Home > 2018 > The Uncontested and Contested Idea of ‘New India’

Mainstream, VOL LVI No 8 New Delhi February 10, 2018

The Uncontested and Contested Idea of ‘New India’

Tuesday 13 February 2018

by Suranjita Ray

The ‘New India’ that would emerge by 2022 shall be free of communalism, casteism, terrorism, corruption, and nepotism. It is about Shanti, Ekta and Sadbhavana (peace, unity and harmony) and violence in the name of faith is not acceptable. This was unfolded by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in his address to the nation on the 70th anniversary of our independence. The major steps towards building a new India were underlined as the biggest strength of democracy. To name a few, demonetisation was cited to reflect a firm collective will for change, to make India free from corruption. Women’s empowerment due to the proposed bill to ban triple talaaq, infrastructure projects, Swaach Bharat Abhiyan, Jan Dhan Yojana, doubling the farmers’ income by 2022, and Goods and Services Tax that gave a new boost to cooperative federalism, were highlighted as achievements that changed India. The Prime Minister pledged to make a new India that would be powerful, strong and self-sufficient in every field. He appealed that it would require the contributions of the citizens and even urged them to make sacrifices.

Ram Nath Kovind, the President, also promised the poor, pucca houses, access to electricity, healthcare, sanitation and education, alongside upgradation of road and railway networks, rapid and sustained growth, ample opportunities for the youth and women, and said that India would be free of scourges such as communalism, casteism and terrorism by 2022.

All possible attempts are made by the present ruling party to convince the ordinary people, to reimagine the new ways of living and rebuilding the future of India which promises to empower them as citizens of this country. The campaign sabka sath sabka vikas promises the common citizens their participation in the dream of building a new India that is developed and modern. The governing class has been able to capitalise on the belief that it represents the people as the Mann Ki Baat radio broadcast convinces the people at large, that their voice reaches the government. It has generated much hope amongst the large masses that the new India will improve their living conditions. Ironic, as this comes at a time when the everyday experiences of the ordinary citizen where he/she is browbeaten, daunted, and dismissed, has seen increasing anxiety, insecurity, disquiet, and vulnerability amongst the large sections of society.

The idea of India that promises to work towards promoting the constitutional values, which protect the rights and liberties of its people to bring equality and justice, has and will always remain uncontested. However, while the core essentials of any nation focuses on national interest, and in the larger context, national integration becomes significant to build a nation, we see that the ‘notion of nation’ has been exploited in the idea of new India. The inescapable passion of the ruling political class to construct a consensus on the idea of a nation has resulted in a new narrative. To narrate a new India, which reiterates the belief—“Modi the Nation-Builder”—has created the hegemony of a particular idea of the nation. The rhetoric that directly connects the leader to the nation is inherent in populism. It reminds us of similar situation when ‘Indira is India’ became a strong message of the ruling class that legitimised a powerful leader as central for a strong nation.

While the idea and practice of a nation-state has always remained a subject of political inter-cessions, negotiations, conversations, contes-tations, reconceptualisations, and transfor-mations, the dexterity of the ‘nationalist’ party to mentor young minds has seen a majoritarian narrative that not only establishes the ideology of the ruling class but also denies the existence of an alternative perspective, understanding, and idea of India. The narrative of the dominant political class on the project of building India as a nation wishes not to debate any idea of India that contests its perception and under-standing.

Patriotism Redefined

India has a long history of accommodating people of different regions, cultures, castes, religions, race, communities, and languages. All of them have taken roots in the country. What makes us one nation is the co-existence of many religions, many faiths/beliefs, many customs and traditions, many values, many cultures, many languages, and, above all, respecting each of them. Secularism, multiculturalism, pluralism are the foundation of India’s nationhood and the fundamental principles to the very idea of India. Thus, the patriotic discourse of India is to respect its pluralities, diversities, different sensitivities, and multiple identities, which are inherent in patriotism.

However, the attempt of the present government to assimilate within patriotism the language of Hindutva, Hindu religion and Hindu culture, has seen the emergence of a new patriotism. A growing threat of radical Hinduism denies a multi-faith, multi-cultural, multi-race and multi-lingual society. Its vision of new India as a singular entity has seen societal polarisation, where domination of a particular faith or culture has resulted in marginalisation and exclusion of others. While it is important for the state to uphold the core values and cardinal principles of secularism, the Hindutva ideologues’ campaign for a Hindu Rashtra as the ideal of nationalism has not only led to rising intolerance of the tradition of nonconformity with the claims of cultural supremacy of Hindus, but the nonconformists are also called anti-nationals. (Ray, 2015) As patriots, one is not just supposed to take pride in the nation but also believe in the national interest defined by the dominant political class. In fact, patriotism today is uncontested if it is in confirmation with the ideology of the ruling class. Citizens are required to be compliant subjects of the state. A submission to the vision of a nation formed by the ruling class has seen the state’s mechanisms to induce conformity to the state’s ideas. This reminds us of the controversies surrounding the ‘saffronisation’ of some of the institutions that have remained significant to the rational understanding of the nation. Misconstructing nationalism as Hindutva majoritarianism, has invited debates across the country.

Though conscripted nationalism undermines patriotism, critiques of nationalism of the political class, are called unpatriotic intellectuals. Any deviation from the defined meaning not only questions one’s patriotism but also brands him/her as anti-national. Those who critique the anti-Pakistan attitude are asked to migrate to Pakistan. Patriotism today stands for hostility not just towards Pakistan, but also towards the beef-eaters, the nonconformists, the subalterns—all seen as anti-nationals. (Ibid.) It threatens unbridle conformity, vigilantism, intimidation, and an augmented role for state coercion in the name of the campaign for ‘One Hindu Nation’. The genealogy of the slogan that claims the essentiality to be a staunch Hindu for being a patriot, has been traced in several writings and publications. Writings which do not conform to the same are banned, rejected, pulped, or rewritten. Criminalising and silencing dissent/ disagreement with the dominant understanding, has become fundamental to the ‘Idea of India’.

The Right-wing forces today wield power to siege spaces in the universities that have always provided a forum for debates, discussions, agreements and disagreements, on subjects of human concern, based on experiences, narratives and testimonies, to move beyond the linear contemplations of understanding reality. The space for dissent has shrunk. Today universities are supposed to produce patrons of state ideology.

One needs to prove one’s patriotism today, before expressing one’s views.This obstructs any holistic view of what constitutes India as a nation that underscores pluralism and multiculturalism as the core civilisational values. India, that we have known since 1950 as a secular, socialist, democratic republic, has become a country where communal polarisation, hate crimes, insecurity and violence are getting denser. We see increasing parochial, intolerant, racist and fascist tendencies that have marginalised and discriminated the Muslims and Christians, Dalits and Adivasis.

Reigniting Communal Violence

Infringement on the citizen’s freedom of expression has denied space to the intellectual exploration and creativity, to the culture to debate, question, argue, and contest. People are killed for their ideology, beliefs, views, writings, opinion, dissent, and protests. A growing fearlessness and valour of the law is visible. The cold-blooded murders of rationalists—M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, and most recently Gauri Lankesh—all silenced by a bullet, is murder of democracy.The protests against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, M.F. Husain’s Saraswati, Deepa Mehta’s Fire, Taslima Nasrin’s Memoirs, Perumal Murugan’s Mathorubhagan, A.K. Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas, Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey, Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam, the Da Vinci Code, Valentine’s Day, the Jharkhand Government’s ban on Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance, have legitimised the campaign by a group/community that accuses of misrepresentation of a culture/religion/history. The attempts to revise school books to focus on Maratha glory and downplay Mughal history, not only interprets Indian history as a conflict between Hindus and Muslims, but also defeats the secular principles of the Constitution. Any legitimisation of a communal reading of history is a consternation to the nation.

It defends the intrusion in the relationship between the writer and the reader, by groups/communities who claim to own the right to defend a particular religion/language/culture/race/caste as hegemonic. Visits of Pakistani musicians, singers and film actors have been opposed by enforcing cultural nationalism. While the everyday experiences of child marriage, child abuse, domestic violence, deprivation of girls from the right to be educated, and handling human excreta mostly by women scavengers that are rampant across some of the States, have never become issues of concern, a raise in the bounty on Deepika Padukone and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s head to Rs 10 crores from Rs 5 crores for hurting of sentiments of the upper-caste, saw the Jammat-e-Islami Hind joining their Rajput brothers-in-arms in taking offence to the film that suggests involvement of a Rajput woman with a Muslim leader which fueled the controversy calling for a ban on Padmavati. The spread of vandalism and violence supported by the Karni Sena and Rajput groups against the film is no longer shocking. The States which chose to glorify such aggressive behaviour, instead of combating it, only reflect what is ominous for a democratic society. The progress of a democratic, secular and egalitarian nationalism should provide the space for negotiation of difference of opinions, thoughts, perceptions, and ideas. The intervention of the Supreme Court to uphold freedom of speech and expression and its criticism of the threats of people to take to streets if the film (Padmaavat) is released is welcome. It re-establishes the trust on the Judiciary.

The Hindutva fanatics are helping the process of dissension and distrust. The slogan for one nation, has seen the practice of the politics of violence and intimidation leading to conflict zones that have reignited communalism as communal violence has gone up in a big way. In fact, violence seems to be a preferred expedient ranking India at 141 on the global peace index, making, as it is, far less peaceful than several war-torn African Nations.

The Hindutva fanatics have not only repeatedly assaulted the Dalit and Muslim communities under the refuge of a series of bans—beef consumption, cow transportation, inter-religious marriages, loudspeakers in mosques, religious conversions, and many more—but have also been successful in producing and reproducing stigmatised existence for the Muslim, Dalit, and Tribal people. Assault by self-styled gau rakshaks have resulted in torture, humiliation and several killings. Repeated lynchings in the name of cow protection from Mohammad Akhlaq, Junaid Khan to Pehlu Khan, reminds us of the country that we live in, where Muslims as beef-eaters are meant to be butchered. India is no stranger to racist attacks, atrocities against Scheduled Castes, and suspected beef-eaters. Communal riots are on the increase. This breeds a sense of insecurity, disappointment, anger, and helplessness that grips the minority community across the country.

The aftermath of violence filters into the layers of memory of the young and old, leaving the deepest scar which impact one’s everyday life. 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.

By inadvertently forcing a Hindu custom on the tribals, who traditionally have a food habit of eating beef, the cow slaughter law has diluted the distinctiveness of a dynamic and syncretised culture. An anti-conversion law in Jharkhand, the seventh State to enact such a law, after Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh establishes the majoritarian view which perceives tribals as Hindus. Reconverting tribals back to Hinduism is acknowledged as ghar wapsi. The politicisation of tribal identity along religious lines has festered communal and casteist divisions, resulting in the deep schisms that people experience. It has instilled fear in many. Insecurity has gone up for the common citizens.

These stories have to be told repeatedly, when an atmosphere of terror, intolerance, fear, and sectarian violence has become the new normal. While the government has stated that hate crimes have no place in this country, in many situations, silence by the national leaders has made the hate campaign a part of the mainstream politics.This is deeply corrosive. It has weakened the secular democratic narrative and torn the plural social fabric of India into disjointed pieces.

The political denial of discrimination, humiliation, atrocity, exclusion, racism, xenophobia, and neo-fascism, have only compounded the injustice done by the conformists of caste hierarchy and religious fundamentalists. The state has mummed all forms of debate, all ideas that it considers, in its unquestionable opinion, ‘false’ and ‘anti-national’. It is ironic that those who fight in the name of freedom, religion, identity and culture, often land up denying the same. This reduces democracy to the worst kind of parochial politics. In the ongoing transformation process of India’s self-image, the idea of India needs to reinvent itself to handle these contradictions and conflicts.

Upholding Constitutional Values beyond Symbolism 

Nationalism can never become the monopoly of any one class, group, caste, class, community, religion, or a particular culture of society. Love for one’s country cannot be expressed by disrespecting any religion, caste, community, race, language, or culture. Neither can love for one’s country be imposed by force. Dominant theories cannot be imposed ostensibly to legitimise the ideology of political parties. The Supreme Court’s decision that political parties seeking votes on the basis of religion, race, caste, community and language or status must be censured as they distort democracy, is welcome. It reflects the intent of the judgement to censure hate and divisive campaigns that are gaining increasing currency. Political parties—from red to saffron—must respect the plural and multicultural character of India’s social fabric. It must not be maligned for political interest. Declaring Bhagavad Gita as India’s Rashtriya Granth, a nation and its people, cannot strengthen nationalism. This is a dangerously misleading assumption that raises major concerns.

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. Far from being unchanging, nationalism takes a number of forms that are different and need to be located in particular historical situations. Equality, freedom, justice, dignity and inclusiveness cannot remain mere abstract ideas. The promises made by the government for a new India that will emerge by 2022, will remain rhetorical if the people of a particular caste, community, race, religion, language, customs, and culture continue to feel increasingly threatened, isolated, alienated, marginalised, oppressed, suppressed, excluded, and insecure. The idea of India cannot be isolated from the people’s life experience.

A nation cannot be isolated from the lives of its people, the majority of whom are disadvantaged and are subject to discriminations and cumulative forms of oppression. It is the ordinary people, their diversities, trust, knowledge, reason, and their ideas, that make the nation. It is crucial to move towards a more pluralist approach which respect the multicultural values and practices.The social, economic, political, and cultural plurality and cohesion can be preserved by upholding the core constitutional values in everyday existence. Since the people are as much a part of the nation as the state, no understanding of nationalism can be subjugated to the monopoly of the mainstream ideology which discards an alternative perspective.

Renunciation of the path of hatred, hostility, distrust, intolerance, and violence, will strengthen the nation and its people. Strengthening the pillars of democracy is the need to build India which is possible when the most ordinary/common citizen can be free from poverty, hunger and distress, when the majority are not alienated from their livelihood resources, when caste-based atrocities do not become a feature of the nation’s daily life, when people across religions do not fear to practice their culture/traditions, when freedom of speech is not muzzled, when women do not experience insecurity in their routine living.

Since the idea of a nation is not a static construction, and evolves with situations, the everyday experiences of the people questions the promotion of a dominant perspective that establishes the idea of New India. In a situation of conflict, where the success for narrow political interests threaten the idea and practice of pluralism and diversities, it is worth acknowledging the regeneration of the political culture of resistance. Never before have people with such diversities of caste, creed, language, custom, and culture agreed to come together to assert their rights, equality, freedom, dignity, and justice for every citizen. Debates that include divergent, plural, and multiple viewpoints or perspectives and interpretations weave together a holistic understanding.

While one lives for ideas and not off them, the disengagement of the governing class with the debate that engages with a series of complex, diverse, and contested issues denies a realistic approach. The idea of ‘New India’ cannot become an end in itself. It should be a means to strengthen social justice, democratic and secular values, plurality, unity amidst diversity, which are themselves subject to argumentation, transformation, and conciliation. It is important to explore several complex issues and to do away with the widespread disjuncture between the idea of India and the real living experiences of people. Our hope lies in building a nation that secures the democratic values which ensures social justice, liberation, freedom and an egalitarian society that rejects hierarchy, privilege, prejudice, deprivation, humility and oppression in everyday experience.


Ray, Suranjita (2016) “Beyond Constricted Nationalism” in Mainstream Vol- 54, No. 43, October.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science in Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at suranjitaray_66[at]yahoo.co.in

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