Mainstream, VOL LV No 10 New Delhi February 25, 2017
Ignore Prof Bipan Chandra’s Forewarnings . . . At Our Own Peril
Monday 27 February 2017
by Ajayakumar Kodoth
“I wish to see India exist as a nation-state, a strong nation-state. But the rise of certain social and political forces with narrow policies is a threat to our national integrity. Take communal powers, for instance. There is no doubt that as a political party, the BJP stands for national unity. But theirs is a brand of extreme nationalism. Their communal policies will weaken India. I fear that if the BJP happens to remain in power for ten years, India will get partitioned again.” (Kalakaumudi, Issue 1039, August 13, 1995: 6)
These words by the renowned historian, the late Bipan Chandra (1928-2014), were spoken 22 years back when this writer, along with fellow academic Dr C. Balan, interviewed him through the course of two nights at the Guest House of Mangalore University. Actively participating in the interface were the veteran journalist, T.V. Krishnan (formerly of Patriot), the historian, Dr Kesavan Veluthat, and the writer’s doctoral research guide and former member of ICHR, Dr B. Surendra Rao. In today’s political context, Prof Bipan Chandra’s observations regarding issues of topical importance like nationalism, communalism and secularism gain fresh and increased significance, and this article is an attempt to remind readers how prophetic his words have turned out to be.
The opportunity to see and get introduced to Prof Bipan Chandra came in 1981 when he visited the writer’s father, the veteran freedom fighter, K. Madhavan, at his residence in Kanhangad, north Kerala. The visit was part of Prof Bipan Chandra’s preparations towards co-authoring a compendious historical work on the Indian freedom struggle. More than three-and-a-half decades later, the memories of the whole day that Prof Bipan Chandra, Prof Bhagwan Josh of JNU and Dr K.K.N. Kurup spent in the company of my father are still green. So also the awe-struck attention with which this writer, as a young student of History, listened to their conversation.
A stalwart among Marxist historians in independent India, Prof Bipan Chandra stood apart from them all on several fronts. His conclusions about the Indian national movement were unique, and have been the subject of intense discussions. He was open in his oppo-sition to the Communist stance of considering Gandhiji as a mere bourgeois leader and main-taining a distance from him. “Communalism is an ideology,” he argued and stated that it was one of the challenges that deserved top priority in free India. As an author of several books, he was never dogmatic about his principles, and one can be certain that his assessments and comments about nationalism, communalism and secularism will be taken up for serious debates in the future.
If one examines the Sangh Parivar agenda that has been put through experiments over these one-and-a-half decades of the 21st century, it will not be difficult to see how right his fears about the balkanisation of India were. By the phrase ‘balkanisation of India’ what he was pointing to, more specifically, was the social splintering of the people. That social splintering will eventually precipitate political partition of the nation is a phenomenon that is all too familiar to the Indian consciousness. The active communal-fascist agenda is evident in all the activities of the Sangh Parivar one sees everywhere —the communal attacks in Gujarat in 2002, the organised violence unleashed on Christian churches in Odisha, the assassination of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi, the Dadri incident in UP, the terrorisation of the Dalits and other minority communities in the name of protection of cows, the move to rein in free thinking in universities, the appointment of pure-bred Hindutva votaries to high-ranking posts in top academic institutions and publishing houses, the official and unofficial ban on famous, secular, historical books, the anti-reservation policies of the RSS, the ill-motivated steps to wipe out the Nehruvian socialist-secular legacy from public memory and so on. All these have to be viewed as constituting the greatest threat to the continued existence of India as a nation-state.
The interview made a comprehensive evaluation of how the consciousness about the nation-state crystallised in the Indian mind, and how far and deep it has spread. However, without going into the details of all the topics covered in the interview, this article will attempt a summary of Prof Bipan Chandra’s views on nationalism, secularism and communalism.
The process of nation-building is a historical one that will reach completion only in the distant future. But there is a fundamental difference between a nation and a nation-state. The nation-state is an independent entity in every sense of the term. There is no foreign authority casting a shadow over it, either politically or economically. In free India, it is the formation of the nation-state that is currently underway. The foundation of a nation can be laid only through economic, social and cultural harmonisation. In India, attempts in this direction began during the Mughal period. The prospect of a political unification of India came later, when the British rule gave impetus to the realisation of the concept of nationhood. This in turn spurred the process of nation-building. However, political and economic independence that was gained through the anti-colonial struggle was what converted India into a nation-state. Though very complex, the process of nation-building is gaining greater strength in India today. Not only did this process continue after the attainment of freedom but it also progressed with a sense of responsibility. How-ever, with the gaining of independence, in place of a single nation-state, three emerged even-tually—India, Pakistan, and later, Bangladesh. This was a huge setback but the process of nation-building continued in India without a break. The process of nation-building is a human activity, not a divine one, and that is why it is a historical process.
What is still a continuing process in India today is different from those of other nation-states. India is a land that embraces the different cultures of its various native states. All these cultures need to be nourished equally. The reason why the separatist ideology has not emerged or gained traction in South India is that Hindi is not foisted on it. Nor is the Central authority. Pandit Nehru, Smt Indira Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao did not rule with the special interests of UP or Bihar in mind.
Prof Bipan Chandra’s views on the nation-state are very unique. His observation about China is a case in point. The Chinese do not talk about the Chinese nation. Instead they talk about the Chinese people. In European countries like England, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria and so on, the terms “nation” and “nationalism” have great relevance. When the nationalist movement began in India, we borrowed these terms. Prof Bipan Chandra argues that the phrase “multi-nationalism” does not apply to India because it may lead to a lot of confusion. Therefore the concept of the Indian nation should stand for the Indian people. Inherent in the idea of nation-building is the process of the unification of the Indian people who have common political and economic interests. Although there are several shortcomings, primary among them being the fact that development is not moving at the same pace in all parts of the land, the process of nation-building is still progressing. The short-comings are largely the creation of the capita-listic system too.
India, he argues, has to thrive as a strong nation-state. This argument has to be seen against the existing world order. For example, Africa does not seem to be progressing or growing strong. The reason is that it is not united. Palestine was a platform where the Arabs could display their strength and unity but disunity led to Israel establishing power over them. The condition of the Latin American countries is no different. They have enough human resources but their lack of unity has helped the cause of US imperialism. The US has succeeded in pitting all the Latin Americans against one another for its own advantage.
But the Indian people, who have various cultures, languages as well as castes, and occupy different financial levels, can be kept united only by the ideology of nationalism. Class ideology will not succeed in this regard. Only a struggle for social justice can use class ideology to its advantage. The European Union has come into being. A confederation of South Asian countries has also taken birth. The Latin American countries are trying to cobble together a union. But in Africa all efforts in this direction have collapsed miserably.
We, the Indians, have common economic interests. But what is the common ideology that can bind us together? The inadequacy of class ideology has already been mentioned. Therefore one has to conclude that only nationalism can be effective. In fact, it has a very constructive role to play. But it needs to be applied in a consistent manner. We badly need to progress, and in order to do so, sacrifice is essential. Only the ideology of nationalism can inspire people to make sacrifices for the greater, common good. However, only that brand of nationalism is worth struggling for that will ensure equality to all people. A democratic political order cannot afford to permit inequality; it cannot afford to have advanced regions and chronically backward pockets. Therefore what we need is a kind of nationalism that is built on egalitarian principles that will ensure justice and social equality among the various castes, religions and sexes.
A re-interpretation of nationalism is the need of the hour. Nationalism has been subjected to endless discussions, but never to re-interpre-tation. Very few people talk about the great principles of our freedom struggle that should form the foundation-stones of nation-building. We should build a new nation and strengthen it by infusing it with a greater sense of equality. Nationalism, in the final analysis, should be an integral part of the daily lives of the citizens. What we need today is a nationalism that will be the lifeline of all the people, and not a religious nationalism that lays stress on the superiority of Hinduism or any other religion. The nationalism touted by the Sangh Parivar will serve only to divide the nation because it aims to create a theocratic Hindu nation, not a secular one. Such an aim is not viable. It is traitorous as well.
According to Prof Bipan Chandra, the Indian national movement was not only a national freedom struggle but a unification process too. As early as in 1891-92, the President of the Congress had announced that the aim of the Indian national movement was national unification as well. And the contributions made in this regard by the moderate Congress leadership were considerable. Thus the unifi-cation that began in the 1880s with the constitution of the INC, gained strength by 1905. The nationalist consciousness began to strike deep roots in the minds of the Indian people. That was the reason why the organi-sations of farmers, workers and students, that were formed as part of the national movement, took on a nationalist character in spirit, and also in their labels from their very inception in 1885—All India Congress Committee (AICC), All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), All India Students’ Federation (AISF), and so on. The Indian National Congress and the Communist Party of India did not represent the social and political sections that espoused narrow policies. Rather, they were truly nationalist in orientation. The ideology of the RSS, on the other hand, is in direct contrast to this. Although it was born in 1925, during the time of our freedom struggle, it kept away from the independence movement and also became a counter-revolutionary force.
These observations form the core of Prof Bipan Chandra’s beliefs.
The Indian national freedom struggle is one of the biggest peoples’ movements the world has ever witnessed. Yet, he teasingly comments, while we are uncritical in accepting labels like American, French, Russian, Chinese, and Cuban Revolutions, we are hesitant about describing the Indian freedom struggle as the Indian Revolution! Among the aforementioned struggles, the American and the French revolutions were actually bourgeois revolutions. One of the major charges Prof Bipan Chandra levels against the Indian Communist leadership is its failure to take forward our successful national revolution in tandem with its contribution to the nation-building process. He viewed the Calcutta Thesis of 1948 from this critical prism and came down heavily on E.M.S. Namboodiripad who concluded his book on Nehru with a dismissive attitude towards the contributions of Nehru and Gandhiji.
One of the most important arguments made by Prof Bipan Chandra, particularly when approached from the contemporary point of view, is that the RSS is to be seen not only as a fascist organisation but as a truly counter-revolutionary force. While all the movements, including the Left, that participated in the national freedom struggle, have made sacrifices for the unity and progress of the country, the Sangh Parivar with its communal agenda divides the people, and through them, destroys the country. It was 22 years back that Prof Bipan Chandra told this writer: “I fear that if the BJP happens to remain in power for ten years, India will get partitioned again.”
The BJP came to power with an over-whelming majority in 2014. One has only to look at the seeds of insecurity it has sown among the minorities and the Dalits, within merely two-and-a-half years of administration, to calculate the damage it can inflict in 10 years. We have seen only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The only way to hound these commu-nalist-divisive forces out of the country before they grow into demonic proportions is by forging a grand alliance of the secular, democratic forces. The forewarnings of a scholar like Prof. Bipan Chandra, gifted with a realistic view of history, are important sign-posts that we may ignore only at our own peril.
The author is a former member of the Kerala Public Service Commission, erstwhile member of the faculty of History, Nehru Arts and Science College, Kanhangad, and son of the late freedom fighter, K. Madhavan of North Malabar.