Recalling the path-breaking dialogues of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Tagore that give us a vision of India beyond hyper-masculine and obsessively self-conscious militarised nationalism.
I do not watch the Republic Day parade not because I am ‘anti-national’. I do not watch this spectacle because its symbolism – particularly, the demonstration of the might of the state and its military technologies and weapons of ‘defence’ – does not fit into the vision of India that I cherish. Yes, I am aware that the very idea of a bounded nation implies that its ‘borders’ need to be ‘protected’ by its brigade of army. And this seems to be the chief reason for the elevated status of military power as a symbol of the nation, particularly in these troubled times when, despite the rhetoric of globalisation, nation-states continue to prevail and in an environment of social Darwinism war or the fear of war is normalised.
The ritualisation of the Republic Day parade reinforces this sort of nationalist euphoria: see the march of the army – disciplined/tight/masculine bodies of trained/robotic soldiers saluting the flag; feel good, cherish the narcissism of the nation and think that you are more powerful than your ‘enemies’. However, I long for something else: a nation that seeks to transcend itself by becoming oceanic with civility, kindness and egalitarianism. It is in this context that I recall three path-breaking conversations authored by Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar and Rabindranath Tagore, which, I believe, gave us yet another vision of India – something beyond hyper-masculine and obsessively self-conscious militarised nationalism.
For a people’s nation that values labour
When the symbol is made into a fetish and an instrument of proving the superiority of one’s religion over others, it is fit only to be discarded. The sacred thread does not appear to me today to be a means of uplifting Hinduism. I am therefore indifferent to it.
As I free myself from the live coverage of the parade, I begin to see Gandhi in a train in South Africa – the ‘coolie barrister’ reading John Ruskin’s Unto This Last. It was indeed the ‘magic spell of a book’. Well, this ‘sanatani Hindu’ did already disobey the verdict of the caste association for his determination to go abroad for higher studies, and prefer to exist as an ‘outcaste’. And despite his initial effort to behave like an Englishman, he was realising his inner calling. As he experienced the trauma of colonialism, its psychology of violence and its implicit racism, his soul nurtured by the Sermon on the Mount and the Bhagavad Gita began to strive for a new art of resistance.
It was at this moment in South Africa that Ruskin’s book with its celebration of the dignity of labour and non-hierarchical orientation to life opened his eyes and enriched his horizon. For someone born in a caste-ridden society with a notion of dirt handled by the ‘polluted’ castes, it was not easy to appreciate Ruskin’s proposal that ‘the job of a barber is as important as that of a lawyer’; and ‘the good of the individual lies in the good of all’. Yet, this lesson of sarvodaya transformed Gandhi and prepared the ground for his eventual engagement with the peasants of Champaran or the textile workers of Ahmedabad, and his plea for the ‘integrated’ individual overcoming ‘Brahmin-Sudra’ or ‘purity-pollution’ duality by reconciling the mental and the manual. In a way, it was a move towards the idea – spiritually subtle, not necessarily overtly radical – of an inclusive nation: people’s nation that values labour.
For a nation that values Buddha’s compassionate egalitarianism
It seems that the three – fraternity, liberty and equality – can coexist only if one follows the way of the Buddha.
Despite the sound of the boots of the marching army, I do not forget that an imaginary unity in the name of fighting the ‘external enemy’ (something that loud nationalism with militarisation of consciousness does) cannot create a healthy nation. Who realised it more than Ambedkar? A fractured/fragmented nation can be healed only by eradicating the hierarchy and injustice within. This led him to converse with both Marx and Buddha. At one level, Ambedkar saw a great deal of commonality between them; both of them strove for equality and were against private possession. Yet, the Marxian ‘means’ for making revolution, and the principle of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, as Ambedkar argued, are potentially violent. Even though he did not absolutise non-violence, in Buddha’s religiosity he saw a new possibility.
Apart from its striking difference from hierarchical Brahminism, its sangha resembles the ideal of a democratic commune; and it seeks to transform the ‘inner disposition of man’ through spiritual awakening and ‘constant preaching of Dhamma’. Even though with his profound scholarship he was inclined to the enlightenment discourse of reason and its celebration of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, Buddha’s appeal, it seems, was irresistible. In a way, by choosing Buddha rather than Marx, Ambedkar was possibly conveying a signal: a non-hierarchical awakened nation needs not merely the formalism of constitutional legal principles or the materialism of economic progress, but also the grace of religiosity, and radical politics is incomplete without compassion and self-transformation. Don’t forget that Ambedkar reminded us that ‘humanity does not only want economic values, it also wants spiritual values to be retained’.
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A nation that transcends itself through feminine grace
Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of the Nation is better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.
As the parade – almost like the totemic ritual – seeks to reinforce ‘solidarity’, I realise that this form of obsessive nationalism conditions our minds and limits our horizon. This narrowness and its implicit violence, I believe, made Tagore uneasy with the doctrine of militant nationalism, its rigidity and mechanisation and its reckless standardisation. Think of Gora – a revealing novel that Tagore wrote. Yes, Gora as the lead character in the novel was like a determined missionary filled with immense life energy and love for the country. But then, he sought to retain the ‘purity’ of his Hindu/Brahmin self – its boundaries and ritualistic restrictions. However, almost at the end of the novel Gora came to know the ultimate secret – he was the child of the Irish parents who were killed in the mutiny and Krishnadayal and Anandamoyi adopted him, nurtured him and existed as his parents. This caused severe existential agony and identity confusion. Eventually, Gora came out of the crisis, realised his true self that is beyond all limits and is truly universal. He came back to Anandamoyi; in her maternal grace, he found his India – an oceanic civilisation (not a constricted nation) with feminine love that privileges no particular identity. ‘The mother whom I have been wandering about in search of’, exclaimed Gora, ‘was all the time sitting in my room at home. You have no caste, you make no distinctions, and have no hatred – you are only the image of our welfare! It is you who are India’!
In a way, for Tagore, India as a civilisation transcended the idea of India as a bounded nation. Tagore saw devastating war – the pathology of narcissistic nationalism. His poetic universalism created characters like Anandamoyi or Nandini in Red Oleanders who reminded us of the power of femininity that interrogates the practice of hyper-masculine regimentation implicit in the statecraft of modern nationalism.
Do we need to invoke these lost visions? I think we should. Even today, when the nation is engaged in a festive mood we should not forget that here is a violent nation with heightened social hierarchy and economic inequality, and all sorts of aggression are taking place in the name of exclusionary identities. Sanity demands that we come out of the rhetoric of nationalism and valorisation of militarised heroism, and converse with the likes of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Tagore for drawing the inspiration for creating yet another India: oceanic and compassionate.
Avijit Pathak is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.