The limits of nationalism


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TO start with the obvious: history, described famously by E.H. Carr many years ago as the ever-changing dialogue of the present with the past, is necessarily being ‘rewritten’ all the time. The immediate issues that have given this question great topicality and high media profile need not be rehearsed again. Briefly, they relate to the current state-backed Hindutva drive to ‘rewrite’ history through an onslaught on established historiography.

I would like rather to look first at a more basic question, about possible criteria for distinguishing between less and more valid versions of the past. Complications have arisen here through today’s widespread relativistic moods, ever suspicious of vestiges of outdated ‘positivism’ and illicit assumptions of ‘facticity’ in any expression of preference.

Historians, or at least many among them, are less philosophically naïve than their critics often suppose. A growing number would be aware that their accounts are never more than representations, without any unmediated, one-to-one correspondence with a reality ‘out there’ in the past. But a distinction between levels might be helpful at this point. There is really no great problem so far as specific details about the past, like dates of rulers or events, or the actuality of a particular happening, are concerned. There tends to exist at any given moment a broad consensus in such matters within state-of-the-art historical scholarship. This is grounded on currently accepted methods of assaying surviving traces of the past.

To cite a couple of brutally topical instances: the vast majority of medieval historians agree that there is no substance to the claim that the Babri Masjid had been built by destroying a Ram temple there, since there is a striking absence of contemporary testimony. (The same scholars would also agree, though perhaps with some embarrassment, that temples had been destroyed at times by some Muslim rulers, notably Aurangzeb). And, barring a massive destruction of a very wide range of contemporary evidence (survivors’ accounts, a wealth of media reportage and footage, reports of the National Human Rights Commission and many other enquiries), the fact of state-backed genocide in today’s Gujarat, one can hope, will not be seriously disputed in the future.

But history is not primarily about isolated ‘facts’ or details. It tries to select, arrange, analyse and explain them through narrative patterns which are diverse, open to change, often mutually conflicting. Relativistic doubts and questionings are not irrelevant or entirely unhelpful here. A bit of information about the past becomes a historical ‘fact’ only within a particular narrative, which would be based on a set of hypotheses or frame of analysis. In a sense, then, it is ‘constituted’ by the latter.

Thus the perpetrators and defenders of the Gujarat carnage do not bother to deny that it has happened, for they have shown themselves eminently capable of justifying it within their own deeply ingrained terms of reference (to the extent of Modi planning the ‘gaurav yatra’, evidently in its honour). For them, it makes sense in terms of stereotypes, grounded in a particular historical frame. Hindus and Muslims are essentialised, homogeneous, inevitably and invariably mutually antagonistic entities across centuries, with Muslims as perpetual aggressors, violators of the sacred Hindu land, women, cows and temples, by definition todays terrorists and agents of Pakistan. Revenge for Godhra can then be visited on literally any Muslim, even the dead or the unborn (Vali Gujarati, Faiyaz Khan, the foetuses ripped out from the wombs of pregnant women).



However odious and repellent, the narrative frame at work here is not entirely easy to refute, for it is not a matter now of falsifiable specific detail, but a generalisation within which data that does not fit in can be declared to be exceptional (e.g., Akbar’s tolerance as against Aurangzeb or Mahmud of Ghazni, sundry sycretistic cults, and so on). And surely all generalisations have exceptions, are equally based on choice and values of the writer – and so history at this, much more important level, is maybe inevitably and equally subjective?

Confronted with this dilemma, relativists with progressive (in this instance, anti-communal) values have been tempted sometimes to suggest a ‘political’ answer. Within what can be called an epistemologically level playing field of mutually opposed hypotheses or interpretative frames, all of them equally incapable of verification, surely we are entitled to evaluation by political consequences and choose what is most appropriate or helpful for the cause one holds dear?

Through an apparently up-to-date and sophisticated path, we have come perilously close here to arguments of commitment, partisanship, or partiinost that had been common during the Stalin era. The radical cause is likely to be different today: not defence of the socialist state or proletarian revolution, but minority rights, feminism, Dalit empowerment, or the reclaiming of lost ‘common property resources’. But the style of argument may not be dissimilar, and be in danger of falling into similar traps of elision of inconvenient aspects and proneness towards essentialisation of the entity or group one is trying to work for.

We might also be in serious danger of disarming ourselves by legitimating choice between alternative general frames in terms of favourable political consequences. One cannot then logically object to the use of such an argument by people we oppose or detest. History can then be freely rewritten to promote ‘national’ and/or ‘Hindu’ glory, and truth comes to reside with the bigger battalions. And surely, in times like ours, it is vital to give up the comfortable illusion that ‘history’ is somehow always ‘on our side’.



But is there any other way through which we can legitimately choose between alternative general frameworks without sinking back into positivist naivete? Maybe a criterion of generative capacity or productiveness, in terms of, not political, but more strictly professional or scholarly consequences, might be helpful. Frameworks are demonstratively unequal here, for some have greater generative capacity than others. They can stimulate more questions, seek to cover previously unexplored dimensions of life of greater numbers of peoples, broaden and deepen historical curiosity and understanding, maybe even help us to look more critically at our own everyday lives and relationships.

Such a perspective allows us to recognise the abiding value of the major breakthroughs in historiography on a world scale, achieved from the mid-19th century onwards through Marxism, the Annales, radical-populist histories from below, feminism, and efforts to move beyond Eurocentric confines – irrespective of and beyond the many doubts, criticisms and controversies that each of these nodal points have and will continue to provoke.



The historiography of the Hindu Right necessarily sticks to periodization by religion: in effect, the religion of rulers, for that is the only way through which the premise of medieval ‘Muslim domination’ or ‘tyranny’ can be made credible. (Muslim peasants and artisans during the so-called ‘Muslim period’ were far from dominant, being quite often subordinated to Hindu landlords or trader moneylenders). It thus remains stuck to a narrow, top-down, elitist analytical frame.

Its other basic premise is an overwhelming emphasis on alleged authenticity by origin. The only real evil for it is religious, cultural or political domination coming from sources it considers external and alien, because non-Hindu. Every other kind of oppression or injustice within what it assumes to be the ever-present, putatively homogeneous Hindu nation, the many inequities and tensions along lines of caste, gender, class or ethnicities have to be subordinated, in history-writing and politics alike, to the endless struggle against external aggression.

‘Mainstream’ or ‘secular’ anti-colonial nationalism has often tended to share the second of these premises. It has also been tempted often to unconditionally prioritize ‘national’ unity over internal divisions. For it, of course, the ‘nation’ would ideally include Muslims and other minorities as well as Hindus, and alien domination would be equated with colonial rule, not extended backwards over time to cover the ‘Muslim’ period. The distinctions are important, but the intertwinings have also been quite notorious, particularly in the latter part of the 19th century when incipient Hindu patriotic fervour so often sought safer literary expression through eulogizing ‘freedom movements’ directed against medieval Muslim kings (the Muslim literati counterpart here being the evocation of the glory of the medieval Islamic world). Crucially, the periodisation of Indian history into ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ eras persisted into quite recent times, providing the bedrock of even the bulk of serious academic research. It tends to implicitly condition much lower-level history teaching and common sense awareness even today.



The real break came with the rise of a much more sophisticated historiography from the 1950s and ’60s pioneered by scholars like D.D. Kosambi, R.S. Sharma, or Irfan Habib. There was a veritable paradigm shift, particularly in ancient and medieval Indian history, producing a corpus which still remains obligatory reading for teaching or research wherever South Asian history is studied at any academically meaningful level in India or abroad.

Thus inscriptions and land grants came to be probed, no longer primarily for information about ancient Indian kings, dynasties and conquests, but as entry-points into broader socioeconomic relationships and questions of state formation. Impressive detailed studies of medieval agrarian, commercial, or artisanal structures similarly took the place of old-fashioned dynastic or military histories, and questions of technological change, surplus extraction, or peasant resistance came to be considered more significant than the personal bigotry or catholicity of rulers.



The shifts, particularly in ancient and medieval history, implied also a rupture with conventional nationalist historiography (which for these epochs often had been difficult to distinguish from communal approaches). To cite only the most obvious instance: the seamier, exploitative sides of ancient Indian civilization could no longer be occluded through assumptions of unique ancient ‘Aryan’ glory or ‘golden ages’. Not that this alternative historiography has not had its problems, and indeed its limits are increasingly attracting legitimate academic attention and debate. Among them might be mentioned the influence at times of a reductive, economically-determinist kind of Marxism, and a proneness towards a centralised vision of subcontinental history flowing from its anti-colonial nationalist origins.

In terms of the criteria of generative potential that I have just outlined, however, its evident superiority over Hindu (or Muslim) nationalist versions can be eminently justified on professional and intellectual grounds, and not just on the plane of political benefit. (Insinuations of success due to state patronage alone are also demonstratively false, as the reputation of the genre of scholarship I am referring to was built through the 1950s and ’60s, well before the brief era of Nurul Hasan as education minister). Today’s Hindutva offensive, if allowed to succeed, would throw Indian historiography back 50 years or more and make of it once more the annals of good or bad kings, wars and conquests alone.

Secular, broadly left-nationalist historiography needs to be defended against the current onslaught, but I think it is indispensable also to become more aware of its many inadequacies. These are manifest most clearly in the area of modern or colonial Indian history, where there has been much less of a break with conventional nationalism than in ancient or medieval. The dominant historiographical assumption here, cutting across many otherwise widely varied approaches, has been that of a single, colonial/anti-colonial binary, setting both narrative pattern and standards of evaluation. The late-colonial era, in particular, tends to get collapsed into a unilinear saga of heroic freedom struggle, colonial repression and ‘separatist’ or ‘divisive’ tendencies that, acting in tandem with British divide-and-rule strategies, ultimately tarnished the coming of freedom with a tragic Partition.



I have already indicated how overlaps could easily take place here with Hindutva premises, for there is a temptation to equate value with ‘authentic’, indigenous origin. It may be noted in parenthesis that the Sangh Parivar has on the whole been much more aggressive so far with regard to ‘Marxist distortions’ of ancient and medieval history: apart from the Towards Freedom volumes, where the RSS is clearly nervous about what documents might reveal about its total non-participation in anti-British movements.

But the problem with secular nationalist historiography is not just that elements within it (e.g, an essentialised and unitary view of the ‘nation’) can sometimes get appropriated by Hindutva. More important to my mind, and the theme I seek to explore in the second part of this essay, are the ways in which its persistence has come to obstruct further academic development.

Research increasingly indicates that not everything in colonial South Asian history can or should be reduced to a single interpretative frame. Such an assumption occludes or distorts many largely autonomous narratives by imposing on them a single evaluative criterion of ‘contribution’, or otherwise, to anti-colonial endeavour or cultural authenticity. Paradoxically, it tends also to take away a lot from the richness and relevance of the history of anti-colonial nationalism by collapsing it into a simplistic story of heroes and villains.



So far as frontline research is concerned, nationalist limits today manifest themselves mainly through a recurrent pattern of part-recuperation of new and promising advances into familiar moulds and controversies.

Subaltern Studies provides one excellent example. In its initial, ‘history from below’ days, it had helped to significantly modify and stretch the colonial/anti-colonial binary by emphasising rifts, tensions, elements of popular autonomy having complicated relationships of both impetus and constraint with ‘elite’ nationalism. But the implicit standard for evaluating such moments of subaltern autonomy tended still to be their contribution or otherwise to anti-colonialism.

The critique of nationalism has become much more prominent in the subsequent ‘culturalist’ phase. Paradoxically, however, the principal ground for rejecting the ‘nation state project’ still remains its origin in the modern West, leading to a colonial discourse/indigenous authenticity binary that can slide at times towards cultural, though no longer political, nationalism.1

Very major advances have taken place in recent years in histories of subordinated castes and gender, both obviously stimulated by current socio-political developments. To take possibly the most striking instance: feminist influences and scholarship have rescued the narrative of 19th century middle class ‘social reform’ from a stale ‘renaissance debate’, and helped to transform it through a new focus on women’s writings (previously almost entirely ignored) and the degree of self-activity or agency of those being sought to be emancipated by (predominantly male) reformers.

But narratives of movements for women’s rights or lower caste affirmations do not fit easily into nationalist paradigms, whether political or cultural. Both made considerable use of elements of colonial policy, administration, and modern-western ideologies in efforts towards empowerment. Political loyalism for long went along with social critiques of caste and indigenous patriarchy, while nationalist leaders like Tilak on occasion took up aggressively conservative positions in such matters. One consequence has been a marked degree of embarrassment among many feminist scholars about 19th century reform efforts that had drawn on or sought to obtain British support.



The concrete results of the movements for banning sati, legalising widow marriage, or raising the age of consent were no doubt limited, and the often undue glorification of overwhelmingly male-initiated social reform certainly needed to be questioned. Yet women’s issues had acquired a quite unprecedented and rare centrality, age-old norms had become unsettled, and there were signs of an emergent discourse of rights in the new emphasis on choice even in the arguments of conservatives.2 The current stress on colonial recasting or consolidation of patriarchy can occasionally lead on also to romanticisations of the pre-colonial, where reform attempts become suspect through their ‘alien’ origin.



The failure to go beyond the single evaluative standard set by the colonial/anti-colonial binary produces similar problems for histories of subordinate caste and Dalit protest. Arun Shourie’s onslaught on Ambedkar typifies this tendency at its worst, but an indication of the difficulties is revealed by the interesting recent attempt by G. Aloysius to write an alternative history of modern India from a ‘Dalit-Bahujan’ perspective. Its many virtues include a valid stress on the complicities between colonialism and continued or refurbished high caste domination (a theme which Jyotiba Phule had opened up), as well as on the numerous overlaps between ‘mainstream’ nationalism and Hindutva. Even Nehru’s Discovery of India is revealed as being not entirely immune from such contamination.

What remains curious, however, is Aloysius’ terminology. To ‘cultural nationalism’, his term for the amalgam produced by such overlaps, he counterposes a ‘political nationalism’ of subordinated castes, into which is collapsed, in a fairly reductive manner, the aspirations also of the victims of class and patriarchal oppression. Through this emancipatory ‘political nationalism’, he suggests, the true ‘nation’ might one day ‘come into its own’. ‘Nation’ and ‘nationalism’ still, then: one wonders why they remain so indispensable.3



The emergence from around the 1980s of an almost totally new genre, environmental history, constitutes one of the most exciting features of the current South Asian historiographical scene. As with feminism and caste, there are clear connections here with recent developments: both the impact of world-wide concern and interest in ‘green’ issues, and the numerous impressive movements in defence of popular rights to forests, water, other natural resources and sometimes sheer survival. The pattern I have been outlining can be seen to be operative here too.

Environmental studies have achieved a virtual paradigm shift in emphasis towards communities of hunters and food-gatherers, pastoralists and shifting cultivators. Settled peasant villages no longer seem to have been quite as universal and unchanging a norm for South Asia as had been assumed for very long, for these other ways of relating to environments appear to have had a far from marginal presence till the late-colonial tightening up of all-round communicational, politico-military, administrative and economic integration. Much of what by the late 19th century had come to be assumed to be ‘traditional’ about India may have been constituted by colonial structures, policies and discourses.

But, once again, nationalistic hangups have been causing problems, for it has been tempting for many to move from the valid emphasis on the overwhelmingly destructive colonial impact on migratory modes of living, to romanticisation of an ‘arcadian’ pre-colonial world of forests and other common property resources, free of inequalities and internal tensions. Forests and pastures, on the one hand, and settled agriculture, on the other, then tend to get unhelpfully separated from each other; environmental and agrarian histories become separate worlds.4

I take my last illustration from the realm where the colonial/anti-colonial binary in some ways has perhaps the greatest continuing relevance, that of economic history. From the times of Dadabhai Naoroji and Romeshchandra Dutt onwards, research in this area had for very long focused upon colonial economic exploitation. Its central themes and controversies had revolved around ‘drain of wealth’, deindustrialization, ‘forced’ commercialization of agriculture with predominantly negative consequences, and unfair tariffs and foreign capital domination obstructing indigenous capitalist development. Many of the questions raised by such debates have acquired new resonances in today’s era of triumphant neo-colonialism, neo-liberal orthodoxy, and rapidly intensifying disparities of wealth and poverty on a world scale.



In their own, often no doubt limited and somewhat naïve ways, nationalist economic historians had questioned the universal applicability of some of the dogmas of laissezfaire based neoclassical economics. Yet, even in this domain, research has increasingly come up against the limits of an over-simple binary understanding. Thus, with the progress of region- and locality-oriented research, the extent (maybe sometimes even the reality) of deindustrialization, or of the allegedly forced and negative nature of commercialized agriculture, have been seen to vary widely across spaces, times, and specificities of handicrafts or crops. The persistence of a binary model has repeatedly drawn interesting new data and hypotheses back into the digits of familiar, and somewhat stale, controversies.5



A related problem concerns the built-in tendency of nationalist frameworks towards underplaying ‘internal’ tensions, and the reality, very often, of mutually profitable accommodation between foreign rule and Indian dominant groups. Arguments emphasising such collaboration in the early colonial phase, and a consequent degree of continuity with pre-colonial structures of power and exploitation, have been put forward notably by ‘Cambridge’ scholars like Chris Bayly. The suspicion such views have sometimes automatically aroused about ‘neo-colonial’ sympathies seem to be rather excessive and unnecessary.

The instances I have cited (and which can be added to, easily) indicate that the nationalist paradigm is increasingly becoming a barrier to fresh research and thinking. From this it does not follow, of course, that British domination and exploitation, and anti-colonial movements, can ever cease to be themes of abiding interest and importance for studies of modern Indian history. What I am suggesting is the need to move towards a recognition of the possibility of many narratives or ‘histories’. Imposition, on an immensely varied subcontinental history, of a single unilinear narrative frame, and making the values derived from that the sole standard of evaluation, is both impossible and harmful.



Yet interconnections and a multitude of cross-currents remain important, and the search for them cannot be given up even while resisting the temptation of unilinear simplification and reductionism. Perhaps we can benefit here from the experience of feminist (particularly, socialist-feminist) history in the West. It could emerge in the 1960s and ’70s only through rejection of tendencies towards collapsing gender into class and production relations in the reductive manner characteristic of much orthodox Marxism. But, at its best, feminist history does not abstract gender studies from histories of evolving capitalist social forms.

A helpful metaphor for history, then, may not be a single track with neat ‘stages’, or even a ‘stream’, but multiple ‘threads’ that can intertwine as also move apart, with the criteria for evaluating them not one, but many. And such a broadening and complicating of visions may also be necessary for a richer understanding even of anti- colonial nationalism. Its value and significance lay, I would like to suggest in conclusion, not primarily because it ‘won us freedom’, or because it had been an exceptionally heroic saga. Many countries won political independence in the post-1945 years due to the world situation, even without having the type of undoubtedly mass anti-colonialism that India witnessed, while some liberation movements (e.g, Vietnam, Algeria, South Africa) have had to be more heroic, because repression there had the capacity of being much more brutal. (Unhappy the land which has need for heroes, as Brecht made Galileo say.)

What remains impressive was a progressive expansion in the meanings of ‘freedom’, coming about precisely through internal conflicts, intense debates, a multitude of cross-currents and conflicts. It was in and through such contradictions that the content of the freedom being sought came to include democracy, a federal polity, secularism, a measure of social justice: all primarily quite new, and in that sense ‘inauthentic’ in terms of origin, it may be noted. That political and economic programmes came to be radicalized through the pressures of partly-autonomous peasant and labour movements has come to be widely recognized through subaltern and other left or radical-populist histories.



But would the post-1947 Indian political leadership have realized the need to combine equality with recognition of difference (through reservations), extended votes to women, or gone ahead with a measure of family law reform, without autonomous (and in some cases ‘divisive’) initiatives from subordinated castes or women’s groups? The federal and secular features of post-1947 India, which so far have been able to block the strong majoritarian thrusts towards a unitary Hindu rashtra, can be explained, similarly, only in terms of the existence and self-activity of diverse minority groups, both religious and ethnic.

It is seldom remembered that the draft resolution on aims and objectives with which Nehru had opened the Constituent Assembly on 13 December 1946 (in effect, the first draft of the present Preamble) had explicitly granted residual powers to the ‘autonomous units’ of the ‘Indian Union’. The subsequent shift to a federation with an exceptionally strong Centre came about immediately after Mountbatten’s Partition Award of 3 June 1947, with K.M. Munshi for instance openly expressing relief that ‘strong central government’ would now be possible, and no longer be sacrificed ‘at the altar of preserving… an attenuated unity…’6



It is this complex and often contradictory heritage that the forces of Hindutva today seek to wipe out from present-day realities and historical memory alike, in significant part through collapsing the narratives of the anti-colonial era into a simple story of monochromatic heroes and villains. The values and heroes of ‘mainstream’ nationalist historiography are significantly different, but a not-dissimilar fear of complexities often allows easy appropriations. Yet, surely much of the true greatness of the anti-colonial era resides precisely in its exceptional openness to debate and self-questioning: an openness manifested notably, in very different and quite often contradictory ways, above all by Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and Tagore. Not many nationalist movements have had such a rich history of seeking to go beyond the limits of mere nationalism.



1. For an elaboration of this argument, see my ‘Decline of the Subaltern in Subaltern Studies’, in Sumit Sarkar, Writing Social History, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997, Chapter 3.

2. For a sampling of the ongoing debates on such issues, see Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India, University of Berkeley, 1998; and Tanika Sarkar, ‘Enfranchised Selves: women, culture, and rights in 19th century Bengal’, Gender and History 13(3), November 2001.

3. G. Aloysius, Nationalism Without a Nation in India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997.

4. Recent work on environmental history has been questioning these dichotomies: see, for instance, a number of essays in Forests , Fields, and Pastures (Studies in History 14(2), July-December 1998), and K. Sivaramakrishnan, Modern Forests: Statemaking and Environmental Change in Colonial Eastern India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999.

5. A recent instance has been provided by Tirthankar Roy’s thesis concerning the survival-cum-growth of small industries through the colonial era. The author courted unnecessary controversy for himself by occasional claims to have refuted the deindustrialization thesis, even though his new and often very important data regarding conditions of production in certain specific small industries in the 20th century comes from a time-span later than what had been the primary temporal location of that debate. The value of his empirical contributions consequently seem to be in some danger of being ignored by scholars of left- nationalist sympathies – or blown out of proportion by those with possible neo-colonial leanings. Tirthankar Roy, Traditional Industry in the Economy of Colonial India, Cambridge, 1999.

6. For some details of this transition, see my ‘Indian Democracy: the historical inheritance’, in Atul Kohli, ed., The Success of Indian Democracy, Cambridge, 2001.