The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 24, 2003

Cultural politics of nationalism
Rumina Sethi

India: A National Culture?
edited by Geeti Sen. Sage, New Delhi.
Pages 294. Rs 850.

India: A National Culture?THIS book is about cultural perspectives of nationalism. Nationalism may be largely political, but is based mainly on cultural symbols and traditions such as religious icons, ancient societies, linguistic and oral narratives, art, sculpture, painting, and so on. National pride is predicated upon all of these. For example, when Bhagat Singh soulfully sang "Mera rang de basanti chola" in Shaheed, he was introducing "saffronisation" to religion and a cultural coding into the formation of nationalist sentiment long before Babri Masjid was torn down by kar sevaks, and we began to acknowledge nationalism’s religious underpinnings. Cultural nationalism, in this instance, however, becomes partial and selective. But that is what nationalism is all about, although it is variously disguised as secular, unbiased and liberatory. Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Burundi, Sri Lanka and many other ‘nations’ bear testimony to this assumption.

Cultural nationalism derives its strength from the past in order to show one’s cultural uniqueness and thereby stimulate national consciousness. However, when culturally reified structures collide with the processes of modernisation and social reform in the attainment of political ends, cultural nationalism shows its regressive aspect. The requirements of a modern state and the aspirations of the masses are hardly compatible with a nostalgic retreat into culture. This is very relevant in anti-colonial struggles where a culturally imagined unification must work side by side with mass mobilisation, the primary motive being the establishment of an independent nation-state.


The emerging nation-state, consequently, witnesses rapid appropriation of workers, peasants, minorities, and the lower orders, and enlists their participation. But often we discover, as in India, that although we have a political nation-state, the nation itself is yet to be born. From this viewpoint, we can say that the intelligentsia remains separate from the subaltern, and the field of writing or rhetoric from the field of political action although nationalist ideology tends to cover up its differences.

While nationalism is not a homogeneous category, it includes all the connotations of a popular bourgeois ideology, and has both affinities with and differences from European varieties of nationalism. Which takes us to Makarand Paranjape’s essay on Indian ideas of the nation which, he writes, originate from locality, region and territory; birth, tribe and community; and people, subjects and citizens as against European nationalisms which arose from either the Enlightenment tradition which considered the nation to be a conglomerate of citizens or the post-Enlightenment view that nation comes from people who share a common ethnic, linguistic or cultural identity. These two meanings may be linked up with praja, which Gandhi used to define the nation, and ultimately with swaraj, which symbolised complete autonomy. Here is again culture at work since swaraj is a culturally connotative term: originally religious—symbolising self-rule or restraint, and holding out the promise of deliverance from the evil cycle of successive reincarnations—it later got modified with its associations with politics, indicating the individual’s attainment of oneness with the Universal, which in turn would establish a feeling of fellowship with every being one came into contact. Interpreted thus, the term came to embody not merely national freedom but universal federation also, which alone could establish ‘perfect harmony’ between nations.

With Gandhi, the concept of swaraj evolves into a symbol having a very definite political edge signifying self-government, yet alloyed somewhat with an otherworldly sanctity to consolidate public appeal. This may be an example of the indigeneity of Gandhi’s appeal with scarcely any borrowings from the Western model of nationalism: "This intermingling of an apparent unworldliness with such this-worldliness becomes the locus of a new home for an India that . . . is ready to assert her own sense of selfhood and dignity once again."

It is from the 1980s that cultural identity assumed the narrow and parochial dimensions of religious identity. Geeti Sen speaks of differentiating national culture as "practised" from national culture as "perceived" or, to use Benedict Anderson’s famous phrase for the national community, "imagined". In her essay, which too deserves a special mention, she examines the concept of Mother India, the film, to emphasise how nationalist ideology celebrates the virtues of the Indian woman who is resurrected repeatedly in homogeneous configurations of goddesses and mothers. It is true that women have never been conceptualised as being primary to any national movement. In the domain of gender, nationalism has not proved to be a progressive ideology that revolutionises sexuality. On the contrary, women who participate in the national movement are seldom empowered by the liberation struggle to emerge from their traditional invisibility. Sen pleads for a human and secularised persona, imbued with shakti, which was realised to some extent in Mehboob Khan’s film.

An excellent collection of essays, the book is very readable for any one interested in the cultural politics of nationalism.