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Indian National Movement:One or Many?

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BOOK REVIEW

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Indian National Movement: One or Many?

Salil Misra

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by this national community for its separate identity, autonomy, internal unity, and a representative state (or a nationstate), lie at the heart of nationalism as a political principle and an ideology. This much may be treated as shared ground.

N
ationalism is one major way in which the “modern world” can be distinguished from other premodern societies. Scholars have contrasted the nationalism-prone character of the modern world with nationalism-resistant features of pre-modern societies. What is it about the modern world that makes it so conducive to the emergence of nationalism? Scholars, Ernest Gellner in the main and many others, have viewed nationalism as rooted in the transformation of the world from agrarian to industrial. This transformation was neither smooth nor uniform and was manifested in different forms in different societies.

In western Europe (and subsequently in other parts of Europe and North America) it was marked by unprecedented economic growth, literacy, mobility, a pull towards egalitarianism, and the creation

Nationalist Movement in India: A Reader edited by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2008; pp xIiii +389, Rs 345.

of mass culture. In the societies of Asia, Africa and Latin America, this transformation was brought about by political conquest, domination, and economic exploitation of these societies by the industrially developed countries of Europe. Interestingly, both the processes produced conditions that led to the emergence of nationalism in different societies.

By nationalism we mean here an internal homogenisation of diverse populations within a society, their transformation into a political community, and an insistence by this community on its own representative state. In other words a process of transformation of multiple communities into national community (or a nation), desire

From this shared ground, it would be necessary to distinguish “nationalism” as a phenomenon from the nationalist experiences that different societies went through in the 19th and the 20th centuries. Indian nationalism shared certain traits with other nationalisms, but also retained its own distinctive features. The theories of nationalism in general have not been fair to anti-colonial nationalisms. As a result the nationalisms of Asia and Africa have been studied empirically and separately without being integrated into a common theoretical framework. A study of Indian nationalism is therefore necessary because it can contribute to the building of a common theoretical framework, which places the experiences of the colonies at the centre in the discourse on nationalism. The volume under review is an attempt to bring out some of the distinctive features of Indian nationalism, on the basis of

june 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

BOOK REVIEW

some of the main scholarly writings on this subject over the last few decades. I review this important volume in terms of what I perceive to be its strengths, weaknesses and silences.

The Strengths

One major strength of the volume is that it gives us a good sense of the rich 19th century background that constituted the frame of the national movement. An important part of this background was that the actual political battle was preceded by the creation of spiritual sovereignty. Indian nationalism began by creating two domains, the spiritual inner and the material outer, and then made the inner domain insular from possibilities of colonial encroachment. Thus in its first stage, Indian nationalism was not so much a contest with colonial rulers, but an effort to create a space that would be immune to colonial encroachment (Partha Chatterjee, Whose Imagined Community, pp 3-13). It was then in the economic sphere that Indian nationalism surfaced itself.

The Indian intelligentsia had, in the beginning, welcomed British rule in the hope that it would be instrumental in modernising and developing India. In other words, British rule would help in bringing about similar conditions in India as existed in England. The idea of economic nationalism was based on a firm rejection of this notion. Instead, the moderate nationalists argued that the British rule was responsible for the ruin of the Indian economy and was blocking the possibilities of economic development of India along modern lines (Bipan Chandra, Economic Nationalism, pp 1419). These ideas prepared the background for the popular, mass phase of the Indian national movement in the 20th century. During this phase, the nationalist leadership took these ideas to the people and mobilised them in the anti-imperialist struggle.

As the movement grew to encompass new geographical areas and social groups, it encountered a whole set of new challenges and problems. How to combine the local grievances with the pan-Indian issues and the specific class demands with nationalists ones? The contributions by David Arnold (Rebellious Hillmen: The Gudem-Rampa Rising 1839-1924, pp 10918), David Hardiman (The Rowlatt Satyagraha pp 81-89), Rajat K Ray (Masses in Politics: Non-cooperation Movement in Bengal, pp 90-108) and Gyanendra Pandey (The Indian Nation in 1942, pp 139-55) take up some of these issues. Hardiman has argued, coherently and explicitly, what Indian natio nalism meant at the local level and the hazards in organising popular politics of protest. Indian nationalism, as an ideology was a set of ideas – primarily those of anti-imperialism and national unity. But as concrete politics, it was much more complex: there were variations from one area to another; local specificities mattered; the existing tradition of political protest in the area often shaped the texture of politics.

David Arnold tells us about the nature of local leadership in the hilly, tribal tracts of parts of south India and both its linkages with, and independence from, the leadership outside. The picture that can be drawn from his article is that the relationship between local protest and the larger movement was like overlapping, interpenetrating circles – both had a shared territory but also their independent spaces. The shared territory explains the pan-Indian character of the movement; the independent spaces indicate the diversity of the struggle.

In some cases it was difficult to separate the purely anti-imperialist struggle from the resistance to outside influences ushe red in by capitalist modernity. Quite often for the local people, the two assumed the same form and came in the same package. It was partly for this reason that often religion played an important role in organising many of these protests. In any case religion, which was an integral part of the lifestyle was threatened by modern economic developments, with or without imperialism.

Arnold has delineated “territoriality” and “xenophobia” as two important elements in all peasant protests and looks upon them as deterrents in the integration of peasant struggles with larger anti-imperialist struggles (pp 116-17). This however seems a little strange, given that both the notions

– territoriality and xenophobia – have been so crucial in all anti-colonial national movements the world over. It should actually serve to explain how the local and isolated peasant struggles could be linked to larger anti-imperialist struggles.

The Weaknesses

A major weakness of the volume is its nonhistoriographical character. On some of the crucial debates, we hear only one side of the story. In particular, the contributions by Sanjay Seth (Rewriting Histories of Nationalism: The Politics of ‘Moderate Nationalism’ in India, 1870-1905, pp 3048), Gyanendra Pandey and Ayesha Jalal (Exploding Communalism: The Politics of Muslim Identity in South Asia, pp 179-98) take up arguments – for and against – in a debate whose contours are not available in the volume. As a result the readers will know that there is a nationalist historiography but will not know the major ideas that are associated with this historiography. In the absence of an elaboration of the nationalist historiography (or the Marxist historiography), the reader is left to comprehend this historiography on the basis of how its opponents have constructed it. The volume has many references to historiography but no attempt to elaborate on the different historiographical trends on the national movement. This is all the more unfortunate given that there exits such a rich historiography on this theme.

An engagement with historiography would also enable us to deal with the question of theories of Indian nationalism. The volume under review offers virtually nothing by way of an attempt to construct a theory of Indian nationalism. Surprisingly, the volume says more on the theories on nationalism in general, than on Indian nationalism. It is not as if these theories do not exist. They are explicitly, and sometimes implicitly, present in the pioneering works of R P Dutt, A R Desai, Tara Chand, Anil Seal, Bipan Chandra, Sumit Sarkar, Partha Chatterji, and C A Bayly. It is necessary to familiarise the readers with the range of perspectives on the national movement developed by professional historians through the long span of the 20th century. This would give us a panoramic view of the national movement.

As a consequence of following a historiographically and theoretically neutral approach, the volume does not succeed in

Economic & Political Weekly

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june 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27

BOOK REVIEW

imparting to its readers a sense of the Indian national movement as an internally connected (however loosely), pan-Indian organic political phenomenon. Instead the volume gives the impression of a multitude of anti-imperialist struggles launched in different parts of the country in which the local grievances and spontaneity played the most important role. These struggles are seen to be connected to each other because they happened to be fought against the same enemy, the British govern ment. That these struggles may have had an all-India apex; were fostered by a set of ideas and an ideology; that there was an organisation with a leadership which had a sense of strategy, are all ideas that seem very alien to the volume under review. It succeeds in highlighting the “lived plurality” of the movement but fails to emphasise its “normative unity”. It hardly needs to be stated that the two are not opposites. They both constitute crucial components of the same phenomenon. It would be futile to comprehend the complexity of the movement by focusing only on one aspect at the exclusion of the other.

Silences

Then there are silences. It would have been appropriate to bring in the voices of the actors themselves. How did people like Dadabhai Naoroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, S N Bannerjea, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose and others understand the phenomenon that they were a part of and contributed to the making of? In other words, what was the self-image of Indian nationalism? This self-image could then be contrasted with the ways in which professional historians have looked at the national movement. Also there is not much discussion on the important non-Congress elements within the national movement, such as the liberals (Tej Bahadur Sapru and M R Jaykar), revolutionary terrorists (Bhagat Singh and others) and communists and socialists. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, in the introduction to the volume (pp xv-xIiii), looks at the multiplicity in the Indian nation more in terms of the dissident and questioning voices, and not in terms of ideological articulations within. As a result, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the non-brahmin movement, Allama Iqbal and B R Ambedkar are discussed (as indeed they should be), but Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose, Sapru, socia lists and the communists are not. This silence is a bit puzzling. It is important to recognise that the national movement was inter nally quite diverse, more like a spectrum. The diversity of nationalism in India can be discussed at two levels

– the diversity of the ways in which the Indian nation was imagined; and the ideological diversity within the national movement. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay is eloquent on the first and silent on the second. This silence is also manifested in the choice of articles sele cted in the volume.

Sanjay Seth, in his article “Rewriting Histories of Nationalism” has critiqued the politics of moderate leaders on the ground that by “Indian people”, they did not really mean “all” Indian people (p 39). True, but is it not how all nations in human history have come into being? No nations in history have been planned and designed and then implemented with completeness. A nation is above all an abstraction, a platform that has to be created before people begin to join it. Workers, peasants, women, students, tribals did not suddenly, one day and through one event, become part of the Indian nation. They joined in stages and in the process imparted their own meanings to it. It was precisely in this sense that S N Banerjea referred to India as “A Nation in Making”. It could be argued that the Indian nation is still in the making. Its incompleteness is of its very essence. Gandhi made this point very clearly in an article in 1940 in Harijan when he said:

India is a big country, a big nation, composed of different cultures which are tending to blend with one another, each complementing the rest. If I must wait for the completion of this process, I must wait. It may not be completed in my day. I shall love to die in the faith that it must come in the fullness of time (Harijan, 4 May 1940, in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol 78, pp 177-78).

It seems that the practitioners of nationalist politics had already provi ded credible answers to questions that were subsequently raised by some of the historians a few decades later.

Email: misras06@gmail.com

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june 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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