‘Indian nationalism is inclusive’
Perhaps, in the current national climate, readers will roll their eyes at an anthology titled Indian Nationalism, The Essential Writings, edited by the Aligarh Muslim University historian Irfan Habib. They know where he stands. His Wikipedia entry, peculiarly (and inaccurately), describes him as “being well known for his strong stance against Hinduism”. What Habib is against, he says on the phone, sounding a touch weary himself, is the nationalism of the moment—the strident, showy ‘Bharat mata’ worship and cultural bullying of the saffron masses.
It is “un-Indian”, he says, propagated “by people who believe in sloganeering, who speak without reading or understanding our past, who cherry-pick from history to justify or vindicate presentday politics”. Habib conceived, with his publishers, of the anthology almost as a corrective, “to put the evolution of Indian nationalism in perspective, to show how our founding fathers arrived at an inclusive nationalism.”
The RSS, Habib says, was incidental to nation-building, to the construction of India and the values it would seek to represent. “They questioned those values, challenged them since the 1920s,” he argues. “Anant Kumar Hegde,” he adds, “a minister in this government, let the cat out of the bag” by saying that the BJP had come into power to change the Constitution to reflect the stated RSS desire for a “Hindu rashtra”. We should see straight through the doublespeak of BJP figureheads like Yogi Adityanath and Narendra Modi himself, pretending to talk about development while stoking hatred, but the national conversation has been vitiated. This present phase, then, is a literal regression, a return to a moribund idea, a scabrous nationalism, he says, “that is built on division and exclusion and is being pushed by the state.” Pakistan is the Muslim expression of such a narrow nationalism, Habib points out. India was meant to be its opposite.
“I have deliberately avoided,” he writes, “including Veer Savarkar and Guru Golwalkar here as proponents of Hindu nationalism.” It is the grand, complicated thinking on display in this volume though—from Bipin Chandra Pal to Jayaprakash Narayan, via Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar et al—that has fallen out of favour.
Habib holds little hope for the recovery of the Left, leaving “secular, liberal politics” to a tainted Congress. Indeed, the words ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ have been turned into slurs—Nehruvian bien pensants who don’t have the courage of their convictions. But if anti-national is the current epithet of choice, those who believe in India’s secular Constitution, Habib asserts, should wear the insult as a garland.
Indian Nationalism: The Essential Writings Edited by S. Irfan Habib Aleph Book Company