Even now, many in the West are aghast when I declare myself an Indian nationalist. “But you said you believe in individual liberty, in economic freedom, free trade and social pluralism — how can you be a nationalist?” they ask. They find it hard to square the fact that a person who advocates liberal values can also identify with nationalism, which in much of the Western world is defined in ethnic-racist supremacist terms. Indeed, many will argue that it is impossible to be liberal and nationalist at the same time, as these values are in fundamental contradiction with each other.
The origin, development and consequences of the politics of nationalism in western Europe and the United States has led many in the West, and indeed most of the world, to see nationalism as a bad thing. It is not surprising therefore that an RSS functionary in the United Kingdom advised its chief Mohan Bhagwat (in his words), “not to use the word nationalism as English is not our language and it could have a different meaning in England. It’s okay to say nation, national and nationality but not nationalism. Because it alludes to Hitler, Nazism and fascism in England.”
Yes, the word nationalism does have different connotations in the West, but that is no reason for us in India to stop using that word.
A civic nationalism
As I have argued before, Indian nationalism has uniquely taken a different route since its inception. In sharp contrast to the shape it took in Europe, Indian nationalism has been inclusive, non-denominational and non-hateful. What united Dadabhai Naoroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose and Sardar Patel was the need to unite a vast people belonging to numerous castes, creeds and religions into a common nation. The objective of the nationalist movement was to secure political independence, not because of hatred for the British, but to attain self-rule. The goal of the Indian Republic, as laid out in the Preamble of the Constitution was to secure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all its citizens.
Of course, reality fell short of these ideals, but ideals make the whole difference. There were those from the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha who argued that a plural Indian nation cannot be, and we had Partition. Ambedkar rightly warned that India cannot be a nation as long as its people divided themselves into exclusive castes. The freedom movement did include people who hated the British and despite Gandhi’s injunctions against violence, took to arms. We know that the Indian Republic sometimes did not — and is not — living up to the values enshrined in the loftiest bits of the Constitution. When we fall short, it only means we have to try harder to live up to the prospectus.
So, we need not have any compunctions in identifying with principles that have forged the Indian Republic and present us with the best template on which to construct our future. Indian nationalism is a civic nationalism that textures plain old love for the country with decency and respect for all its people.
Of course, to the extent that the Sangh Parivar does not believe in Indian nationalism, and considers Hindu nationalism or Hindutva as distinct from it, Bhagwat’s British interlocutor is right to be concerned with the parallels with fascism.
Liberal nationalism can exist
The idea of a Hindu Rashtra, as popularly understood, is reminiscent of Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s 1808 address to the German nation, where he conceived the nation as having “a spiritual existence that needed to be cultivated through education and the flourishing of a national culture built around a national language.” Needless to say, when you mix nationalism and socialism, you get a terrible thing that you don’t want to be associated with.
The problem with European nationalism was that it was designed for entities that shared a common language, ethnicity and perhaps religion. It could work at the level of a Germany, Italy or France. It did not work at the pan-European level. Even today, while there still are German, Italian or Dutch nationalists, there is no European nationalist. In contrast, Indian nationalism works at a subcontinental scale — and can work on a global scale — precisely because it does not insist on a single language, race and religion. Conversely, a nationalism that insists on one language and one religion risks tearing the unity of India asunder.
Theorists will tell us that liberal nationalism is a contradiction in terms, and therefore India cannot exist. But it does. It is the theorists who must update their theories. People in the West might cringe at the word ‘nationalism’, but it is for us to show them that it need not be a bad word. I’ve long felt that “if there is anything India is a “vishwaguru” on, it is this”.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.