The pedagogy of nationalism


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NATIONALISM is a communicable act: one is not born mouthing it, one becomes a nationalist, usually over a period of time – in adulthood. In this crucial sense, unlike so much of our nurtured being – our tarbiyat/sanskar – nationalism is not imbibed in the cradle. Small wonder, there are hardly any nationalist lullabies that have surfaced in the historians’ accounts of the career of nationalism on the subcontinent. This is specially the case with those in the business of producing goods and services, not affects – the masses of our anti-colonial ‘mass nationalism’ of yore.

Mobilization is the twin correlate of mass nationalism. Within such a nationalist discourse, the hapless masses have to be roused from their slumber by the exertions of elite nationalists – upper caste savarn pleaders, mukhtars, school teachers, bhasha journalists and petty landlords, hitherto essential props of the local edifice of colonialism. These elites, through their reading of the nationalist press and participation in varied communitarian, social and political activities had recently rallied to the call of asahyog, or non-cooperation with the British. An important part of nationalist exertions, largely through newspapers, was aimed at persuading the fence-sitters to get off on the right side of non-cooperation.

In any case, the broadcasting of the nationalist message, the clarion call (written metaphorically as shankhnad) of swaraj in villages, required only the power of elite lungs: for that rallying blast the ‘oppressed brothers’ living in the countryside were to rely on the initiative of the elite followers of Mahatma Gandhi. Such, for instance, was the energizing message of impending mass nationalism that was printed in Swadesh, the leading nationalist newspaper of Gorakhpur, exactly a year before ‘Chauri Chaura’ happened, not far from the site of Buddha’s mahaparinirvan, in the late afternoon of 4 February 1922.

The pedagogy of nationalism consists then in transmitting its ways to the common people (sadharan janta), the menu people or nanhjat, the ‘idiotic peasants’ of Marx, whose world view is no wider than the combined backsides of the pair of bullocks they routinely contemplated while ploughing the fields. These simpletons have to be stirred, ‘mobilized’ away from their routine exertions into doing (participating in) accredited nationalist acts. This happened most dramatically with Gandhi, the author of non-cooperation, carrying its message to large gatherings at nearly every mufassil rail station during his hurricane tour of North India and Bihar in the winter of 1921-22 (Gandhi had stopped at the rail station of Chauri Chaura as well on his way to the district headquarter of Gorakhpur in early February 1921). Talking to peasants and converting them to his cause of a new nationalism, Gandhi – already the Mahatma of the masses – proposed a simple set of dos and don’ts. These, when understood in specific peasant ways (very often mixed up in the popular mind), had the capacity of turning the ‘simple’ unlettered away from the ‘sadharan janta’ of nationalist prose – devotees transfixed, so to speak in a mudra of abject devotion – into active followers of the Mahatma. Such a learning curve was instrumental in giving mass mobilization its characteristic charge.


But we are not through with this new kind of pedagogy yet. Nationalist mobilization is palpably evident in the serialized, daily exhortations of the committed newspapers – purveyors of good tidings about the gathering swell of nationalist activities in various parts of the country. It is the circulation of provincial and district nationalist papers that results in the simultaneity of nationalist events (say, satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act on 6 April 1919 in several parts of northern and western India, for instance). It is for this reason that extracts and commentary on the prose of nationalist press figures so prominently in scholarly accounts of mass nationalism in India. Reportage of recent events, local and all-India, acts of Gandhism and their suppression by the goras (e.g. the widespread prohibition against the wearing of Gandhi cap in courtrooms in the early 1920s), are best culled from endangered repositories of our nationalist past, such as the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. It is the facticities of nationalist acts that jump out from the pages of such newspapers, inflecting in turn the prose of the historians.

There still remains the poetry of nationalism. Not simply the sort appended in volumes with such titles as Hubb-al-watni or Desh-bhakti ki kavitaen – the standard compilations from the time of anti-colonial nationalism, containing Iqbal’s lilting ‘sare jahan se accha’ or the stirring ‘sarfaroshi ki tammana’ by Bismil Azimabadi that used to be the stuff of classroom pedagogy in the schools of North India. I have in mind compilations with such incendiary titles as ‘Gore Kutton ka Haramipan’, or the bastardly ways of the white dogs – meaning the colonial rulers, Dumkati Sarkar, lit. the Sarkar sans tail, a transparent reference (pace Kipling) to the angrez bandar-log, most memorably lampooned in that biting couplet by the great satirist Akbar Ilahabadi (1846-1921): ‘Ya ilahi yeh kaise bandar hain, irtiqa par bhi admi na hue’! ‘Goodness gracious! what breed of monkeys are these [Englishmen], who despite the theory of evolution still retain their simian ways.’


Such was the versified pedagogy of nationalism in its demotic avatar. Addressed less to peasants across a class divide, it was aimed at converting the inadequate nationalist within the broad spectrum of petty bourgeoisie and the urban poor. Polemical in nature and intemperate in tonality and politics, it was proscribed by the authorities after a short initial print run: these chapbooks and booklets now lie sequestered in the cavernous hold of the erstwhile library of the Secretary of State for India in London and the National Archives in India. In a sense, nationalism had made poets out of a good many Indians residing in the district headquarters and smaller towns. Published from such North Indian towns as Banaras, Allahabad, Kanpur, Agra and Gorakhpur, this outpouring of nationalist exhortation was not merely a U.P. phenomenon. Composed, or often simply compiled for the most part by indifferent male poets, a good many of these tracts reflected standard Gandhian themes in their titles, with a latent tendency to go into overdrive.

In their titles, one can almost trace a transition from ‘non-violent’ to abrasive, militant, even violent rubrics. Thus Asahyog, Rashtriya Sangitmala, Swarajya Gitanjali, Asahyog Kajli, Rashtriya Toofan, Gandhi ka Danka, yield in stages to Gandhi ki Larai, Gandhi Ghor Sangram, Gandhi ki Top, ending with the murderous Gandhi ki Nangi Talwar. As with the title, the epigraph could be equally confrontational: the ‘Dumkati Sarkar’ pamphlet, for instance, boldly announced the compiler’s intention to haul the British officers leading a cushy life over the coals – in the Hindi idiom over clods and stones. ‘Bahut din kar liya aram makhmal ke gadelon par; sulata hun tumhen ab patthar aur dhelon par’!


The iconography of such militant mobilization could again be familiar and outlandish in equal measure. Thus we have an illustration titled Swaraj ki Larai by one Prabhu Dayal, published as a single page broadsheet by Shyam Sundar Lal, ‘Picture Merchant’, Chowk, Cawnpore. Purporting to paint a ‘realist picture’ of the state of the country during the Civil Disobedience Movement, 1930-32, it opens a page from the Ramayan at ‘Bharat Kand’! On one page Gandhi is portrayed, his kutiya-hut in the background, wielding the charkha in a defensive posture.

Standing next to him is a satyagrahi, head bent in peaceful pose, about to be clobbered by a policeman crossing over from the side of state power onto the space symbolically occupied by Gandhi and Nehru; the latter portrayed in the somewhat comical avatar of Hanuman, flying in with the sanjeevni booti parvat in one hand and the mace of ‘boycott of English goods’ in the other. His intended landing site is not a comatose Laxman, but Sita personified as azadi, sitting forlornly under a date palm tree, otherwise an Islamic symbol! The bulk of the page has ‘azadi’ literally cornered by a Englishman-Ravan, not a ten-headed dashanan, but a sola topi wearing, multi-armed (15 in number) creature, each arm designating such instruments of colonial rule as Rai Bahaduri, fauj, the might of the sword, handcuffs, Ordinance, Criminal Law Amendment [Act], sec. 144, sec. 124A, Magistracy, Cavalry, Police, Jail and so on. Counterposing the succour-bringing Hanuman/Nehru, we have a tiger moth hovering over the top of the page occupied by the colonial state structure. To locate the picture in space and time is the Qutub Minar, and a sketch of the newly constructed Imperial Legislative Assembly – in a word, the colonial state, as had been recently ensconced on Raisina Hill in New Delhi!


Piquant and overbearing in its topoi when transmuted into verse, such picturesque exhortations, as the one depicting Nehru as Hanuman, could be equally forced. Witness this comparison (quite widespread) between Gandhi and Krishna:

He played a mellifluous flute; this one deftly charkha plies;

He polished off cow’s milk, this one favours bakri-milk;

He had gwalas for companions, now he enlists volunteers;

He was known as the butter-thief, this one goes by the name of ‘namakchor’, the salt robber barron.1


There was a more fundamental sense in which this sort of nationalist poetry ‘from the heart’ reflected the inner dispositions and subjectivities of the (usually) ‘savarn’, literate, male nationalists. This meant that even paeans of praise for such immaculately Gandhian themes as abstinence or khaddar-wear could descend into casteist slur or pornographic contemplation of the feminine body, inadequately draped in fine, diaphanous videshi saris. Paradoxically, the more noble the sentiment of a newly cultivated nationalism motivating the ‘savarn’ males, the more it emerged in ‘pedagogic poetry’ as tinged with a distaste for the ‘Bhangi-Chamars’ et al, and as palpable sexism.

Written in the Bhojpuri dialect of eastern U.P. and Bihar, and set to traditional refrain, these nationalist songs lamented the harm wrought about by ‘firangia’, ‘puliswa’ (policemen) etc. What is striking about its new Gandhian versions (propagating abstinence) addressed to the drinker (‘sharabwa’), or more colloquially the nishabajwa-drunkard, is the common association of the vice with the low castes, and hence unworthy of proper (upper caste) behaviour.


Thus in the song ‘Sharabwa’, set to Poorvi raga by Khedu Ram Mahajan of Dumraon in Bihar, caste panchayats were urged to boycott those partaking of drink – in this case country liquor and toddy – followed by the line that now even low castes had begun to forsake drink. Another poem addressed to the upper caste ‘nishabajwa’, was more forthright, shaming those who unmindful of the liquor fermented by Doms and Chamars (scavengers and leather workers), were pleased to drink the toddy and mahua drink – though it was another low caste, the Kalwar, which were distillers par excellence of country liquor: ‘Dom-o-Chamar sab madira banav tade, tawna-ke pee ke harkhaile nishabajwa.2

However, it is in verses about the supreme Gandhian icon, the charkha, that the male nationalist voice often slides imperceptibly into voyeuristic and sexist pleasure. Indeed, among the pamphlets proscribed by the U.P. government during the period 1920-22 was one titled ‘Randiyon ke nam Hukmnama’: [Gandhi’s] Diktat for Prostitutes! This obviously was not a direct order from the Mahatma, but one interpreted and delivered on his behalf to the sex workers of North India. It began with the exhortation to obey the Order of Gandhi at all cost, in this case for prostitutes as well to ply the charkha: Hukm Gandhi ka sirankhon se bajana hoga; randiyon tumko bhi ab charkha chalana hoga.


Charkha, of course was the great Gandhian symbol, especially at its debut during the non-cooperation movement. During the heady winter of 1920-21, when Gandhi was touring the U.P. countryside, much nationalist activity in the localities was getting focused on ingenious ways of making the charkha count. In caste sabhas which met to punish non-observance of the Gandhian interdiction against intoxicants, guilty caste brethren were often punished by being forced to get a set number of charkhas fabricated at their own cost by the village carpenters. A pukka satyagrahi, following the Mahatma, might pledge a certain amount of hand spun yarn to the nationalist cause, but as Gandhi’s subsequent failure during the mid-1920s was to show, even full-timer male nationalists were cagey about turning into part-time ‘spinsters’.

Charkha, the mascot of nationalism, invariably implied women – and its propagation meant motivating and energizing the women folk; in other words talking to and about women. It says something about the deep-rooted sexism of our patriarchal society that in the nationalist coupling of women and charkha, ever so often it was the female body that loomed large in male nationalist imagination. One can chart a steady downward progression in the popular talk about charkha: from regret about the end of that idyllic age when both Hindu and Muslim daughter-in-laws graced the marital home, charkha in tow, to stern ‘warnings’ couched in explicitly sexist language.

‘Sisters’, began one such poem titled ‘Warning Issued to Women’, deepen your love for the charkha and do not flit about in fashionable attire. That this warning was indeed dire becomes evident in the couplet: ‘You shamelessly go bathing, unmindful of appearing virtually naked in your slight, see-through [imported] sari; better that you cover your body with desi [coarse] sari; ‘desist you must from fretting about in fashionable attire’, is the closing refrain of this khaddar-centric nationalism poem: ‘bahnon khaddar se prem badahaya karo; jyada faishan par mat itraya karo.’


Much like the official yoga campaign of today, the charkha of yore was held out as a requisite disciplining of mind and body, but with a difference. Far removed from the macho building of individual male bodies associated with gymnasia that sprouted in early twentieth century Maharashtra and Bengal, Gandhian spinning was conceived of as a mode of tying, both literally and metaphorically, the diverse constituents of a nation into a variegated fabric. However, in the popular pedagogy of the famed androgynous nationalism of the Mahatma – widely derided by the Hindu right for emasculating the Indian male – there inhered casteist and sexist ways of talking to a majority of Indians. An alternate nationalism for our troubled times requires a taming of the desi demons of caste, sexism and the oppressive certitudes in dealing with the diverse and dissenting denizens of India. In a word, the nation has to be made more habitable for all manner of people inhabiting Hindustan.


* Shahid Amin is the author of Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan. Orient BlackSwan, 2015.


1. ‘Krishnavtar ab Gandhi avtaar hain’, Sangrahkarta Umacharan Lal, Gorakhpur, 1931.

2. Asahyog (asahyog mala no. 4), editor and publisher Bindehwari Prasad Malviya, Mirzapur, samvat 1977; ‘Nishabaj Bhaiyon se Vinay’, in Gandhi Pratap, dwiteeya bhag (Sangrahkarta Jagannath Pandey, mantri, Kashi Zila Kangres Kameti), confiscated by U.P. Government, 28 August 1921.