Liberal ideology needs a rediscovery that does not seem forthcoming on the horizon
The Indian nationalist streak was running parallel to the Hindu nationalism but had a subdued existence. As Indian bourgeoisie grew in size, the religious articulation of nationalism receded to the fence.
Indian nationalism broke through to the surface as a reaction to the Partition of Bengal in 1905. That reactive mode became strident with the Swadeshi Movement, which was an economic expression of Indian nationalism. From then on, Indian geography, economy and history came to define the ideological configuration of Indian nationalism.
While scrutinising Indian nationalism, its interface with the international movements and events is sometimes put on the backburner. One should not lose sight of the fact that Indian nationalism was not autochthonous in its entirety. Certain modern personalities and movements contributed prodigiously to the political consciousness of those wedded to Indian nationalism.
That consciousness had two discernible facets: the rational and the emotional. The rational facet was ingrained by Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill but shaped by the liberalism of William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865).
For the emotional facet, Indian literati drew inspiration from Rousseau and Mazzini. For the methods for political action, a leaf was taken from the book of the leaders of American Revolution, the Italian Risorgimento -Garibaldi in particular - and the Irish nationalists. Contemporaneous to the partition of Bengal were such political events as the Russian Revolution in 1905, Young Turks Revolution in 1909 and the Chinese Revolution in 1911, which provided considerable stimulus to the nationalists who cherished an ideal that brought their politics far beyond the confines of religious connotation.
Western education, indeed, enabled the urban bourgeoisie to assimilate influences from various regions, which went on to neutralise the exclusionary impact of Hinduism on Indian anti-colonial politics.
Having said that, one must not discount the role of religion while analysing the evolutionary growth of nationalist impulse. It remained alive and assertive throughout. The secular leadership of Congress had to keep appeasing the proponents of Hindu nationalism which took a new guise of Hindutva when the RSS was conjured up into existence in 1925.
Now let’s turn our analytical gaze to the composite nationalism. The first streak of a composite nationalism became apparent in Gopal Krishna Gokhale whom both Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi immensely revered for his moderate views and profundity of political insight.
But Gokhale’s politics of moderation was overtaken by Tilak’s extremism. Bal Ganga Dhar Tilak was the leader who inspired many RSS stalwarts, including Savarkar. Gandhi’s return from South Africa in 1915 was the turning point in the growth of Indian nationalism, Lucknow Pact being its first and extraordinarily strong culmination.
Gandhi, despite being a devout Hindu, could give nationalism a plural/inclusive rendering because of his experience in South Africa, where he had wide-scale interaction with the Muslim trading class as well as the workers. He very aptly made that composite experience a part of his consciousness.
Another significant aspect of his contribution was that he re-defined Hinduism by bringing it out of the temple and inhabiting it in his ashrams, where anyone from any religious stripe could join in. His positions on the question of caste, Satyagraha and Ahimsa gave him universal appeal. A lot has been written on these pillars of his ideology.
Despite Gandhi’s inclusive approach to Indian politics, Hindu exclusionary figures, like Madan Mohan Malviya and Lala Lajpat Rai, were straddling both Congress and Hindu Mahasabha. The Congress leadership could neither exert any influence on them nor it chose to shun them. Hindu nationalism was subsumed into the Indian nationalist project and within the ambit of the latter, the former was kept alive and active.
In the 1920s, Indian National Congress typified contradiction with several leaders at cross purposes with the rest. It had in its ranks, Deobandi clerics, Hindu nationalists, and socialist elements which were quite conspicuous by their hurly burly presence in Indian politics after Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The only commonality binding them was anti-colonialism. That was the reason that after the exit of the British, Congress leadership seemed to be at sixes and sevens in grappling with the new set of problems. But we will deal with it at the end of this column. Now we turn our gaze to the role of Abul Kalam Azad.
He was instructed and trained as a scholar of Islam but he had not been oblivious of the exigencies of the modern world. Fortuitously, he subscribed neither to taqlid (blindly following the tradition) nor takfir (denouncing heterodoxy as apostasy). His religio-political vision was inclusive, hence composite. His exegesis of the Holy Quran is the most progressive.
As a revered member of the community of Indian Muslims, Azad was responsible for giving a broad character to Indian National Congress. Otherwise, Congress was nothing but a Hindu organisation. He was fiercely anti-British and not convinced of the Muslim separatism that culminated in the birth of Pakistan. He is one of the rare Indian leaders who are respected and not condemned by a sizable number of Pakistani literati. His erudition and progressive rendering of the foundational Islamic texts are the principal reason for the respect that he commands from Pakistanis.
The last person to become an icon of secular democracy in India was Jawahar Lal Nehru. Socialist by political orientation, he was extremely well-read and reposed a firm belief in modernism. He was a contemporary of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ahmad Sukarno and Nkrumah who cherished similar ideals in the early phase of the Cold War.
A charismatic leader and a prolific writer, it was his vision more importantly which built the post-independence India. His notion of unity in diversity which he expounded in his book, Discovery of India, won him great traction, particularly in the post-colonial world.
This unity-in-diversity notion which carried the inclusive ethos of social democracy is being trenchantly challenged currently. His successors in the Congress party were unable to redefine Nehru’s idealism. After the political demise of socialism with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Indian nationalism predicated on plurality gave way to Hindutva.
Now with the ideal of establishing a Hindu rashtra plurality and secular ideology have lost popular appeal. That is what bothers Pakistani liberals, too, because in the past they could at least envy Indian polity being governed by democratic principles. The only living example of post-colonial secular democracy is in doldrums. That sadly proves that liberal ideology needs a rediscovery which does not seem forthcoming on the horizon.