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Nationhood, Faith And Patriotism: The Role Of Nationalism In India’s Being

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Western and Indian scholars have presented various theories regarding the essence of nationalism in India from a Liberal, Marxist and Nationalists point of view. In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson holds that Indian nationalism emerged in India because of the colonialism of British rule, with the inspiration of Railways and Print media.

Anthony Smith, a British historical Sociologist, in his book Theories of Nationalism targeted on understanding the origins and formation of modern nations to understand nationalism. 

Cultural identity is an important part of nations. He found that ethnohistory was an important part of modern nations. The major concern with ethno-symbolism is how the modern world’s nations have been formed. He had seen nationalism as a modern ideological movement.

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Nationalism is an aspiration for various social groups to defend, create or maintain nations. It maintains unity, identity and autonomy of nations. But the Indian scholars like Radhakumud Mookerji argue about the existence of nationalism, particularly in the Hindu culture of ancient India.

He states that ancient Indian society had systematic laws, rules and efficient bureaucracy. The big empires were set up by the kings like Chandragupta Maurya, Asoka and Gupta Kings. Trade and commerce developed during these empires.

Gandhi argued about nationalism through his non-violent ideology, whereas Tagore saw nationalism as a tool of violence. In his book, Nationalist Movement in India, Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, an Indian scholar, highlighted the pluralist nature of the Indian nation and its struggle for independence. He discusses all the debates related to the nationalist movement in India.

He familiarised readers with debates like the making of modern nationalism, peasants and Gandhian mass movements, Muslim identity and political participation, nation, region and caste, women in the nationalist movement, capitalists, working-class and nationalism and the last years of British rule.

Romila Thapar, Sadanand Menon and AG Noorani, in their book On Nationalism raised the questions of true nationalism and pseudo-nationalism.

What is patriotism? Who is an anti-national? Why is Bharat Mata ki Jai so important to the right-wing? Is the shouting of nationalist slogans important to prove one’s patriotism? Why is cultural freedom important to a nation? What sort of country do we want to leave behind for future generations?

These questions all involve one of the most fundamental ideas of India — the nationalism we inherited at birth. It is also one of the most hotly contested ideas of the twenty-first century.

Nationalism and nationhood in the context of India

Rebel Sepoys at Delhi, India at the outbreak of the Indian Rebellion, 1857
Rebel Sepoys at Delhi, India at the outbreak of the Indian Rebellion, 1857. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Indian Rebellion of 1857, or what some historians called the first war of independence, witnessed the full flowering of national political consciousness and the growth of an organised national movement in India.

The year 1885 marked the beginning of a new epoch in the Indian history of political struggle. What we call Indian nationalism, grew partly due to colonial policies and partly as a reaction to colonial policies. It would be more accurate to see Indian nationalism as a product of a mix of various factors.

We can say that Indian nationalism, without a doubt, was a political movement born under the impact of foreign domination, with the central objective of attaining the political independence of India. At the same time, it was not exclusively political but a golden age of renaissance movements cocooning almost every sphere of Indian life.

One could render Indian nationalism as a giant crusade of a whole people towards national sovereignty, national gratification, national prosperity and national insight or wisdom. Except for certain erratic attempts at the acme of the Motherland, the movement did not develop a fascination or delusion of its own but remained mostly on a logical plane, swept though by the winds of lascivious ideas.

So we can briefly hold that idea of nationalism in India was not the dream of an inflamed collective mind but the phenomenon of corporeal potential and tangible psychological attitudes in society. This was widely due to the easeful, smooth, placid, sober and intellectual approach of the forerunners who were invariably even in the thick of the broil, examining and illustrating the angles, techniques and meaning of the movement.

Therefore, it is easy to reduce Indian nationalism to its basic elements, which are political, cultural and socio-economic. There was the idea of the rebirth of the past glory and the reformation of the existing social order. While the vision of the past greatness of India was conjured up, it was combined with the challenging of old ideas, beliefs, practices and institutions.

Thus, nationalism has been operating as a revolutionary force transforming, or more appropriately rough-hewing, the age-old Indian social order into a more rational and modern system. The rationality and modernity are due to the impact of western education and technology. Inconsequence of the reasons in India, nationalism has not merely been an instrument of political variation but a chariot of socio-economic and cultural reformation.

More than one stage of historical development is being pressed into one period of history. Struggle for political democracy, social equality and economic freedom are all stuffed in a single period of transformation. The strength and inner balance of a nationalist movement could be determined by the degree to which these aspects, particularly the socio-economic aspects, have been joined on to the political aspect.

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In an utterly underdeveloped country, political nationalism is a vaulted entity and is replete with irrational potentialities. When the nationalist movement gets divorced from necessary socio-economic reform, it loses its vitality and hold on the people and gives place, almost inexorably, to a more revolutionary kind of movement.

Kuomintang China is the classic example of such a development. After independence from foreign domination has been achieved, the main raison d’etre of a nationalist movement lies in its ability to engineer a socio-economic revolution. It may be that the purely political revolution can still fulfil a certain residual function in the way of preserving the independence of the country from outside pressures.

However, the point is that after independence, this is at best a residual emotion that could, no doubt, be kept at a high pitch by propagandist ravings about foreign enemies, but, ultimately, must yield to social and economic considerations at home. The sanity and strength of Indian nationalism lie in the fact that even during the most fervid stage of its struggle against foreign rule, it has developed within itself what might be called a socio-economic soul.

Struggle for freedom and a way to attain Nationhood

The insurrection of 1857, which began with the outbreak of the military soldiers at Meerut on 10 May, 1857, soon became widespread and posed a grave challenge to British rule. Even though the British succeeded in crushing it within a year, it was certainly a popular revolt in which the Indian rulers, the masses and the militia participated so enthusiastically that it came to be regarded as the First War of Indian Independence.

Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and all the other brave sons of India fought shoulder to shoulder to throw out the British. But the revolt was controlled by the British within one year and ended in Gwalior on 20 June, 1858.

Consequently, the failure of the revolt saw the end of East India Company. The Governor-General was given the title of viceroy, which meant the envoy of Monarch, Queen Victoria, assumed the title of the Empress of India, and thus, gave the British Government unlimited powers to intervene in the internal affair of the Indian states.

As the British began to spread their tentacles over Indian soil, the exploitation of local resources and people began with full force. One cannot overlook the fact that the first practical foundations of this revolutionary socio-economic process were laid during British rule.

unity india
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Indeed, the present restless desire for economic progress could have emerged only after the age-old rigidities of the Indian social order were disturbed by the introduction of industrialisation and western education. Based on what Indian people desired, they developed the ability to produce the sentiment of national independence, oneness or brotherhood of countrymen in the Indian context.

On the other hand, this political unification, the fall of the age-old socio-economic system and the beginning of modern trade and industry and the rise of new social classes laid the foundation of nationalism in India. Both religious and social movements with popular anti-British revolts also gave impetus to the growth of nationalism.

Both farmers and industrialists suffered heavily from the draconian laws imposed by the British government. The people of India became aware that the development of their country was not possible unless British rule ended. There was a series of famines that took a toll on millions of human lives due to the indifference of the autocratic British administration.

The proliferation and ultimate prosperity of nationalism movement in India lie only in the hand of social groups wherein the nation is fancied and propagated through the avenues of upper-class leaders, education and awareness of print culture, which plays a dominant role.

As in India, the success depends significantly on older social systems and network of communication still available to large illiterate masses, most effectively through the symbols of culture, often religious and stories often communicated by rumour.

Over time, this flourishes a more imbricated imagined community of the Indian nation, which advanced as evidenced by the evolution throughout the period of Indian national movements of numerous different movements with challenging the eyesight of what a future Indian state ought to look like.

Though the wisdom and understanding of upper educated classes, formed greatly by the protocols of British colonial power which originally advanced and stretched the idea of the autonomous Indian nation, the manner in which largely illiterate masses receive, interpret and accept or reject the idea of the nation is a necessary condition for the success of any national freedom struggle.

It was the degree to which popular power was attributed to the moderate independence movement of the Indian National Congress that grew its authority in the eyes of British policymakers.

Phases of Indian nationalism: Gandhian and Nehruvian

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Nationalism as an ideology with a taste of patriotism is different in view of Gandhi and Nehru and how they portray this success in the growth of Indian nationalism in spotting the Congress with the masses and national freedom with the betterment of their condition.

Gandhi, in his own way, gave a social-democratic twist to the nationalist movement. Regarding nationalism, his views are both a result of his adherent patriotism and the impact of the past tradition of the country and impression from nationalistic tendencies flowing in the past.

He believed that nationalism resulted from the psychological unification of making a centre in the geographical area due to the impact of past tradition, culture and history. It also underlined the common identity of the people.

He set himself straightaway to the task of ameliorating poverty, disease and ignorance through self-help and self-discipline. He imprinted many things out of his design for constructive action to congressmen rocked the social and economic aspects of village life.

Gandhi emphasised encouraging an effective schedule that helped to sow in the peasants mind the desire and the will for a better life. One might say that the first tadpole wriggle of the modern kind of desire for progress was produced in villages of India, strangely enough, under the impact of Gandhi.

What he assured to the masses was more housing, food, clothes, equality and sanitation than they possessed at the moment. The Gandhian philosophy of socio-economic solemnity and serenity could be of ample assistance in preserving democracy.

I do not convey that Gandhi’s philosophy should be used as a kind of non-violent opium to the people. But it assuredly has the effect of taking the edge off the socio-economic appetite and mollifying its revolutionary hunger.

The main and actual brunt of Gandhian ideas on the masses opened up a new panorama of social and economic well-being. To this intensity, Gandhi contributed to the social democratic gratification of Indian nationalism.

Bad Nationalism

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In his book Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci exposed how nationalism could also become a predominance of the power classes over underlying classes. Preeminent and effective religious groups can also use nationalism to censor other groups. Such sectarian nationalisms are inescapably combated by secular and other minority religious groups, and the showdown often gyrated out of control.

The same case is applied to the Hindutva of Savarkar that the RSS endorsed as an emphatic ideology, but without the militant outlook of Savarkar. In contemporary times, before we prepare to explicate, the leading project of the modern Hindutva agenda has become a profound and politicised extension.

Today, this interpretation is animated and negated as never before to the direction of sinister, a retraction by politicians, bourgeois, neo-liberals and a new brotherhood of saffron clads. This is an admonishing of the real and present danger of our democracy being hijacked by intrusive and radical majoritarianism.

The government is failing to do what it was elected to do, safeguard and preserve citizens’ constitutional rights and execute the organic calendar on the essential advancement of community and break-through for all its citizens.

Without government accountability, media watchdogs, free expression and public dissent, nationalism can become a battle cry and there can be no substantive democracy. Without mutual harmony, there can be no nation. This can surely be a deception of the national struggle for India’s independence.

Challenges and the way Forward

There is a persuasive obligation for altruistic citizens to come together, not due to minority rights of one’s intrinsic state or community, but on the universal ground of our inalienable and fundamental human rights asserted in our Constitution. Nonetheless, to be reasonable, we must at the same time prioritise our fundamental duties enshrined in the same Constitution.

The state of art in contemporary times is being denounced by the Thatcherite, monetarist and corporatists that guarantees liberty and equality but results in bourgeois influence and the subordination of the proletariat. Additionally, caste echelons and class stratum inclined mutually and stressed such subordinations and inequalities.

Personally and individually, we demand and reclaim the open capacity that has vanished due to communal dispersion and the tendency of prejudice.

This is the simple and natural ground we must restore or resume so we can walk together through national or civic activism that must eclipse and outstrip identity politics, even of creed, religion or caste and hit ahead to all other disadvantaged groups. It must be a requirement that should be established at the grass-root level.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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