Several essays in this important volume reflect on the many meanings of the nation. Some are book reviews while others transcribe Sugata Bose’s Lok Sabha speeches since 2014. The book is, movingly, dedicated to “students who value freedom”.
Clearly, accelerating communal authoritarianism compels Bose to recover alternative nationalist visions: from Aurobindo Ghosh, Bipin Chandra Pal, Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, and, above all, Mahatma Gandhi. One misses, though, an explicit engagement with the intolerance that Bose implicitly challenges: with Hindurashtravadis.
Interestingly, the collection eludes a firm generic classifiability. It combines discursive and political histories, sharp polemic and lyrical, almost mellifluous panegyrics for chosen historical protagonists. Our reading is constantly surprised yet stimulated by these shifts in tonality.
Bose’s project primarily contests the concept of a singular, majoritarian nation. He also opposes “hard secularists”, supposedly suspicious of religion in public life. He focuses, instead, on Indian versions of cosmopolitanism and universalism that coexisted with profound religious sensibilities. Another sustained — sometimes repetitive — argument targets post-colonial scholars who brand all Indian nationalist imaginaries as derivative, caged within Western knowledge and idioms.
The book begins with Bangla literary/musical traditions that configured the nation as a goddess — as in Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Bande Mataram hymn — as well as the nurturing motherland. While Anandamath, where the hymn is embedded, did call for a holy war to destroy Muslims, in the imagination of Pal, Aurobindo and Vivekananda, the goddess benignly embraces non-Hindu faiths. The citations are extensive and extremely significant.
Bose, however, elides a basic problem with the goddess-centred imaginary. Representing the nation as a Hindu goddess made it impossible for monotheistic Muslims to identify themselves with this dominant patriotic vision. Rabindranath Tagore had raised another problem: the attribution of divinity to any particular nation renders it an entity above universal moral laws. It lends itself, eventually, to the dangerous notion of “my country, right or wrong”.
Bose imaginatively traces an oscillation between the nation and the region in Bengali culture. Abanindranath Tagore’s iconic painting of Bharatmata was originally meant to be Mother Bengal. The Mother in Bande Mataram is actually Bengal, as the number of her children in the song correspond to Bengal’s population at that time. Tagore, too, dedicated songs to both Bharatbarsha and Bengal. Bose argues that the transposition from region to nation was unproblematic. However, the region — being a familiar landscape, language and culture — would have been a far more intimate, sensuous experience than the more abstract nation, visualised as a map rather than as a known land.
Bose shows that the poverty of our people and country under foreign rule was central to patriots. However, they seldom invoked caste and class exploitation that privileged Indians inflicted on Indian subalterns. Rabindranath, in his post Swadeshi phase, was rather exceptional in this regard.
Bose discusses the Khilafat or Non-Cooperation Movements through two prisms. One explores Gandhi’s deftness in combining territorial patriotism with pan-Islamism. No serious contradiction emerged within such fusion, which achieved massive anti-colonial mass movements. Second, he provides a history of Muslim patriotism which is often overlooked. He reminds us that frequent convergences between the Congress and Hindu communal forces, then and later, made it imperative for Muslim politicians to seek a loosely structured federal state or special protective measures for themselves. Congress insistence on a centralised state, therefore, strengthened their demand for Partition.
He usefully tracks Congress economic thinking in colonial and post-colonial times, underlining shifts in national planning. Refusing to pull a complex history into an undifferentiated category of high bourgeois aspirations, he separates out different strands among planners. But he suggests that despite paradigm shifts across plans, down to the turn to the neo-liberal model, there has been a continuous focus on means enhancement in strategies for development, rather than on goals and values to enhance meaningful welfare. The distinction is important and probably merited a fuller discussion.
He traces the absorption of foreign aesthetic traditions within early 20th century Indian art, which, consequently, produced expressive forms that were uniquely Indian/modern. The focus on creative transactions between Southeast and East Asia and India is interesting. But it is equally important to recall similar transactions with the West, which Rabindranath strenuously upheld in his arguments with Gandhi, who would delete all such cultural contact.
Bose movingly recalls the last, lonely days of Gandhi when, notwithstanding his political isolation, he struggled against communal hatred and for peace with Pakistan. He had Indian and Pakistani flags flying together at his prayer meetings, and insisted on releasing the full share of national assets for Pakistan. Bose recalls a very important fact. Jinnah was ready to settle for a loose, three-tiered grouping of states, suggested by the Cabinet Mission, instead of Partition, as late as 1946. This invaluable window of opportunity was lost to the intransigence of Indian leaders, determined on thoroughgoing centralisation.
The speeches raise critical contemporary issues of freedom of thought and hate mobs. Bose recalls that Gandhi had wanted the people of Kashmir to decide their own fate. But, sometimes, they seem to indicate that intolerance is an aberration rather than the culmination of Hindutva’s ideological tradition.
Let me end on a quibble. Bose rejoices that Rabindranath’s patriotic song was sung by Germans with great fanfare in 1942. Rabindranath’s revulsion for Nazism was absolute and well-known. That he was thus commemorated by Nazis is surely to be deplored and not celebrated?