Is there a national question in India?
‘THERE was no basis for the emergence of nationalities before the British conquests,’ Irfan Habib, the well-known Aligarh historian, once argued, ‘because there was no trace of any emerging bourgeoisie.’ Habib’s is a stance that may be taken as typical of what goes by the moniker Marxism in South Asia, our part of the world. ‘And quite predictably,’ he was impelled also to add, ‘we find no trace of national consciousness in whatever is preserved in the regional literatures of the period’ (Habib 1975: 18).. Habib was nonetheless inclined to argue at the same time there was evidence of a nascent pan-Indian national consciousness long before the British intrusion, leaving only the task of making ‘loyalty to India supreme over all other territorial loyalties in the popular consciousness’ to the lived experience of British rule (Habib 1975: 16).
‘There is no doubt,’ writes Habib, ‘that there has been a consciousness of India as a country down the centuries. Partly, this is due to geography—the Himalayas and the western and eastern ranges separating it from the rest of the world. Partly, the Brahmanical culture with Sanskrit as the lingua franca, has given it unity in the eyes of the upper strata of society. Fourteenth-century poets like Amir Khasrau and Isami sang of the glories of Hindustan, of its riches, its beauty and culture. Their descriptions leave us no doubt that they meant by Hindustan the entire subcontinent of India (Habib 1975: 16)..
As Amir Khasrau and others had already had noted, a host of languages were spoken throughout the length and breadth of India by the fourteenth century. It is also well known that devotional songs were sung extensively in languages like Bengali, Awadhi, Braj, Panjabi, Marathi and others in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Habib however designates these all as ‘regional’ languages and these linguistic facts do not convince him to agree with an older generation of writers who found evidence of emergent nationalities in them. He would find the argument that the Indian economy before the British conquest contained any ‘germs’ of bourgeois development ‘questionable’, because such a view betrays confusing commodity production which developed to some extent then with capitalist production. Merchant capital grows and flourishes, Habib claimed, on the basis of pre-capitalist modes of production without bringing in any ‘change’ in the mode of production.
‘The pace of technological development in pre-British India,’ writes Irfan Habib, ‘was extremely slow and of no comparison to what was taking place in Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The manufactory regarded by Marx as representing the last stage before the crucial shift to ‘machinofacture’ (factory system), had not been developed in Mughal India. Above all, there was little or no market in the countryside for the products of the towns, which flourished in a parasitical manner upon the distribution of the agricultural surplus, obtained principally in the form of the land revenue by the ruling class. There was, therefore, neither a bourgeoisie, nor any urge to demarcate separate regions as domestic markets’ (Habib 1975: 17-18).
Since an economic basis for the creation of nationalities was thus ‘utterly lacking before the British conquests’ Irfan Habib would discount ‘the existence of regional languages and development of some of them into literary languages’ altogether as a fact. That fact, he says, ‘does not in itself signify the emergence of nationalities.’ ‘One would then have to date,’ according to Habib’s rhetoric, ‘the rise of the Tamil nationality to the Sangam Age. Similarly, should the emergence of Persian as a literary language about AD 1000 be taken to mean that Persia was then becoming a nation?’ In our good old historian’s universe such a thing is a dire contradiction in terms, an unthinkable monstrosity that is.
‘The emergence of nationalities in India,’ for Irfan Habib, ‘is thus a phenomenon subsequent to British conquests and one that accompanied the rise of the Indian bourgeoisie, for which the British rule created the necessary preconditions.’ This little presupposition, however, confronts our historian with a small contradiction. Historians know it very well that it was not in Bengal that the Indian bourgeoisie or whatsoever you call it first developed despite a rule of property for Bengal introduced before anywhere else in South Asia. Thus, citing old Stalin, our historian tries to save appearances. ‘Stalin said of the early phase of the development of the bourgeoisie in India,’ as Habib writes it, ‘that ‘in the case of India too, it will be found that nationalities till now lying dormant, would come to life with the further course of bourgeois development’(Habib 1975: 18).
Irfan Habib is eventually obliged to admit of a phenomenon he chose to call ‘the consciousness of Bengal as a nationality’ in the early part of the nineteenth century which cannot explain or rather explain away without contradicting himself. He thus re-invokes an argument he had initially to regret in the name of Marx. ‘Just as bourgeois ideology, once formed on the basis of development of bourgeois society in one part of the globe,’ Habib now asserts, ‘may anticipate bourgeois development in another; so too in India, it is quite possible that in a case like Bengal, the consciousness of Bengal as a nationality was the result initially of the implementation of modes of thought from Europe during the earlier part of the nineteenth century.’ ‘For India as a whole,’,‘it would be true to say that the loyalties to regional languages and cultures developed largely with the growth of the bourgeoisie in India during and after the second half of the nineteenth century’(Habib 1975: 18-19).
How did one of India’s many ‘regional’ languages, Hindi or Hindustani if you like, become ‘national’ eventually? Irfan Habib, not unlike a host of nationalists, resorts to an assertion instead. ‘The freedom movement,’ for him, ‘played a dual role in relation to the emergence of such regional consciousness. Inasmuch as it relied upon mass support, it could not but give great impetus to the politicisation of the content of literatures in regional languages, and it thus laid the foundation of nationality-consciousness. On the other hand, by invoking the greater loyalty to the Indian motherland in a united struggle against the British rule, it subjugated the urge of the peoples of the various regions for developing into separate nationalities’ (Habib 1975: 18)
Habib attributes the emergent phenomenon of an Indian ‘nation’ to the ‘big’ bourgeoisie’s account and pins sundry ‘nationality-slogans (linguistic states, regional reservations, preference for ‘sons of the soil’)’ to the cause of ‘the rising medium and smaller bourgeoisie’. He doubts if this smaller bourgeoisie have not seen so many ‘protective walls for themselves’ in such claims in the name of their nationalities. ‘The big bourgeoisie, on the other hand,’ Irfan Habib writes ‘can operate best with a highly centralised apparatus controlling the whole of India. This may explain the official opposition so long offered to the redrawing of the boundaries of British-Indian provinces on linguistic lines.’
Interestingly, as Habib finds it out by 1975, ‘conflicts between the big bourgeoisie and the other sections of the bourgeoisie have not in the main assumed ‘national’ forms in India. Even today not only is the nationality-consciousness extremely uneven in different regions; but the nationalities themselves have not generally fully developed’ (Habib 1975: 19). Such a lukewarm admission that certain nationalities also exist on the sidelines of an Indian nation gets lost in the climes of a corollary which finds no overlap between the big bourgeoisie and national oppression that obtains in India. ‘The emerging nationalities in India,’ as Habib plainly puts it, ‘had no common oppressor-nationality within India, either before 1947 or after’ (Habib 1975: 19). It’s a remarkable opinion, no doubt.
admirer for one, would more than agree with Irfan Habib on the question. Rejecting any characterisation of India as a multinational state or entity, Vanaik rather vociferously argued that what faces the bourgeoisie in India is not a ‘national question’ of the Marxist provenance; what confronts them is rather the problem of ‘nation-building’ or rather, to put it in bourgeois liberal terms, ‘the problem of national integration’, in the face of a variety of regional movements and pressures. (Vanaik 1988: 2279, 2283) ‘Such regional pulls are on the rise, not on the decline,’ admits Vanaik. ‘Regionalism,’ for Vanaik, gets partly resolved into ‘the dialectic of centralisation and decentralisation between the centre and the states, the devolution of power’. Through issues of linguistic (rational) reorganisation of states to the irrational desire of imposing Hindi as the ‘official language’, all would appear to be mere problems of national integration in this view.
Vanaik has, one the one hand, claimed that ‘India is very much a nation-state which in the Marxist sense has ‘solved’ the ‘National Question’. On the other hand, he also puts forward the argument that the Indian nation did not have a national question to solve to begin with. To wit: ‘In fact sub-national identities [i.e., non-hegemonic nations or nationalities] are often of as recent vintage as the national identities they are supposed to oppose. In the Indian case they can sometimes post-date the emergence of a national identity and be linked to the problems thrown up by the nation state’s attempt to promote national integration. That is, they are linked explicitly to the post-independence phase of capitalist development.’ Vanaik is not in favour of seeing them as historically growing identities, but at best as some competing ‘imagined communities’ of sorts. ‘National identity,’ Vanaik writes, ‘did not substitute for them but grew alongside.’ This, in his view, suggests no necessary opposition between subaltern nationalities and the hegemonic nation. On the contrary, it also reveals that processes of subaltern nations’ identity formation and those of the hegemonic formation are ‘largely distinct and separate’ (Vanaik 1988: 2282).
Vanaik denies a national (or ‘nationality’) question in India only to bring it right back in two forms. One form, of a wider dispensation, he encounters in those ‘regional’ movements or struggles which seek to gain ‘a more decisive say in the Centre, more local say through greater federalism and regional autonomy, or greater access to centrally organised (and sometimes, state organised) distribution of resources.’ The other, better known as ‘separatism’, he sees as posing the issue of complete independence. As ‘the guiding principle of consistent political democracy and the struggle for socialism’ Vanaik would admit that a ‘right to self-determination’ for an oppressed nation/nationality’ holds in India too but he nevertheless denies that an oppressor nationality in India exists but for the fact of a non-descript ‘Indian nationality’ and that ‘great Indian chauvinism’ to condemn. He thus finds it all the more difficult to justify causes of Naga and Sikkimese self-determination because their ‘national question’ is allegedly not perceived of as a collective ‘state of mind striving after a political fact’ but as an entity ‘discovered’ as a result of ‘a peopled territory fulfilling a formal set of criteria as to what constitutes a nationality or nation.’ Vanaik is, to be fair, critical of the CPI/CPM endorsing ‘though critically, the denial of Naga independence and the annexation of Sikkim.’
Other cases, for example the question of Khalistan, he finds even more problematic. He would compare it to Pakistan or worse. ‘So there is no justification,’ Vanaik writes, ‘for describing Khalistan as a nationalist movement or sentiment. But even if it were to reach such a stage it does not follow that communists would have to support its right to self-determination, a commitment that is contingent on an assessment of the movement’s democratic credentials, i.e., its aims, methods, motivations, the social forces behind it, and overall historical evaluation of the oppressed character of the community represented by the movement.’ Thus, in his opinion, ‘though it was legitimate to talk of a Muslim nationalism (in the sense of a political movement) before partition, it was not legitimate to support the formation of an intrinsically undemocratic confessional state (as the CPI did) based on the false principle that Muslims qua Muslims were an oppressed community, let alone a nationality’ (Vanaik 1988: 2282)
‘The nationalist struggle in Nagaland,’ Vanaik was assuring us by the late 1980s, ‘is a low-intensity insurgency whose protagonists are unable to translate wide sympathy from a war wearied Naga population into a qualitatively higher level of mass or even guerrilla struggle.’ ‘In addition,’ as he then put it farther, ‘the Indian government’s carrot and stick policy of pouring in development funds, consolidating a Naga elite and carrying out sustained and brutal repression has been largely successful in reducing the political aspirations of more and more Nagas from independence to autonomy and centre-sponsored development within the Indian union.’
India’s national question thus got solved, Vanaik concludes. ‘The central problem’ that remained in his view for ‘the Indian state and the ruling coalition’ was ‘regionalism’ or sundry demands for decentralisation. ‘The general factors behind the growth of tendencies towards greater decentralisation and regionalism,’ according to this sage journalist, ‘are the cultural and linguistic diversity of India; the inevitable unevenness of capitalist economic development; the growing strength of the agrarian bourgeoisie and the ‘intermediate classes’, i.e., the rural and urban petty bourgeoisie; and such political features as the growing electoral strength of opposition parties along with the deinstitutionalisation/- decline of the Congress’ (Vanaik 1988: 2283).
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, LLB Honors, 1978 and LLM, 1979) and economics in New York (New School for Social Research, PhD 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.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion