New Nationalism in India: A boon or a bane? (Book Review)

Title: On Nationalism; Author: Romila Thapar, A.G. Noorani, Sadanand Menon; Publisher: Aleph Book Company; Pages: 176; Price: Rs 399

It inspired the Indian subcontinent’s people to deem themselves one political entity, fight for self-rule and eventually gain freedom, but 70 years after independence, nationalism is again at the centrestage. This manifestation is however more restrictive but aggressive, seeking its frequent, visible demonstrations as a citizenship ‘test’. Is this suited for democracy at all or geared towards some Hitlerian “Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Fuehrer” (one state, one people, one leader) variant?

As the Kanhaiya Kumar and JNU episode, continued use of the sedition law, forceful emphasis on nationalistic slogans and “anti-national” and other slurs for any dissenters, and threats to cultural freedom and independent thought indicate, this issue is no longer confined to the public sphere, but impinge on our private lives too.

This small book brings together incisive opinions from three distinguished scholars of history, law and culture on these phenomenon and their implications – and what they may seek to conceal. As publisher/author David Davidar notes in the foreword, “we live, as we have for the last couple of centuries now, in a country that is poor, violent, corrupt, overpopulated and misogynistic, unequal, and prone to sectarian violence, terrorism and environmental disasters..”

Questioning if what is now being touted as “nationalism” deserves the term, historian Romila Thapar, who was in her mid-teens at the time of Independence, recalls that nationalism was then “understood to be Indian nationalism and not Hindu or Muslim or any other kind of religious or other ..” and its primary concern was “to ensure welfare of the entire society and all its citizens”.

It was not, she argues, as now, “reduced merely to waving flags and shouting slogans and penalizing people for not shouting slogans like ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ because real nationalism “requires a far greater commitment” to the nation’s needs.

Refuting other claims of today’s “nationalists”, Thapar specially seeks to counter Indian civilisation definition as located on what was then British India, with its language Sanskrit and religion Hindu, terming it a “contribution of colonial scholarship”, and based only on the “culture of the dominant elite” to create the idea of a victimised past whose return is legitimate.

Noted lawyer A.G. Noorani, who compares the current “irresponsible attacks on the patriotism and nationalism” of Indian citizens, usually by members of the Sangh Parivar, to those of notorious US Senator Joseph McCarthy, known for his witchhunts in the 1950s, takes up two aspects of this “dangerous phenomenon”, particularly the sedition law.

Sketching its curious history from its introduction by the British colonial regime over a century ago, he notes how it was loathed by leaders of Independent India, who did not let it figure in the Constitution, how it was struck down by the Allahabad High Court, but inexplicably restored to full potency in 1962 by a Supreme Court Constitution bench, which choose to ignore all these factors.

Also going into the origins of the ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ slogan, he makes a fair case that it is religious and not national in origin.

Sadanand Menon, who describes himself as an explorer of the “charged space between politics and culture”, makes a case that “national culture” and “cultural nationalism” are not synonyms. The first may be the “visible face of nationalism”, but the other is a rogue form with the “cunning agenda” of replacing political rights with “cultural rights”, which are “emotive aspects” from a “highly-charged area of irrational self-beliefs that give little credence to claims of history or any other kind of scientific research”.

Menon also argues that “Bharat Mata ki Jai” is not an “attribute of patriotism but of deep patriarchy”, and there is no evidence that “devotion towards an abstract ‘Bharat Mata’ translates into even a semblance of affection or respect for real flesh-and-blood women”. A long list of crimes against women are cited in support.

Will this book make a difference? Those on either sides of the debate may need no more convincing/be persuaded otherwise, but it is the large number of those who are still to make their minds who can benefit from reading it to understand what is at stake.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at



Related Posts

Leave a Reply