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Reimagining the nation

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Reimagining the nation

Left, Right and Centre

Author - Nidhi Razdan

Publisher - Penguin Random House, Rs 599

British India was reimagined as a nation in the last quarter of the 19th Century. There were two rival ideas of India, one sponsored by Moderates and the other by Extremists, writes MUKUL KESAVAN in this book edited by Nidhi Razdan. Excerpt

Partha Chatterjee’s choice of Bankim Chandra as the mascot of Indian nationalisms’ ‘moment of departure’ is off by almost exactly 1,000 miles. The nationalism that eventually shaped and constituted the republic was nurtured across the breadth of the subcontinent in two Western Indian cities, Parsi Bombay and post-Peshwa Poona. If we are playing at making a list of the principal ‘makers of modern India’ or the makers of Congress nationalism, the shortlist of early makers would be the following: Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Dinshaw Wacha, Badruddin Tyabji, MG Ranade, Agarkar and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. In supporting roles we would have two Bengalis, RC Dutt and Surendranath Banerjea. The obvious omission here is Tilak (and the other two in the triumvirate, Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal), but they belong to another nationalist genealogy which does begin with Bankim and culminates in Bose, with Lal, Bal, Pal in the middle.

The argument here is that British India was reimagined as a nation in the last quarter of the 19th century. There were two rival ideas of India, one sponsored by the Moderates and the other by the Extremists, of which the former prevailed (though the latter remained alive as a dark alter ego, as Cain).

The nature of Moderate nationalism was determined by the interplay between certain givens — the sociological diversity of the subcontinent, the reality of direct centralised colonial rule over the subcontinent and the brutal and terrifying finality of the Raj’s triumph in 1857. It was determined by the diversity, willingness, wit and ingenuity of a remarkable group of Western Indian public men to imagine the whole of the subcontinent as a nation in the making. It was determined by their ability to find the words, arguments, tricks and representative manoeuvres that made the near-absurd audacity of this nationalist claim seem persuasive, even plausible.

Moderate nationalism’s originality and peculiarity all relate to the challenge of credibly representing a very large population to both an alien sceptical Raj and the crazy quilt of communities that it claimed to represent. The answers to this challenge that the Moderates returned weren’t the only ones possible; Congress nationalism wasn’t inevitably called into being by the nature of British colonialism. Savarkar’s nationalist response to colonial rule was very different from that of Sir Pherozeshah Mehta’s.

The reason Moderate ideology won out was because its substantive programme, methods, take on the politics of representation were more prudent, more pluralist, therefore more inclusive and rhetorically much less divisive than the alternatives on offer. The Moderates found a way of invoking an Indian nation without defining it culturally or at all.

The first principle of the Moderate or Congress ideology was a complete and unquestioning acceptance of the reality of the Raj and that it was here to stay. The Raj was an immovable object and this had been proved beyond all doubt by the ruthless, near-demonic violence used to suppress the rebellion of 1857.

Historian Christopher Alan Bayly’s argument that traditional patriotism seamlessly merged into modern nationalist politics, that the political ethics of the regional homelands survived and shaped the nature and reception of modern nationalism, doesn’t seem persuasive. The Mutiny is a great rupture in colonial Indian history that buries a certain style of political resistance and the mythologies that supported and enabled it. There was no self-conscious way in which Maratha memories or manners could feed into post-1857 politics in Western India. 1857 was for Ranade, Mehta et al, the ‘last war of imperial patriotism’.

The first principle of Moderation, therefore, was not timorous caution but constitutionalist, non-violent engagement. From this side of 1857, violent resistance was doomed and any political flirtation with insurrectionary violence was a sort of political infantilism. ‘...the Bombay-based Indian social reformer in its editorials and columns consistently compared modern Indian history to European history after Napoleon, pointing to the manner in which the eruptions of 1848 in Europe or the emergence of Russian anarchist violence had actually impeded the movement towards constitutional Government’.

This taboo on political violence didn’t extend to the Extremists. In Bayly’s words, ‘[T]he Maratha radicals lauded warrior sacrifice informed with knowledge while Tilak himself famously employed the Gita subtly to advocate the productive nature of political violence.’

In Western India, the nursery of Moderate politics, the futility of violent rebellion against colonialism had been demonstrated thrice: In 1844 in Kolhapur, where Shivaji’s distaff descendants tried unsuccessfully to rally the Deccan Chiefs; in 1857 in Satara, when in the wake of the Great Rebellion, there was an abortive attempt at svarajya, and in 1879, again in Satara, when a disaffected clerk, Vasudev Balwant Phadke, proclaimed himself the pradhan of Shivaji II. Our last rebel was sentenced to penal transportation for life and died in Aden. No one was foolish enough to rise again.

Excerpted from ‘The Anti-colonial Origins of the Idea of India’ written by Mukul Kesavan in Left, Right and Centre, edited by Nidhi Razdan and published by Penguin Random House, Rs 599




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