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Nationalism and History

Circumstances need not necessarily be responsible for making nationalism a boon or a curse. Amartya Sen in his article (February 16) fails to recognise the significant variations in the meaning of nationalism in different times. Mahatma Gandhi's unique forging of Indian nationalism and his genius in coupling it to non-violence escapes Sen's attention.

Nationalism and History Amitabh Mukhopadhyay James Fox’s stirring indictment of the rapacity of the East India Company in 1783, where he argued that the Company indulged in the “most odious form of tyranny which made a mockery of “liberty,

Circumstances need not necessarily be responsible for making nationalism a boon or a curse. Amartya Sen in his article (February 16) fails to recognise the significant variations in the meaning of nationalism in different times. Mahatma Gandhi’s unique forging of Indian nationalism and his genius in coupling it to non-violence escapes Sen’s attention.

Amitabh Mukhopadhyay ( is in the Parliament Secretariat, New Delhi.

martya Sen’s perspective about a dissonance between nationalism and internationalism (February 16, 2008) is not just disconcerting; it is misleading too. He arrives at an indeterminate solution because he fails to recognise the significant variation in the meaning of nationalism in different times. Freezing nationalism as an immutable notion through time and space, he reduces the specific social question of relating to a national identity (i e, the common values of a people in a certain period of history) to a general problem of individual psychology in choosing between a national or international identity. The awkwardness of the occasion for forging the perspective – he was speaking on Subhas Chandra Bose’s militant nationalism in Kolkata – probably had something to do with the rather disappointing “it depends on circumstances” thesis about whether nationalism is a boon or a curse. The perspective was further confounded by his desire to use the occasion to express his misgivings about current government support for faith-based schools in the United Kingdom (UK). Was he talking to himself, trying to address the dissonance between his own Bengali, Indian and British “identities”?

Sen might have done well had he pondered over, rather than merely embellished his lecture with, the poignant quotes from the poets Rabindranath Tagore and Wilfred Owen. Tagore’s concern for overcoming “the bondage of dejection” in India and Owen’s worries about the “desperate glory” of Great Britain were obvious reminders of the fact, from both ends of the colonial experience in their times, that nationalism had acquired a different meaning from what it had meant for most of the 18th century, i e, prior to the juncture when mercantilist exploitation was transformed into imperialism and empire. Nationalism in UK and France were both grounded in the particular values their people espoused in the 18th century.

property and security” as values the English people held dear to their heart, and the cry for “liberty, equality and fraternity” during the French Revolution which followed soon after, provide interesting contrasts in the landscapes of these nationalist values. This meaning of nationalism as connoting pride in the common values of a people rather than of just a ruling class was transformed in the context of imperialism in the 19th century into what Max Weber described as “ the assumed superiority of a people, however this superiority might have been assumed”.

Assumed Superiority

Had Sen mulled over this transformed meaning of nationalism in the context of imperialism during the 19th century, leading up to the two world wars between imperial powers in the 20th century, he would have understood Winston Churchill’s contempt for the Irish as a general malaise in the UK, which he correctly notes as a major reason for the plight of the Irish people during the “great famine”. It should have made it quite obvious to Sen that it is this blight of “superiority” in the context of imperial ambitions that constituted the specific problem of nationalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, both in its assertion as well as in the equal and opposite response it provoked in the colonies. This assumed superiority as the defining feature of nationalism reached its zenith, as we all know, in the run up to the second world war in 1939-42 when Adolf Hitler’s “bondage of dejection” as an unemployed commercial artist in Vienna was cast aside by him for the “desperate glory” of the Third Reich.

Emerging as it did in this specific latterday discourse of nationalism, Indian nationalism too was sought to be built around the assumed superiority that upanishadic idealism (for Vivekananda or Tagore) or the Bhagwad Gita (for Bal Gangadar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale) provided as the rallying points. Indians

april 19, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


might be poor but they had a rich spiritual heritage. This idea of the Indian gentry, handed down to “the masses”, supported the need for righteous assertions for freedom, simultaneously from both colonial and feudal rule, and metamorphosed into an ideology of moral superiority. The relapse of Indian Muslims to a two-nation theory from the short-lived Khilafat movement that supported the idea of a pan-Islamic state after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s victory at Gallipoli, also underscores this chauvinistic stirring-up of nationalism during this period.

Gandhi’s Distinctiveness

It is curious that Sen left Mahatma Gandhi out of his perspective, making just a passing remark about Gandhi and Mother Teresa’s transnational identity. Had he considered Gandhi’s unique forging of Indian nationalism a little more seriously than most Bengali rationalists are wont to do, he might have reconsidered his “it depends” thesis. He would have noted Gandhi’s distinctiveness in thinking through the virulent forms nationalism in the context of imperialism and feudal proclivities could take, and Gandhi’s genius in coupling nationalism, not to superiority or counter-superiority, but to non-violence as an absolute value.

Unlike Vivekananda, Tagore, Gokhale or Tilak, Gandhi was grounded in bhakti traditions crafted during a period when Hinduism had encountered Islam. The resonance of sufism with bhakti and the foundations this poetic effervescence of universal brotherhood laid for the birth of modern Indian languages, new genres of music along with cultural motifs, provided Gandhi with moorings in a more contemporary, lived-in culture. In contrast with all other nationalist ideologies that urged common persons to drown their subjectivities for an abstract, “larger” cause, Gandhi’s nationalism radiated outward – from the common person’s immediacy, concerns and values. He rejected hierarchical modes of status, reasoning or even being. In a brilliant essay titled Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool, George Orwell locates this distinctiveness of Gandhi’s personality and message. Questioning Leo Tolstoy’s pamphlet which derided William Shakespeare’s literary genius, Orwell shows how

Economic & Political Weekly

april 19, 2008

closely Tolstoy identified himself with the character of King Lear. Like Lear, Tolstoy hankered for an assumed morally superior status though he had boldly renounced his titles to land; only Gandhi, in Orwell’s opinion, could renounce delusions of moral superiority as well.

Myopic Visions

Trysts with destiny or dynasty, as you wish, were made when the “bondage of dejection” war lifted in the 1930s (Lahore Declaration and Provincial Governments) and megalomania gripped Congress leaders as they sighted power at the end of the road they had travelled. Opportunistic consolidation of power at provincial levels by Congress leaders had begun. It is common knowledge that Subhas Chandra Bose left Congress in a huff at this juncture, outwitted by the socialistic declaration at Lahore and courted the enemy’s enemy as a friend. His rejection of the opportunism of other Congress leaders, together with his escapades and stirring exhortations to his band of freedom “fighters” were certainly heroic, but equally, there is no doubt about his deluded flirtation with fascism. Sen would have done well to say so. Or was he seriously suggesting that Bose’s misadventure in allying with fascist forces was an internationalism of sorts?

Sen’s specific Bengali identity might be characterised as rationalism espoused by the upper crust in Bengal at a particular period in history (estranged from the common values of common people in Bengal, who remained rooted to their particular faiths). Such rationalism, with its disregard if not disdain for “simple-minded” faiths, cannot but frown on “faith-based schools” in the UK where commendable experiments in multiculturalism have and are being resolutely pursued. Here again, Sen’s gaze is as shortsighted as that of immigration officials in several countries. He forgets that UK has had a long history of “Reformation” and has dealt with the political reality of the Book of Common English Prayer, not always successfully but nevertheless steadfastly, for its people to have acquired a certain maturity in dealing with religious/cultural differences.

Nationalism with an unshakeable faith of common people in non-violence does not depend on circumstances for it to be a boon or a curse. It proved, at a particular moment in history, to be the most creative force in furthering not just national independence for India but also a successful platform for internationalism as well. The point, rather, for the present times is in what ways nationalism as faith and love for the pluralist values of common people

– non-violence in the Gandhian understanding – can be deepened in the present worldwide context of the continuous skirmishes revolving around interests in oil and other sources for generating energy. The national and international concerns for global climate change are clear reminders of the fact that we have indeed reached “Unto This Last”, an issue that featured so prominently in Gandhi’s far sighted analysis of the choice of techniques but not in Sen’s myopic vision.

Review of Agriculture December 29, 2007

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