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Excerpt: Ten Ideologies by S Jaipal Reddy

S Jaipal Reddy’s new book discusses ten major ideologies that shaped the world. In this excerpt from the chapter on nationalism, the author explains why the idea of India is so unique

books Updated: Aug 18, 2018 09:28 IST
S Jaipal Reddy
S Jaipal Reddy
Hindustan Times
MK Gandhi with Valabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947.(UIG via Getty Images)
282pp, Rs 795; Orient BlackSwan

The concept of a nation, in its current connotation, is of modern origin. However, people all over the world have had notions of their nations in cultural, religious, linguistic, ethnic, or geographical or imperial senses since ancient times. There is, therefore, an imperative need to distinguish the old cultural notions from the current political ideas.

Nations are situated in specific historical moments and are constructed by shifting nationalist discourses promoted by different groupings competing for hegemony. The concept of the ‘nation–state’ assumes a complete overlap between the boundaries of the nation and the boundaries of those who live in a specific state.

The commonly accepted definitions for the terms ‘nation’ and ‘nation-state’ are:

A nation is where the great majority are conscious of a common identity and share the same culture (Yuval–Davis 1997:10)

The nation-state is an area where the cultural boundaries match up with the political boundaries. The ideal of (a) ‘nation-state’ is that the state incorporates people of a single ethnic stock and cultural traditions (Kazancigil and Doan 1994: 188)

Francis Fukuyama, in The Origins of Political Order (2012), argues that the first nation-state was formed in China…

In ancient China, huge and long-lasting dynasties were the order of the day, although they fulfilled most of the criteria of the nation-state. But China became a republic and a modern nation only in 1911 under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen. Chiang Kai-shek succeeded Sun Yat-sen, but his rule was disturbed for a long period by civil war with the Communists led by Mao. Mao, who led the revolution, founded the current People’s Republic of China. Chinese history has been mostly influenced by a cultural and ethnic feeling of oneness, but this feeling was used of the consolidation of the dynasties. In the twentieth century, nationalism in China grew by way of resistance to Japanese imperialism. Mao, in addition to being a Communist revolutionary, catered to the nationalist feelings of the Chinese, and in fact embodied nationalist fervor more than Chiang Kai-shek’s regime during the Chinese revolution. Mao’s intense nationalism manifested itself even after the Revolution through his regime’s extended claims on land and sea, which are even today threatening the peace in Asia.

While dealing with India soon after China, Fukuyama observed:

The evolution of Indian politics diverged from the Chinese pattern in dramatic ways right around the time of the emergence of the first real states of the Indo-Gangetic plain… the Indian states fought with each other and with the gana-Sanghas throughout the following centuries, but never to the bitter degree of mutual extinction... It is very revealing that the more primitive gang-sangha form of organization survived in India up to the middle of the 1st millennium AD without being absorbed by more powerful states (Fukuyama 2012: 160)

Ancient Indian society did not experience prolonged warfare. Instead of concentrating authority in a single emperor, it was split between a well-differentiated class of priests and a class of warriors who depended upon each other. Fukuyama observes that India’s persistent inability to concentrate political power like China was rooted in the Indian religious system. He further remarks that India created the beginning of a rule of law with limits on the power of the State.

Politician and author S Jaipal Reddy. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT Photo)

Regardless of the nature of the nation-state that ancient India developed, the peculiarity of the geography of India played a critical part. The Indian peninsula is divided from the rest of the world by the seas on three sides, and the Himalayas in the north. This insular geographical character has always inspired philosophers and poets from ancient times to lend India a dimension of cultural unity. From the Vedic era to the epoch of the freedom struggle, India was imagined as one entity in legends and ballads, in scriptures and stories composed in varied tongues such as Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu, and English with or without any connection to ground realities. In ancient India, innumerable kingdoms of varying sizes ruled, until the Maurya dynasty was established by Chandragupta in the fourth century BC. The Mauryan empire rose to its greatest height under the reign of Asoka, when it nearly occupied the whole of the Indian peninsula. No Indian empire ever grew as big again until the emergence of Emperor Akbar. In the period before the emergence of Akbar, India witnessed many empires, such as the Delhi Sultanate, Deccan Sultanate, Gupta Empire, Harsha Empire, Chalukya Empire, Kushan Empire, Vijayanagar Empire, etc, in various parts of the country. The unification of India under the Moghuls was weakened after their dynasty declined. Even as the Moghul dynasty was getting weakened, many empires, such as those of the Marathas, Sikhs, the Deccan Sultanates, Mysore and Kakatiya flourished, with some of them aiming at an ‘all-India empire’.

In the meantime, British imperialists supervened in the process and re-established an all-India empire, building the foundations of Moghul rule. The British regime not only reunified India through the central administration but also generated such nationalist reactions throughout the Indian subcontinent as to lead to a huge movement for independence, beginning with the First War of Independence in 1857 and proceeding to the establishment of the Indian National Congress Party in 1884. There were also violent revolts in various parts of the country, culminating in the martyrdom of (among others) Sardar Bhagat Singh, and the formation of the Indian National Army under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose during World War II. The freedom movement, which came to be led by Gandhiji in its last three decades through his unique technique of non-violent mobilization of the masses, wove silken bonds of unity among the Indian people, which went beyond the barriers of religion, region, race, caste, and language and produced a new Indian nation.

Read more: A tale of two book launches: When politics took the centre stage

Although modern India meets all the requirements of the nation-state, such as external sovereignty, internal control of all parts of the country, etc, it is different in a positive way from all others by being the most multilingual, multi-racial, and multi-religious nation in the world. Gandhiji’s India thus gave a new definition and new dimension to the modern concept of nationalism. This multicultural phenomenon of the Indian State provides a paradigmatic example for other nations which are suffering internal conflicts among their cultural entities. It needs to be noted that there is no nation today, big or small, without cultural minorities. The notion of the cultural compactness of a nation needs to be consequently modulated. India is therefore both a prodigious experiment and a positive example. The vision of and leadership provided by Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar etc, in the post-independence phase paved the way for the emergence of India as a unique nation-state.

First Published: Aug 17, 2018 23:25 IST