Indian nationalism has always been contested territory. Debates predating Independence involved men like Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. The Constituent Assembly, set up in 1946, was the official platform that got down to defining the characteristics of the new Indian state and the rights and duties of the Indian citizen. The Constitution drafted under the leadership of Babasaheb Ambedkar became the bedrock of the new state: the Republic derived its authority from the People of India. Ambedkar’s Constitution, adopted by consensus in the Constituent Assembly, was the anti-thesis of RSS leader M S Golwalkar’s We, or Our Nationhood Defined, which defined India as a Hindu nation.
Even as the CA was making the Constitution, the new nation was under challenge from at least three broad political streams. One, the communists under B T Ranadive insisted that the transfer of power on August 15, 1947, did not the mean real freedom. The Communist Party of India launched an insurrection in Telangana for ‘people’s democracy’, a formulation that allowed the communists to build socialism in a multi-class, multi-party democracy. The Nehru government crushed the Telangana movement — and within three years, the CPI abandoned the line and joined the electoral process.
Two, the Hindu right wing, comprising mainly the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS, opposed the building of a secular democracy and accused Gandhi of appeasing Muslims. Nathuram Godse, a former RSS activist who had joined the Hindu Mahasabha, killed the Father of Nation. Home Minister Sardar Patel banned the RSS in the wake of Gandhi’s murder under pressure from Prime Minister Nehru who, according to historian Christophe Jaffrelot, was convinced that “the Mahatma’s killing was only the first stage in a fairly widespread conspiracy to seize power, of which the prime mover was the RSS”.
Three, Tamil speakers in the South and the Nagas in the East claimed to be distinct and separate nationalities and pressed for national self-determination.
All three strands continue to challenge the ideological moorings and geographical unity of the Indian state, from within and outside the democratic framework. The categories of revolution, counter-revolution and secessionism could be adopted to understand the broad narrative of ‘nationalism’ and ‘anti-nationalism’ since Independence.
The Early Years: 1947-1962
The Nehru government oversaw the democratic revolution promised by the Constitution. Universal franchise, state protection against caste and religious discrimination, civil liberties including freedoms of speech and expression, and the right to profess and propagate a religion of one’s choice were features of this phase of nation-building. However, when the regions in the periphery — Nagaland, Jammu and Kashmir — challenged the Indian state’s claim over territory, the response was swift, and often brutal.
The communists, who were debating whether the Russian path or the Chinese way was the right road to revolution, were also under watch. However, the Nehruvian state was accommodative of the CPI, which had emerged as the main opposition in Parliament, and won office in Kerala. The counter-revolution of the religious right was muted in this period. Patel got the RSS to proclaim allegiance to the Indian Constitution, and lifted the ban on the outfit in 1949 — even though Nehru continued to look at Hindu nationalism as a fascist phenomenon and a threat to the Indian state.
The reconciliatory and assimilative nature of Nehruvian politics allowed the communists and the Hindu nationalists space to participate in the country’s political process. However, the secessionists received little leeway when they threatened armed rebellion. Tamil nationalist Periyar continued his challenge to the Indian state, but his symbolic acts of burning the national flag and the Constitution were treated more with amusement, perhaps because he had ceased to represent the political mainstream, and the Tamil region was not a border state.
The War Period: 1962-1971
The China war was a watershed. Left-wingers in the CPI were jailed on suspicion of being Chinese sympathisers. Nehru passed away in 1964, and by 1967 the political supremacy of the Congress had come under challenge from parties that represented new social forces. The China war and 1965 Pakistan war drained the economy. Successive droughts forced India to seek international aid. India’s romance with the Nehruvian state was waning and new threats to the nation emerged. The Naxalite rebellion beginning in 1967 symbolised disillusionment with the Nehruvian state; the parliamentary left and the youth unrest in the face of unemployment and lack of opportunities. The Shiv Sena, espousing ethnic chauvinism, exploited urban alienation and pauperisation. But despite the trauma of successive wars, the nation as a whole did not hunt for any ‘Other’ or ‘anti-national’, but instead turned its energies to nation-building. ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ was a slogan that underscored that the soldier and farmer were equally important. The seeding of the Green Revolution was undertaken in this period.
The Indira Era: 1972-1984
The Bangladesh war saw the deification of Indira Gandhi as Durga, and Congress president D K Barooah coined the slogan ‘India is Indira’. Indira Gandhi’s government wallowed in a populist left rhetoric, and sought to blame the “Foreign Hand” for its governance failures. The so-called threat was invoked when Indira’s administration took a counter-revolutionary turn and imposed the Emergency. The basic structure of the Constitution came under threat, and hundreds of people, including all major Opposition leaders, were imprisoned. Gandhians and others who challenged Indira’s autocratic administration were called anti-nationals and jailed. The edifice of the Republic shook as democracy was stifled. Indira saw the religious right wing and capitalists as a threat to the state. Jayaprakash Narayan’s Total Revolution captured the nation’s imagination, and his leadership led to the Janata victory in 1977. The Janata restored civil liberties and restored the basic structure of the Constitution. The Hindu right wing gained political legitimacy by joining hands with JP and merging in the Janata Party.
The Siege Within: The 1980s
Seen by many historians as the bloodiest decade in the history of Independent India, the 1980s saw the re-emergence of the nationalism question in the most violent form. Punjab, Assam and Jammu and Kashmir erupted in violence, and stretched the resilience of the Indian state. Religion, caste and ethnicity were used to carry out massacres and to expel those who did not conform. Various sub-nationalisms gained the power to use violence — and to define the ‘national’. The violence in Punjab, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 marked a new low. The Shah Bano case and the Babri Masjid movement marked the rise of religious fundamentalism. The massacres in Maliana and Hashimpura revealed the complicity of the state in anti-minority violence.
The Muslim as the Other: 1990s onward
The Ayodhya movement and demolition of the Babri Masjid by Sangh Parivar stormtroopers took the nationalism question to pre-Partition days. The Bombay blasts fitted the two-nation narrative of Hindutva politics — and, five decades after Partition, the Hindu-Muslim divide returned to the centrestage. The violence in Gujarat was in many ways similar to the mass killings of 1984. Waves of terrorist attacks by Pakistan-based groups espousing jihadi philosophies brought a new fear, and the resultant faultlines were exploited by a host of identity-centric political groups, both Hindu and Muslim. The BJP had adopted Hindutva as its political ideology in the 1980s — Hindutva, Savarkar’s vision of the nation, linked Indianness to allegiance to an Indian-origin religion: its diad of punyabhumi and pitrubhumi naturally excluded those professing semitic religions from the Hindu Rashtra. The evolution of this narrative through the 1990s and 2000s saw the Hindu Right paint the Muslim and Christian as the ‘Other’, and claim for itself the role of nationalism’s arbiter. Dissenters could, by extension, be accused of being ‘anti-national’, and of having affinities for Pakistan. A second strand in this narrative of nationalism has been linked to ‘development’ — leading, in cases, to the branding of its critics as ‘anti-nationals’.