Smokers' corner: The narratives of nationalism

Updated 24 Feb 2019

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.— Illustration by Abro
.— Illustration by Abro

In his 1934 book The Story of My Life, the early Hindu nationalist and author Bhai Parmanand laments that, when he visited the United States in 1914, many Americans asked him, “Are all Hindus Muslim?”

The Indian historian Gyanendra Pandey in his essay for the anthology, Hindus and Others, wrote that, even till the late 19th century, being a Hindu largely meant being an inhabitant of India, no matter what religion he or she belonged to.

Both Hindu and Muslim nationalisms in India have their roots in the aftermath of the failure of the 1857 War of Independence. Nationalism as an idea was largely foreign to both the communities. It was uncannily introduced in the subcontinent by the British. The eminent historian Ayesha Jalal, in her book Self and Sovereignty, writes that at least one of the reasons behind the emergence of Hindu and Muslim nationalism was the introduction of the holding of a nationwide census by the British, who insisted that the natives declare their faith.

Bhai Parmanand should not have been surprised by what the Americans asked him. The idea of defining the Hindus and Muslims as separate communities of India was still new to those living thousands of miles away. To them India was Hindustan, and its citizens were Hindu just as America’s citizens were American — be they Christian or otherwise. But Parmanand was aware of the fact that, unlike Islam, Judaism or Christianity, Hinduism was a dispersed faith which did not have a centre.

Formulating a cohesive narrative about Hindu nationalism and polity in india has been hampered by the reality of history

According to author and historian Craig A. Lockhard, in his book Societies, Networks and Transitions, Hinduism emerged over centuries as a synthesis and fusion of various cultures and beliefs which sprang up in the region. But this synthesis was more cultural and geographical in nature. It wasn’t tied together by a single, overarching theological thread.

The British scholar of comparative religion G.D. Flood writes in his tome An Introduction to Hinduism that the word ‘Hindu’ was first used as a geographical term in the Persian texts of 6th century BCE to describe people who lived beyond River Indus (in present-day Pakistan).

Flood also writes that the Persians formulated this word from the original local name of the Indus, which was Sindhu. According to Indian historian Romila Thapar, the term ‘Sindhu’ was derived from ‘Sapta Sindhu’ mentioned in the Rig Veda — a book of Sanskrit hymns composed between 1500 and 1200 BCE. The sapta sindhu is described as a river in the Rig Veda. The post-seventh century Arabs picked up on the word ‘Hindu’ first coined by the Persians to form the word ‘al-Hind’ or ‘Hindustan.’ By this they meant a region inhabited by the people of the Indus.

J.T. O’Connell, in his 1973 essay “The Word Hindu” published in Gaudiya Vaisnava Texts, writes that it was only in the 16th century CE that the word ‘Hindu’ initially emerged in the context of being a faith. According to him, it is described as a religion in the 16th century Bengali tome Chaitanya Charitamrita which uses the term ‘Hindu dharma.’

Pandey writes that to overcome this realisation, early Hindu nationalists claimed that a majority of non-Hindu people living in the region had originally been Hindu and were converted. On the other hand, also in the 19th century, early Muslim nationalists claimed that their ancestors were non-Indian and had roots in Muslim Arabia and Central Asia. But the early Muslim nationalists had an established monotheist faith to help them concoct a social and political link with Muslim-majority regions; early Hindu nationalists struggled to formulate a coherent history of Hinduism.

Whereas it was somewhat simpler for 19th century Muslim reformers of India to work with an established monotheist faith with an organised ‘history’ to express their cultural and political separateness, Hindu reformers had to start almost from scratch.

Therefore, early Hindu reformist organisations such as the Arya Samaj (formed in 1875) based their Hindu reformism on the idea that Hinduism, too, was a monotheistic faith which had just one God and that all other deities worshipped in India were just manifestations of this one God. The aim was to shape a dispersed cultural synthesis into an organised monotheist faith so that it could be used to form a cohesive Hindu nationalist narrative and polity.

In Modi’s India today, historians who hold the above-mentioned view are under attack. For example, a textbook authored by Thapar was removed from the curriculum. The book was replaced by one authored by Meenakshi Jain, a political scientist and a vocal supporter of Hindu nationalism.

Jain accused Thapar of trying to portray Hindu nationalism as a modern political construct which had no roots in antiquity. Then, there was the case of American historian James Laine’s 2004 book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India on the 17th century ‘warrior king’ hailed as an unmatched hero by Hindu nationalists. But Laine did not treat any of the myths related to the king as facts. A group of men belonging to the far-right Shiv Sena stormed the library where Laine had done his research. They broke its windows and doors and set fire to a number of books.

One of Laine’s Indian collaborators was thrashed and his face blackened. The BJP government decided to ban the book in India. In 2002, prolific historian Prof D.N. Jha completed his book Myth of the Holy Cow. Drawing from various historical sources, Jha establishes that the cow was not always sacred in what became Hinduism and that ancient Hindus regularly ate beef. He uses the word ‘ancient Hindus’ with caution because they were probably not called that at the time. To Jha, the issues of cow worship and beef in India today are more political and ideological in nature than theological.

After word got out about the contents of his book, its appointed publishing house was threatened. The publisher withdrew and Jha had to look for another publisher. The book was finally published, but Hindu nationalist groups demanded that Jha be arrested for heresy. As threats grew, Jha secretly left India.

The Muslim religious-nationalist narrative in Pakistan, too, has caused fissures. But ever since the 1990s, it has developed a less reactive tendency to absorb the counter-narratives which challenge the ‘mythical’ aspects of the religious-nationalist narrative. In India, the Hindu religious-nationalist narrative constituted a lesser part of the overall Indian nationalist narrative. It only began to assert itself in the late 1980s. Challenging it causes more bitterness and violence there — especially by that section of the polity which accuses the original Indian nationalist narrative of suppressing Hindu majoritarianism vis-à-vis the region’s former rulers, the Muslims.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 24th, 2019