Tuesday, February 23, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Was Indian nationalism inclusive?


Opinion » Lead
February 23, 2010
Was Indian nationalism inclusive?
K. N. Panikkar
One of the weaknesses of the national movement was that it did not
have an effective programme to ensure the inclusion of the depressed
and socially excluded classes into the nation.

Inclusiveness is the catchword in the current political and economic
discourse, following the 11th Plan prescription to incorporate those
who have remained outside the margins into the mainstream of
development. This is a confession of the failure of democratic
governance, on the one hand, and of caste-class partisanship in the
process of nation building, on the other. It also testifies that a
substantial section has not yet come under the 'benevolent' umbrella
of the nation. In a highly differentiated society, inclusiveness is
indeed a process which takes place in three ways: politically through
common struggles, socially by overcoming internal social barriers and
culturally by identifying a common past by invoking indigenous
cultural consciousness.

The attempt at inclusiveness is riven with internal contradictions,
which account for the complexity, weaknesses and limitations of the
inclusive process and tensions within nationalism. The concept of
nationalism, in the Indian colonial context, becomes meaningful only
when looked at beyond the overarching relationship between colonialism
and the people, and the mutual relationship among different segments
of society is taken into account. Overcoming these differences was
integral to nationalism.

Inclusiveness, therefore, is a necessary strategy of nationalism, even
with contradictory interests finding a place in it. The attempts to
resolve the secondary contradiction within the umbrella of nationalism
do not overlook the primary contradiction with colonialism. In this
sense, the aim of nationalism was not limited to the attainment of
freedom but, as Gandhiji envisaged, had to lead to the creation of a
qualitatively different society, devoid of caste and religious
antagonism. To a deputation of students in 1934, Gandhiji said: "The
two things — the social reordering and the fight for political swaraj
— must go hand in hand. There can be no question of precedence or
division into watertight compartments here." Nationalism was thus
conceived as a combination of political freedom and social

What nationalism sought to achieve was togetherness. The very first
session of the Indian National Congress recognised it by identifying
its purpose as providing a platform for people to come together. What
brought people together were political struggles and public
agitations. The various streams within the movement with different
strategies and modes of struggles were efforts to ensure their
rightful inclusion in the nation. People, however, consisted of
diverse groups, castes, classes and religions with widely differing
interests. What was conceived as nationalism, therefore, was bringing
the people together, regardless of the differentiations. Although the
anti-colonial sentiment ironed out some of these differences and
interests, they were so diverse and sharp that the national movement,
functioning within a liberal framework, was not able to find an
effective solution. Therefore, India emerged not only impoverished due
to colonial exploitation but also socially divided.

That India was economically backward was not surprising, but the fact
that nationalism did not succeed in ushering in social and cultural
solidarity left a deep scar. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, architect of the
Constitution, underlined this failure in 1949: "We must make our
political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy
cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy… What
does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognises
liberty, equality and fraternity as the principle of life … On the
26th of January 1950 we are going to enter into a life of
contradiction. In politics we will have equality and in social and
economic life, we will have inequality." While pointing out the
political success of the movement by which 'people' became members of
a nation-state with democratic rights, Dr. Ambedkar was conscious that
nationalism did not succeed in creating inclusiveness in the social,
cultural and economic domains.

The roots of this failure can be traced to the early phase of national
awakening, which suffered from a disjunction between political and
socio-cultural struggles. To begin with, the renaissance which
prepared the ground for the emergence of nationalism dissociated
itself from political problems and, therefore, was unable to provide a
critique of colonialism which warped the nature of Indian modernity.
Most of the early renaissance leaders idealised development in the
West. Hence, their ability to envision an alternative was limited.
Later on, the national movement attributed primacy to political
struggles, despite Gandhiji's constructive programme and
untouchability campaign. Although both he and Tagore advocated the
importance of cultural politics, the national movement concentrated
its energies on political mobilisation.

Despite these early limitations, the importance of incorporating the
marginalised sections and thus creating an inclusive society was on
the agenda of nationalism. The different political formations which
participated in anti-colonial struggles with different programmes and
different social base were engaged in incorporating different sections
into the mainstream of national life through participation in the
anti-colonial struggles. Even when contradictions existed among them,
they were struggling for inclusiveness in the nation. The social and
cultural inclusiveness was sought through socio-cultural emancipation,
economic inclusiveness through class struggles and political
inclusiveness through political mobilisation. These three engagements
of the national movement cover the history of the liberation struggle
which was not limited to a direct confrontation with colonialism, but
also aimed at the modernisation and democratisation of society
although with limited success.

A major concern of the national movement was social inclusiveness. The
divisive and oppressive character of the Indian caste system was
antithetical to the spirit of nationalism and it was quite natural
that only social awakening could address this question. Gandhiji gave
equal, if not greater, importance to social issues and cultural
struggles. In Gandhian programme, therefore, abolition of
untouchability occupied a central concern. The ashrams Gandhiji set up
and lived in became a symbol of social equality and also meant a
subversion of the traditional, unequal social system.

The national movement was quite conscious of the importance of
inclusion of the traditionally deprived groups for the actual
realisation of the nation and initiated steps in social, economic and
cultural fields to create conditions conducive for them to identify
their interest with the nation. In pursuance of that, a series of
struggles was conducted covering social, cultural and economic lives.
Each one of them had the effect of creating a community, eventually
forming a part of the nation. Although these struggles increased their
social consciousness, none of them was sufficiently effective to
transform the life conditions of the marginalised, possibly because
these efforts were bridled by the interests of the 'upper' castes and
classes. The marginalised sections, could not, therefore, identify
themselves with the nation. They were sceptical and distrustful.

The consequence of this marginality was the emergence of movements
among the traditionally subordinated groups fighting to gain their
rightful place in society. That happened in all parts of the country
and among all depressed communities. Satyasodak Samaj in Maharashtra
in the 19th century, the Dravida Kazhakam in Tamil Nadu, the Sadhu
Jana Paripalana Sabha in Kerala and, indeed, the movement led by Dr.
Ambedkar are some examples. Emerging out of the oppressed sections,
they did not subscribe to the 'upper' caste urge for reform, of either
caste or religion, but stood for abolishing caste and superstitions
based on religious sanction. In the vision of Dr. Ambedkar, the
annihilation of caste was a necessary pre-requisite for social

One of the weaknesses of the national movement was that it did not
have an effective programme to ensure the inclusion of the depressed
and socially excluded classes into the nation. Whatever was attempted
in this field was very superficial inasmuch as it did not frontally
contest the power of the 'upper' castes and classes, the legacy of
which continues even today. That anti-colonial Indian nationalism was
not sufficiently inclusive is possibly one of the reasons why a
substantial section of the population is still not a part of the

The making of the Indian nation, as Surendranath Banerji envisioned,
can be complete only when nationalism becomes inclusive on a
democratic, secular and socialist foundation. In post-independent
India, this has remained an unrealised dream. Given the capitalist
hegemony over society and middle-class control over administration,
the present urge for inclusion may yet end up as another popular

(Based on the Foundation Day lecture delivered at Assam Central
University, Silchar. Author can be reached at knpanikkar@gmail.com)


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