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Constructing the nation and nationalism

Rishu Mahato

What is a nation? Is there any correct way to define nationalism? In today’s age of social media, the spectrum to this answer is filled with ideas and opinions of abundant interesting individuals consisting of scholars, politicians, internet trolls, meme pages, the ‘light bearers’ of nationalism and patriotism, all trying their best to explain what does nation mean? If you were asked this very question, what is the answer that your mind is forming right now?

Using our geographical and political definitions we can define a nation as a piece of land with its own boundaries, a sovereign power, shared culture, rights and duties for the citizens and a national emblem, flag and anthem as defining features for its nationalism. India certainly checks in all these categories and more. But are these enough for a human to accept a nation as part of one’s identity? Is nationalism born within or is it a social construct that has over the years been modulated to train our minds into reflecting certain ideas and emotions that we think are our own but instead has made its way to us through the prejudiced lens with which we see our history, polity, sociology and our own self?

As a student of history, I have always been taught that history is the study of the past that helps us to understand our present with added clarity. In that sense, as a person living in 2020, trying to keep up with ever-changing ideas of nation and nationalism, what I need to do is to disabuse my mind of the stereotypes and carry out an investigative study to unlearn these stereotypes and biased notions.

When we look at the history of India as a nation, we do not find enough evidence to fit it within the boundaries of the definition of a nation. With kingdoms ruled by hereditary laws, most kings were devoted to leave behind a personal legacy. Thus, we find a string of powerful chieftains raging constant wars among each other to fulfill their imperialistic desires and call themselves “empires” after achieving that. Loyalties were regional and there were few efforts by the royalty to directly communicate with the working class or work for their well-being. We do find some like the Mauryas, The Cholas, The Pandyas, The Guptas, The Mughals, to name a few, who do some justice to being called dynasties or empires but still none of them ever brought the subcontinent under one direct centralized rule.

Only with the coming of the British who later made India their colony, we find all regional kingdoms tamed with wars and treaties and brought together under the umbrella of “British India”. What began with the English East India Company being just another European merchant company, transformed into them interfering with local politics, acquiring monopolistic authority in trade with India and soon becoming the head of centralized power that would rule India for the next two hundred years. For the first time, India was ruled by an entity whose capital was located miles away and by a small number of people who would exert immense power over it.

But how would they rule a country whose laws, customs, culture and people were completely alien to them? To govern the country effectively, efforts were initiated to understand India and its people. For that, they needed to know the history of India.

Ever since the Renaissance, there were boosted efforts in Europe to study and develop history as a discipline and Europe had proper sources for that. While in India, history wasn’t seen as a discipline. It wasn’t a tool to chronologically arrange the historical events. Myths and fiction overlapped with whatever little textual sources were available. There were some inscriptions, distinguished literary sources, the Vedas and Upanishads and some biographies of the Mughal rulers. Still, none to explain what India was in a straightforward way. Along with that, the British were met faced with a peculiar situation. People of different religions and cultures were living quite harmoniously. A largely homogenous society came in contact with a heterogeneous society and reacted the only way it knew. Seeing it through their biased and homogeneous views and fitting it within the boxes they thought would simplify the knowing process.

For their quest, they needed the help of locals. But India was still very much tied to the chains of the caste system. So the only people who were educated or could read the available texts in Sanskrit, Persian, Prakrit were the Brahmanical class and the male elites. They became a guide to the Indian society and texts for the British. Along with this, as Europe’s trade with the east grew, so did their inquisitiveness for the east. This gave birth to Orientalism. Orientalists arrived in India and started chronicling the history of India, an interpretation that affects our perspectives even today.

A material and social collaboration of Indian elites and Brahmins with the British began and our colonists labelled it as the “rediscovery and recodification of India ''. The orientalist understanding of India, with a background where the elites became the interpreters of Indian culture and Brahmanism, received a new legitimacy under the British. It was not only economic colonisation, but ideological and cultural colonisation too.

From this point in the 19th century, the development of historiography began, when minds were historicized and Indians began reacting to this ideological perspective. James Mill wrote the first book on Indian history, “History of India”, in 1817. The book has remarkable condemnation for Indian past and civilization as if history had not happened before British came, that it remains unchanged and has decayed. After European enlightenment, for the first time, a stadial concept in history was created and Mill positioned India at a much lower position in comparison to Europe.

Mill even criticized William Jones for exaggerating the achievements of the Indian past. He also divided history into three parts – ancient, medieval and modern. Ancient being Hindu India, medieval under the rule of Islam and modern was under British rule. Colonial ideology took refuge in colonial history to show its superiority. There was a great need for this from the English East India Company’s side because they have been waging continuous wars with the Indian rulers to gain authority which summed up huge expenditures on military and resources spent by the company. To validate these expenses in front of the British parliament in England they needed to show that India required a strong imperial hand that only England could provide for its developments and transformation into a civilized society. And Mills’ historical description of a savage and decadent India acted as a pillar to justify it.

On the other hand, orientalism was spreading in India in an institutionalised manner. Foundations for Asiatic societies were being laid. William Jones who came to India as a judge of the Supreme Court soon became an important figure in this scene. He researched comparative philology and through his studies, he found similarities between Sanskrit, Latin and Greek. He assumed a past where people shared a culture, home and language. And this gave fire to the idea of migration of Aryans, the myth of the Aryan homeland and the idea of an Aryan race. Orientalists and Indologists found a spiritual cousin of Aryan culture in India. They began setting a binary between west and east. West is material and east is spiritual. While towards Islam, the viewpoint of orientalism was hostile. And the hypothesis that the middle age in India was a dark age and the ancient age was the most intellectually and spiritually developed era, came from colonial historiography. This assumption was passed from colonial historiography to communal historiography.

Along with this British officers were sent in every direction to collect information about the people residing in the country. They were accompanied mostly by the Brahmin guides as they were the sole literate people. From the memoirs of these officers and the colonial archive, we see the confusion that these officers met while gathering the data. As no one in that time period recognized themselves as a simple Hindu or Muslim. The identity of a person came from various sources such as his occupation, caste, village, community. The messiness of their identities and viewing it with a Brahmanical lens led the British to simplify them as much as possible. The creation and labelling of an individual as a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, comes from here. And this has been accepted and validated with time by the coming generations.

What we see above are colonial rulers of India who wanted us to understand our history as described by them, the hegemony wanting us to see history on their terms. And thus starts the friction of dominant and dominated. Some Indians believed it, some opposed it and some stood at crossroads. At the same point in history, the British colonial state decided to create a class of English speaking and thinking Indians who would act as their middlemen for other Indians, a blueprint for the “babu” class.

The most popular reaction to these by the Indians can be seen in the development of ideas of nationalism and in some of the reforms that were made starting from the 19th century. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, deemed as the Father of Modern India by many, was a visionary and great reformist but he too fed into the claims of the British that glorified the ancient past and denounced the present. This romanticisation of a golden ancient age can be seen in his work where he divides India into three ages: Age of Upanishads – the golden era of knowledge and enlightenment, Age of darkness: (600 BC-1800 CE) where he completely overlooked the contributions of Buddhism, Jainism, Sramanic teachings, Bhakti and Sufi movement, and at last, Age of future expectations: modern India thriving on the rediscovery of the past.

Similarly, the works of Dayanand Saraswati, another reformer of this era, believed in the theory of the Aryan race and dismissed Brahmanical ideology and everything from Buddhism to Jainism, Christianity and Islam as not part of India’s self. Bengali men were commented on by the British as weak, effeminate, good for becoming “babus” only and living a soft life. As a response to this, we see several groups such as Yugantar and Anushilan Samiti bringing in so-called manly activities such as wrestling and football. The idea of a tough, masculine male had begun growing deeper roots. This phenomenon spread to the minds of Muslim thinkers as well, as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan who led the Islamic reformation movement was very focused on the fact that Muslims should learn from the British and Muslim League made, getting into good books of British, an essential point while forming the League. These were a few of the many responses we find coming out from the Muslim community against the stereotypes set by the British and the hostile observation of the Orientalists.

This base of self-doubt and stereotypes that were set by them, continued to dominate the thinking and viewpoint of many Indian leaders and scholars. We see it in Gandhi’s romanticisation of rural India in his Hind Swaraj, in the revisionist views of nationalist historians who try to legitimise the weakness of the Indian rulers and hide their debaucheries under the pretext that most of the archives are biased accounts of the British. It follows us through Independence and moulds our knowledge of the past and present through the information in textbooks, structures that represent the nation, among others.

One of the best examples of such a structure is the National Museum. The National Museum in New Delhi was established in 1949. India had just got its freedom and what was left behind was a poverty-ridden, unemployed, illiterate country living with the horrors of partition. Within a matter of two years, the establishment of a national museum on the premise of the national government of the country was a statement by this poor nation that it was free of its previous masters and had control and power to protect and preserve its past like the European nations with their own big museums. The national museum became an instrument to showcase the past of the “nation”. But the concept of a nation was conceived just a century ago in India. How to drag it back to 5000 years ago? What we then see is the construction of a mainstream history where the museum was required as a “shrine to the national culture, confining its scope to artefacts produced through the ages but within the boundaries of the modern state.” Additional efforts were made to find Indus Valley sites in India as major sites from the civilisation went to Pakistan. The lack of evidence to connect this civilisation with mainstream national history can be seen in the museum’s gallery.

Then a jump of 1500 years and we encounter the rock sculptures as they are only a thing of the “mainstream” culture that lived through the ravages of times. We start at the Mauryas and Shunga art period from the 3rd-2nd century B.C. We find Buddhist sculptures and along with that the Yaksha statues in between. Now the placing of these sculptures is a strategic move. By the presence of the Yaksha statue, the nationalist historians completely defy the statement of the European historians that there was Greek influence on the Mauryan art, declaring it as just a transformation in art and not any influence. Then we move to the Kushana period which is brought at rest with the refined and elegant Gupta art. With the yogic and spiritual male statues of the Gupta period, the museum wants to show us a journey of the Indian art from the extensive Mauryan art which “may” have a foreign influence which finally reaches its destination in the classical Gupta age even though most of these pieces come from North and Central India only.

After this section, the medieval period section is a confusing collection of art from various regions and times. We move from “chronology to material” hereon. The artefacts of the Mughal rulers are shown as examples of material work, not as part of the history of the nation. Also, the absence of regional and tribal achievements cannot be missed. It is only in the local state museums, we find the past of the branches of this “mainstream” history, a homage to regional growth in various sectors. The history of the nation didn’t move in a single thread from Mauryans to Kushans to Guptas and then just vanished into a chaotic sphere. But that’s the history we are being presented in the national museum of this country. A past of the “Indian nation”, which had a continued and conventional growth in history.

The expansive work on Indian history by the British was an effort to create the “other”. The construction of the other has always been important for Europe. Because with this, looking and analyzing the “other” helps Europe refine its own self. A reminder of what Europe is and isn’t. One part of this process started with colonist historians, carried on by the orientalists who created a binary of west and east as it was necessary to legitimise colonialism. Stereotyping serves the colonial purpose and this along with knowledge put into standardised moulds, studied with an unscientific approach to the past have been validated by the reformers, revisionists and nationalist historians convinced by the colonial argument that Indian society was decadent since the middle ages. Some like Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar, disgusted by the biases of colonial masters and the Brahmanical hegemony worked towards breaking these shackles. Dalit, Sufi, Bhakti and later gender historians criticise this project as many aspects of history were lost in the hegemonic project of Indology and Orientalism.

In the digital and postmodern world, these perceptions have received a new life that borders fanaticism. When a leader on national television goes on to give an entire speech in Hindi even though there is a large section of people in the South and North-East, who do not know the language and cannot understand a thing, the connection of Hindi as a “national” language is revised and gives a boost to the idea of Hindi nation. When a biased historian romanticises the rule of every other ancient king of this land as the “golden era of India”, not only is that an acceptance of the views that our previous colonial masters wanted us to have, but also legitimises the patriarchal, elitist and casteist rule that was a part of that ancient era and since the past two centuries has been shaping our notions of nation and nationalism.

Our basic textbooks always mention that it was the British that brought the divide and rule policy to India and created communalism, something that haunts us and grows even today. But it certainly misses out on the fact that our perspectives for this nation and what is our nationalism, is very much their gift too. I do not want to give them all the credit as their work was successful because we played the main part. We accepted their view of us as uncivilized beings and tried our best to find proper examples of us as a nation from one section of the past that again the colonisers glorified to the extent that it suffocated the diverse beauty of this land.

This digital era has its own perks too. For the first time, we are connected to every part of this world, have access to such diverse knowledge, and can fact check within minutes. All that is required is for us to be ready to unlearn the biases we have been taught till now by the orthodox institutions and educate ourselves in proper ways. To build the idea of a nation that accepts the country with all its diversity. We need to stop seeing through a keyhole and open the door to a better world.


About the author:

Rishu Mahato is currently pursuing an M.A. in History at Miranda House, University of Delhi. Having a deep interest in history, she is an avid reader and researcher of new aspects of historical knowledge. She likes to spend her time reading novels of different genres, listening to music, watching movies and trying new recipes.


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