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Shifting Metaphors Constructing and Deconstructing the Idea of Nation Building in India

Shiv Visvanathan

/ 11 Minuten zu lesen

Die indische Nationalfahne in Melghat, Indien. (© picture-alliance)

Years ago, during the national movement, Mahatma Gandhi was asked by an American journalist 'What do you think of Western Civilization?' Gandhi replied 'it would be a good idea'. About thirty years after independence, O.V. Vijayan, one of our most acerbic cartoonists drew a cartoon where Gandhi returns from heaven and is asked 'What do you think of Indian Civilization?' Gandhi morosely replies, 'That too would be a good idea'. The above anecdote sets stage for this essay which explores the idea of India as a vision, a metaphor, as an exercise in nation building.

One realizes that the idea of India is a strange experiment where the process bridges the time of eternity with the tentativeness of the latest hypothesis. It summons the hermeneutics of classic texts and yet has the immediacy of a morning newspaper. One realizes that India is simultaneously a civilization, a nation state, a community and a cosmos. This essay is an attempt to understand that experiment and is divided into four parts. Section one constructs the idea of the nation as it arose in the national movement. Diversity and the idea of time become critical here. The essay then examines the notion of the nation state and the project called development. One focuses on the nature of state building. The third section explores the relation between democracy and civil society. Finally one confronts electoral scene and prospects for India as an imagination for the future.

"Diversity and syncretism encode our idea of unity"

India always is a story told in varieties of simultaneous time. It is the home of great religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism. Even Islam is one of them, not just in terms of the fact that India is home of some of the greatest schools of Islamic theology like Deoband but even demographically, India is the second largest Islamic society in the world. Islam in its many varieties is an integral part of India which is home to ten percent of the world's Muslims. Christianity has a long history too with the Apostle Thomas visiting India in 52 AD. Syncretism was the dominant style of Indian culture creating great innovations like Sufism.

Without syncretism and diversity, one cannot think of the idea of India. Officially India has over 3000 jatis (castes, sub-castes) and which speak over thousand dialects. According to The People of India Survey there are at least 200 communities which claim to be adherents of more than one religion. India thus was a compost heap of civilizations, tribes, nomadic and pastoral groups. There was an enormity of marginal groups but one immediately sensed the margins were demographically large and geographically wide. For example, shifting cultivation which is often constructed by anthropologists as marginal involves at least 700,000 tribal people over 30,000 square kilometres in Orissa. And they view it not just as livelihood but as a way of life. In fact Indian agriculture is a virtual epistemology for diversity with over 50,000 varieties of rice, 400 varieties of mango, 900 varieties of cotton.

Diversity and syncretism thus encode our idea of unity. The Indian idea of unity always summoned diversity of Gods, languages, or species and culture of syncretism to mediate differences. This background of data is offered not to create a sense of exotic life forms but to show what civilization meant in an everyday sense. It also helps explain how the national movement responded to the idea of the west and colonialism. Indian Nationalism, in overthrowing colonialism, had to mediate between its varieties of civilization and the more homogenous and territorial idea of a nation state.

"The idea of India was to oscillate between Swadeshi and Swaraj"

The Indian national movement was a contending circus of epistemologies and perspectives, where overthrowing the British almost seemed incidental. Gandhi, in fact, warned that merely overthrowing the English would be futile because India would still be an English country, an Englisthan without the English. Nationalism could not be substitutive, merely replacing the white man with Indians with that same mentality was not independence. One needs a vision, a different set of mentalities.

Gandhi felt that the goal of the Indian national movement was to rescue the British from modernity. One of the interesting aspects of the movement was the array of Englishman like Allan Octavian Hume or Patrick Geddes who participated in it. Hospitality became part of the movement seeking to create an inclusive nationalism. Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet was hostile to the idea of nationalism. He felt nationalism would embitter the mind and prevent India from being a mix of civilizational cosmopolitanism which was his vision of India. This sense of nationalism as a mix of hospitality, liberation, humanity, syncretism and diversity was best caught, in Mahatma Gandhi's rendering of two terms as two ways of life, Swadeshi and Swaraj. The idea of India was to oscillate between these two terms.

Swadeshi conveyed a sense of the local, the indigenous. Swadesism was a sense of the locally produced. It was linked to livelihood and lifestyle, to ways of life that sprang from local communities, materials, ideas and ecologies. Yet, Swadesism while being inclusive was never parochial. It has to be juxtaposed to the idea of Swaraj (self-rule) which Gandhi imagined in terms of the idea of oceanic circles where the local enfolded and embraced the planetary cosmos. The village community was part of a global neighbourhood and the twinning of Swadesi and Swaraj defined India's sense of the wider world, a confident singularity within a global variety.

"A nation state built on the creation myth of two genocides"

The idea of Indian unity and cosmopolitanism was challenged by two disasters which scarred the Indian imagination and helped define the transition from the diversities of nationalism to the growing uniformity of the nation-state. Nation building in a governmental and banal sense can be seen as an attempt to create a new idea of identity and governmentality. The two disasters that affected and determined the idea of India was the Bengal Famine in 1943 and the Partition in 1947.

During the World War II, the British Imperial regime was determined not to let the Japanese Army conquer Assam and Burma. It created an artificial famine which held the Japanese at bay but also eliminated three million Indians. It was one of the most systematic acts of genocide in history for which the British have rarely been questioned. The Partition of British India into two states India and Pakistan resulted in the displacement of 12 to 13 million and the death of around two million people. Partition was called the "Invisible Holocaust" whose histories remain to be written. Officialdom saw it as a transfer of power between imperial and nationalist governments but the displacement of populations went on between 1947 to 1955, creating one of the greatest migratory movements in the world.

The trauma of these two events changed the sense of the nation from the celebration of a non-violent movement to a nation state built on the creation myth of two genocides. Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist and Jawaharlal Nehru was to become leader of a nation state. Nehru has a sense of civilization but his vision of Indian was more modern, socialist, liberal and democratic; an ideal he anchored on the idea of planned development.

"Quick transition from being a colony to a third world country"

Planned Development was a hyphenation of planning and development. The plan has its roots in the Bolshevik Revolution and the Leninist dream of Soviets plus electrification equal to communism. It was a vision of a scientifically planned society where the plan provided a time table for progress. Development was a term coined by US-President Harry Truman and it created the invidious classification of the world into developed and developing countries.

India made a quick transition from being a civilization to a colony to a third world country. As a third world country, it had to develop to join the club of advanced industrial nations. The Indian nation state became a social contract between science and state to develop the project called development. A new United Nations vocabulary became the order of the day and combating poverty, underdevelopment through transfer of technology became the new civics of the nation state.

The Indian nation state under Prime Minister Nehru was a confident one. India, he felt was making a tryst with destiny. He also said, 'the future belonged to those who made friends with science.' The initial years despite Partition were confident years and India saw itself as a leader among third world nations. Planning and development were the goals of the nation state and the Indian elite in the first flush of enthusiasm saw character building, nation building and dam building as isomorphic activities. The euphoric years lasted till 1962 and could be called Nehruvian era. It was the period where India built its great scientific and educational institutions, its Institutes of Technology and Science, of Planning and Design.

By 1962, we realized development and planning had turned out to be ironic or counterproductive processes. Nehru once claimed that dams and laboratories are the temples of modern India but the irony of development project was that dams became the biggest form of internal displacement, rendering 40 million of our population homeless. India was to create more refugees through development than from the wars it fought. A generation of internal refugees became a challenge to the very idea of home and citizenship.

Planning itself has become a contentious affair between the model of heavy industrialization and a plural model of industry. The fate of agriculture hung in question. The Green Revolution in the seventies created a temporary reprieve but development as a poverty alleviating model was being deeply questioned. To the trauma of the military defeat by the Chinese in 1962, we added the Emergency, a period of dictatorial rule between 1975 and 1977 imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

"Social movements challenged the official unity of India"

The Emergency as a period of tyranny disembedded and disempowered many of our major institutions including banks, media, universities, courts and trade unions. The tyranny of petty clerks combined with the technocratic authority of science and technology created another irony. Development projects instead of alleviating poverty sought to eliminate the poor. Family planning became a forced imposition of vasectomy and sterilization of marginal groups. Urban planning sought the demolition of their houses. For the middle class, the Emergency was a period of stability where trains and bureaucrats ran on time. The timetable became the new symbol of unity of the nation.

It was the poor who revolted overthrowing the Indira Gandhi regime. The Emergency triggered in its aftermath a spate of great social movements. These outbreaks of civil society emphasized the incompleteness of citizenship, the sense that marginal groups like nomads, slum dwellers, fishing communities were elliptical to the Indian nation, that development was indifferent to their fate in its obsession with progress. These new movements argued that development reduced diversity. It was not just the violence of displacement but the violence of definitional indifference. When India defined an official language as one with a script, over 1500 oral languages were reduced to silence. The human rights and ecology movements challenged the official unity of India demanding a wider stake holder model of development.

Violence, both physical and policy induced, became a deep worry. By the first decade of the millennium, there were 40 million people displaced by dams, 10 million by riots. Feticide had reached over a million. Sexual trafficking involved over 3.5 million people. To add to that irony, India has over a million troops outside the army for internal order and control. One was confronting the transition from a nation to a national security state.

"Consumerism lead to a decline of the political"

When liberalization in the guise of structural adjustment struck India, the social movements were caught flat-footed by the new consumerism. In fact, the quickest way of mapping the disunity of India was to look at the disintegration of the body politic into the numerous little bodies. There was the desiring body of consumerism, the surrogate body, the fetal body, the displaced body, the body subject to torture, terror, incest and rape.

Experts felt there was a decline of the political as the new generation of the population where 70 percent were under 25 had new demands and desires. The old politics of memory built around nationalism, socialism, the Emergency, around the scarcity of the ration card economy gave way to a new politics of desire. Young India was almost global in its consumerism and argued that the coming century was to be the Indian century. India and China were to be the two dominant nations given the size of their markets. The down swing in the world economy silenced such an optimism and Indians began sensing that India had not developed the institutions and infrastructure that the new globalism needed. The myth of Shining India gave way to a more despondent view of the world.

At this stage, any narrative of India must juxtapose development and democracy. India is the world's largest electoral democracy but experts felt that the new economic transformation had created a passive population. Consumerism had disconnected itself from citizenship leading to a decline of the political. Such prophecies came to an end with the upsurge of social protest in the second decade of the twentieth century.

Paradoxically the very consumerism that was supposed to diminish politics created a new kind of the political. The new generation realized that if brands could create quality then the excellence of the market could enter the entitlements of citizenship. In 2011 and 2012, India exploded into a wave of non-violent protest. The Indian Spring helped Indians turn political as the new activists realized that the state had no problem terrorizing them with water cannons and riot police. It was at this stage that three new definitions of political India appeared.

"What is the future idea of India?"

The first was a negative one. It was the picture of an old declining Congress party. The Congress as a party once reflected the diversity of India but of late it had become an extension of the Nehru family. The new aspirational generation saw Rahul Gandhi as a bland personality who could not capture the new dynamism of a nation seeking to redefine democracy. Challenging the Congress was the hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi who offered the model of development as new model for India. Modi wanted minorities, especially Muslims, to discard ethnicity and pursue development. However, his opponents argued that Modi's model was merely an act of erasure seeking to wipe out memories of the riots of 2002 in his home state Gujarat.

A third party had emerged by then which sought not development but the democratization of democracy. The Aam Admi Party (AAP) sought empowerment of people alienated from politics by corruption. It sought to eliminate the parasitism of VIP politics and to create a new power of the common man. The AAP ruled Delhi for 49 days before Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal resigned to battle Modi nationally. AAP sees itself as the party of the future where politics is a direct form of empowerment. It feels that the destruction of the VIP culture can create a more open public. What we thus have in three competing ideas of politics.

The debate includes a sense of competing visions and battles. The first question that confronts us is can India offer an alternative vision to an autocratic China by creating a democracy where governance and justice can function creatively. Secondly, India faces its own benign neglect of South Asian imagination. It needs to create a new idea of the region to enrich its idea of India. Thirdly, a democratic India has to confront how indigenous people, the industrial and the post-industrial can live sustainably together. The idea of India is an India encompassing a diversity of time, where the oral, digital can co-exist.

Finally, a democratic India has to confront the incompleteness of citizenship which haunts 70 percent of its people who live in the informal economy. An idea of India cannot just be a united India. A future India thus has to reinvent itself creating a world which combines liberty, equality and fraternity with more contemporary visions of plurality, justice and sustainability. Democracy becomes a drama where India creates the experiments, the problem solving sites for such futuristic visions.

is a social scientist and currently professor at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.