Tuesday, December 6, 2022
HomeOpinionIndia predates Constitution. It’s cultural nationalism that makes us Indians

India predates Constitution. It’s cultural nationalism that makes us Indians

Reducing India to a civic nation, bound only by revered Constitution, disregards our rich heritage.

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Civic nationalism versus cultural nationalism is a discourse that has dominated Indian debate in recent days.

The former subsumes the liberal values of freedom, tolerance, individual rights and multiculturalism, with constitutional guarantees. Cultural nationalism encompasses a sense of belonging and anchoring in a specific cultural and civilisational milieu.

India is the world’s largest democracy. Indian culture and society have adhered to these values for thousands of years. We are imbued with the syncretic sense of being and feeling Indian regardless of language or religion. It is this cultural nationalism that defines all Indians. India is a melting pot in which foreign influences were assimilated in an inclusive manner to create a uniquely Indian identity.

Cultural nationalism is neither a chimera nor something that must be vanquished. The values of liberalism, pluralism and tolerance should not merely be a function of constitutional guarantees. They should be ingrained and rooted in a more enduring Indian cultural ethos. A civic nationalism defined merely by political institutions and liberal values as legal constructs fails to synthesise the rich social traditions or cultural conventions of India and is self-limiting.


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A plural culture

Some political philosophers may argue that immigrants to a liberal-democratic state need not assimilate into the host culture but only accept the principles of the country’s Constitution. They are, in that case, only required to commit themselves to civic nationalism, which is conceived as a mechanical administrative unit that binds citizens in a constitutional contract. This type of State, which lacks the distinctive character bequeathed by its people or history, is reductionist or minimalist in the conception of its nationhood. It has no bearing on the reality that is India.

“Otherness” that is artificially sought, or wrought, is self-denigrating. Even after three-quarters of a century, Pakistan cannot deny its Indian cultural moorings, though not for want of trying.

Regrettably, the gulf between Left-wing and Right-wing politics is widening in India. Whenever a centre-Right government comes to power in a democracy, far-Left activists and commentators stridently propagate the view that democracy and liberalism are in danger. Even major Western media outlets claim the end of liberal democracy. They tend to ignore the fact that liberalism is neither the invention nor the exclusive preserve of Left-wing politics. In the US, its origins lay in the values espoused by the Founding Fathers who followed Republicanism. Across the pond in Europe, it was promoted by advocates of the free-market laissez-faire principles.

In the 75th year of its Independence, India’s democracy and liberal values remain strong. They are deeply embedded in the country’s ancient pluralistic ethos, which can never be in danger. Opposition parties are entitled to a fair and equal opportunity to shape the political discourse, and they have the constitutional right to effect political change through the ballot box.

A nation is made up of people having a sense of a common bond (geist), which is the lifeblood of it. It is only through an inherent sense of belonging (what Ibn Khaldun called ‘asabiyyah’ in Arabic) and a national culture that a State can achieve a distinctive identity and sustainability in the longer run. In India’s context, Cultural nationalism plays a major role in forging social cohesion and solidarity, transcending denominational differences.

To reduce the State of India to the level of a ‘civic nation’, bound by a single albeit highly revered document in the form of the Indian Constitution, would be tantamount to disregarding the country’s rich heritage. India as a nation predates the framing of its Constitution. It predates the freedom struggle. It predates the arrival of all those who eventually made India their homeland.


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Celebrating history, beyond religion

It is remarkable that Muslim countries like Indonesia celebrate their history and culture using Sanskrit names. For example, former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s name means “cloud goddess, daughter of Sukarno”.Sukarno itself is reckoned to be a name drawn from historical references to the famous hero Karna, from the Mahabharata.

This perhaps demonstrates that acknowledgement of indigenous cultural heritage does not erode one’s religious identity.

We find that even the Arab world celebrates the pre-Islamic poetry of Arabia, and students in Arab universities study the works of poets before the advent of Islam such as Imrul Qais, Tarafa, Zuhair bin Abi Sulma and many more as part of their historical heritage. The Baath parties of Iraq and Syria were representative of Arab nationalism, which was moored in cultural nationalism.

Remember, long-standing Christian foreign minister of Iraq under Saddam Hussain, Tariq Aziz? He changed his given name, Mikhail Yuhanna, and adopted the Arabic name Tariq, reminiscent of Tariq ibn Ziyad, a Berber Umayyad commander who launched the Muslim conquest of present-day Spain and Portugal in the eighth century. This did not diminish Tariq Aziz’s status as a Christian. In its early years, the Palestinian movement, led by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), had Arab nationalist intellectuals and revolutionaries, which included Palestinian Christians like George Habash.

In his time, Firdausi glorified the pre-Islamic Kings of Persia in his famous epic, Shahnama, which extols the feats of great Zoroastrian rulers down to the last Sassanian king. The Muslim world celebrates that epic as a literary tour-de-force to this day.

Going by such logic, there should be no difficulty in developing or accepting a broad consensus on the shared legacy of all the people of India in the form of Indian literary works in Sanskrit and Hindi or national songs like Vande Mataram. Many in the Islamic world attribute this Hadith to the Prophet:  “The love of motherland is an essential part of the true faith (hubb al-watan min al-īmān).”


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Today, one is reminded of poet-singer Amir Khusrau who described India as the country loved by God. “If my adversary taunts me”, he wrote, “as to why I prefer Hind over other lands, there are two reasons for this assertion (hujjat) … The first reason is that this land since time immemorial (has been blessed) … To be the place of my birth (maulūd), abode (māwa) and motherland (watan)”.

Khusrau then goes on to enumerate other rational (aqli) proof (asbāt) for the assertion (hujjat) that India was Paradise on earth. The first argument is that after being evicted from heaven Adam found refuge in this country. According to him, “As Hind was just like heaven (khuld nishān), Adam could descend here and find repose”. The second argument was that India was the land of the peacock, a heavenly bird. “Had Paradise (firdaus) been in some other country (literally: garden or bāgh) this bird would have gone thither.” After establishing that India was ‘heaven on earth’, Khusrau goes on to discuss the ‘reasons’ for his preference of Hind over Rûm (Roman empire), Iraq, Khurasan and Qandhar’ and rests his case on the ideal climate of India, its flowers, and fruits. 

Such ideas of patriotism and a common heritage that abound in Khusrau’s writing suggest the prevalence of a keen sense of cultural nationalism even in centuries past. Cultural nationalism is never at the cost of civic nationalism. Both coexist.

The author is the Director General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. He tweets @SujanChinoy. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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