Review of: Indian Nationalism: A Study in Evolution by Sitanshu Das

Indian Nationalism: A Study in Evolution
By Sitanshu Das
Har- Anand Publications, New Delhi 1999. Pages: 291 Price Rs. 325/-

The historian Bipan Chandra has shown, nearly three decades back, that the economic critique of imperialism by Naoroji, Ranade and others formed the bedrock of Indian nationalism. An essentially anti- imperialist movement led to the formation of a national state- though not really a nation in the West European sense.

The author of the book under review, however, has a different opinion and views nationalism from a religio- cultural angle. According to Sitanshu Das, the defining element of Indian nationalism was essentially anti- Muslim. His study on nationalism is confined to the 19th century Bengal, Maharashtra and the Punjab. In all the three places he thinks that nationalism had a unifying anti- Muslim thread.

According to him, the ‘Bengal Renaissance’ is a myth and there were other contending streams of nationalism that Bengal produced in the immediate aftermath of the British rule. These were expressed in religious terms and were essentially anti- Muslim. The Hindus of Bengal had welcomed the initial British rule as it gave them some freedom that had been “stifled” under Muslim rule.

He holds the basis of nationalism in Maharashtra to be the “nationalism” of Shivaji. Before the coming of Ranade and Tilak, the Chitpavan Brahmins- as inheritors of the Peshwa dynasty (despite its degenerate rule) saw themselves as the natural nationalist leaders. Their nationalism was also essentially anti- Muslim.

The author’s understanding of nationalism in Punjab is equally superficial. In the Punjab, he feels, the question was essentially between the Muslims on the one hand, and the Hindus and Sikhs on the other. Sikhs were the defenders of the Hindu faith. Guru Gobind Singh practically represented Hindu nationalism. Till the 19th century, the Hindus sought the protection of the Sikhs. The British created a separate Sikh identity and the latter sided with the British government after the Anglo- Sikh wars. Modern nationalism, therefore, came to be represented by the emergence of the Arya Samaj under Lala Lajpat Rai.

Das opines that Nehru and Bose were wrong to read a syncretic tradition in the medieval age and instead it was Vivekananda who represented the best stream of Indian nationalism. Hindu resistance to Muslim rule was present throughout the medieval period. Vivekananda revived this “tradition” in a package of militant nationalism (the discerning reader may be reminded here of what Hobsbawm once termed as the “invention of tradition”).

The author’s basis for understanding 19th century Indian history in general and nationalism in particular is flawed on a number of counts.

Das views Indian history in terms of religious identity and confines himself only to the “high tradition”. His work belongs to what has been termed by Sumit Sarkar as the “older kind of work on nationalism focused on politics inspired or manipulated from the top” and one that is a rather unreliable guide to what the rank and file of the common people actually thought and felt.

The writer assumes an a priori notion of nationalism as an ever-present phenomenon, while today there is more or less a consensus that nationalism emerged only in the early 19th century Europe (see Raymond Williams’s excellent summary in his compendium Keywords).

Das also fails to locate Indian nationalism in the context of current debates on nationalism, significantly the works of Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawn. The author is blissfully unaware not only of these, but also the excellent work done by Sudipto Kaviraj and Partha Chatterjee in this decade and the Marxist and subaltern schools previously. Sumit Sarkar’s extremely relevant essay on Ram Mohan Roy is not even mentioned. The least one could have expected on a work on India nationalism is a discussion, if not a critique on some of the issues raised by these historians.

Sumit Sarkar has recently observed, rather self critically, that even in the context of the modern Indian history written as late as the early 1980s (including his own work Modern India, 1983): “The common sense or textbook understanding of late colonial Indian history, for instance, is still in large part grounded on the assumption that the entire meaningful world of political action and discourse can be comprehended through categories of imperialism, nationalism and communalism… Such an assumption involves an uncritical acceptance of holistic ideological claims of ‘Indian nationalism’ and ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim communalism’ “. (See his “Identity and Difference: Caste in the Formation of Ideologies of Nationalism and Hindutva” in Writing Social History, 1997). Das, woefully, continues to sell his wares in an even older and long defunct paradigm that comes close to articulate the unifactory projects of Hindutva and Indian nationalism. Incidentally, if not intentionally, this well suits the Sangh Parivar’s current offensive for saffronizataion of history.

The author’s attempt at writing the history of Indian nationalism can be described as belonging to a school of historiography that is at best outdated and at worst discredited.

Hobsbawm notes in his Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1990) that nationalism is a complex business. He quotes the French historian Renan as saying: “Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation”.

Whether India is or was ever a nation, will it ever be a nation or whether it is a nation in the making or in the unmaking, whether it a cultural unity or a civilizational unity or whether India has to be discovered or invented- these are questions that are at the center of the debate and contest today not only in academics but also significantly at the political level. As far as the work under review is concerned, it does not attempt to raise or answer any of these and trace their evolution. It does, however, qualify the first part of Renan’s observation- it magnificently manages to get its history wrong.

13th Oct 1999
Published: The Tribune 05 Dec 1999

One thought on “Review of: Indian Nationalism: A Study in Evolution by Sitanshu Das

  1. Dear Mr. Bhupinder,

    You state “The Hindus of Bengal had welcomed the initial British rule as it gave them some freedom that had been “stifled” under Muslim rule.” You have used double quotes for the word stiffled in your blog above. I therefore assume that you disagree with the assessment.

    Let us for a moment assume that it is true. The question arises why did Hindu masses feel that. The great unmashed masses are they wrong? what about then a large number of Rajas in South India who entered into alliances with the Company. Are they too wrong? We may need to review our own history. May be there is an element of truth in what Pakistanis are saying; Hindus were not prepared to live under Muslim ruler again. Unpalatable, but true. That is what I would think that lived experience of what Hindus felt then in India.

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