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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .


Nationalism without a Nation in India
G Aloysius

(Dehli: Oxford University Press, 1998)
265pp. Index. Bibl. ISBN 0 19 564104 3.



India has always proved a difficult case for students of nationalism and the nation- state. On the one hand, it seems to provide the classic model of a nationalist movement which, despite the loss of Pakistan in 1947, successfully overcame British imperial rule.

The Indian National Congress represents the coalescence of a vast heterogeneity of social groups around a programme and symbols that won massive support both before independence and in the virtual referendum implicit in the first universal franchise election of 1952. On the other hand, it is clear that India is more of a multinational state than one in which state and nation are coterminous. For decades, separatists ranging from Nagas to Kashmiris to Sikhs and Assarnese have fought for full recognition of their national status. After all, if Bangladesh or Bhutan or the Maldives Islands could be considered nations, surely other candidates within India could also claim they met the criteria for nationhood? Despite such claims and frequent evidence of brutality, corruption and outright failure, India's electoral democracy, free press, independent judiciary, civilian-controlled military and other successes, have made the nation of Gandhi, Nehru and other "Indian nationalists" (what else can you call them?) a convincing reality.

But G. Aloysius denies the existence of an Indian nation for reasons other than those offered by separatists or those who advocate the concept of an Indian multinational state. Rather, he takes the point of view of "the submerged masses". For them, the first generation of nationalists - "a microscopic minority of mostly English educated men in Government service or engaged in new professions, drawn more or less exclusively from the Brahmin and upper caste communities" - could only articulate a nationalism that was traditional, sectarian and exclusive in its interests. This may sound like subaltern analysis, but Aloysius criticizes the subaltern school of Indian historiography for "working within an extremely narrow data-base, worn-out conceptions of nation and nationalism (as anti- Britishism) and refusing to recognise the culture-specific power configuration within society" (125fn). The Subalternists have ignored the political nationalism of hitherto excluded spokespersons from "the lower levels of social structure," most not belonging to the "traditionally literate communities".

Aloysius' list of excluded nationalists is largely from the south, including the famed Narayana Guru and E.V.Ramaswamy Naicker and a large number of lesser-known individuals, as well as other foes of the caste system such as Jyotiba Phule of Maharashtra, Mangoo Ram of Punjab or Swami Achchutanand of the United Provinces.

It is for Mahatma Gandhi and the "Gandhian synthesis" of Indian nationalism, however, that Aloysius saves his sharpest barbs. "His seeming poverty was built on Birla's plenty, his life of Brahmacharya was based on obsessive sex experiments, his posture of humility was coupled with the claim for exclusive access to Truth; he preached a politics of powerlessness and non-possession that did not brook rivals in leadership" (176). For Aloysius, Gandhi's was a nationalism without social change; it was even against social change and therefore opposed to the "nationalism of the masses." Gandhi was "almost completely insensitive" to the cultural differentiation within the subcontinent. Gandhi's vertical mobilization may have extended down to the masses successfully, but his nationalism "has to be seen as vanquishing the nation itself."

Whatever one may think of such an analysis, the unfortunate aspect of this book is that although Aloysius offers a trenchant critique of the nation that Gandhi and his predecessors fought for, he does not provide convincing proof that the nation of the "submerged masses" of India, if it were one thing, was ready to be born, capable of unifying India's diversities or powerful enough to defeat British imperialism. Nor has Aloysius analyzed the more credible claims to nationhood emanating from the previously mentioned secessionists - perhaps because among theni too he thinks the "submerged masses" have had little recognition.

Aloysius has succeeded in demonstrating that nationalism is more than a bourgeois phenomenon in India, but not that the nation that evolved during the nationalist movement or the nation-state that was created in 1947 and given a constitution in 1950 was somehow a mistake, or not the real article. Rather, like Indian society itself the Indian nation has been pluralist, protean, changing and vital - quite capable, really, of absorbing scholarly broadsides and moving on.


John R. Wood
University of British Columbia




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