RSS sarsangchalak Mohan Bhagwat ji’s recent counsel to cadre members at an event in Ranchi to avoid using the term “nationalism” does not seem to have found many takers in conservative and Rightist circles. This is because putting the national interest above narrow religious or individual interest lies at the very core of the effort to build a counter narrative against the dominant Left-Liberal (read Nehruvian) agenda of the last 70 years.
Bhagwat ji thought it would be prudent to drop the use of the N-word given its association in the public mind with Nazism and Fascism. Nation, national, and nationality were better options, he said. Though semantics has its importance in public discourse, many felt the RSS chief was skating on thin ice since there can be no nation or nationality sans nationalist sentiment, howsoever shallow. Hitler and Mussolini were aberrations in the nationalist cause rather than its exemplars. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the builder of modern Turkey, serves as a better example. Regarded as one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century, his birth centennial in 1981 was declared by the United Nations and UNESCO as Ataturk Year of the World.
Sangh intimates argue that Bhagwat ji’s case against “nationalism” might have been better appreciated had he outlined its difficulties rather than disavow its relevance. The origins of nationalism as a political concept are well known. They lie in early nineteenth century Europe when the continent was emerging from the ravages of the Napoleonic wars after the 1815 Treaty of Vienna. From its throes rose German and Italian nationalism which later spread to Poland, Russia, and Spain. Foreign as it may be in origin, the sentiment cannot be wished away in the national politics of today.
The closest approximation to nationalism from a purely indigenous perspective is Bharatiyata, a term with a singularly dharmic flavor. And what is dharmic is beyond the narrow confines of ritualistic religion. It concerns conformity to the universal laws of dharma, custom, and traditions of the land which bind us all. The dharmic element was completely non-existent in the racial and territorial nationalist European nationalist movements born out of war and revolution. Religion had nothing to do with it since Christianity had won the battle centuries ago. But what if it had not? The fight for Christian dominance would then have taken precedence.
Sarsanghchalak ji’s reiteration that since the word “Hindu” has a geographical construct, even non-Hindus would be inclined to accept their ‘Hindu’ identity as inhabitants of this vast sub-continent, has never found traction. Muslim leaders have time and again said they cannot be lumped under the generic ‘Hindu’ umbrella given its popularly understood connotation. Bhagwat ji’s noble utterances were obviously aimed at encouraging social harmony in the light of the sporadic protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). But it is improbable that the country’s increasingly vocal minorities will ever accept it. Therein lies the rub.
Will it then be right to give up stressing our nationalism (Bharatiyata) with a straight face just when we have begun to rediscover it? Playing it down to assuage fundamentalist Muslim sentiment will necessarily be seen as a sign of weakness, and be counter-productive. And there is no guarantee that it will work in the long run. Recent remarks like “100 crore pe 15 crore bhari” and “Hum azadi maang kar nahin, chhin kar lenge” from a henchman of AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi should serve as a warning on where we could be headed with a dovish mindset.
Nationalism in the Indian context has always been contested idea given the complexities of a diverse population. It was the studied view of the liberal British historian, John Robert Seeley (1834-95), whose book “The Expansion of England” is still widely read by scholars, that India lacked a sense of nationalism. Nationalism was looked askance by most Indians even during the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 and the demand for greater representation of Indians in all decision-making bodies.
The early writings of Tagore make the vacillation and irresolution evident. His opposition to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s invocation of ancient Hindu culture is well documented. Tagore’s essay on “Nationalism in India” is that of a quintessential liberal struggling to come to terms with the secular versus religious discourse in Muslim dominated pre-partition Bengal. Finding common ground in the face of clashing identities posed a challenge.
The savant in his essay admitted that the problem of race was a “serious matter” which needed to be resolved. And that, “until we fulfil our mission, all other benefits will be denied to us.” The paralysis of over analysis, however, prevented Tagore for arriving at a firm view – a quintessential liberal trait.
Our real problem, he wrote, is not political. It is social… “I do not believe in an exclusive political interest. Politics in the West have dominated Western ideals, and we in India are trying to imitate you. We have to remember that in Europe, where peoples had their racial unity from the beginning, and where natural resources were insufficient for the inhabitants, the civilization has naturally taken the character of political and commercial aggressiveness. For on the one hand they had no internal complications, and on the other they had to deal with neighbors who were strong and rapacious.
“…India’s problem…is the race problem. Each nation must be conscious of its mission and we, in India, must realize that we cut a poor figure when we are trying to be political, simply because we have not yet been finally able to accomplish what was set before us by our providence.” Resorting to continued social adjustments was thus the only way out. Military aggression was not an option. What helped us survive, Tagore said, and achieve a modicum of unity in diversity right from the Vedic age was the benign presence of spiritual masters who helped us bridge the gulf.
Grounded as Tagore’s analysis may have been, the fact remains that what is needed is a more forthright bid to tackle the problem. The old arguments do not apply given the mounting threats from political Islam. Shaheen Bagh is the worst example of how we are losing control of the narrative. Dropping “nationalism” from our vocabulary cannot be a solution. Even Tagore’s essay was more a discussion on the issues plaguing Indian nationalism rather than an outright rejection.
However, the most important and infectious voice which contributed to the growth of pure Bharatiya nationalism was that of Swami Vivekananda whom even patriotic Hindus today remember more in name than deed. Not for him were the intellectual doubts of Tagore, howsoever real and reasoned. In one of the most inspiring passages directly addressed to countrymen he wrote:
“India! Wouldst thou attain, by means of thy disgraceful cowardice, that freedom deserved only by the brave and the heroic? Oh India! Forget not that the ideal of thy womanhood is Sita, Savitri, Damayanti, forget not that the God thou worshippest is the great Ascetic of ascetics, the all renouncing Shankara, the Lord of Uma; forget not that thy marriage, thy wealth, thy life are not for sense-pleasure, are not for thy individual personal happiness; forget not that thou art born as a sacrifice to the Mother’s altar; forget not that thy social order is but the reflex of the Infinite Universal Motherhood, forget not that the lower classes, the ignorant, the poor, the illiterate, the cobbler, the sweeper are thy flesh and blood, thy brothers. Thou brave one, be bold, take courage, be proud that thou are Indian, and proudly proclaim: I am an Indian, every Indian is my brother…”
Both Tagore and Vivekananda were spiritual to the core, but in different ways. Tagore stressed the “inner light that reveals things”; Swami ji a glowing spiritual vitality which hit-you-in-the face. While Tagore shunned Bankim Chandra’s open advocacy of muscular Hindu Dharma to forge a national identity, Swami ji advised the youth to “read Bankim Chandra” and emulate his patriotism as depicted by the sanyasis in his soul stirring work, Ananda-Matha. He invoked the virility of Laxmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi, to underscore the need to fight foreign domination. Like Tagore he too was only too well aware of the problems of disunity posed by race, religion, and language. And yet was sanguine that the unity of “One Religion” was the sole basis for nationalism. Though he did not say it in as many words, what he obviously meant was that Hindu Dharma alone could offer a common ground with its universal outlook.
There are quite literally hundreds of references to the “reawakening… resurgence… and rejuvenation of the Hindu nation” in Swami ji’s speeches and writings. National regeneration was the central theme of his thought. He talks of the national vision, national traditions, national glory, and destiny of the Hindus, their national ethos and history, their national consciousness and goal.
Swami ji felt every nation had its own unique way of realizing its goals. Some work through politics, some social reforms, some by other means. “With us religion is the only ground along which we can move. Political and social independence are well and good, but the real thing is spiritual independence, Mukti. This is our national purpose; whether you take the Vaidika, the Jaina, or the Bauddha, the Advaita, the Vishishtadvaita, or the Dvaita. They are all of one mind.”
Dharma, adhyatama is the essence of our existence, he wrote. Hindus have to keep this national ideal above everything else. Giving up on either would be suicidal. “We Hindus are as much a nation as the Germans, Armenians, Kurds, and the Jews.”
Look at the Germans. Their Fatherland, as they call it, was partitioned. But that did not affect their emotive unity. It took a mere 50 years to reunite. The Jews, on their part, were driven out of Israel, but regained it centuries later. It was their unstinting, unshakeable faith in YHWH (Yahweh) which was rewarded.
The Sangh really needs to get back to the drawing board on what constitutes nationalism. There is really no point in championing the ideals of Vivekananda if they are spurned in practice.
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