muslims. Defending Hindu culture has become a shield for atrocities and massacres of the disentitled and powerless. An atmosphere of terror, intolerance, fear, and sectarian violence has become the new norm. Nationalism cannot be resurrected by such ardent practices that batter democratic and human values. Projecting nationalism as one history, one culture, one race, and therefore one identity, which is national, is to extinguish not just the plurality and diversity which is fundamental to our society, but also the rights and liberty of citizens.

In the context of today’s divisive politics can any political class speak on behalf of the whole nation? Certainly not the political class whose ideology is biased towards a religion, culture, caste, and community. Hyper-nationalism has resulted in books and writings being withdrawn, pulped, banned, and burnt to prevent readers from having access to an alternative discourse that disagrees with the dominant understanding of the political ruling class and their alliance. The Hindu fanatics terrorise artists, writers, teachers, and students for any expression, in any form, that reveals the disconcerting or anguished reality. They become subjects to either censures or are banned as anti-nationals. A growing fearlessness of the law is visible in the cold-blooded murders of rationalists. The attacks on rationalists happened under the Congress regime also, but the point is to condemn such assaults. It is important not to remain silent to the regressive arguments about nationalism. What is worrying is the ‘general drift of society ....the troubled intellectual in India is being asked to choose between free speech that can lead to intellectual murder or a silence that can end in intellectual suicide’ not just by the state but also by the drift in society. (Gandhi, 2016: 10)

A democratic, plural,and creative society needs to be critical of Hindutva politics as much as the politics of dynasty. Since one of the world’s largest democracy has been politically dominated by one family for more than half-a-century, this repugnance witnessed the anxiety of the common citizens to see a change in the political regime. The ostensive decisive mandate that saw the ideological shift had, perhaps, never expected the Right-wing nationalist politicians to reduce nationalism to a mere chanting of slogans like ‘Mera Bharat Mahaan’ or ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, and define a nationalist as the one who only raises such slogans. Those who do not, are named anti-nationals.

The culture to defend Hindu culture as national has separated the nation and its people from nationalism. U.R. Ananthamurthy, in Hindutva or Hind Swaraj, argues that the real test for a democracy is to provide space for those who are not in the majority. The future of a nation and nationalism lies in the political articulation of the diversities and aspirations of the large masses. Patriotism cannot be ‘the sole preserve of any particular party or group with certain ideological views and nobody has the right to say that anybody not of a particular viewpoint is not a patriot’. (Rashtriya Sahara, cited in Chishti, 2016) In fact, from hoisting flags in educational institutes to making the singing of national anthem compulsory, ‘patriotism has become a ritual for scrutiny..... majoritarianism in India has combined with a jingoist nationalism’. (Visvanathan, 2016: 10)

Majoritarian narratives not only reflect the narrow political interests but also obstruct any holistic understanding of nationalism.The campaign for cultural nationalism and strident majoritarianism is unfavourable to the project of building India as a nation. In violation of the tradition of pluralism and multiculturalism, the political leaders wish not to debate nationalism through free speech. It is rather ironical that the more they attempt to convert a plural society into a majoritarian one, the more debates they invite. The ordinary citizens refuse to be browbeaten, daunted, and dismissed. Therefore, the debate on nationalism raised a wide range of issues of freedom, in particular growing restraint on free speech, intolerance, dissent, civil liberties, prejudice against the lower castes and minorities, ban on beef eating and so on.

Negation of Dissent


Free speech is under great threat not only from the religious fundamentalists but also from the state. This reveals serious infirmities in our democracy. In fact, sedition charges have become normal and are no longer exceptional measures. The state has become extremely intolerant of expressions (in any form) it does not want to hear, see, learn, acknowledge, or understand.

While it is important to extrapolate the complex interdependencies of the dominant structures that influence the state, Hindu nationalism thrives because the political class has been able to graft the institutional power structures. Though national institutions have been preserved as a fiefdom of the Congress party as well, the last two years have seen increasing intrusive politics of the BJP Government in institutions of higher learning and research such as the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), Indian Council for Social Science and Research (ICSSR), National Book Trust, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi and in Madras, Hyderabad Central University (HCU), and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

One is reminded of the controversies surrounding the ‘saffronisation’ of some of these institutions that have remained significant to the rational understanding of the nation. Academic and research issues have taken the backseat, due to appointments based on petty politicking and interference of governments. The recent attacks on their autonomy, egalitarian spaces and research culture, and the threat to the freedom which these institutions provide for questions, debates, discussions, and dissent on most significant ideas about Indian history, politics and culture has become evident by the extensive use of the draconian sedition clause against anyone who dissents or opposes the ideology of the government.

Universities, in particular, in the recent past have been targeted by the political parties, whether ruling or in Opposition, to impose their ideologies. The protest by the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) in HCU against the hanging of Yakub Memon and the celebration of beef-festival last year caused unhappiness amongst Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (AVBP), the Hindu Right-wing students and their supporters. Based on stigmatised experiences of living, the consciousness of minorities oppose and contest integrating and assimilating with the mainstream nationalist discourse. This contestation produced new sites of palpable conflict and animosities between the conformists and nonconformists. Thus HCU was branded as a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics. This resulted in an institutional murder of Rohith Vermula. The political denial of discrimination, humiliation, atrocity, and exclusion only compounded the injustice done by the conformists of caste hierarchy.

On similar lines, JNU has been branded as the den of anti-nationals. The RSS ideologue, Ashwini Mishra, in an article in Panchjanya, states that speaking about nationalism is a crime in JNU. He argues that since the Leftists support the Naxalites, insult the martyrs of the Kargil war, promote beef-eating, and protest against the capital punishment for Afzal Guru, they preach and teach anti-nationalism. Dissenting students are called traitors and have become victims of media trial. The events in JNU and Patiala House have further excavated anxiety, fear, distrust, and suspicion that afflicted the country during the past few years.

The special restriction proposed by the T.S. R. Subramanian panel—colleges and universities should consider derecognising student groups based ‘explicitly on caste and religion’—will promote the growing violence against constitu-tional freedoms, and repression of secularist and rational voices, by creating a culture of fear, coercion, oppression, and intimidation. The recent protests by students of the AVBP and residents from the nearby villages against the teachers and administration of the Central University of Haryana in Mahendragarh, for staging a play based on Mahasweta Devi’s short story, Draupadi, as anti-national (alleging that the Army is shown in poor light), reminds us of the protests in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), HCU, University of Delhi, and JNU, against screening of documentary film Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, based on the 2013 riots in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, as anti-Hindu. The Right-wing forces today wield power to sieze spaces in the universities that have always provided a forum for debates, discussions, and disagreements on subjects of human concern, based on experiences, narratives and testimonies, to move beyond the linear contemplations of understanding reality. At this conjuncture, the statement of Prakash Javedkar, the Human Resource and Development (HRD) Minister, that ‘education is not a political issue but a national issue’, makes little difference, when ‘what is national’ is the monopoly of the political class and their ideology. In the context of these challenges, it becomes imperative that India survives as a democratic and secular nation, which makes no attempt to impose a particular religion or a culture as national.

Unmaking India

Unlike the normative notion of nationalism, its contextual interpretation needs to be grounded in the increasing experiences of alienation, exclusion, and oppression of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, and Christians. As protectors of ‘national interest’, which itself has been redefined to privilege the ideology of Hindutva, the gaurakshaks have taken law into their hands. They have been empowered to inflict physical torture and violence on those who they think are flouting their diktats. This has increased the alienation of Dalits and Muslims thus adding to the intensity of their assertion. By conceiving certain food habits and cultural practices of the dominant class and caste as ‘national’, the Hindutva fanatics have repeatedly assaulted the Dalit and Muslim community by branding them as cow-eaters and violators of law and order. They have been successful in producing and reproducing stigmatised existence for both the Muslims and Dalits. By remaining a passive observer, the state has failed to break the animosity towards the Dalits and Muslims. What is horrifying is that the suppressors have felt more powerful during the last two years. There is no better way to understand the oppression of the subalterns than understanding the way the perpetrators of violence are protected. No slogan can safeguard the perpetrators of increasing atrocities against certain sections of society, nor can slogans make a nation. From Khairlanji to Una, the continuance of atrocities defines a society and a state that not only violates the fundamental right to live with dignity, but is also prejudiced, cruel, brutal, inhumane, and insensitive.

The longer-term implications of the precarious vigilantism that now certifies for nationalist pride, and justifies impunity, cannot be ignored. Nationalism can become progressive and revolu-tionary only if the perpetrators of subjugation and injustice are reprimanded. Nationalism needs to go beyond symbolism by cultivating an imagination of a nation that liberates the oppressed and suppressed, and empowers them towards self-determination.

Prime Minister Modi’s statement at the end of the 15-day patriotism drive that “the Nationalists are with us, we need to bring Dalits and backward groups” explains in many ways that ‘the non-Dalits and non- backwards—the upper castes have the sole claim over the nation and the Dalits as well as the backwards outside its purview need to be brought closer’. (Gatade, 2016: 25) An understanding that defends only the pure and the privileged as central to the nation will contribute to nothing but the unmaking of India. The strategies of the state to empower the oppressed and deprived, therefore, remain highly contested.

Nationalism needs to move beyond constriction to become inclusive, anti-discriminatory, unpre-judiced and dispassionate. While a common understanding of nationalism links it with patriotism, democracy, and development, the idea and practice of nationalism is a continuous process. It has always evolved in a particular historical, social, cultural, economic, and political context.

Criminalising and silencing dissent or disagree-ment with the dominant understanding has become fundamental to the ‘idea of India’. In a democracy, expressing ones opinion on the judgement of the Supreme Court cannot be faulted in law, and cannot be arbitrated as anti-national. While freedom of speech is not an absolute right, the attempts to batter free speech has exposed the insularity of the political class.

Patriotism today stands for hostility not just towards Pakistan, but also towards the beef eaters, the nonconformists, the subalterns—all seen as anti-nationals. A nation, and its people, can strengthen nationalism by upholding some of the core constitutional values in everyday existence—diversity and tolerance, democratic rights and freedom, self-dignity and empower-ment, and unity and integrity. Though the concept and practice of nationalism is open to interpretations, it is more important now than ever before, to essentially deconstruct the majoritarian construct—the Hindu Rashtra.


Aloysius, G. (1997), Nationalism Without A Nation In India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Bhaskar, C. Uday (2016), ‘Bhagat Singh’s Nationalism’ in The Indian Express, March 23, page 14.

Chishti, Seema (2016), ‘The Urdu Press: Decoding Patriotism’ in The Indian Express, March 4 cited ‘What is Real Patriotism’ in Rashtriya Sahara, Editorial, February 29.

Gandhi, Gopal Krishna (2016), ‘The General Drift of Society’ in The Hindu June 16, page 10.

Gatade, Subhash (2016), “Dalit Uprising and After: Why Hindutva Would not be the Same Again” in Mainstream, Vol. 45, No. 37, page 25.

Mukherjee, Mridula (2016), ‘What it Means to be Independent’ in The Hindu, August 15, page 12.

Nussbaum, Martha (2015), ‘For a Politics of Humanism’ excerpts from an e-mail interview to Rajgopal Saikumar in The Hindu March 26, page 9.

Ray, Suranjita (2015), ‘Rewriting History for Political Gains’ in Mainstream Republic Day Special, Vol. 53, No. 6, January 2015. ISSN No. 0542-1462.

Visvanathan, Shiv (2016), ‘The Paranoid Art of Nationalism’ in The Hindu, August 26, page 10.

Suranjita Ray Teaches Political Science in Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at

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