A free-flowing conversation on the peculiarities of Indian nationalism, its changing forms and more.
New Delhi: In an event organised by Indus Syndicate at India International Centre on January 28, 2017, Mukul Kesavan and Srinath Raghavan delved into various aspects of nationalism. A full transcript (edited for clarity) is below.
Srinath Raghavan (SR): Good evening everyone, thanks for being here today. Mukul, before you help us with nationalism, help us out – why are we talking about nationalism today? Indian nationalism has got to be the oldest subject – ever since the Indian nation has been around. I mean, people were talking about it even while the nation was coming into being. So why choose a Saturday evening to talk about nationalism?
Mukul Kesavan (MK): Especially when the talk scheduled for the Saturday evening has this enormous, hugely informative title with just ‘nationalism’. I think there is reason for this, we don’t have to pretend not to notice the elephant in the room. The past year has seen nationalism of a particular sort in the ascendant all over the world and while we could argue about whether everything that’s happened in England or America – or might happen in France or has happened earlier in Turkey or Russia – whether they are the same phenomenon.
We can certainly see that there is a certain enthronement of a particular form of nationalism and as desis we have the privilege of being slightly smug about this because we got here three years ago in 2014, so in a sense we anticipated much of what has happened since. I think that’s the reason we are here.
SR: Okay let’s just skin the cat a little bit, so one way of thinking about nationalism to say what the great Czech nationalist Jan Masaryk use to say, that nationalism is a ideology which says that the nation is the highest political value. If you look back as a historian at Indian nationalism it seems to me that the peculiar thing about Indian nationalism is that most Indian nationalists insisted that nation was not the highest political value, so in that sense is there something different? I hesitate to use the word exceptional because all nationalisms believe they are exceptional, but was there something fundamentally different about Indian nationalism?
MK: As you say, all nationalisms claim to be exceptional and unique and peculiarly interesting. But what you say about great Indians who were engaged within public affairs and nationalism not valorising the nation state or worshipping it is absolutely true. The greatest example is of course [Rabindranath] Tagore, in that celebrated argument he has with [Mahatma] Gandhi about the nature of nationalism and his skepticism about it.
But I think I want to say that since we were introduced and it was said that this is a platform for progressive people to think about the world – if I am allowed broadly to think of progressives as all of us who are on the side of the angels versus everybody who isn’t – I think one of the problems, it seemed to me, with the last year or the two three years before that has been that liberals and progressives often tend to be horrified by eruptions of nationalism such as this, which is perfectly reasonable. But I think what is less reasonable, and what is I think is a mistake, is to evacuate the ground of nationalism.
There is a sense in which all of us here who work within the context of the nation state, unless we are revolutionaries, are stuck with the nation state. There is no exit. So if you respond to an unlovely form of nationalism with horror that’s reasonable, but if you proceed to surrender the term and all that it variously means then I think you are making a mistake by handing crucial ground, in a sense the mainstream of the politics of the nation state, over to the other side. And I think it’s particularly a mistake in the context of India.
This comes back to your point about whether there is something peculiarly interesting about Indian nationalism and I think there is. I think I can say with some historical detachment that to hold nationalism fastidiously at arms-length in a country like India is to misunderstand the nationalism that constituted the republic, that gave us our constitution, that in a sense shaped the republic in its early decades, because it was in fact both a benevolent, eccentric and remarkably novel nationalism. So, I think if we as liberals are trying to respond to the world around us and if we are trying to engage with the nationalisms that we feel beleaguered by, perhaps it’s a good idea to ride a nationalism that is healthy and available and is tried and tested which was, and to a considerable extent is, how Indians think of mainstream nationalism.
I would argue that anti-colonial nationalism of the sort sponsored by the Indian National Congress of blessed memory, of colonial times, is in fact interesting because it does something which is unique in the annals of the 19th century, which is of course that great century for nationalism. If you think of early the 1870s, when Germany and Italy are constituted into nations, if you think of the rhetoric of nationalism of that time, if you think of the great figures who are valorised in India – [Giuseppe] Mazzini, [Giuseppe] Garibaldi, [Camillo] Cavour and [Otto von] Bismarck. And then when you look at the [Indian] National Congress which is established in 1885 and if you look at the nationalism that it literally invents, the difference between what passes as European nationalism, which is the default mode of nationalism, and what the INC makes of it is extraordinary. The Congress literally inverts what nationalism means.
Normally speaking, nationalism is understood in the European context and there are many kinds of European contexts. Broadly, I think it’s reasonable to say that a nation is seen as a home for a homogenous people. The idea is that you are People with a capital P. That you are unique because you are a People in a particular way, either on account of language or religion or blood or soil or essence or something to that effect and you need a home, you need self-determination. And what is interesting in the colonial context, it is important to remember that we were formally colonised, the colonial context of Indian nationalism creates a set of circumstances, which, the INC and people who form it respond to with a strange mixture of opportunism, calculation, idealism and improvisation. So you have in 1885 a bunch of people who essentially meet once a year, they have no secretariat, they mobilise nobody, they meet and pass resolutions once a year and the colonial state actually understands the significance of this body well before the Congress itself does.
There is an interesting redundancy built into the name of the Congress. It’s the Indian and just in case you miss the point, ‘National’ Congress. And the third term is important as well. It’s a congress in this sense that it thinks of itself as kind of proto assembly. It has no right to think of itself as proto assembly. It’s a bunch of privileged, educated, often mainly Anglophone people who gather once a year, and its faced with a potentially hostile colonial state which completely controls the country and a sub-continental nation state in the making. The Congress, with just remarkable hubris, claims that all of British India is potentially a nation in the making. And I think what’s interesting is how it does this. How do you demonstrate you represent the Indian people when you represent nobody at all, when you are bunch of lawyers and landholders and people who are principally urban?
The Congress does a wonderful sleight of hand. It says that we represent India because we represent within our ranks its diversity, literally within our membership, its diversity. This diversity is not reckoned in a kind of horizontal way, not in terms of class because obviously the Congress at that time doesn’t represent anybody who is remotely subaltern, what they do cleverly is that they invoke a kind of census diversity – Muslims, Christians, Hindus, people who speak Tamil, Kannada. There is a kind of diversity that we represent that if India is a kind of wilderness, a kind of jungle of people, the Congress is a zoo which hosts each one of the human species that make up India. And just think about this, you are actually saying we speak for the nation because we literally embody its diversity. Nobody within the history of nationalism has ever entered a claim as extraordinary as this.
SR: Sure, but that claim was pretty hotly contested, right? There were many animals in that zoo who desperately want to get out and say that we would rather find another zoo for ourselves than be part of the zoo which is run by the Congress. And that, in many ways, is also the interesting thing about Indian nationalism, the attempt to make a unitary nationalism even of the most progressive variety was never a complete project, it was constantly challenged along the axis of region, religion, caste. Think of someone like [B.R.] Ambedkar for instance, he never presumed that the Congress party could speak for the so-called backward classes…
MK: Or Phule earlier, and the Muslim league…
SR: Precisely. So in what sense is it useful to think about that sort of a Congress carrying on to the independent India period the republican moment?
MK: That’s a great question, goes to the heart of the matter. I don’t think the nationalism sponsored by the Congress is interesting because it’s comprehensive or because it deals adequately with diversity. I mean it’s an umbrella organisation but no umbrella could be large enough to encompass India and there was enormous contestation, as you point out.
I think it’s interesting because not only does it make this eccentric move of saying that we represent nation because we represent its diversity, it also finds a non-denominational way of being patriotic. In the sense that is one of the things that the Congress is very careful about – that unlike other nationalisms it can’t invoke an invented history or the notion of people, or an essence or a faith because it recognises that these things are potentially divisive and are likely to turn off as many people as there are to attract. There are other nationalisms that chose to do this, even within the Congress they were Congressmen who chose to broadly invoke what they thought of as a broadly liberal Hindu nationalism. But I think the really remarkable move the Congress makes in the last decade of 19th century is that it produces these great economic critiques of the colonial state – R.C. Dutt, [Dadabhai] Naoroji. And essentially this critique of colonialism, of the colonial state as something that equally exploits every section of Indian society, it is a rhetorical argument, but the Congress actually follows through and passes resolutions religiously about the working class, the peasants, tariffs, revenues.
The idea is that every nationalism has to have a grievance, the grievance must not be culturalist or religious, the grievance must in a sense be that we are exploited by the colonial state which doesn’t allow us to achieve our full potential so all of us, regardless of whether we are Parsi industrialist or a talukdar in UP or a peasant or a worker, all of us, this whole principle of contradiction, the idea that main enemy is the colonial state. And this may not even been seen as true and was contested by many especially people like Phule, people like Ambedkar. But what is interesting is the way in which you invent. The economic critique is more valuable not in terms of whether its true or not, but it’s a rhetorical strategy for being nationalist, it applies secular grievance which is interesting.
SR: But once the colonial is gone off the anti-colonial, what then keeps this going? What is exactly the continuity or not at the moment?
MK: Two things. One, what you are saying is absolutely true. Because this nationalism projects the colonial state as the principal glue that holds this enormously diverse subcontinent together. I just want us to think about the size of this subcontinent. Undivided India was the size of Europe without Russia. It’s a gigantic area, it’s a subcontinent. What you are trying to create is essentially a kind of sub-continental nationalism and people keep praising India for its diversity. Well, the truth of the matter is the reason India is valorised for its diversity and Indian nationalism is valorised for its pluralism is not because it is by orders of magnitude more various than say Europe. Europe is pretty various.
The difference is nobody has attempted to bind Europe together into one nation state. The diversity of Indian nationalism is because its ambitions are geographically so enormous. When it comes to what happened to this nationalism once the colonial state left – it’s true it had kind of sell-by date, but the importance of this is that it has enough momentum left despite partition, which is an enormous defeat. It has enough momentum left to actually create, in the midst of genocide, in the early months, a constitution which is so scrupulously liberal and secular that if it were to be written today it would pilloried as excessively politically correct. It builds affirmative action into it, it has universal adult franchise. Its great achievement regardless of its many lacunae, regardless of its upper-casteness, regardless of its blindness, its hubris, its great achievement is to create, against the odds, this extraordinary constitutional republic.
SR: Looking back from 2017, I think as striking as this vision of the constitutional republic is, we also have to begin again and in many ways the starting point really has to be an acknowledgement that somewhere in the late 50s early 60s, that particular project ran out of steam. I think it’s important to sort of try and ask ourselves why that particular vision…
MK: So what do you think is the moment of let down? When does the republican project or when that nation state or republic constituted by this nationalism begin to show its absences?
SR: I’d imagine in many ways this kind of unitary anti-colonial nationalism and the vessel which carries it, being the Congress party, once it becomes a party in power then the dynamic changes entirely. What you then have is fundamentally an upper caste political party which is broadly Hindu and which is using the sort of caste oligarchy in order to get votes delivered up from the bottom. And at some point when other groups, who are the so-called dominant peasantry and other backwards classes and so on, understand that Congress does not have much to give them any longer, that’s the moment from the mid-‘60s that you see the decline of the Congress really beginning in the longer term and I think the key there is to sort of ask ourselves why did the Congress not do things that even conservative governments in Asia were doing at the same time.
I think of say a country like Japan which if ever there was an oligarchy was exemplified by post-war Japan, run by a bunch of highly right-wing nationalist oligarchs but a country Japan or country like Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek, another oligarch managed to push through land reforms of a kind that seemed so distant in Nehruvian India. The other day I was looking at papers written by a chap called Wolf Ladejinsky, he is a sort of main advisor to General Douglas MacArthur so as reactionaries go Douglas MacArthur is right there. And Wolf Ladejinsky had advised MacArthur on the land reform projects in Japan and their main concern of course was that if you did not do those reforms in some ways you would be creating the ground for communists and others to embed themselves. And funnily enough, I think now that India being non-aligned was the problem, because you never thought that you’d face those kinds of pressures. So when the Americans of all people, people like Wolf Ladejinsky, Chester Bowles are telling you that listen, Jawaharlal Nehru why don’t you think about land reforms in a serious way, it just doesn’t occur to the Congress party that they can want to take on…
MK: What does non-alignment you think have to do with it?
SR: I mean if you were in an anti-communist alliance with the US, the threat of communism would be taken a lot more seriously. I mean here you have a Congress party which is exactly because of the kind of middle and encompassing ground that it occupies believed that it was immune to those kinds of challenges in any serious way. And because of the requirements of having to win democratic elections and once again, it speaks to the kind of system that we adopted, if you want to have a universal adult franchise democracy in a country so highly stratified by caste and power relations and if the Congress party embodies and actually depends on those relations to deliver to power to it, then yes you do get 15 years of stable government so to speak, but that stability is of a misleading variety.
MK: I remember in the 1970s one of the great, celebrated, compendious surveys of democracy was that famous book by Barrington Moore Jr and the chapter on India was called ‘Democracy and the Price of Peaceful Change’. The point he made was precisely the point you are making, that there is some sense in which the Indian nation state in its infant years never feels the need or never dares to actually tackle the business of land reform, or something that I have never quite understood why it didn’t happen, which is mass primary education. Here you have Nehru, who you would imagine would be the pin-up boy for any notion of progressive primary education. You would expect that the kind of old-fashioned fabian like him would… for him this would be the first order of business. You have a mandate, you rule for 17 years and you don’t do education? Every Asian country, right, left or centre does universal primary education. Why do you think?
SR: There again Indian nationalism is exceptional, right now exceptional in a not so nice way because most other nationalisms thought of education as the main way to inculcate ideas about the nation, and again because you had this idea that we want to have a very different kind of nationalism some of the older sort of techniques, dissemination of the ideas about the nation were never quite taken seriously, in that sense the nation-building project really became a one about delivering on a certain kind of developmentalist model which is high modernist, which had sort of technocratic visions of a certain kind which were very alluring. Creating IITs using American, West German and Russian help is seen as more important than paying attention to the nuts and bolts of what’s happening in a village school.
MK: Is a more reductive explanation also possible that – as you said – the INC in the 50s, after the great task of winning freedom and constituting the republic is done, increasingly it begins to become more and more visible as an upper caste organisation and Nehru for all his virtues perhaps was in some essential way a Kashmiri Brahman, in the end and that this organisation despite its many well meaning people just couldn’t empathise with people who weren’t educated, a kind of if you will a sovereign blindness to the crucialness of a level playing field and the idea of self improvement.
SR: I think so, and that blindness extends to their fields as well. You take the example of the iconic image of Indian anti-colonial nationalism. Something like the Kheda satyagraha, a peasant nationalist right so that’s the sort of model on which this nationalisms played but by mid 1950s, by the time you come to the second five-year plan, that peasant is getting pretty raw deal in terms of trade within your vision of the developmental state. Which is why if you look at say someone like Charan Singh, who comes out of certain kind of background, so Charan Singh is basically someone who came… now remembered as somehow embodying Jat politics but was never sort of votary of Jat politics in a caste sense at all, so Charan Singh’s fundamental constitutive vision which he drew from another stalwart leader of the Jats called Chotu Ram from Punjab was basically that India is divided between rural and urban India, and that rural India is the real India and its needs have to be given primacy.
It’s in the late 50s that Charan Singh writes this famous pamphlet called ‘Corporative System X-rayed’, where he says that what you are trying to do alongside this pell-mell industrialization is that you want to do is to cut a very raw deal to the peasant nationalists who are the sort of backbone… of course many of them are from the more dominant caste so to speak but nevertheless that lot never gets its voice so which is why from 1967 the decline of the Congress is really about people like Charan Singh peeling off. And then finding other ways of getting their vision across and that did have a certain kind of valency, you take someone like young Mulayam Singh Yadav, first time MLA in 1967, a protégé of Charan Singh who sort of came into politics as part of something known as canal rate agitation in UP in the 1950s, so those kinds of politics were quite important and I think the Nehruvian vision and the state and its sort of version of nationalism in some ways did not have much of a space at all for these people.
MK: So do these alternative modes of politics, these alternate visions of what the nation-building project consists of, different emphasis on rural and urban and so on, are these in a sense constructed out of the breadth of the Congress project or are they something different all together? When do we see the momentum of the kind of nation-building vision that the Congress carried into the first decade of independence? When do we see that in a sense, flag and be gradually de-legitimised?
SR: The mid-1960s are really the turning point in that sense. Because that is when the particular kind of Congress party which in some ways is not actually the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru but the legacy of Sardar Patel – he was the Congress boss – the machinery which he created which is of saying that regional satraps would be the main force which would aggregate votes and send it up and that you had the regional pradesh Congress committees and such like things.
That model starts creaking by the mid-1960s which is then why come 1967, Indira Gandhi is able to break that oligarchy pretty quickly. All the regional satraps are sidelined very quickly and I think the reason that is happening is not just internal to the Congress but also because of these external forces. Think of a state like Tamil Nadu. 1967 is the first time Congress is booted out of Tamil Nadu and never really managed ever to come back to power in that state and the scale of the defeat Congress suffered then meant that it practically had to vacate a certain kind of space which is now taken up by an entirely different party. And remember that the Congress party at that time in Tamil Nadu was not a upper caste party, it had Kamaraj Nadar as the sort of… so in a sense the Congress was not like it was not trying to adapt to a certain situation but the fact was that these other visions of what the Tamil nation should be and even that mutated. So there is a Periyar Mission of the Dravidians versus the Aryans, but under the DMK and Karunanidhi and Annadurai it becomes sort of a more language-based Tamil identity but whatever mutation it takes it is strong enough to displace the Congress in such a way it is never able to come back to power.
MK: Since you are talking about the region, I just want to briefly backpedal and maybe discuss one of republican nationalism’s great successes, this eclectic, pluralist sort of nationalism which is essentially a form of an improvised response to India’s diversity. I think that one of the great improvised triumphs of the early republic is the linguistic states and not because there was some Congress genius who decided this would be done because Nehru was actually quite reluctant to go down that route.
I think what’s interesting is even with a nationalism like Congress’s, which is committed to a kind of diversity, there is a compelling force to the idea of a national language – the idea that if you are going to have a new nation state you should have a national language and what follows is just a remarkable back and forth, the improvisation, the opportunism and the ability to absorb all of this. That was one of the strengths of this kind of nationalist vision that you first say that we will have Hindustani in the Persian and the Devanagari script. The moment partition happened, you turn around and say we don’t need it in the Persian script anymore because the bulk of the Muslims have gone so we will have Hindi Devanagari and then because non-Hindi-speaking states aren’t happy you say that for ten years you will have the English as well as the link language.
And as opposed to hindiwallas who constantly saying that we should speak the rashtrabhasha, the truth is that every Indian language that’s officially organised is a national language. So there’s that to appease people who are not Hindiwallas and then the non-Hindi-speaking states are allowed to correspond with the Centre in English. What’s interesting is the question of a national language is raised, it is contested. Is this the solution? Of course it isn’t the solution. It’s procrastination. It’s punting the ball ahead and hoping the future will take care of it. One of the important things about this kind of nationalism is that it recognises that there are some problems posed by diversity that can’t be neatly resolved, that the best way to doing it is often to postpone them. Let hot button issues just grow cold, and this is something that nationalism does well, but it doesn’t do many other things well and you were saying that one of the things that begins to happen to the Congress in the mid ‘60s is succession of people like Mulayam Singh Yadav, the taking over of Tamil Nadu by a completely different political party does this in sense, is this symptomatic of some larger sociological change that’s occurring?
SR: I think it is, to the extent that you had any kind of development in India, especially in rural India, it was sort of dominant peasant communities which benefited from those and those were the communities which then became more assertive about the kinds political claims they wanted to make. Ironically, when Indira Gandhi comes in and does the green revolution, these groups are the major beneficiaries of that as well right. Particularly in Punjab, western UP and other places. It is actually the groups which are opposed to the Congress which benefit most from the green revolution and then go on to finish the Congress there entirely. So in a sense you cannot sort of get it right both ways.
But while you were talking about linguistic states and so on, I thought the other kind of remarkable piece of constitutional experimentation which happened in the early years which today is very ironical to even mention in this context, is the state of Jammu and Kashmir. If you think about what article 370 was, it was effectively an attempt to tell the people of Kashmir that we want you so badly that we will allow you to have your own terms to decide how you want to be part of the state. Which is why you had restricted accession. Kashmir is the only state of India which has its own constitution. Even as a constitutional vision it demonstrated a degree of suppleness and of course we got the politics entirely wrong. Particularly from 1953 onwards.
MK: You could argue that it was done in bad faith…
SR: I think it’s also important to understand from the other side, we constantly think about it from the side of saying ‘oh ok how did we do it.’ Why did Sheikh Abdullah want that kind of a vision? Partly because Sheikh Abdullah wanted to implement a socio-economic plan called the Naya Kashmir agenda, which was far more progressive than any land reform or any other kind of egalitarian project which was being done anywhere. Funnily enough, these projects were tried at their most in Kashmir and in Kerala.
In that sense it’s the non-Congress parts of India which really managed to try that experiment and I find it quite ironic that today, since this is conversation about today as much as the past, there are highly sensible people who have a law degree and who have made their careers as lawyers and so on who call for the abrogation of article 370, which suggests that they have not even read the article very carefully. The first thing article 370 says is that article one of the constitution applies to the state of J&K. Now what is Article 1? Article 1 basically says what are the various geographic constituents of the Union of India. What it means is that if you abrogate article 370, article one stops applying to the state of J&K which would mean that Kashmir would become independent. Now it was actually done because when article 370 was being made we had given a pledge for plebiscite. The idea was that if at all we have to let go of this state there should be constitutional mechanism to do it. So today, the people who believe that they can actually sort of enforce the integration of Kashmir into the union of India by abrogating article 370…
MK: Will do the reverse.
SR: I think they haven’t the faintest clue of what’s going to happen. Somebody could move the International Court of Justice and believe me, just on the reading of the constituent assembly debates and of the Indian constitution, the case is a knock out one and I really hope that people understand the ramifications of what they are advocating for.
MK: Talking about the fact that Kashmir had a special constitutional status. It’s interesting and quite remarkable that till the China war, secession was not an unreasonable demand. Wasn’t the DMK formally committed at some point to an independent Tamil state? I think what’s interesting about this early vision is as Srinath was saying, is its suppleness and its willingness to recognise that one size does not fit everyone, that this is a sub-continent, you are trying to create a sub-continental nation state, that you have to allow for difference. You have to allow for difference without fetishising the uniformities that a republic often sees, tries to impose upon its people. So when does it radically go wrong?
SR: I think instead of asking when does it radically go wrong, it might also be useful to ask when do others start really coming into the centre stage. And I think we should sort of talk about the other elephant in the room, which is Hindu nationalism, right, which is around from pretty much the time that various strands of Indian nationalism start coming into the being.
MK: I think it’s fair to say that there is a majoritarian nationalism which is represented by extraordinary men within the Congress, for example you could argue, and many people have, that the extremists led by Lal-Bal-Pal did in fact represent what can be broadly described as a generous majoritarianism which nonetheless insisted that the essence of the Indian state was in some broad sense Hindu. It’s also interesting that there is this emphasis on culture. This emphasis in some sense the culture of the predominant demographic group ought to be acknowledged as reasonable ground for nationalist solidarity and it always exists but I think within the Congress it’s a subterranean or shall we say not the dominant position.
SR: There was a moment when it could have become dominant, that’s the sort of iconic Purushottam Das Tandon versus Jawaharlal Nehru thing. That struggle is happening within the Congress immediately ahead of the first general elections, which the Congress and Nehru want to treat as a referendum both on the constitution which was never put to vote but also as an affirmation of secular India. And to do it in UP which was of course one the most – as you know better than I do – most strongly affected by partition, was to affirm a certain identity for the nation. So in that sense there was a very strong time when those things happened.
MK: And the UP Congress was in fact, very often its leadership seen as much out of the Hindu Mahasabha as it did out of the Congress
SR: Frankly these memberships were permeable until..
MK: 1938 or 39
SR: Even later. After Gandhi’s assassination, Patel made it clear that this kind of dual membership has to cease. Those boundaries were very porous, there was no such clear dividing line. As late as 1964, around the time when Jawaharlal Nehru dies, the there are communal riots India sparked of by the theft of the prophet’s relic hair, the relic, Moi-e-Muqaddas in Hazrat Bal and Nehru’s final set of warnings really are to say that ‘Listen, this is a country where people like me have fought Muslim communalism for a very long time and I will say that going forward Hindu communalism is the main thing you have to watch out for’. Because the Hindus are a majority in this country, there is no denying that, but I think by the time, you are talking about 15 years of a certain Nehruvian vision, there are other aspects of Congress nationalism.
Gandhi’s ideas of religion for instance, which are completely discarded. That vision, to say that we have to work through religion rather than against it or to pretend that religion does not matter to most people, that it does not form part of people’s cultural common sense was one that the Nehruvian state again never gave much of an attempt to and then was seen as a somehow retrogressive vision. So in that sense I think by the time you are coming to the mid 1970s with another sort of national movement coming up against the Indira Gandhi government and then the emergency and so on. You have the Hindu right and RSS very much at the forefront.
MK: You had an interesting point to make about why the Hindu right gets a remarkable fillip in the middle of the 70s. Would you just expand on that?
SR: Think about it this way. When the Nav Nirman movement which Jayaprakash Narayan is putting together, JP is out of politics for a very long time – in terms of formal politics – comes back in and almost from the very outset (you can read letters written to JP at Nehru memorial library) people are warning him saying that storm troopers of this movement are people from the RSS and JP says ‘listen I know that but the greater enemy today is Indira Gandhi.’ So in a sense it’s a bit like the anti-colonial thing, right. At that time the Congress’s mantra is that everyone has to get together because we need to fight so and so.
A similar kind of dynamic develops and what it means is that it gives the RSS and the Hindu right a kind of political legitimacy that they have never managed to get ever since the assassination of Gandhi. If you look at key figures both in the Jan Sangh of the 1950s and 60s, especially the post Shyam Parsad Mukherjee phase, if you think about Deen Dayal Upadhay, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, these were figures who had to function in politics against the tide as it were. It’s no surprise that someone like Atal Bihari Vajpayee emerges as this figure who is able to speak to the people across the aisles, because if you did anything other than that your survival was very much in question. You were a very small force, you had to expand very carefully and people like Deen Dayal Upadhay are already in the late 1950s thinking about expanding the Jan Sangh presence into the tribal areas and even a presence as a sort of environmental movement in some ways.
So you have to do a range of things, you have to tie up with socialists with whom you have absolutely nothing in common in the by elections of 1963 in order to say that we can capitalise on the movement of weakness of the Congress party after the China war. So all of that and then the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal coalition governments of 1967, so in 1975 and then the ‘77 elections really are the moment when they come into the mainstream of politics and are seen as an acceptable political force. The ideology which they espouse may or may not have been very different from what Savarkar was saying, but political forms in which they had to sort of give expression to that ideology had become quite different and I think that in some ways is the real trigger. So in a sense the longer term consequences of the imposition of emergency really are to give fillip to the Hindu right in terms of mainstream politics.
MK: One of the interesting things about someone of my generation, living through the controversies that occur periodically about nationalist symbols, is the remarkable irony of it. That the tiranga, which was, in every sense a Congress flag – it’s essentially adapted from a Congress flag , you remove the Charkha and you stick the Ashoka Chakra in. The tiranga used to be a flag of contention. Certainly, Hindu nationalists did not embrace this. There was the Bhagwa Dhwaj, which was the saffron standard, the emblem of Hindu nationalism. There was a sense in which the tricolour’s Congress affiliations were offensive to people who wished to produce a different nationalism.
The national anthem: one of the curious things about the controversy about the national anthem is, I find it hard to feel worked up about it, because right through my childhood into the time when I went to college, at the end of every movie I can remember seeing anywhere, in Regal, in Odeon, in Plaza, there would be the tiranga projected on the screen and the national anthem would play and you would get up – some people would shift around. You would get up and you did it reflexively. It was neither seen as hectoring nationalism. It was what you did, you went, saw the movie, you got up, you stood still for the length of the anthem and you went. And what is interesting is the extraordinary success of the Hindu right in appropriating these symbols for a completely different nationalism.
There is a sense in which when Murli Manohar Joshi led that thing to Kashmir about the flag, I thought, the gall of it! You lot wouldn’t have anything to do with the tricolour a couple of decades ago, and now you’re scurrying around the Kashmir Valley to try and teach Kashmiri’s the value of a national emblem. But I think the interesting thing is the anthem, the flag and the selective poaching of the nationalist pantheon. Really speaking, the Sangh parivar is this curious nationalist organisation without an anti-colonial past. So, there is a sense in which you have to scavenge a bunch of nationalist ancestors. But you have to give them credit for doing this and the success with which they did this, to be within, broadly speaking, Congress nationalism, to happily trade away iconic figures within you, and hand them over to the right. And for the right to have the vision actually to see.
For Mr Modi to valorise Patel – is literally to steal one of the great triumvirate at the end of the 40s in India. So what seems to be interesting is that not only is the Jan Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party in a sense rehabilitated by the emergency. They acquire a kind of heroic past where they have resisted, quite rightly and to their credit, when they did, an authoritarian regime, it also allows them a breathing space in which to enlarge and widen the scope of what was really a Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan type of nationalism, a narrow North Indian, parochial Hindu nationalism. To actually broaden it – broaden it both retrospectively and broaden it in terms of who they are pitching it to, as you mentioned they expanded in the 60s to tribal communities etc.
SR: I think the seriousness of the entire project should not be dismissed. You have to give them full credit that they do have a clear set of ideology. It is mutated as all these things do over a period of time. They have, as you’re saying, brought in new elements. But give credit where it is due, that they have managed to keep their ideological programme quite tightly closed and are linked with their political programme in a way that the Congress party never could. Even in its post-Nehruvian period. What is the sort of ideology that the Congress party stands for, does it stand for secularism? Does it stand for democracy? In every count it was seen as sort of weak. And in many ways they were able to play on it.
MK: At this point, it might be useful to name-check one thing, which is that when we discuss the transition of the Congress from its pump into the 60s and 70s and the emergency and after, I think it’s useful to spend some time on the fact that one reason why this conception of the nation state and its interest is gradually de-legitimised, is precisely because the principle bearer of this idea to the extent of that it is an ideology, becomes effectively a dynastic party. I think it’s important for us to recognise that the transition from Nehru to Shastri to Indira Gandhi, is a momentous transition that it increasingly, if we’re talking about where did Congress ideology go, I think part of the reason why Congress ideology is either supremely populist and effective, as with ‘roti, kapda aur makaan‘, or virtually absent in a kind of spectacular display of opportunism – Mrs Gandhi patronising everybody from Bhindranwale to Shiv Sena—I think part of this has to do with the creation or the transformation of what is a benevolent umbrella political party, into the instrument of a dynastic individual’s will.
SR: Absolutely. An instrument of dynastic individual’s will, whittling down of a party organisation which had been built up over decades very carefully. If you think about the Congress party today, think what would the fortunes of the party have looked like, if they had people like Mamata Banerjee or a Sharad Pavar, very much within the fold of the party rather than being outside of it.
But the fact is that the dynastic element was precisely that itself. In some ways I actually do not believe that element can be so easily be done away with, because if you look at practically every person who matters in Congress party today, actually broadly speaking in Indian politics today, all of them were politicians who were cradled during the emergency. If you just look at the last two UPA cabinets, the who’s who of the cabinet were people who came into the Congress party as either youth Congress leaders or as people who came into the party during emergency often under the leadership of Sanjay Gandhi, including people like Pranab Mukherjee – they were protégés of that particular kind of turn towards more dynastic mode.
In that sense the particular shift that you’re talking about is fundamental, it’s not just cosmetic. It’s not just about saying leadership is just being handed over. It’s also that the rank and file are now being populated by people who owe something only to this particular leadership, who do not have anything of their own to offer. In that sense it’s a fundamental transformation, whose importance I don’t think can be underestimated in this context.
MK: Since we talking about alternative visions of the nation, and we spoke about the Congress of course, we spoke about Hindu nationalism, it’s travails, its ascent and so on. I had a question, which is, if you think of the late 1980s and the early 1990s as a political contest, the political contest is often, at least in North India, between Mandir and Mandal. And if look at Mandal more broadly as a metaphor rather than a specific legislation largely to do with North India, the question I have is this: Hindu nationalism becomes, or Hindutva becomes, a coherent pan-Indian political position, it becomes an alternative nationalism. On the other hand you have this incredibly dynamic and politically often very successful, political development which consists of backward caste, of dominant agricultural communities, of Dalit-led Mayawati and BSP and Kanshi Ram leading extraordinarily successful insurrections in UP achieving political power there. And we have an older version of this in South India, North India is the laggard in this, this has already happened in the peninsula, why is it that unlike Hindutvadi nationalism, why does this, if I can use the term for want of a better term, why does this broadly subaltern caste-fraction based politics, which as an alternative vision not necessarily theorised systematically but often theorised, Kanshi Ram the Bahujan Samaj Party, the antecedence of Ambedkar and Phule, why does this not become an alternative, pan-Indian project?
SR: You could say that someone like Mayawati attempted it for a brief period in UP in the 2000s, when you try and create some kind of a rainbow coalition and so on. But the problem I think was that, you were trapped in the same mode that allowed you to legitimise. It’s a replica of the Congress problem in the 1950s. What allows for successful electoral mobilisation, also poses limits on the political project. And that I think was the problem.
It’s very interesting to think about the caste politics of UP in the 1990s. The ideological, political antecedence of that, in the socialist Samajwadi kind of mould was not just about caste. Whatever you may say about Ram Manohar Lohia, he was not just interested in caste reservations. Lohia wanted reservations for women, he had an agenda of Hindi versus English and he had an agenda of a very different kind of international outlook for India. It was not just an ossified, caste-based mobilisation. In a sense the Mandal moment was one of a crystallisation of a political project, which turned out to be fundamentally about caste, in a way that its antecedence in the socialist movement..
MK: It was not necessarily designed to.
SR: It was not. The other stand as I was mentioning earlier is Charan Singh which is again not just an OBC platform. That was not Charan Singh’s idea, Charan Singh’s idea was to create a much wider belt of non-Brahmin, Thakur land communities in North India. That was another vision which premised that the nation was fundamentally in rural India and that nation had to get its priority. And he did try it for all its worth, if you look at the 1979 Budget when he was finance minister. It is a Budget which more or less is a radical departure from anything which was ever done because of the huge transfer of resources which happened towards rural communities. At that time it was decried as populism and so on. But he said ‘I’m going to stand and deliver this Budget.’
Again, if you think about the 1980s you had people like Mahendra Singh Tikait who could bring this city to an end, a standstill. Or the Shetkari Sanghatana with Sharad Joshi in Maharashtra. Today in India you have very clearly some considerable levels of distress in rural agrarian communities, which is why you’re seeing mobilisation of Jats, seeing mobilisation of dominant communities like Marathas, the Patels, the Patidars. But who is able to give political voice to these? There are just no political parties in the space. So in that sense there are certain very strong strands of nationalism which were very different from that of the Congress, in the sense that they had a very different vision of this nation had to stand for, which had been completely obscured.
MK: If you look at the BSP, it doesn’t see itself, or it wasn’t designed by Kanshi Ram, to be a provincial party. They had ambitions in Madhya Pradesh, in Rajasthan, in Punjab, in Haryana. They also had this – I remember going in 1996 to cover the Faizabad elections – I went to the BSP office and this man showed me a ball pen with a small top, he said that we are not Dalit party, we are a Bahujan Samaj Party. It’s just that right now you have a society like this where the small cap of the pen dominates the rest, we want to merely invert it and everybody should get their share. Why doesn’t this project, say the BSP’s project in limited regional sense, succeed in transcending UP?
SR: I think part of the problem is simply in terms of electoral strength. The kind of cohesion you that you have in UP and BSP also has a catchment within a certain section of the Dalit community. Which is why, say other groups like the BJP, from time to time tried to go to other non-Chamar communities within the Dalits and try and sort of woo them and so on. There are limitations post electorally by the distribution of Dalits outside of UP and places like that. Maharashtra might have been potential state where things are. There the lock down of the Marathas as such, and it’s across parties. It’s such that the Dalit politics never took off and to the extent it’s taken off, it’s always been an ally to this or that kind of now highly majoritarian politics.
MK: So we seem to have a situation where you had the Congress and now you have the BJP – you have the Congress as a kind of rump after the last elections. You have political parties that didn’t see themselves as provincial, that saw themselves with larger ambitions, whether it’s the left or whether it’s say the BSP. But no political party, apart from the Congress or the BJP, succeeds in establishing, or no coalition of parties that are broadly sympathetic, succeed in creating a pan-Indian presence.
SR: The question is whether you want to look for alternatives only in a pan-Indian state. And going forward frankly I think it’s the regional space which is going to be a lot more interesting in terms of what kind of politics we are crystallising. And there I think right now we are at a moment of entry. You spoke earlier about Indian nationalism and the republican state not being a one size fit all kind of model. But with say something like the GST coming in, you are pretty much getting into a one sized fits all models for certain, very important things. If I think of my state of Tamil Nadu, the kinds of things that let’s say M.G. Ramachandran was able to do with universalisation of the mid-day scheme, would be impossible under a GST like scheme.
MK: Because you wouldn’t have revenues.
SR: You just can’t raise the revenues. There is an FRBM [Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act] which says the limits to how much you can borrow, what do you do? This is precisely why the AIADMK and Jayalalithaa fought tooth and nail against it in parliament.
I think the kinds of political economy structures that we are now embracing will in going forward create more revenues for conflicts, because regional aspirations, visions of developments… you said that South India has been ahead in terms of backward caste politics. But South India has also very different backward caste politics because that kind of politics is also relied on a degree of social mobilisation which is quite extraordinary. Nothing of that sort has ever happened even after Mandal in North India. The sense of entitlement that people have, the degree to which they know their rights and so on. The willingness of both the DMK and the AIADMK to deliver on a certain set of things, whatever else they may be doing or not, is I think, a remarkable testimony to the level of social mobilisation which have happened there.
So think those are the kinds of forces which cannot be forgotten or sidelined. Going forward, there is going to be a lot more churning along the regional axis, along the various kinds of visions of developments, about what certain states can and cannot do, what people want and instead of hankering after a unifying pan-Indian nationalism of a certain kind, we have to go back to at least one vision of the original nationalism which is accepting the diversity of these kinds of states. That in some ways was Gandhi’s great contribution to the Congress party. He said that Pradesh Congress Committees have to be based on linguistic states, and that in some ways the older administrative unity of India cannot be the basis on which we think about nationalism.
MK: So if we are talking about, as you correctly pointed out, instead of hankering after some great pan-Indian alternative miraculously emerging at our door that is going to rescue us from the clutches of right wing nationalism. What would an interesting, progressive, nationalist politics do in the present moment. Let me link this to the eccentric example of the Aam Aadmi Party. What’s interesting about the Aam Aadmi Party, despite its leadership manias and the splendid cast of maverick characters that it has, is that one of the reasons why it was such an important force in Delhi was that it actually did politics. After a long time you actually had a political party which did politics in an unabashedly populist way, but tried to create an alternative form of populist politics centred on, what they thought, would strike a chord with the material aspirations of the people whose votes they were seeking. Their much-doubted mohalla clinics, their experiments in education, both of which have been either critiqued as exaggerated or critiqued for their substance. What’s interesting is, that this is a party that is both doing this and marketing the fact that it’s doing this. That there is a non-sectarian attempt rather like the great achievement of the Dravid parties in Tamil Nadu, an attempt to produce a populist politics that responds to popular demand, creates a constituencies, mobilises people who then begin to expect the state to do things for them. I offer the Aam Aadmi Party as an example – is this what a modern populism looks like?
SR: It can take many forms. I think one of these key things for any progressive nationalism or that kind of politics, has to be an acceptance that certain kinds of territory cannot be automatically ceded to the other side. Here I particularly think about things related to the security, to the armed forces and such like things. Because historically Hindu nationalism has a very ambivalent relationship with the Indian army itself. The Indian army was the instrument of the colonial power, so to that extent everyone was uncomfortable. People like Savarkar were deeply uncomfortable with the Indian army because it was disproportionately represented by the Muslims and the Sikhs, and to the extent that other groups came in, they tended to be Dalits and others. While Savarkar was against untouchability, the fact that you have Dalits coming in was a problem. Today if you look at it, it’s almost by default that people tend to assume that anyone who is capable of speaking for the armed forces, automatically has to espouse a certain variety of majoritarian nationalism. Why has that ground been ceded, is something that is mystifying to me.
MK: You were a soldier. Did you serve in Kashmir?
SR: Yes, I did serve in Kashmir.
MK: One of the hardy perennials of Indian political discussions is AFSPA [Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts]. Just using AFSPA as a peg, I just want you to reflect on whether liberals or progressives or people who are critical of a majoritarian nationalism, whether in your view they’ve stopped thinking about this and merely by abdicating the ground have handed over both the armed forces and any constituency that admires them, to the other side?
SR: The Armed Forces Special Powers Act is an interesting particular thing because there is a genuine problem with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in as much as it licenses a certain degree of impunity, because the assumption is that even if someone is prima facie – there’s a case, again say a fake encounter, cannot be tried in the court of law until and unless the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence actually give clearance.
MK: Which they never do.
SR: In most cases they will not and they might hold a court martial of their own, which has happened in certain cases. So that is what gives the sense of impunity to people, because people believe that here is an institution which instead of being the enforcer of the law is somehow beyond the law. And that is a political problem. The armed forces have a certain view as well, which is to say that if you are an Indian army officer – I was posted in Doda district. Let’s assume hypothetically, I went out on an operation, killed a couple of militants, bona fide people who are gun carrying terrorists. If an FIR was registered against me for murder or manslaughter, and if I was supposed to expect it to turn up in that court every time summons was given against my name, the Indian army cannot function at all.
So you do need some legal protection to make sure that bona fide actions can continue without giving leeway for mala fide action to be condoned. And that is the balance we have to strike and that I would imagine is very much a liberal case, which is to say that ‘listen, the rule of law has to be applicable to everyone. We don’t want rule of men, we want the rule of law’. And the way to think about it is that certain institutions need certain kinds of safeguards in order to carry out their legitimately constituted duty. And instead of that if we have a single point agenda of saying of that AFSPA has to be scrapped, and I think it should be scrapped in fact I think the army should demand the scrapping of the AFSPA, provided other safeguards are built into it in other things, you can amend the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act – there are other ways in which you can give them the right kind of cover. But there’s no need to do this. And let’s not forget that the AFSPA was bought in by Jawaharlal Nehru in the context of this.
MK: There was an ordinance before that, right?
SR: There was an ordinance during the Quit India movement which incidentally only authorised the use of force unto the point of killing to the rank of captain. Now we allow non-commissioned officers to do it, so in a sense the colonial state was slightly more benevolent than we have been.
MK: So not that this is a particularly tidy end, but on that note, Srinath, Thank you. And it’s open to the house.