A review of ‘We or Our Nationhood Defined’ by MS Golwalkar, also known as Guruji.
What is Swarajya?
This text by the second Sarsanghchalak (Supreme Leader) of the RSS, and more importantly, its ideological guru, is an interesting read to say the least, not just because it makes one dwell upon pressing questions about how a nation should be shaped in close cohesion with the collective socio-cultural psyche of society and what that means for liberal democracy, but also because reading it helps articulate a defence against the brute majoritarian ethics of an empowered fringe which liberals leaning towards the left and right, alike, are increasingly questioning.
Most people refer to ‘A Bunch of Thoughts’ as his seminal work on a chartered nationalism for India, yet very few acknowledge this book authored in 1939, published during the chaotic last leap years towards the battle for Independence. His ideas thus, are a reflection of that period in Indian history, when the Government of India Act (1935) was still offering minority rights to European settlers, and is rife with resistance against the British Raj, as well as the ‘bloodthirsty Muslims’ both of which, he opines, are two enemies in the triangular and eternal fight of the glorious Hindus for national re-generation. It provides perspective on a national ‘cultural’ identity and patriotic flavour which is relevant even today, with recent policy moves ranging from the compulsory playing of the national anthem in movie theaters to the National Register for Citizens in Assam.
The text reads more like a sermon or manifesto than rational discourse used to justify the need for a Hindu Rashtra (Bharatvarsh). Yet, there are elements of argument used to justify envisioned ideals, which are explored in more detail below. The assertive masculine need to reclaim the long lost mother goddess (Bharat Mata) reflects largely in the text, and the pressing times are referred to (in the prologue) as an opportunity as a test of manliness in order to rise to full stature. For now, let’s forgive him the feminist critique of agency, as he was and eternally will remain, a product of the times – clamouring for national re-generation in a third world country in 1939.
The short read is divided into seven chapters. The first attempts to establish the rights of the Indo-Aryans – the Hindus in essence, over the Bharatvarsh, i.e. motherland as original settlers and thereby claimants of the land while propounding the complex superiority of the Vedas over the rest of civilisation. The second chapter ideates on the definition of nationhood and how it is often used interchangeably with the ‘state’ due to new age western definitions of nationalism which turn a blind eye to context specific needs such as culture, language and race. It makes a thorough distinction between the state as a political sovereign and a cultural nationalism, the latter being fundamentally more important than the former to the idea of India.
The third chapter applies the five pronged definition of nationhood (that of language, race, religion, territory and culture) to England, Germany, Soviet Russia and Czechoslovakia in order to assess if they can be classified as nations as per the above definition. Interestingly, in the case of Soviet Russia, he refers to ‘socialism’ as a godless religion which serves as an opiate to the masses just as an established religion would. National existence, he concludes, is thereby predicated on the satisfaction of the five conditions.
The fourth chapter applies the five constituent model of nationhood to Hindustan in order to justify the concept of the ‘other’, in essence to justify how people not belonging to the national Hindu race, religion, culture and language, naturally fall out of the pale of real ‘national’ life, which includes the ‘Maussalmans’ and the Europeans.
Using the first arguments in the previous chapters, he refers to the League of Nations’ (for the United Nations did not exist) Minority Treaties to justify how no place can be accorded to those populations falling outside the five-pronged definition of nationhood for as long as they maintain their racial, cultural and religious differences. In essence, the Muslims or even Europeans can only be Indian if they choose to relinquish their religious and cultural practices and beliefs, while wholly embracing Hindu ones. The sixth chapter pens the origins of patriotism as a natural offspring of cultural nationalism and collective consciousness while elaborating on the normative need for truer forms of (janpad, jati) society where conformity to the notions of the Vedas in terms of race (caste system included), religion, culture and language is paramount.
Interestingly, the case of ethnic cleansing of Jews on racial grounds in Germany is noted as a lesson India could learn from! The seventh chapter dwells on what self-rule (swarajya) really means in the age of national de-generation characterised by a Congress which has facilitated a move away from cultural heritage to blindly embrace notions of western individuation characterised in terms like secularism and democracy (a much wielded argument by right-wingers of late), given that even the creation of the Congress was a safety valve to quell ‘real’ national self-realisation by AO Hume. Historical figures such as Shivaji and Sikh Gurus are made to represent the war for Hindu glory which died down due to the quelling of national consciousness and the invasions of the Muslims and British.
While the above arguments for a Hindu Rashtra were naturally more articulate than the average right-winger of current times, there are several reasons why the notion of an inclusive India with democratic and secular values is superior in comparison to Golwalkar’s envisioned national consciousness.
For it is indeed true that notions of secularism and democracy came to our organised political state from the Europeans, and granted, we applied them constitutionally in a manner that did not prevent a partnership between the state and religion (i.e. minority concessions which meant that the state was not equidistant from all religion), claiming that the source of these ideas as alien is not reason enough to discount the merits of individual liberty and fraternity on the moral plane, for no societal operations, no matter how normatively glorious (he refers to Hindu society being superior because no one stole, no one spoke lies, and society was generally very meticulously organised) can take precedence over an inalienable right to (defined) liberty.
No herd will allow for the full satisfaction of all individual liberties, and while the full satisfaction of all individual liberties will lead to chaos, identifying limits to individual liberties while guaranteeing their operation in other respects is the true merit of a liberal democracy. Sure, it’s inefficient compared to autocratic regimes. But efficiency gains might as well be imperialistic, if liberty does not count for recognition.
All through chapters four and five, Golwalkar is clear to define the Hindu nation as people living within a common culture, common mother language, and common religious practices stemming from the traditions of the Vedic Age. To extend the common language argument, he claims that all languages in India are an offshoot of Sanskrit (page 98) which is why all truly Indian languages are essentially ‘Hindu.’ This is factually inaccurate as it circumvents Dravidian languages, which are said to have developed independently of Sanskrit.
More importantly, his definition of Hindu Rashtra is essentially not inclusive of populations (Muslims in chapter five) characterised as the ‘other’ and ‘not-Vedic’, which is interestingly in opposition to some of the fundamental tenets of inclusivity in Hindu philosophy. To assume that Hinduism is, itself, a homogenous religio-cultural unit, is sort of fallacious, given how vast an umbrella of cultural practice it subsumes. Even then, established texts within Hinduism such as the Upanishads transgress illusory divisions in society such as culture, race, land, language, religion (all five constituents of nationhood according to Golwalkar, used as an argument to create the notion of the ‘other’) to dwell upon larger questions regarding the nature of life, and the universality of existence. Hindu philosophy is more globally humanistic than culturally ‘national’ to exclusively disallow new cultures to be subsumed within itself. In this vein, Tagore was more of a Hindu than Golwalkar!
One important representation of global humanism in Hinduism can be construed from the ‘Mahavakyas’ in the Upanishads referring to the reconciliation between the Brahman (ideal state) and Atman (pragmatic state) as the end of illusory life and transcendence to self actualisation. Tat Tvam Asi (That Thou Art) – the inside of a seed, the empty air, is a representation of all life and non-life, it represents the universality of existence and the illusory manifestations of material life humanity needs to transcend.
Moving to a more practical defence of the inclusivity in Hinduism, it would be counter intuitive to assume it would be opposed to new cultures on the pure basis that it is a nation into itself when multiple traditions have historically coexisted with very little conflict within it. Granted, it has not subsumed Abharamic cultures within it, but direct opposition to the ‘other’ is not a fundamental criterion for Hinduism, far from it.
While Golwalkar is limited by his times to presume that the superiority of Vedic culture in reference to India comes from its indomitable claim to the land (in a first come first serve basis), accompanied by the final five aspect nation theory, it is blind to the idea that several principalities of Dravidian nature existed before the advent of the Indo-Aryans which were, it is speculated, naturalised into ‘Asuras.’
Another issue with the text is the conflation of the normative with the pragmatic, as well as the limits of historical understanding reflected in unsubstantiated notions in order to legitimise Hindu legitimacy over the land. Some instances refer to the Arctic origins of Hindu society and their original source of residence being the north pole (page 44), and the glorious Vedic Age when not one of the hundreds of millions of people ever told a lie or stole or indulged in any moral aberration, all this before the west had learnt to roast meat (page 46).
Limited by his times, the author is unaware of civilisations such as Harappa and Mesopotamia, complex civilisations older than and parallel to Vedic times with written languages and organised trade which surely did know how to cook their food. Another interesting fact in the book is the claim that the Revolt of 1857 was the resurgence of the Hindu war against its eternal foes (Muslims, Europeans) when in reality it was largely fought by Hindu and Muslim sepoys together against the British.
Golwalkar certainly identifies the stark difference between the two and is critical of the former for as long as it does not account for the latter. However, given that political sovereignty could rationally, in case of India, be only a prerequisite to cultural nationalism, the argument should have been for both to be wholly integrated approach for a nation-state, instead of completely discounting the former while making a case for the latter (page 38).
All in all, this is an essential read for those trying to understand the idea of India they support and stand for, for nothing is better than reading what the opposition has to say. The book is also enlightening to the reader, in as much as it brings to light how distorted our history has been by propaganda and counter-propaganda. It also serves as a much needed trigger for self-reflection among those in the liberal left (like me) to re-examine the tenets of secularism and liberal democracy which our nation is built on. There are kernels of truth to the notion that our state established its secularism in a haphazard manner in the immediate aftermath of the Partition which, although necessary at that time, needs re-examination in an impartial ethic.
It was the year 1939, when Golwalkar writes with grief about Hindu nationalists being dubbed as communal and anti-national. A statement made eighty years ago rings true in today’s independent India. The hefty weight of identity needs to be borne by our future generations.
What is Swarajya to us? Let us deliberate.