The national question in India — Part I

by Salimullah Khan | Published: 01:05, Apr 04,2017 | Updated: 18:57, Apr 04,2017


‘We are not a nation, so much as a world.’ — Herman Melville (in Eisenhower 1965:485).

‘In the colonies the economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem.’ — Frantz Fanon (Fanon 1990: 31).

SOUTH Asia, to use a neologism for a subcontinent containing many nations and nationalities, contains more ‘competing nationalist sensitivities’ today and without any clear vision for an imminent resolution. India that was once known as ‘a people of no-nation’ is no longer there, nor can it be said to constitute a nation united against a foreign imperialism any longer (Thompson 1991: 16). In 1947 India gained her freedom but ‘lost her unity’, as Abul Kalam Azad once said so ruefully. The inheritance of the lands ruled by a British bureaucracy was divided into two patrimonies, India and Pakistan.
However, contrary to legends, neither Pakistan nor India became nation-states, in the sense of ‘one state for one nation.’ Pakistan broke up in time but Indian remained in place, even annexing certain smaller states to its body politic. Pakistan shows conclusively that not all is well with theories of nation-states known to liberal theories. In 1970-71 the experience of Bangladesh raised other questions, not limited to Pakistan, all the same. ‘Leaving aside the numerous claims to nationhood by various linguistic, tribal and ethnic groups,’ as P C Mathur, an Indian ideologue, put it once, ’the formation of (and break-up of) Pakistan have demonstrated the impossibility of effecting a perfectly harmonious adjustment between nationhood and statehood.’ ‘Pakistan,’ he added, ‘was not a perfect ‘One-Nation-One-State’ either in theory or in practice and nor is Bangladesh expected to conform to this criterion while India seems to defy analysis in terms of these categories’ (Mathur 1977: 442). Writing in 1977-78 our theorist, perhaps in view of the fact that India defies analysis, warned us that ‘there is a real danger’ of the ‘two-nation theory’, so-called, being replaced by ‘one-nation-one-state’ theory, ‘as far as India is concerned.’
‘Leaving aside the political postulates of the ‘Akhand-Bharat’ school, the weakening of Pakistan, which provided a sort of ‘third party insurance’ to Indian Muslims,’ the Indian theorist feared, ‘is bound to lead to growing pressures for internal purification of the Indian nation-state in terms of Indianisation or even Hinduisation.’ ‘The Indian record of inter-communal coexistence during the last 25 years has been quite impressive,’ this writer admitted, ‘but there is no gainsaying the fact that the existence of a powerful Pakistan “externalised” the issue of Hindu-Muslim discord and turned it into an Indo-Pak issue with the result that Pakistan and Pakistani Muslims rather than Indian Muslims became the primary target of attack of Hindu communalists. The break-up of the Pak military apparatus has provided an excellent opportunity to Hindu communalists to implement their theory of one-nation-one-sate within the boundaries of India (Mathur 1977: 442-43). The second objective, as far as the experience ever since Bangladesh shows, seems to found favour with the communalists.
But the event of Bangladesh contains other prospects too. Whether they will be cultivated is another story though. It represents a return of the repressed, a return to longer term historical trends of state formation in the age old subcontinent, a civilisation of many nations. Bangladesh shows the day, as Ahmad Sofa, active participant in the cause of Bangladesh and a pivotal political theorist, argued time and again that the coming of Bangladesh happens to be just such a harbinger (Sofa 2008-12).
There is no denying the fact that India passes today ‘through a deep crisis, if not the deepest ever’. ‘Social tension,’ as a concerned Indian put it at the turn of the century, ‘has perhaps never been more severe in our entire history. Communal relations have reached the nadir,—reflected glaringly among other things in the emergence of Muslim ghettos in the major cities, something that even the British, despite their policy of ‘divide and rule’, could not achieve. Caste wars in some parts have become endemic; revolt against established authorities is the order of the day everywhere; insurgency and violent secessionist movements are a common feature of our national life; law and order situation is out of control practically everywhere. As a result, no other democratic country has committed the might of its armed forces to quell internal disturbances or ensure domestic peace as often as India has done in the last few decades (Tripathi 2000: 937).

India: a nation in the making?
IN THE epilogue to India Wins Freedom Abul Kalam Azad makes a characteristic observation. ‘In fact the more I think about it the more I am convinced,’ Azad writes, ‘that the creation of Pakistan has solved no problem.’ ‘One may argue,’ notes India’s statesman-savant, ‘that the relations between Hindus and Muslims had become so estranged in India that there was no alternative to partition. This view was held by most of the supporters of the Muslim League and after partition, many of the Congress leaders have held similar views. Whenever I discussed the question with Jawaharlal (Nehru) or Sardar Patel after partition this is the argument they gave in support of their decision.’ Azad was not convinced of the wisdom of the decision. ‘If however we think over the matter coolly,’ he reasoned, ‘we will find that their analysis is not correct. I am convinced that the scheme I had framed on the occasion of the Cabinet Mission and which the Mission had largely accepted was a far better solution from every point of view. If we had remained steadfast and refused to accept partition, I am confident that a safer and more glorious future could have awaited us (Azad 1988: 247).’
From the point of view of defenders of Pakistan either the action was not a wise or correct one at all. Azad articulates their difficulty: ‘Mr. Jinnah and his followers did not seem to realise that geography was against them. Indian Muslims were distributed in a way which made it impossible to form a separate State in a consolidated area. The Muslim majority areas were in the north-west and north-east. These two regions have no point of physical contact. People in these two areas are completely different from one another in every respect except religion.’ The sage Azad tunes his argument a trifle finer: ‘It is one of the greatest frauds on the people to suggest that religious affinity can unite areas which are geographically, economically, linguistically and culturally different. It is true that Islam sought to establish a society which transcends racial, linguistic, economic and political frontiers. History has however proved that after the first few decades, or at the most after the first century, Islam was not able to unite all the Muslim countries on the basis of Islam alone (Azad 1988: 248).’
On the strength of this historical foundation alone Abul Kalam Azad goes on to predict fledgling Pakistan’s imminent demise. ‘No one can hope that East and West Pakistan will compose all their differences and form one nation. Even within West Pakistan the three provinces of Sind, Punjab and the Frontier have internal incompatibility and are working for separate aims and interests,’ Azad does not hesitate to predict with ten years of Pakistan’s coming into being. ‘Some people hold,’ Azad goes on adding, ‘that what has happened was inevitable. Others equally strongly believe that what has happened is wrong and could have been avoided. We cannot say today which reading is correct. History alone will decide whether we had acted wisely and correctly (Azad 1988: 248).
This piece takes this observation of Maulana Azad’s rather seriously. How to account for the observed difference, until now in any case, between Pakistan and India’s resolution of the national question? The Empire’s endgame yielded two successor states of imperial proportions, India and Pakistan. Azad predicted Pakistan’s breakup, of the second of the two, quite astrologically. And Bangladesh proved him right. Whatever happened to India, primus inter duo? How did she escape her neighbour’s destiny? Does the instance of Bangladesh, a nation state of course, than can be said to negate the ‘two-nation theory’ that much maligned daughter attributed often to Mohammad Ali Jinnah? A casual negation of that ‘two-nation’ theory, as seen in this instance, does not necessarily re-affirm the other, one-nation approach, however.
Bangladesh may, on the contrary, help the historian remember, repeat and work through the archives for a retrieval of the repressed. What has been repressed, namely the national question, may return with a vengeance even. The anxiety is manifest in much of the literature on nation building, on both right and left flanks of the high bourgeoisie in India. Fortunately, there are still a few voices around not yet hushed, if dimmed. Since when has India become a nation with a centre in Hindustan and regions around? Not even ever since 1947. Take for instance this incidence: In 1960 a conference of state education ministers recommended formation of a committee on national integration. The mandate of the committee, justly named “the Committee on Emotional Integration”, was in earnest to “study the role of education in strengthening and promoting the process of emotional integration in national life...” ‘The mandate,’ as Mathew Pandian also comments, ‘is thus a confession that Indian nation was not yet and it had to be invented’ (Pandian 2009: 65).
How does this Indian nation to be invented would look like in its time? The path to integration, as the Report of the Committee on Emotional Integration stressed, lies through combating a host of differences in identities, namely identities based on regions, languages, castes and religions, among other things, these being the chief threats to the young Indian nation. ‘Nationhood,’ as the Committee was insisting, ‘has a strong psychological basis and depends on the people concerned having had similar experiences and, what is no less important, interpreting them in the same way. If political and other events convey different meaning to different groups, they will continue to be a source of dissention and disintegration...’
In combating these demons of difference two tactics of national integration was recommended. The first tactic appealed to a putative uniform ‘Hindu memory’ in bridging the gap between the north and the south. It was, as it turns out, one job too many. In integrating the Hindus across two sides of the Vindhyas it not only reduces the south to the bottom end but perforce excludes non-Hindus out of the pantheon also. To wit: ‘One may recall the beautiful legend of Agastya, still the patron saint of the south, who crossed the Vindhyas from the north and never returned. Who does not know that though the Upanishads were uttered first in the forest asrams of the north, Vedic philosophy owes so much to the creative and critical exposition of it by Shankaracharya from Kerala? Ayodhya, Madura and Vrindavan in the north are places sacred to the memory of Rama and Krishna, but Rama’s journey across the south to Ceylon is deeply enshrined in Hindu memory, and pilgrim places like Kanchi and Rameswaram have equal claim to reverence’ (Pandian 2009: 66).
Advocates of north-south unity had no better tale to tell than this puree of myth and history in their repertoire. But it is at the same time a tale of hierarchy and exclusion, as Pandian argues so forcefully. That dissenters from south India would take with a grain of salt is only understandable. ‘The Dravidian argument,’ as Selig Harrison has it in his old book, ’is based on the very substance of Hindu mythology, and the Ramayana, so proudly hailed as a force for synthesis, became the basic text cited to establish Aryan iniquity. In Dravidian propaganda the southward march of Rama to the lair of King Ravana, abductor of Sita, is nothing less than the allegorical story of the triumphal Aryan progress over the original Dravidian inhabitants of India. To many a non-Brahmin Tamil, the legions of monkeys Rama encounters in the southern jungles to be none other than the Dravidians. Thus the epic is a racial insult before half told’ (Pandian 2009: 66).
A second tactic was called for in order to address unmistakable linguistic differences prevailing in India’s regions and also to inaugurate a right lingual hierarchy in place, i.e. to contain possible ‘sources of dissonance and disintegration’ across regions of India, if not to deracinate them all. ‘The question,’ in the Committee’s formulation, ‘still remains as to which Indian language, both for the sake of national pride and national sentiment, should be taught in all the schools of the Indian union as a common means of communication and as a common ground for the sharing of ideas, a language that is of the land.’ The answer, ‘Hindi’, is as good as predestined. In case one reasons why here is it: ‘Hindi is spoken by large sections of our people and a number of other languages spoken in India are closely allied to Hindi, as Hindi is allied to them; and therefore, adoption of Hindi as the common language of India would greatly facilitate the growth of a common medium of communication binding the whole country together.’ If the language question were to be so simple, India would perhaps have no national question to worry about. But the anxiety gives itself out: ‘the crux of the problem is to make learning of Hindi in non-Hindi areas practicable.’ The rule of majority in settling for a national language apparently does not suffice in India. It also calls for a rule of alliances, i.e. affinities among languages, again an alliance based on the primacy of Hindi. What is to be done about languages not allied to Hindi? One can then make an appeal to ‘Hindu memory’.
TWO tactics of national integration in India, namely Hindu as national memory and Hindi as national language, between themselves contain a contradiction best described by the Freudian notion of ‘over-determination’. We will return to this proposition later.
To be continued

Salimullah Khan is Director, Center for Advanced Theory and Professor, General Education Department. University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, Dhaka, Bangladesh. He studied law in Dhaka (Dhaka University, LL.B. Honors, 1978 and LL.M., 1979) and economics in New York (New School for Social Research, Ph.D. 2000). He worked on the theory money and central banking in England since the late eighteenth century. He presently teaches psychoanalytic theory and writes on problems of contemporary history on a world scale. Salimullah Khan’s publications include ‘Silence: On crimes of power’ (Dhaka: Samhati, 2009), a collection of political essays.

More about:

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email