Of ‘Nation’ and Other Modes of Belonging

It might be appropriate to begin this piece with the story of an old man from the ‘East’. No, this ‘East’ is neither the East of the Orientalists, nor indeed the Biblical ‘East’ (as in the ‘three wise men from the East’). This old man hailed, rather, from Eastern part of the north Indian province of Uttar Pradesh (UP) – a purabiya as ‘easterners’ are referred to in spoken Hindi. This man, Mata Badal, belonged to some village in the Awadh region and worked as a gardener in the house in Dehra Dun where we grew up. (The tale of Dehra Dun, once part of Western UP and now the capital of the newly formed state of Uttarakhand itself reveals one more dimension of the reconfiguration of Indian identity in the last two decades.) Every other year Mata Badal used to take leave to go to his des (literally country or homeland). He would tell us that he did not like life here in this pardes or foreign land, where he had had to come in search for livelihood. As children we used to laugh at his ‘ignorance’: how silly of him, we often thought, that he does not even know that his desh is the whole of India.

What I did not realize then but have begun to feel increasingly now is that his des was emphatically not merely a linguistically fallen form of the purer, Sanskritik, desh. I realize now that it probably embodied a different mode of being and idea of belonging. Outside this des, he continued to live like an exile. It is also interesting and worth underlining that it was not merely his notion of belonging but also of all those who would refer to him as an ‘Easterner’ – for implicit in the notion of the purabiya is the idea of the frontier or horizon, beyond which what is East does not matter. Even ‘Calcutta’ (Kolkata), which for instance became the subject of so many folk songs of separation for the inhabitants of Eastern UP (as male members from those parts went off to Calcutta in search of jobs), did not figure, till very recently, within the lived geography of Western UP inhabitants. The concept of a national identity, embodied in the more Sanskritik term Desh, remained, I believe, largely fictive or at any rate, not quite relevant to the rhythm of daily lives of millions of people all over India.

Take another instance. This is the story of a Muslim woman called Zubeida who met a friend of ours in the relief camps in Gujarat in June 2002, shortly after the carnage which had completely destroyed her bangle trade. In the course of the conversations, Zubeida asked her whether she had ever been to ‘Bindravan’ (Vrindavan – the birthplace of Lord Krishna)? Even on getting a negative answer she persisted: ‘Not even for pilgrimage?’ and added wistfully, ‘woh hamaara vatan hai’. Zubeida, a Muslim woman from the land of Krishna, a land permeated with a Vaishnavite ethos, sitting in the camps of Gujarat, barely able to pronounce the actual Sanskritik name of her land – and yet she thinks of it as hers. Contrast this attachment and Zubeida’s sense of belonging to Vrindavan with her relationship to the ‘nation’ that is India, where she is a perpetual outsider – always a potential traitor or a Pakistani agent. Vrindavan never demands any demonstration of unflinching loyalty of her in the way that India does. Vrindavan, her vatan, like Mata Badal’s des, is never overcome by the sense of crisis that the nation – Indian, Pakistani or any other – is always threatened by, in relation to its inhabitants. It needs no continuous reiteration of loyalty; it simply is. The nation, on the other hand, as Ernest Renan, that ardent nineteenth century champion and theorist of nationalism, famously put it, is a daily plebiscite. Loyalty to the nation must be rehearsed and reproduced every day, every hour.

What is the relationship of Mata Badal’s des and Zubeida’s vatan with the thing called the ‘nation’? It is not enough to explain these notions away as expressions of ignorance, for it is through these categories belonging that large numbers of people make sense of their world. National identity, on the other hand, the idea that one belongs to some larger bounded territory with specific cultural contours, has to be inculcated through a massive pedagogical enterprise of national education. Only then can one become a national/citizen.

It is this enterprise that seems to have reached a dead end in the last two decades or more in India. Indian identity has thus become increasingly contested as more and more different ways of being Indian have begun to articulate themselves in different ways. Often, these have gone beyond ‘being Indian’ as the tales of the insurgent North East (to set the perennially contested Kashmir question aside for the time being) or Punjab in the 1980s show. The relationships of different parts that comprise the landmass called India to Indian identity have been complex and varied. Often they have contested the received idea in quite unexpected ways. And most of them did contest the idea of nationhood in the name of some place, some homeland that was historically or traditionally theirs.

Yet there was a time when the Nehruvian secular nationalist ideal, its idea of India, reigned supreme. The attraction of the Nehruvian idea lay in the fact that it was premised on the firm belief that all other identities – religious, linguistic, caste – would have to merge themselves within an overarching Indian one. All of India was ours; we did not belong to any one place. More importantly, the Nehruvian ideal believed that the emergence of such a national identity was historically inevitable: all nations have gone through this trajectory and so must we. A comforting thought that had its seductions for a country that had just emerged out of the traumatic experience of Partition violence and mass displacements.

There was however, it seems in retrospect, a certain naiveté to this belief, predicated as it was on another very simple idea that economic development and spread of scientific temper were all that was required for the ‘backward’ attachments of identity to be dissolved. That things would become worse with the advance of modernity, that conflicts over identity would in fact intensify with secularization and development, was something we never expected.

As time went by old, unresolved conflicts, long assumed to have become history, suddenly started re-emerging. Especially important in this regard is the large-scale cultural redefinition of the idea of nationhood and national identity by the Hindutva forces represented politically by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but more importantly by the network of organizations collectively known as the ‘Sangh parivar’ or the ‘Sangh family’. The breathtaking rapidity with which the Sangh ideology knocked down the edifice of Nehruvian secular-nationalism in the late 1980s, should be taken as an index of at least two other circumstances.

First, the Nehruvian ideal was represented in institutions that, thanks to their deep attachment to the ideals of western modernity, came to also embody the power of an English-speaking elite to the exclusion of the emerging powerful vernacular elites. Second, the ideas represented by the Sangh always had a much wider and deeper currency in society at large. Long before the RSS or the Hindu Mahasabha came into existence in the early decades of the last century, leading Indian(?) intellectuals were already elaborating a Hindu identity. This is roughly the story from Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in Bengal to the great figures of the Hindi Navjagaran and their ‘organs’ ranging from the Nagari Pracharini Sabha (formed in 1893) and the journal Saraswati for instance.

In fact, it is more correct to say that in the early twentieth century, such ideas were far more widely prevalent than has been accepted by historians and scholars. Or at least, let us put it this way: Even though historians and scholars have registered these trends, Hindutva continues to be understood as a radical break from ‘nationalism’ or from ‘the past’. Hindutva, in its formative stages, in the mid-1920s, merely systematized these ideas and gave it a more fascistic cast. These ideas never really went out of currency. In the heyday of Nehruvianism, they simply went ‘underground’, that is to say, outside the space of formal institutional structures. They were simply waiting to come out into the institutional ‘public sphere’, as it were.

No less important in this cultural redefinition, albeit in a different direction, is the new power acquired by the Dalit (or ‘untouchable’) and other lower caste movements. These have seriously challenged the predominantly upper caste character of national identity of yore. One of the consequences of this transformation, interestingly is a sort of re-integration of a state like Tamil Nadu into the mainstream. The earlier history of the state’s alienation, which had to do with the fact that its Dravidian identity was closely tied up to its Non-Brahmin character, is now pretty much a matter of the past, as new backward caste parties have substantially transformed national identity.

One of the markers of the transformation/s brought about by the rise of Hindutva and the Dalit movements in the 1990s, can be seen in the transformed figure of Gandhi. Once hailed as the ‘Father of the Nation’, he was raised to the stature of an iconic figure, beyond all criticism – even as the Nehruvian state actually went about implementing a vision diametrically opposed to Gandhi’s. The Left was possibly the only exception and scholars associated with it made some critiques that remained effectively marginal to public discourse.

Into the 1990s, however, the situation had changed radically. On the one hand, the more widespread Hindutva critique of Gandhi as an appeaser of Muslims who was most responsible for the destruction of the masculine ideal of the Hindu nation reappeared with great vigour. Symptomatic of this changed atmosphere was a film like Kamalahsan’s ‘Hey Ram’ (2000) or the play ‘Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoi’ in Marathi (the play was banned by the state government but revoked under orders of the Bombay High Court) – both of which were made explicitly from the standpoint of Gandhi’s assassin. On the other hand, a whole range of other critiques, invisible till now, especially the Dalit critique, came to the fore with unprecedented force. Gandhi, who was a believer in the caste system and who was unyieldingly opposed to any idea of separate representation to the Dalits, would now be under serious scrutiny of Dalit scholars and leaders.

And while these reassessments of Gandhi open out new questions for debate, the other Gandhi too lives on, re-invoked in the debates on secularism and in the struggle against communalism. This is the Gandhi who stood steadfastly for communal harmony and was even prepared to forsake the nation and its glory – making the lonely trek to Noakhali when the din of celebrations reverberated through the corridors of power in Delhi at the passing of blood-soaked power into the hands of the new, indigenous elite.

The new atmosphere is thus complex and full of contradictory possibilities. If there is the rise of the Hindu right to reckon with, there has also been a rapid transformation of the terms of public discourse in a manner where a whole series of issues were opened up once again for debate and reassessment. A fresh and critical debate on the Gandhian legacy, for instance has been long overdue – and along with it, a re-evaluation of the contradictions of our own modern self. It is when this is done that we shall begin to see the significance of the des, vatan or nadu, not as quaint remainders of the past but as embodying a radically different idea of belonging.

[A slightly altered version of an article written for  The Herald, Pakistan.]

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