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Book Review: Romila Thapar, A.G.Noorani, and Sadanand Menon’s ‘On Nationalism’

By Mosarrap H. Khan

Title: On Nationalism
Authors: Romila Thapar, A.G.Noorani, and Sadanand Menon
Publisher: Aleph Spotlight, 2016
Pages: 176

As I started reading this book, the gruesome Dhaka attack on 1 July bombarded our senses. In its wake, Zakir Naik, an Indian Muslim religious preacher, was shored up as one of the inspirations for the terrorists in Dhaka. The constricted Indian public sphere furiously debated about a possible ban of the preacher and investigation into his speeches. The Hindu right wing was particularly vocal about banning this televangelist who peddles a particular version of Islam which many see as incongruent with the more pluralist ethos of Indian society. (Disclaimer: I’m no fan of Dr. Naik. A religious preacher-hero is the last thing an embattled Indian Muslim community requires.)

Even as the debate about Zakir Naik unfolded, the Pakistani philanthropist, Adul Sattar Edhi, passed away, causing anguish among many in India. That a liberal segment in India, the supposed peace ‘warriors’, would lament his death is no surprise. What surprised me, however, is the way some of the same Hindu right wingers, who had been fuming against Naik, were condoling the death of another Muslim. I wondered if the Hindu right wing were impressed by Edhi’s supposed fluid religiosity that upheld humanism as its foundation, irrespective of religion, sect, and ethnicity. If humanism were the yardstick, however, Indian Hindu right wing would have celebrated many more Muslims in India than it presently does. On second thought, I remembered Edhi foundation’s important work in looking after and returning a Hindu girl, Geeta, who had gotten lost and strayed into Pakistan.

What if the girl was Muslim and not Hindu? Would our right wing chauvinists have displayed the same level of enthusiasm for Edhi? The conundrum of Indian nationalism at the current moment lies in nationalism’s easy conflation with a majoritarian religious affiliation.

The immediate provocation of Romila Thapar, A.G. Noorani, and Sadanand Menon’s collection of essays, On Nationalism, is the protests at the University of Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University and the NDA government’s inept handling of the situation, which bizarrely ranged from meddling into university affairs to the pressing of sedition charges against some of the students. The student protests in 2016 have undoubtedly generated important debates on Indian nationalism and its overt rightward turn.

In the ‘Foreword’, the publisher, David Davidar writes about the purpose behind publishing this book: “We need to constantly remind ourselves that the only way for India to survive and thrive is to continue to be the open, inclusive country that our founding fathers fought to bring into being, and that all of us inherited at birth. That is why this book is being published – to make its own small contribution to the ongoing debate” (viii).

On Nationalism, a collection of three essays by three prominent public intellectuals, is an attempt to grapple with questions of Indian nationalism from multiple perspectives – historical, legal, and cultural – in order to expose a systematic attempt to chip away at the founding principles of pluralism, tolerance, and inclusivity, despite the flaws in their practice. Romila Thapar tackles the question of nationalism’s need for a history and how that narrative has changed in recent times. A.G.Noorani provides a detailed history of the sedition law since colonial times, thereby charting the changing fate of a law and its relation to nationalism. Sadanand Menon delves into India’s gradual move from a national culture to an exclusive majoritarian cultural nationalism.


In “Reflections on Nationalism and History”, Romila Thapar writes that for people who grew up at the cusp of Independence, nationalism meant only Indian nationalism and “not Hindu or Muslim or any other kind of religious or other nationalism…Nationalism could only be Indian.” And this was based on shared history, interests, and aspirations expressed in a common culture drawn from multiple cultures. For Thapar, nationalism is an ethical attitude to fellow citizens with a commitment to economic growth and social justice, which must be the fundamental aim of a nation. These ideals were discussed extensively in the early decades after Independence.

Thapar’s essay is particularly intriguing in the way it maps the relation between nationalism and history and how nationalism depends on history for its ideology as the addict depends on poppy (to borrow British historian, Eric J. Hobsbawm’s words from Nation and Nationalism since 1780). Thapar writes that history has become a contested domain of struggle in India because the right wing forces have started reinventing the past to suit its own particular notion of Hindu Nationalism.

“History, as viewed by Hindu religious nationalism in its incarnation as Hindutva, is a simple narrative of Hindus having been the original inhabitants of the land known as British India, and therefore the rightful inheritors of the past. It is said that the Hindus once had a great and glorious past that was destroyed by Muslim conquers. Consequently, the creation of a Hindu state is projected as a legitimate return to a rightful inheritance. The unbroken descent of Hindu ancestry and religion (pitribhumi and punyabhumi) from earliest times, according to this school of thought, legitimizes the primacy of the Hindus in the present. It combines with this the construction by Friedrich Max Mueller, the Orientalist and philologist, of a superior Aryan culture and the Aryan foundations of Indian (read Hindu) civilization.”

Thapar astutely points out that the search of Hindu right wing for an unbroken, unchanging, and continuous Hindu past is a construction of colonial historiography in its early years. There were three fundamental elements in this colonial project of writing Indian history. First, in The History of British India (1817-26), James Mill periodized Indian history on the basis of religion: Hindu civilization, Muslim civilization, and the British period. The Census of 1872 further crystallized identities based on religion and Hindus came to be known as the majority community and Muslims and others as the minority communities. Second, pre-colonial political economy conformed to a mode known as Oriental Despotism, marked by an absence of private property and the presence of despotic rulers. The society was seen as static without any change and without a sense of history, until the British arrived. Third, colonial history cast Indian society into rigid caste hierarchies or varnas, and the society was seen predominantly as Vedic Brahminical.

The present day Hindu nationalism unwittingly buys into colonial interpretation of Indian history in the nineteenth century which harped on an innate hostility between Hindus and Muslims and Hindu victimization by Muslim rulers. At the same time, however, upper caste Hindu victimization of Dalits and Adivasis remains under scrutinized. Moreover, Muslim rule also engendered the flowering of a composite culture which produced Dhrupad, among others, a form of Hindustani classical music. Most importantly, such a view of Hindu history entails Judeo-Christianizing Hinduism or denying Hinduism’s internal differences. It ignores the complex relation of religion to society in India, especially the presence of various sects in Hinduism, other religions and their own forms of worship and rituals. The Hindutva project negates the complexities of religious and social practices in ancient times and tries to project a monolithic view of the past to suit its ideology of religious nationalism.


While Thapar’s essay explores the colonial construction of India’s past and the Sangh Parivar’s attempt at deploying this particular history for the cause of Hindu nationalism, A.G. Noorani’s essay, “Nationalism and Its Contemporary Discontents in India”, charts out the trajectory of the sedition law and explicates how a notion of exclusionary Hindu nationalism is practiced in the present by imposing colonial laws – Sedition Law, in this case – to punish those who are opposed to this notion of nationalism.

While the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, wanted the Sedition Law, Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, repealed because it was “highly objectionable and obnoxious”, the Supreme Court of India upheld Section 124A in 1962. In the colonial context, the main reason for the enactment of such a law was twofold: to crush political offence of Indians and to control the Press. While Section 124A had no place in the Indian Penal Code of 1860, it was later added as an amendment in 1870 on the model of the law in England. The law was defined thus: “Whoever…brings or attempts to bring into hatred and contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life…or with imprisonment which may extend to three years plus fine.” Noornai contends that Section 124A in India differed substantially from the one in England because in India it was couched in the language of racism, as the law considered the effect of seditious speeches “on the minds of an ignorant and excitable population.” This is a logic that still continues when the government of the day clamps the colonial law on university students in India.

Since the colonial powers misused the sedition law for silencing Indian nationalists, the framers of the Indian constitution were cautious regarding the law. Noorani writes:

“The framers of the Indian Constitution proceeded warily, only to arrive at a sound conclusion. The Draft Report of the Constituent Assembly’s Advisory Committee on Minorities, Fundamental Rights, etc., dated 3 April 1947, mentioned sedition among the grounds on which freedom of speech and expression may be restricted. The Drafting Committee also retained this ground later in 1947. In October 1948, it recommended the replacement of the words “or undermines the authority or foundation of the state” in Clause 2 with the words “or undermines the security of or tends to overthrow the state.” On 3 October 1947, the Drafting Committee had retained sedition as an offence in the Constitution. As did the Draft Constitution published in February 1948.”

However, because of Drafting Committee Member K.M.Munshi’s effort, the Revised Drafting Constitution of November 1949 omitted sedition by a deliberate decision.

In the initial years after Independence, the High Court judges struck down Section 124A in two cases – Romesh Thapar vs State of Madras and Ram Nandan vs State. In fact, in the Ram Nandan vs State case, a full bench of three judges at the Allahabad High Court unanimously held Section 124A to be void. One of the judges, Justice M. C. Desai held that, “the right to spread disaffection against the government or any other person is included in the right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution…danger to public order is not an ingredient of the offence.” However, Section 124A made a comeback in 1962 in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar case in which Kedar Nath, a member of the Forward Communist Party, was sentenced to one year’s rigorous imprisonment for his incitement to violent revolution. The British Sedition Law on which Justice Sinha based his judgement in the Kedar Nath Singh case had been abolished in 2009 in Britain. In India, the BJP-style McCarthyism (with the Congress doing their bit as well) tends to usurp free speech and the autonomy of universities by clamping Section 124A on dissenting students. Noorani calls for a sustained campaign in India to repeal such an obsolete law.


In their privileging of Indian nationalism over religious or communal nationalism (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, etc.), what Thapar and Noornai fail to point out is how a strain of Hindu nationalism was already present in Indian nationalism, spearheaded by the Congress Party. While discussing Indian national culture, produced at the time of anti-colonial struggle, Sadanand Menon’s essay, “From National Culture to Cultural Nationalism”, acknowledges how ideas of cultural superiority bred within it a strain of rabid, virulent idea of cultural nationalism. Menon writes:

“Cultural nationalism, by any definition, is a rogue version of nationalism which is already present in concepts of the nation state. Its cunning agenda is to evacuate all ideas of political rights from the idea of a nation state and transplant in its place ideas of cultural rights, obviously weighted in favour of concepts of primogeniture, racial purity and genetic ancestry as contained in ideas like janmabhumi or birthland/homeland and other emotive aspects that touch upon shared language, food and consanguinity. It is a highly charged area of irrational self-beliefs that give little credence to claims of history or any other kind of scientific research. It is an imaginary homeland constructed out of imaginary hurts, insults, wounds and defeats inflicted by imaginary enemies, who always belong to religions and regions not (you believe, are) your own.”

The project of cultural nationalism is founded on a notion of moral superiority and does not allow any ‘pollutant’. Menon provides an interesting example of the dance form, Bharatanatyam, which was practiced by the ostracized community of temple dancers (devadasis) as Sadirattam or Dasiattam. However, it was later appropriated as an upper caste cultural form. Once it made its way into the upper caste community, it was sanitized of erotic and shringara elements. Similarly, the Hindu right wing cultural nationalists discarded the pre-Hindu concepts of independent, autonomous women – Sakambhari (first seen on an Indus Valley seal) and Salabhanjika (Gandhara sculptures, Mathura) –and recast them as bearers of chastity and cultural purity.

Menon painstakingly illustrates how the space of culture becomes the first victim in the battle of cultural nationalists because the producers of culture always see issues of the day differently. That is why culture, more than politics, becomes a contested domain for exerting control over the social life of a nation. The Indian cultural nationalists acting independent of the state have ushered in an “era of an aesthetic of erasures” where destruction, instead of creation, evokes pleasure.


On Nationalism is a timely intervention in the ongoing debate about nationalism in India. In moments of national crisis, we must revisit the past ideals of inclusivity and pluralism on which Indian nation was conceived. However, just as the Hindu nationalists continuously reinvent the past to suit their exclusionary nationalist project, the contributors of this collection, too, seem to lapse into a nostalgia for an elusive inclusive past. Since the Nehruvian idea of India is now fractured along multiple sectarian affiliations, it would be perhaps worthwhile to ponder how one could pick up the shreds to produce a tolerant mosaic without subscribing to the narrow bigotry of the Sangh Parivar. This collection illustrates that one way to do this is by returning to certain ideals of our founding fathers. When the present is too much for us, the past becomes a utopia, an elusive land of hope and desire.

I would urge everyone to read this important book because historical amnesia is the surest way to a fascist future.

‘On Nationalism’ is available on Amazon India and Filpkart.

Mosarrap H. Khan
 is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English, New York University. He is an editor at Café Dissensus.


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