The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

The Idea of India—And a Transition Toward Violent, Exclusionary Nationalism

What the nation meant for Tagore, Gandhi, and Nehru differs from what it means for the BJP and RSS.

By Nazir Ahmad and Muneeb Yousuf for
The Idea of India—And a Transition Toward Violent, Exclusionary Nationalism
Credit: AP Photo

Over three days, from February 23 to 25, the capital of India bore witness to extreme violence. Fifty-three people were killed and hundreds injured. Moreover, hundreds of houses and hundreds of shops were charred. Many masjids were targeted and in some cases Hindutva flags were raised at the minarets of some of the masjids in the affected areas. The unimpeded mob violence and attacks turned New Delhi into a spectacle for the punishment of Muslims specifically, who were demeaned by creating a systematic narrative portraying them either as disloyal members of the nation or unappreciative people who dared question the intentions of a government elected to power with an overwhelming majority.

The violence was unprecedented as there was no immediate reason for such a systematic attack on the minority group in New Delhi. In fact, in many ways it was directed at a section of people that have been protesting against what they call discriminatory policies favored by the current government. This nature of the Delhi violence has left scholars of Indian politics and the common people of India alike flabbergasted. Like during previous communal clashes, the police and the administration were missing at the best and seen as indulging in the violence themselves at worst. Even more of a shock is the indifference shown by a large number of people in the country at this display of extreme violence in the capital of India.

What led to such a horrific situation where violence was not condemned by the large section of Indians? At the societal level, what explains the acceptance of such violence that would have otherwise faced strong condemnation?

The Delhi violence, the obliviousness of the government and the administration toward the attacks against a minority community, and the silence of the general public on the horrible scenes of violence imply that the narrative of nationalism in India itself has changed from an inclusive one toward an exclusionary narrative — one propagated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. In their ethnically exclusionary understanding of nationalism with support of the state machinery, political violence primarily against Muslims is not unlikely.

The Origins of Indian Nationalism

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Sunil Khilnani, in his acclaimed book The Idea of India, traced the evolution of the idea of modern India to the leaders of the Indian national movement. Khilnani inferred that “the idea of India is anchored as much as in resisting powerful seductions,” including a “singular definition of nationhood … as it was in realizing declaratory visions.” He argued that “The fundamental agencies and ideas of modernity—European colonial expansion, the state, nationalism, democracy, economic development—all have shaped” India.

Indeed, various factors influenced the idea of India, like the religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversities of the country; a belief in the clichéd notion of unity in diversity; the bad experience of fascist ideology in Europe in the 20th century and its rejection by the founding fathers of modern India; their strong belief in democracy; and the vision of the leaders of the nationalist movement, among other factors. India could achieve, as a result, what appeared remote to many prognosticators at the time: political stability.

The innovative understanding and accommodating nature of Indian nationalism has held the country together for more than 70 years. But nationalism can also wreak havoc. The recent developments in the country came as an unsettling reminder how it can easily be manipulated and build on exclusionary narratives to demean a section of the larger society to push forth a singular brand of nationalism.

In the early 20th century, the arrival of nationalist sentiment worried farsighted and cautious leaders of India. Poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore emphasized in 1917 that nationalism, as an ideology, was not only exclusionary, but was “poisoning the very fountainhead of humanity.” Rather than retaining and nourishing human diversity, Tagore’s main concern for the evolution of human civilization was premised on dissolving nationalism.

The Indian political-cum-social leadership followed the developments and atrocities conducted in the name of nationalism in the Europe in the first half of the 20th century keenly. To avoid any such scenario from developing in India, an overarching uniting collective identity was envisioned that would be reflective of the overwhelming diversity of the country.

At the same time, this identity would be fuzzy, loose, and flexible, not stringent nor exclusionary. When Tagore raised questions over imbibing the notion of nationalism and warning about its “cannibalistic” tendencies, Mohandas Gandhi tried to allay his fears by arguing that the idea of Indian nationalism was not “exclusive, nor aggressive, nor destructive.” He argued that “those who are conscious of the spirit of nationality do not interfere with one another’s religion.”

Jawaharlal Nehru put it as follows in his 1936 Congress Presidential address: “Nationalism in the East, it must be remembered, was essentially different from the new and terribly narrow nationalism of fascist countries; the former was the historical urge to freedom, the latter the last refuge of reaction.” Though a larger question, all this was debated in the immediate understanding of the nation that was being built by the leaders of the freedom movement. Through this debate and analysis, the role of state from which the real threats were — or would be — cropping up was paid the least attention: the idea of a modern state and its tendencies of centralized power and the exercise of that power is what defines nationalism in the first place.

One of the traits defining debates on the Indian nationalist movement was the attempt to not narrow the definition of what it meant to be Indian. Giving definition to a nation of such diverse polities would have reduced Indian identity to a particular understanding, and the leaders at the time tried to avoid this. Later, with the centralization of the state, we increasingly witnessed the rise of need to have such a definition of being Indian.

Any assertive regional, linguistic, or religious identity started to loom as a threat and presented centrifugal tendencies toward the strengthening of the state. The power in the state is concentrated in the ruling elite; subsequently, the elite pursued its ideology or agenda through the powerful state. No one can question the authority of the modern state, given its penetration in the social, political, and economic lives of humans. At the same time, it is unlikely that any concession or obeisance will make these groups loyal members of the nation — as defined by the state, as the very existence such groups becomes the defining reference of the nation.

Once independence was achieved and the Indian Constitution finalized, slowly attention went away from political stability, protecting institutions, and managing the contestations toward focusing on electoral victories and the centralization and retention of power. Consequently, what the leaders of the freedom movement were worried about, those degenerative tendencies of nationalism, got rooted in the Indian polity and the common psyche of the people.

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What we witnessed in Delhi in late February 2020, then, is a reflection of the consequences of this decay — that these inimical tendencies of nationalism can be unleashed on humans. The killing, arson, and suffering of the “other” caused by such an understanding of nationalism act as the glue for uniting the “true members” of the nation. The members who do not fall in the definition will be targeted for their outlook or belief. Slogans like desh ke gadaroo ko, golimaroo s*** ko (or “shoot the traitors”) become acceptable. Even violence at the scale seen in New Delhi — scores died, hundreds were injured, and billions of dollars in property was damaged — did not push the governing elite to express their condemnation. The “othered” victims became dispensable for constructing and infusing a particular narrative of this new nationalism.

Khilnani seems to have underemphasized the role of the human agency in his tracing of the idea of India and overemphasized the “fundamental agencies and the ideas of modernity.” The “powerful seductions” may not be able to be resisted by all political leaders, unlike the elite at the time of founding of the Republic. Additionally, that may be actually what they want, as it appears from the diatribes of certain BJP/RSS leaders against the foundations of the Republic of India, like the concepts of secularism, pluralism, or even the special provisions given to some regions for inculcating a sense of security and belonging.

What the nation meant for Tagore, Gandhi, and Nehru differs from what it means for the BJP/RSS. Meanwhile, over the period of seven decades, the state in India has grown strong and more centralized, tempting such ethno-nationalist forces to capture it to introduce the culture change that they vie for. The elite of the national movement wanted the nation to be loose and encompass every individual and group in the country. On contrary, the very ideology of the BJP/RSS thrives on the understanding of a strongly knitted “us” and a clearly defined “them” vis-à-vis nationalism. Thus, othering becomes inevitable in that case. This makes exclusionary policies, narratives, and clashes like in Delhi more likely. The fears that had worried the leaders of the national movement and that they had tried to rein in are inherent in such a definition of nationalism. It makes the killings and arson like in Delhi look natural and perceived as a strengthening of the nation.

Where to Next?

The founding fathers of modern India had scrutinized the exclusionary idea of nationalism and adapted it to the local sociopolitical structure of Indian society so that it would reflect its diversity and mitigate potential ethnic conflicts in the country. However, nationalism can be manipulated and used against parts of a society if the state fails to deliver in general and fails to maintain balance between different polities, or creates disparity. Waiting for such an opportunity, the nationalist ideology of the BJP/RSS has been premised on making the idea of ethnic nationalism operational in India. Capturing the state and subsequently defining who is a true member of the Indian nation remains at the center of the BJP/RSS agenda. Having risen to the apexes of political power, these policies seem now inexorable. This is part of the construction of a new narrative that leads to violence of the sort that we saw in the capital of India recently.

Given the power of the modern state and the shift in the understanding of the nationalism in India, exclusion seems likely when state aims to define nation strictly. Once supported and legitimized by the state, the general public is likely to turn a deaf ear toward other narratives, no matter how true or just they may be. Unless and until the state resorts back to the narratives favored by the founding fathers of modern India, violence against India’s minorities is likely to continue. It is also not likely to generate any strong commendation or reaction from the majority community in the country.

Nazir Ahmad, Ph.D., is a researcher. Muneeb Yousuf is a doctoral student.