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The Debate Over Nationalism In India


India has often been perceived as a soft or weak state, lacking national unity and identity, a confederation of disparate elements loosely held together that could eventually split part.

India as a nation was born of partition. This created demands for separate identities by various groups that has cast a shadow over the country. There was some doubt whether India would suffer further partitions and divisions. Today a new nationalism is arising in India along with a new debate as to if it is a benefit or a danger.

Benefits and Dangers of Nationalism

Nationalism is a much discussed issue. World War I and World War II resulted from European nationalism, causing the deaths of tens of millions of people. Yet without a strong sense of national unity, countries have broken up altogether, a phenomenon continuing today in places like Syria and Iraq.

Nationalism has often been a negative term associated with aggression and intolerance. Yet anti-nationalism has not been a positive term either, associated with attempts to remove legitimate governments, often by violence.

Though India has been one of the least nationalistic countries in the world, there is ironically a fear of excess nationalism raised in the country today, particularly by groups that have benefited from India as a soft state.

Alleged Problems of Nationalism in India

The alleged problems with nationalism in India, particularly as attributed to the current BJP central government are several.

It is alleged that the current India government is majoritarian and discriminates against minorities. Yet the fact is that India is a country where minorities have special privileges rarely found in other countries, and absent in nearby Pakistan.

A related charge is that Pro-Hindu forces are trying to dominate the country and turn it into a religious state. While India is a Hindu majority country, Hinduism is the most diverse, pluralistic and syncretic religion in the world. We do not find such religious freedom and diversity in nearby Islamic countries, or even China and Russia, whereas Pakistan functions openly as a repressive religious state. One could better argue that Hinduism has sustained democracy in India.

Others say that India is ruled by upper classes and discriminates against the lower classes. India does have deep-seated caste problems that need to be addressed with vigilance. But the current ruling BJP has worked hard to remove caste differences and raise Dalits overall, while so-called anti-caste parties have promoted caste vote banks that divide the country and reinforce divisive caste identities.

This charge of caste domination is linked to the additional contention that the government favors the rich and powerful. However, the main dominant class in modern India has been its socialist elite centered in Delhi, which has been its ruling aristocracy with a stranglehold on wealth and privilege, until the BJP assumed power. BJP is more a party of the middle class and those aspiring to development and national integration.

There is a charge that that BJP government is inhibiting freedom of expression. Yet leftist students claiming that their freedom of speech was denied were given extensive national media exposure on prime time television! The fact that those saying they have no freedom of speech have a national voice reveals the duplicity behind the debate.

Political Divisions in India

If we examine India, we find that it is still suffering more from a lack of nationalism than an excess.

India is a rare democracy in which in the national parliament has numerous regional parties. The United States, for example, does not have California or New York parties in its national congress. India has regional parties from Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and other states that have little support outside their areas.

India has had little by way of national parties throughout its modern history. Congress has been the main national party up to recently, but has functioned more as a dynasty than a representative national party. BJP is probably the only real enduring national party India has had that is not under family or regional dominance, though there are still parts of the country where it has little representation.

India does not have a uniform civil code, which is an integral part of democratic law, another sign of a weak state. Yet the effort to bring in a uniform civil code is often strangely denigrated as nationalistic in the negative sense of the term.

India’s history textbooks meanwhile are probably the least nationalistic of any country and do not encourage pride or respect for the country. This is not surprising as these texts were written largely by Marxists trying to discredit the older Indian culture for their own political benefit.

India today still has many institutions from the Nehruvian Congress era that are resistant to the new BJP central government. This includes much of the media, academia and even parts of the judiciary. They use the charge of dangerous nationalism for them to hold on to power.

India’s Movement Towards National Integration

Today there is a new positive national unity arising in India. This is revealed by the new dynamic foreign policy and global recognition that the country is receiving according to PM Modi’s extensive travels. Greater national integration is occurring on social and economic levels along with the government’s new development policies. Political nationalism is rising in response to Pakistan’s attacks, which has long promoted terrorism to break up India.

This new sense of national unity has been criticized as chauvinistic. But the criticism comes from the same groups that flourished under India’s older soft state policy and would like to keep the country divided for their own benefit.

What India needs is national integration and a renewed sense of national unity. India is unique as a country that has had a strong tradition of pluralism at cultural and political levels. This pluralistic dharmic tradition can provide a healthy nationalism, and need not be apologetic or willing to compromise with anti-national elements.

Dr. Frawley (D.Litt, Padma Bhushan) is the Founder and Director of American Institute of Vedic Studies. Views expressed by the author are strictly personal.

Courtesy: India Foundation