Name: On Nationalism
Authors: Romila Thapar, AG Noorani, Sadanand Menon
Price: Rs 399
Granted that all Indians aren’t argumentative, but they all love an argument.
The three essays in this deceptively short book pack more than a punch. There are thoughts, ideas and hints of a million arguments, all effectively challenging the numbskull line of ‘One Nation, One Nationalism, One Everything’, which underlies so much of today’s politics, atmospherics, economics and, of course, slogans.
The essays in On Nationalism by the historian Romila Thapar, the lawyer/author AG Noorani and culture and the culture critic Sadanand Menon have attempted a big and wide sweep, and got it right. At the end of the book, you are left with a feeling of satiation, of having savoured some of the most sophisticated arguments placed in context — international, political, cultural and contemporary — and without overloading the mind or oversimplifying the difficult issues which are taken head on.
As a historian, Thapar does exactly what culture Nazis today don’t want to see being done. She plumbs the depths of India’s past, its complex traditions, origins and politics, tugging at the tussle between the million shades of theism and atheism that have co-existed here for millennia. Once a mind like Thapar’s has been provoked by those using the tricolour to strangle dissent or the very idea of a shared nation as we know it, it is able to weave facts, philosophy and the historical roots of various ideas of “nationalism” remarkably well. For even readers who are more familiar with her work, the delight is in the way she can refresh elements from the past with stirring insights from the present. Every reading is a new essay, every time.
Noorani, a veteran investigator of the laws of our land, has focussed his essay on Section 124(A) — which governs sedition — that Bhagat Singh was hanged to death under. The same law was sought to be used against the students of the JNU Students’ Union in February earlier this year. Noorani recalls fascinating facts on how the idea of sedition originated in the Penal Code of 1837. It is interesting that in 1921, Maulana Mohammed Ali, Shaukat Ali and the Shankaracharya of Sharada Peeth were tried jointly in 1931 at Karachi, at the height of the Khilafat movement. In 1922, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad defiant defence against the charge of sedition is remembered as a remarkable legal oration. Noorani draws extensively from European and American experiences and concludes that India is witnessing a McCarthy moment from the 1950s, when all those who were not “us” were seen as “them” and were sought to be weeded out and declared “un-American”.
Menon explores the “charged space linking politics and culture” and, in his piece, makes fine distinctions charting how India’s national culture is sought to be reduced to cultural nationalism — a familiar trope from the BJP of the 1990s, when LK Advani rode a rath to spread “cultural nationalism”.
A collection of essays like this comes at an appropriate time for modern India. It is another matter that it has also, nearly 100 years after Rabindranath Tagore, put into focus his sharp and incisive critique of the perils of nationalism (published in 1917). In that essay, Tagore noted that “the nation is the greatest evil”. Clearly, the internationalist that Tagore was, he must have been appalled at the “nationalism” raging and beginning to consume Europe at the time.
This book is remarkable for not being a lament of the times, but a forensic evaluation of what the 2016 version of nationalism could do to India, and how it wants to impose a distorted and selective idea of the past. For example, for anyone needing solid arguments to rebut the bullies who are looking to draw red lines, there is plenty here on offer.
Sadanand Menon draws on the rich idea of Sakambari, first seen in an Indus seal, of “an autonomous woman who is self-generative, independent…” or of Salabhjanika (Gandhara sculpture, Mathura) the woman “coterminus with nature and prosperity” as being miles apart from the new patriarchal idea of women that is being pushed as traditionally “Indian”.
The fundamental point made in the book demolishes the idea of ancient or “real” India as one marked by “purity”; rather, like Salman Rushdie suggested, it reinforces that “mongrelisation” is the stuff of life in India over its thousands of years of co-existence — some happy, some fractious, and some, just business as usual.
Jean Paul Sartre once wrote of France: “In other days, France was the name of a country. We should take care that in 1961, it does not become the name of a nervous disease.” One of the essayists in the book sounds out the same warning: “There is a lesson for it in contemporary India”.