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The Civic Character of Indian Nationalism

The Civic Character of Indian Nationalism

As a consequence of their idealist culturalism, the cultural nationalists crudely spiritualize secular thought through Hindu exceptionalism.

Yanis Iqbal

With the rise of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the intellectual defense of cultural nationalism has taken on a new significance. One of its sophisticated iterations consists of the following arguments: “Has the nation been created by the Constitution, or the nation adopted, enacted and gave itself the Constitution? In other words, is the emotional charge of nationalism a result of the euphoria created by a consensus over liberal values like liberty, equality and fraternity, or did the nation resolve to live by these ideals in its corporate life? To predicate nationhood on civic rather than cultural values is putting the cart before the horse.” These dichotomies are extremely simplistic. First, cultural nationalists consider universal values as mere ideas, which exist independently in an ethereal realm. In contrast, a materialist perspective acknowledges that Indians have real needs – for physical support, for accommodation and shelter – which do not emanate from peculiarities of their culture.

In fact, the existence of such needs is a precondition for the sustained reproduction of culture. As Vivek Chibber notes, “If agents do not perceive the need to find subsistence, then the elementary precondition for the cultures existence has not been met. Hence, every culture must have codes through which agents can recognize their basic needs as desires—for it to fail in this regard would consign the culture itself to oblivion.” This interest in physical well-being leads to the pursuit of ideals such as liberty, equality and fraternity because these conceptions of political rights — instantiated in various forms such the legalization of trade unions and the ban on property qualifications for the franchise – are demanded, in part, to enable workers to defend their basic physical well-being. Thus, in India, the constitutional vision of liberty, equality and fraternity was crafted semi-independently of culture, as the immiserating effects of British colonialism unleashed a substantive desire on the part of the subaltern classes to gain economic freedom.

Secondly, cultural nationalists’ denial of the materiality of basic needs and interests results in the opposite case, wherein culture is regarded as the fountainhead of all democratic worldviews. While admiring the traditions that define the essence of a nation, one should also recognize them as sites of major social contradictions between immediate producers and those who extracted unpaid labor in kind and in services. In “Ancient Treasures”, Rabindranath Tagore commented: “If we are to build up a nation, we must with all due respect and regret cast aside the load of the venerable rock-like tradition, which is suffocating our humanity, our strength and our manly independence”. In “Objectives and Education”, he reiterated: “It is no use repeating that our traditional society is the best training ground of man as man…we must at the outset mercilessly smash this illusion of ours. It is our own society that has tortured our humanity”.

Molded by the radical energies of the Independence struggle, the Indian constitution officially scrapped many precolonial customs and practices, such as untouchability and separate electorates for religious minorities. This indicates the fact that Indian nationalism had a highly important civic aspect that was opposed to the restoration of a supposedly idealized cultural sphere disrupted by colonialism. The cultural nationalist misunderstanding of the status of religion stems from a lack of attention to the historical determinations of this domain. Traditions have their basis in the persistence of pre-capitalist and non-commodified social relationships. Contrary to common assumptions, British colonial rule continued to provide such a basis. Vasant Kaiwar remarks that it “appears to have left significant areas of life in the colonies relatively autonomous, attempting to preserve or, more to the point, creating a traditional order replete with ranks, hierarchies, endogamous relationships and ascriptive identities, which would have unraveled had the full force of modernization been unleashed on it.” With the onset of the post-colonial period, “we see that traditionalism of the older variety has, to all intents and purposes, disappeared in most places with the onward rush of capitalism (modernization).” In the neoliberal age, it has been replaced by “neo-traditionalism” – founded upon the comparatively unstable structures of cultural production (television plays, computer images etc.) and the political invention of identities through mass public ritual.

From the above, it should be evident that cultural nationalists are trapped in a binary: either the valorization of “authentic” traditions or the danger of a complete evacuation of religion from social life. They remain ignorant of a third alternative – the reinterpretation and delimitation of religion from social life. This corresponds to secularism, the religious corollary of liberty, equality and fraternity. As such, it also has an element of practical necessity. Javeed Alam elaborates:

“Modernity, it does not matter even if it is colonially induced, when it begins to take roots in any preexisting society, generates unending contestations about the notion of the good. But when these contestations get intertwined with religious disputations and struggles for power, the historical tendency has been one of getting deflected into sectarian disputes as happened at the beginning of modernity in Europe. The combination of religion with politics was always a feature of social life in pre-capitalist societies, but such a combination in the phase of modernity is quite deadly, more often than not. When the two are separate and unconnected from each other they do not pose a threat to social life.”

Cultural nationalists do not explicitly reject secularism but they distort the term beyond recognition. As a consequence of their idealist culturalism, they crudely spiritualize secular thought through Hindu exceptionalism: “what we know as Indian secularism — religious coexistence and non-discrimination — is an Indian, read Hindu, civilizational feature, which might not have existed if India had experienced a more profound rupture in its history and culture during the medieval period.” This notion of Muslims as permanent aliens in the subcontinent necessarily leads to the following conclusion: “For Muslims to be fully at home in India, they would have to abandon the self-created binary between belief and belonging. The fetishisations of identity, phobia of assimilation and drift into self-alienation have to end for their cultural roots in the land to revive.” These views are based on a combination of selective historical facts and unfounded psychological anxieties.

According to Jamal Malik: “[H]eterodoxy and orthodoxy do not necessarily contradict but overlap at the level of life-worlds. Therefore, Islam in India is both formal and trans-local, because of its orientation towards normative Islamic texts and centers in the Arab and Persian lands, as well as ritual and local, because of its tendency to adjust to the life-structuring cultural environment or to reciprocate to local cosmologies…The net result is Islamicatization: the social and cultural complex, which evolved historically in the encounters among actors of different religious traditions.” Moreover, “different social groups, lifestyles and life-chances are not conducive to a unified Muslim definition of what is called a homogenous Muslim minority. Other interests, loyalties and affiliations such as economic, social, caste, etc. do indeed transcend religious barriers between Hindus and Muslims, and their plurality of social identities often is more important than their religious affinities.”

When we take into account the nature of Indian Islam, the cultural nationalist assertion about Muslims being overtly particularistic turns out be incorrect. To explore the current conjuncture, we don’t need to engage in the construction of false historical narratives and fantasies. We need to focus on how the secular legacy of the anti-colonial struggle was transformed into a form of secularism shaped by political expediency, by elections, leadership struggles and by narrow conflicts. While the Congress made secularism the policy of maintaining equipoise between concessions given to fundamentalist sections of religious communities, the BJP has instituted an arrangement of overt communalism systematically oriented toward the otherization of Muslims and the entrenchment of Hindu domination. These dynamics can only be understood when we start from a truly secular perspective.


Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at yanisiqbal@gmail.com.

Courtesy: Counter Currents