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The idea of India: Rahul plus Gandhi

Speaking in Britain, Rahul Gandhi recently described India as a “union of states”. In a parliamentary speech last year, he had deployed a similar characterisation. Those who defend Rahul Gandhi refer to Article 1 of India’s Constitution, which does use the term “union of states”. Rahul Gandhi’s critics refer to the Constitution’s Preamble, which first lists the four key objectives of the new polity — justice, liberty, equality and fraternity — and then says that “fraternity” means “assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation”. The debate over the right term thus can’t be settled on a purely constitutional basis.

Constitutional scholars, of course, should enlighten us on whether India’s Constitution, known as the longest in the world, uses the term “nation” more copiously in the main text. Be that as it constitutionally may, it is also worth pondering what the scholarship on nationalism says. Is India a nation? And if so, of what kind?

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First and foremost, the scholarship is unambiguously clear that a nation is not simply a cultural entity. Rather, it brings the political and cultural units together. In the famous words of Ernest Gellner, a nation means having “a political roof over your cultural head”. A civilisation, a cultural unit, thus is not the same as a nation, which is a sovereign confluence of the cultural and the political. An oft-cited example is that Europe is a civilisational entity, but it had more than 20 nations in the early 20th century, and many of these nations were so bitterly antagonistic that they even fought wars, including two World Wars. To cite another example, England/Britain and France fought no less than seven wars between 1689 and 1815, even though both were part of Europe.

The difference between a civilisation and a nation was also the basis of a famous statement about the impossibility of Indian nationhood by John Strachey, a top British administrator in India, in 1888. “There is not, and never was an India, or… any country of India”, and “that men of Punjab, Bengal, the Northwestern Provinces and Madras, should ever feel that they belong to one Indian nation, is impossible. You might with as much reason and probability look forward to a time when a single nation will have taken the place of the various nations of Europe”. Not that Stratchey thought the British would leave India, but this reasoning conceptually meant that like Europe, India was a civilisation, from which in the future might emerge several nations — Punjab, Bengal, Madras — if and when the British actually left.

One might recall that with the exception of Switzerland, Belgium and Spain, “one language, one nation” was the basis of nationhood in Europe. John Stuart Mill, among the leading British political philosophers in the second half of the 19th century, had no doubt that linguistic diversity was a “special, virtually insuperable, hindrance to nation-making”. Mill’s thought heavily influenced British administrators in India.

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After Independence, Indian federalism was indeed conceptualised in linguistic terms. Does it mean that India finally became a union of linguistic states, as Strachey and Mill implied, and it was not a nation?

This is where Mahatma Gandhi’s striking originality about conceptualising nationhood comes in. Gandhi’s position on religion and nationhood is better known than what he thought about language and nationhood. On religion, Gandhi argued: “If the Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in a dreamland. The Hindus, Muslims, the Parsis and the Christians who have made India their country are fellow countrymen… Followers of different faiths are not different nations”. And on language, it is not often realised that Gandhi was the father of India’s linguistic federalism.

As early as 1920, Gandhi successfully campaigned for linguistically structured provincial organisations of the Congress party. Gandhi’s attempt was to break the elite-based pattern of Congress politics, in which only English-speaking politicians took part. He was more interested in eliciting mass support for the freedom movement. Mass politics without the mother tongue was meaningless, inauthentic and impossible. The masses did not know English, but they could easily comprehend ideas expressed in their own languages. In 1924, Gandhi got this idea extended to the governmental level. “The official language or provincial governments, legislatures and courts …(should) be the vernacular of the province.”

To Gandhi, multilingual politics was essential to nation-building in India, not a violation thereof. He was anti-Mill and anti-Stratchey. A new kind of nation, non-European in substance and spirit, was to be constructed. It would not only be multi-religious (which was not a fundamental problem for the European theorists and practitioners), but also multi-lingual, which was a novel idea.

But how would different linguistic communities be brought together? By a political movement driven by the ideas of pluralism, syncretism and tolerance. This “idea of India” had historical roots. In his newspaper Young India, Gandhi wrote that Indian culture “stands for synthesis of the different cultures that have come to stay in India, that have influenced Indian life, and that, in their turn, have themselves been influenced by the spirit of the soil” (November 17, 1920). Further, Indian culture is “neither Hindu, Islamic nor any other, wholly. It is a fusion of all and essentially Eastern. And everyone who calls himself or herself an Indian is bound to treasure that culture, be its trustee and resist any attack upon it” (April 30, 1931).

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In light of this formulation, let us return to theory for a moment. For Benedict Anderson, a leading theorist of nationalism, a nation is “an imagined political community”. The fact that it is imagined does not mean that it is false. Most French or Americans have not met each other, but there is still something called being French or American, which they share. For Gandhi, that glue was not language (or religion), but a set of cultural and historical ideas — synthesis, tolerance and coexistence. The violent periods of Indian history were outliers from this trend line of coexistence.

Rahul Gandhi is not wrong that India is a union of states. But his formulation requires a Gandhian amendment. India is also a nation, but in a non-European sense. Steeped in a majoritarian European concept of nationhood, his critics, too, are unable to see this point.

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The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University and contributing editor, The Indian Express

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