In early August, in his last speech as vice president, Hamid Ansari noted that in contrast to a “pluralist view of nationalism” that prevailed for decades after Independence, “an alternative viewpoint of ‘purifying exclusivism’” had recently assumed dominance. Later that month, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Rakesh Sinha responded to the speech in the Indian Express. In what was essentially a diatribe against Ansari, Sinha argued that the “cultural nationalism” of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the RSS, was based on a “spiritual democracy which promotes pluralism, not obstructs it.” He noted that the ideology of cultural nationalism had “votaries,” such as the nationalist leaders Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Bipin Chandra Pal, whose views preceded the formation of the RSS. However, Sinha does not appear to take into consideration that the nationalist ideals of the individuals he identifies in his column were far more inclusive than the nationalism of the BJP and RSS.
The RSS has been committed to cultural nationalism since its formation in 1925, even in the midst of intense anti-colonial nationalism. As an organisation, the RSS has always claimed to be apolitical, which explains its absence from the politics of the freedom struggle. But how is this cultural nationalism defined? If we accept our cultural diversity, which even the RSS does, then which particular culture should form the core of this nationalism? Our pluralism and diversity is not merely based on religion. We have culturally and linguistically diverse Hinduism and Islam in this country, which had been our beauty and strength. While we did borrow the idea of nationalism from the West, like we did with many other ideas and institutions, we borrowed them after a serious churning during the freedom struggle itself. Unfortunately RSS stayed away from that exercise, and thus always felt uneasy with the inclusive nationalism we had practiced all these years.
Sinha goes back to our founding fathers of nationalism, such as Rai, Tilak, and Pal—the trio of assertive nationalists who were commonly referred to collectively as Lal-Bal-Pal—to justify the cultural nationalism he expounds. However, the concepts of nation and nationalism that these early nationalists expounded had evolved during hectic public lives amidst Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and others. While Sinha’s nationalism, or that espoused by the RSS and the BJP, suffers from a mono-cultural understanding that is drawn from only one religion, these nationalist icons recognised the necessity for a plurality of cultures within Indian nationalism.
Rai was heavily influenced by Hinduism, which also shaped his thoughts on nationalism, but his politics ran counter to the exclusivity being peddled today. In 1914, Rai said, ‘The Arya Samaj has to remember that India of today is not exclusively Hindu.” He continued: “Its prosperity and future depends on the reconciliation of Hinduism with that greater ism, the Indian nationalism, which alone can secure for India its rightful place in the comity of nations. Anything that may prevent, or even hinder, that consummation is a sin for which there can be no expiation.”
Bipin Chandra Pal also articulated a cultural basis for Indian nationalism. For instance, Pal was at the forefront of the movement burning British clothing and boycotting British goods. However, the composite nationalism that Pal proposed appears very different from the exclusivist cultural nationalism of today. In his 1916 book Nationialism and Nationality, Pal notes: “Under the Moslems we had, whether Hindus or Mahomedans, one common government, but that did not destroy the integrity of Hindu culture.” He added, “We took many things from our Mahommedan neighbours, and gave them also something of our own, but this interchange of ideas and institutions did not destroy our special character or our special culture.” According to Pal, “that special character and culture is the very soul and essence of what we now understand as nationalism.”
Bal Gangadhar Tilak is known for introducing Hindu cultural and religious symbols as catalysts for strengthening nationalism—in 1893, for instance, Tilak organised a grand festival to celebrate the Hindu festival Ganesh Chaturthi. But he also emphasised the inclusiveness of our nation and nationalism. In 1916, in Ahmednagar, during a conference of the Home Rule League—a movement for independent rule within the British dominion that the freedom fighter Annie Besant founded that year—Tilak discussed the “alien” British administration. “By alien I do not mean alien in religion,” he continued. “He who does what is beneficial to the people of this country, be he a Muhammedan or an Englishman, is not alien.”
Any sectarian or mono-cultural interpretation of our founding nationalists does grave injustice to the cause of multi-cultural, multi-religious and inclusive nationalism that they left behind for us all to cherish. Sadly, this fundamental ethos always eluded our present-day cultural nationalists.
Our founding fathers’ understanding of cultural plurality conceded space to religions and cultures beyond the majority Hindu religion, and acknowledged that the soul and essence of our nationalism is the enrichment through mutual give and take. The exclusive cultural nationalism being thrust upon us today is actually an invention, which does not go along with the inclusive and accommodative nationalism perceived by the early stalwarts.
It is amusing to see that Sinha also invoked Jawaharlal Nehru to valorise cultural nationalism. Nehru, of course, wrote and spoke extensively on matters of culture as well as nationalism, but he never conceded to a mono-cultural idea of India. He relentlessly questioned those who propounded exclusivist cultural nationalism. In one of his letters to the chief ministers, in 1953, he cautioned them by saying that “a more insidious form of nationalism is the narrowness of mind that it develops within a country, when a majority thinks itself as the entire nation and in its attempt to absorb the minority actually separates them even more.” Hamid Ansari did not say anything new—he just reiterated the spirit of what our founders laid down for us.
S Irfan Habib is the Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi.