On Nationalism is a compilation of three essays by the historian Romila Thapar, the lawyer AG Noorani and the cultural commentator Sadanand Menon. In the book, Thapar, Noorani and Menon discuss the concept of nationalism—which, in his foreword to the book, the novelist David Davidar terms “one of the most contested ideas in twenty-first century India.” In recent times, Davidar writes in the foreword, nationalism has come under siege from a “vocal set of politicians, sectarian organizations, god-men, trolls and assorted thugs.” “That is why the book is being published,” he adds, “to make its own small contribution to the ongoing debate.” Thapar examines the evolution of the Indian state and how nationality and national identity moved through the ages; Noorani provides a look at the crucial cases and judgments that shaped sedition in India, as well as the origins of the slogan “Bharat Mata ki Jai”; Menon writes on the idea of a “national culture,” and why culture and nationalism are close allies.
The following excerpt has been adapted from Romila Thapar’s essay ‘Reflections on Nationalism and History.’ In it, Thapar discusses the conflation of religious and social history, and their relation to caste hierarchies.
On the face of it, the relations between religion and society in the cultures of India and China were different from Europe, as indeed they were different from each other. So the specificity of the culture, the way its religion related to its society, as well as its historical context, all these factors imprinted the form it took. We have to see how and why they differed, what was specifically Indian about its religion, and the nature of its interface with society. We have tended to study the texts and theologies of the religions without giving sufficient attention to analysing the social institutions and enterprises and sectarian and community observances that the religions gave rise to, or on which they had an impact.
This would need an analysis of the history of religions in India as part of the pattern of life of the society, and not just as a history of their respective texts. Religious organisations that run religious institutions such as temples, mosques, churches and gurdwaras, as well as schools and other educational institutions have to be assessed in terms of their social functions apart from the religious, and for their efficiency in these functions. It was claimed that social codes, such as the Manava Dharmashastra (popularly referred to as the Manusmriti) and the Islamic Shari’a, had divine sanction, but these were drawn up and imposed by human sanction, and were and are liable to change. Practices do not necessarily follow the code but the code is quoted to restrict the autonomy of society and for retaining control over it by religious authority.
Even if one accepts the divine origin of religious belief, the activity associated with a religion lies in the hands of its human devotees and has to be seen as its history, as all else is seen. How did this interaction vary from sect to sect or across sects of the various religions practised in India? New needs led to the creation of new sects. What came to be called Hinduism in later times was, in essence, the juxtaposition of a large number of sects with their own focus of worship and ritual, some tied in to caste and inevitably reflecting some of the differences associated with caste, and some negating it.
This explains in part why a geographical term came to be used later for a collection of religious sects. The term “Hindu,” used in West Asia, was derived from “Sindhu” and the Old Iranian “Hindush,” referring to the River Indus. It initially designated a geographical area—the land to the east of the Indus as viewed by those in West Asia. The label came to be applied to people who lived there, and finally to the religions practised by them, for which there was no single name. For many centuries the sects chose the deity they wished to worship, the form of worship and the text that they regarded as sacred.
There was no single sacred text since Hindu sects were not religions of the book. But today the Bhagavad Gita is being described as the “national” book, with the suggestion that it be taught in every school, which, apart from anything else, conflates nationalism with religion, despite their being distinct. And if we are going to collapse the two, then logically there will be a demand that in a multi-religious state we must also declare the Quran, the Bible, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Avesta, and the books sacred to other religious communities as national books. Would the secular nature of Indian democracy then be tied to a library of religious books? Surely, they can be taught in school not as “national” books but as the respected texts of various religions, which, in effect, is what they are.
Religious sects, as different from a monolithic religion, tend to shade off from the very orthodox to those far less so. This allows greater flexibility and fluidity in belief and practice among them than is normal in a religion treated as a monolithic entity.
The varied sects of Vaishnavas, Shaivas, Shaktas, and the Bhakti and Sufi sects, and many others, did not conform to a single church, nor were they governed by a single ecclesiastical authority. The change from sect to monolithic religion changes the nature of the relationship between religion and society.
Conversion, for most of these individual sects, was an alien idea. Opting out of the sect one identified with could also affect one’s caste identity, and a person without a caste identity was regarded as an outcaste, and of little consequence in the larger society. A caste identity would continue if a caste as a collective converted, as often happened in conversions to Islam or Christianity. All religions in India, irrespective of their theoretical support of social equality, maintained caste distinctions—especially in the codes of marriage and inheritance.
This was also demonstrated to a more marked extent in the universal segregation of Dalit groups across all religions. Because much of religion was also linked to caste, it was not surprising that Christianity and Islam in India also functioned through a variety of sects, and recognised caste inequality and hierarchy in practice, however much they may have disavowed it in theory. This link often encouraged an overlap or closeness between various sects as in the dialogues between Sufi and Bhakti sects. If the way in which society is observed were to change and the view from the Dalit perspective was to be taken, then it would refer to a far larger expanse of society with segregation and ghettoisation as its main characteristic. This is a very different view from that of the Brahmanas or of the distinctive upper-caste religions.
Central to the social structure was the inexcusable social intolerance as expressed in the exclusion and oppression of all non-caste groups, the Adivasis, lower castes and Dalits. The exclusion, often ignored by quoting the texts that do not pointedly refer to it, is evident however in descriptions of social practice. As I’ve said earlier in this essay, and elsewhere, when caste Hindus today speak of their supposed victimisation by Muslims for a thousand years, do they pause to think of the tyranny to which they subjected Dalits and Adivasis for over two millennia? The victimisation of human beings by treating them as untouchable is worse than any other. The Hindu codes sanctioned this victimisation. How do upper-caste Muslims and Christians reconcile their discrimination against Muslim and Christian Dalits, a discrimination that was contrary to their religious teachings where all men are said to be equal in the eyes of God? Why do we not ask Dalits and Adivasis what nationalism means to them? Do they even know that as Indian citizens they are entitled to human rights and social justice? Or have they been told by local authorities that nationalism means waving flags and shouting slogans on specific occasions?
The interweaving of religions and social forms, both of the past and the present, needs investigation.
This is an excerpt from On Nationalism, published by Aleph Book Company.
Romila Thapar is Emeritus Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and holds an Hon D.Litt each from Calcutta University, Oxford University and the University of Chicago. In 2008, Professor Thapar was awarded the prestigious Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress.