Filed under: Indian Subcontinent
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29 August 2009
Source: Times of India
Human beings have lived with states for millennia. There were even republican states in ancient times. Nation states are new; they came into their own in 17th-century Europe. Today, all states are not nation states, but most states are. European ideas take strange forms outside Europe. In Asia and Africa, colonialism conflated the ideas of the state and the nation state. Thus, when the western-educated, middle-class leaders of India’s freedom movement fought for independence, they did not want only a state, but a European-style, centralised, modern nation state. Such a state, they thought, would be a magical cure for India’s backwardness. When the Muslim League demanded a separate homeland for Indian Muslims, its leaders too thought of a standard nation state.
However, a nation state requires a nation and an ideology of nationalism. Simple, old-fashioned, non-ideological patriotism is not enough for it. More so if it is a republican state, led by new, insecure, nervous political leaders worried about its diverse, ‘ungovernable’ citizens and psychologically not yet closely linked to the state.
That is why V D Savarkar, despite being an avowed atheist and dismissive towards Hinduism as a religion, had moved towards the idea of Hindutva, which redefined the Hindus as a nation and Hindutva as their national ideology. This was years before Muhammad Ali Jinnah spoke of Hindus and Muslims as separate nations. And Savarkar was honest enough to admit it: “I have no quarrel with Mr Jinnah’s two-nation theory. We Hindus are a nation by ourselves and it is a historical fact that Hindus and Muslims are two nations.”
It is absurd to believe that Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel were immune to the seductive charms of a nation state. Both were modern, knowledgeable, western-educated persons, in awe of Europe’s muscular states. Both looked at the future Indian state as a means of pushing the obstinate, ill-educated, fractious Indians towards a better future and ‘proper’ citizenship. They had their own ways of defining nationality, but they certainly did not look kindly upon a decentralised state, which Gandhi would have approved.
Indeed, Jinnah demanded a looser, federal polity built around powerful provinces as a way out of partitioning the country. The Indian National Congress first accepted the idea and then ditched it. Paradoxically, the power that Jinnah demanded for the provinces was in many ways less than the power the chief ministers of some Indian states have exercised in recent years.
This background explains why, 60 years after the event, partition and the roles in it of individual leaders haunt our political culture. We are still debating in our hearts our birth trauma. We cannot accept that our midwives, too, were children of their times and spoke from within the colonial world in which they lived. We use them as archetypes to battle our fears, anxieties and self-doubts. We are what we are, we suspect, because of their choices, not ours.
We also deny the invisible obstetrician at our birth the colonial regime. Not in the popular sense that it divided and ruled, which all rulers do, but because it framed the theory of state within which the first generation of our rulers from Jinnah to Nehru and Patel thought and moved, for they believed that the theory was universally valid. Gandhi dissented and paid with his life for that. Even now, he has not been forgiven by India’s educated, urban, middle class. He arouses hostility not only in the Hindutva brigade, but also in modern, statist admirers of Nehru and Patel, who consider their heroes more progressive, secular, realistic and tough-minded. Savarkar was direct in this respect, too. He despised Gandhi’s criticism of modern science, western political thought and the standard idea of the nation state.
The British loved to partition. They partitioned four hapless countries and all have been disasters. Cyprus is too small to be permanently in the news and sheer tiredness probably has blunted the bitterness there. But in Ireland, Palestine and India, partition has remained an open wound. In each case, mutual fear, suspicion and hatred verge on paranoia and, sometimes, necrophilia.
India has avoided the excesses of such a sickness of the soul because of its size; much of it did not see the violence of partition. However, things are changing. India is getting globalised and the urban, modernising, middle class is expanding. A pan-Indian, media-based political consciousness is crystallising and it includes a packaged theory of history. A large middle class bent on avenging historical wrongs could be a dangerous vector. It may opt for a nationalism that will not see the partitioning of British India as a tragedy because millions Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs suffered from it. Nor will it care that partition devastated myriad communities, cultures and inter-religious bonds. It will remember partition, as some already do, as a humiliation of the Hindus and as a loss of real estate. I look at the future with apprehension and fear that we may have already lost a part of our selfhood.