There are broadly two specific ways in which social and political thought in India can be conceptualized. On the one hand, there is a relatively easier way of articulating the thought in a chronological format. This is a format in which the ideas are explained in a sequence underplaying the importance of the context in defining the ideas in a particular mould. Those supporting this type of conceptualization tend to focus more on the ideas per se and less on what lay behind them. Although it is a useful exercise, its academic utility seems to be limited for two reasons: (a) by following a purely descriptive mode, this exercise does not allow us to go beyond what is visible on the surface; and (b) the narrative mode is theoretically restraining because it fails to explain the moments when new ideas emerge as hegemonic replacing those ideas which lost their explanatory capabilities.
In contrast to this, there exists, on the other hand, another mode whereby ideas are articulated as part of the complex socio-economic and political processes that remain at the roots of their construction and evolution. Social and political thought, as per this conceptualization, is organically linked with interplay of factors involving society, economy and politics. What is significant in this mode is the critical importance of the milieu in which ideas get articulated. Especially in a colonial dispensation, the importance of the context is obvious for not only does it distort the natural evolution of a society, but it also seeks to swallow the prevalent oppositional ideas presumably because of their very nature. In such an explanatory mode, the complexity of the evolution of social and political thought is evident and clearly spelt-out.
Given the dialectical interaction between ideas and their context, it provides a persuasive theoretical format that is relative to the circumstances. Opposed to the foundational views of social and political thought, this is an approach giving space to the search for alternatives within a framework that adequately underlines the organic nature of ideas. Located within fluid socio-economic and political processes, ideas are always in constant flux and hence their fluid nature. Such a theoretical postulate allows us to both articulate and conceptualise social and political thought in the context of colonialism or any other value system with no organic link with the prevalent society.
Indian social and political thought is perhaps a vantage entry point to grasp the ideas that were a peculiar admixture of both conflicting and complementary ideas drawn on an alien value system at the behest of colonialism. It would also be wrong to simply accept that the well-entrenched ‘Indian’ values had no role to play in this process; in fact, it was a creative articulation of ideas that had an imprint of both the foreign and national influences. One may be persuaded by the fact that Indian social and political thought is a ‘derivative’ discourse given its roots in the Western philosophical tradition of ‘enlightenment’; but its articulation in the Indian context also suggests that by indigenizing these ideas, those who participated in the nationalist project during the colonial rule creatively constructed new set of models which were neither imitative of the west nor purely ‘traditional’ in its orthodox sense.
Indian political thought involves three relate issues of ‘nation’, ‘nationalism’ and ‘national identity’. For obvious reasons, these ideas constitute the foundation, as it were, of any nationalist discourse. Based on a specific experience, the thinkers engaged in this project, seek to articulate a voice which is neither absolutely derivative nor entirely de-linked with the context. In other words, the ideas are constructed, nurtured and developed within a social, political and economic milieu that can never be wished away in conceptualizing social and political thoughts. What is most determining in the entire process is the organic link with a particular reality that always leaves an imprint in the construction of ideas. The purpose of this introduction is to capture the complex inter-relationship between the ideas and reality in the context of exogenous but formidable influences of colonialism. Implicit in this process is the dialectics of social and political changes shaping ‘the mind’ of an age that simultaneously a point of departure and convergence with its immediate past. Presumably because the ideas that constitute ‘the core’ of new thinking are an outcome of a process which both the present and past seem to be important, they are creatively articulated underlining both the influences.
Conceptualizing nationalism is problematic. Identifying a nation is equally difficult. Scholars differ radelly as regards the nature of this phenomenon. Part of this reason is probably located in the peculiar socio-economic circumstances that contribute to the consolidation of nationalism as an ideology. Hence anti-colonial movements in different parts of the world are differently constituted and textured. Despite the obvious difference in its manifestations in different locations, nationalism is probably the most effective political instrument in political mobilization against colonialism. What brings otherwise the disparate masses together is a sentiment, articulated in the form of a nationalist ideology that transcends the barrier of different kinds for a cause in a particular context. Nationalism thus creates and sustains an identity by fusing the socio-economic properties of a community with its political and territorial habitat. Through cultural symbols underlining fraternity among a specific group of people, it also created probably the only credible basis for socio-political unity. By nurturing specific belief systems and displaying its ideas in popularly-tuned images, the ideology championing the aspirations of a nation sustains credibility despite odds. The power of nationalism probably lies in the fact that belonging to a nation provides a powerful means of identifying and locating individual selves in the world through the prism of the collective personality and distinctive culture.
In recent years, scholars have brought out several new dimensions of nationalism as a conceptual category. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities is a major intervention in the debate on the subject – with an argument that nations were not so much the product of specific sociological circumstances such as language, race, religion etc., but were imagined into existence. Nations seen as ‘ imagined communities’ appear to be a useful construct in underlining the homogeneity of interests of various sections of society in any struggle against colonial powers. While endorsing the basic premise of Anderson, Partha Chatterjee provides a creative interpretation of nationalism in the context of anti-colonial political mobilisation inIndia. Chatterjee accepts the basic premise about the essentially ‘invented’ nature of national identities and the importance of such factors as ‘print capitalism’ in their spread and consolidation. He however challenges Anderson’s assumption concerning ‘modular forms’ of nationalist intervention since it ignores the point that if modular forms are made available nothing is left to be imagined.
In Chatterjee’s formulation, Afro-Asian nationalism was based on difference and is therefore wrong to conclude that the nationalist discourse tha galvanized the masses into action was entirely derivative and heteronymous. It is true that the non-western leaders involved in the struggle for liberation were deeply influenced by European nationalist ideas. They were also aware of the limitations of these ideas in the particular socio-economic contexts of Africa and Asia due to their alien origin. So, while mobilizing the imagined communities for an essentially political cause, they spoke in a ‘native’ vocabulary. Although they drew upon the ideas of European nationalism, they spoke in a ‘native’ vocabulary. Although they drew upon the ideas of European nationalism, they indigenized them substantially by discovering or inventing indigenous equivalents and investing these with additional meanings and nuances. This is probably the reason as to why Gandhi and his colleagues in the anti-British campaign in India preferred swadeshi to nationalism. Gandhi avoided the language of nationalism primarily because he was convinced that the Congress flirtation with nationalist ideas in the first quarter of the twentieth century frightened away not only the Muslims and other minorities but also some of the Hindu lower Castes. This seems to be the most pragmatic idea one could possibly conceive of in a country like India that was not united in terms of religion, race, culture and common historical memories of oppression and struggle. Here is located the reason why Gandhi and his Congress colleagues preferred the relaxed and chaotic plurality of the traditional Indian life to the order and homogeneity of the European nation state because they realized that the open, plural and relative heterogeneous traditional Indian civilization would best suit Indians. In view of the well-entrenched multi-layered identities of those identified as Indians, the drive to revitalize the civilization of India was morally more acceptable and politically more effective.
Political freedom from the British was necessary not for conventional nationalist logic but because it choked and distorted India’s growth as a civilization. Such an argument probably explains why the Gandhi-led nationalist movement contained essentially ‘Indian’ features. Drawing upon values meaningful to the Indian masses, the Indian freedom struggle developed its own modular form which is characteristically different from that of the west. Although the 1947 Great Divide of the subcontinent of India was articulated in terms of religion, the nationalist language-drawing upon the exclusivity of Islam-appeared absolutely inadequate in sustaining Pakistan following the rise of Bangladesh in 1971.
India was not a nation in the stereotypical sense as it lacked the classical ingredients of nationhood. Yet, there were constant endeavours during the colonial rule to attain nationhood on the part of those seeking to articulate ‘nationalist aspirations’. The process that contributed to the constitution of the nation began in an earlier phase of cultural contestation through various social and political reform movements. There are three major ways in which this process got articulated. First, the appropriation of the popular that was translated in efforts to develop national culture without seeking to homogenize the nation that was not united in the European sense. Since the popular was conceptually pervasive, the nationalist thinkers generally sought to articulate their arguments in popular terms. Swadeshi was perhaps the most ideal expression to gain maximum political mileage in a context when the conventional nationalist logic seemed to be divisive. The second way was ‘classicisation’ of traditions whereby attempts were made to create a history of the nation. By drawing upon ‘the historical memories’, the past of the nation was sought to be captured in the form of a history. A classicization of the past involved appropriation of the so-called ‘Indian tradition’, including such overtly anti-Brahminical movements as Buddhism, Jainism and the various deviant popular sects. Islam could not be accommodated in this tradition since it was an alien religion and had also an alternative tradition. Islam’s contribution to the history of the nation was recognized merely as ‘a foreign element’, domesticated by sharing the so-called classical past of the nation. The third way concerns the structure of the hegemonic domain of nationalism where colonialism was never allowed to intervene. The contradiction between the colonizers and colonized clearly separated their respective domains. On this basis, anticolonial nationalist struggle created its own domain of sovereignty confronting the imperial power. This is usually explained in a theoretical format dividing this domain constituted in the economy, science, technology and statecraft in which the West proved its superiority and the East had ‘succumbed’. There was however an inner domain drawn on the unique spiritual and cultural resources of the East. Although the West was politically dominant its role was marginal in the inner domain presumably because of its failure to comprehend the complexity of the spiritual and cultural world of the East. This had a significant consequence. With growing influence of the West in the public sphere, the nationalist project was sought to be strengthened by looking more and more at the inner domain. By drawing upon the spiritual and cultural strength of the imagined nation those seeking to identify its ‘distinctiveness’ vis-à-vis the West initiated a process that loomed large particularly in the twentieth century when Gandhi organized a mass campaign by underlining the role of a colonial power in undermining India’s age-old ‘civilisation’. Similarly, Tilak’s critique of the 1890 Age of Consent Bill is therefore a part of wider nationalist agenda seeking to protect the distinct Hindu identity of which caste remains a non-negotiable dimension. In his perception, the bill struck at the foundation of caste and the Sudharaks undermined ‘the power of caste panchayats’ by allowing the colonial ruler to intervene in an exclusive domain of Hindu society and hence it needed to be resisted.
Indian social and political thought is contextual. Hence, a uni-linear explanation of its evolution can never be tenable. Ideas metamorphose in response to the milieu contributing to their germination. Under colonialism, the role of the alien power seems to be a significant determinant in the articulation of the ideas which can either be ‘oppositional’ or ‘supportive’ of the regime it creates. So, the changing nature of the ideas is largely an outcome of this process involving the ‘incipient’ nation and its bête noire, the colonial power. This invariably draws our attention to an interplay in which society, economy and polity interact with each other in a very complex manner obviously under the paradigm of colonialism. For analytical purpose, one can theoretically distinguish two phases of Indian nationalist movement. The first is roughly described as pre-Gandhian phase while the second phase is known as Gandhian phase when the Mahatma reigned supreme both in conceptualizing and articulation freedom struggle. Following the rise of Gandhi, the nature of the nationalist intervention had undergone dramatic changes. Nationalist articulation in this phase was neither ‘elite actions’ of the Extremists nor ‘constitutional reconciliation’ of the Moderates but the growing importance of the mobilized masses where the Gandhian voice appeared most crucial.
Within this broad typology, one can also think of further classification of the Indian nationalist thought in terms of separate ‘ideological moments’. According to Partha Chatterjee, nationalist thought in India has three well-defined moments which are defined as moments of ‘departure’, ‘manoeuvre’ and ‘arrival’. The moment of departure epitomizes an encounter of a nationalist consciousness with the framework of knowledge, created by post-Enlightenment rationalist thought. It contributed to an awareness – and acceptance as well – of the basic cultural differences between East and West. Accepting that the European culture was superior to the traditional East. The thinkers like Bankim, Dayanand or Phule were in favour of adopting the modern attributes of European culture to strengthen the disparate collectivity, vaguely defined as ‘a nation’. The second phase of the nationalist thought is known as a moment of manoeuvre because of the capacity of the nationalist leadership to govern the articulation of the nationalist thought in terms of its own priority. One of the distinguishing features of this period was the prevalence of several ideological possibilities. Not only was Gandhian ‘non violence’ dominant, there were multiple ideological constructs, this was an interesting phase when national political thought was perhaps most complex for obvious reasons. Apart from competing ideologies which tried to nurse specific constituencies, Gandhi’s swadeshi was also an all-embracing ideological platform where nationalists of all shades came together. This is why Gandhi was most significant in this phase. The moment of arrival is when nationalist thought attains ‘its fullest’ development. It becomes a discourse guiding the socio-economic development of the young nation that gained political salience in its struggle against the alien power. The nation articulates itself in an unambiguous voice, as it were. Glossing over the ideological divergences, nation was now engaged in developing a unified life-history that was hardly challenged due presumably to the ‘hegemonic’ influence of what was defined as ‘common concern’. Jawaharlal Nehru is probably the most powerful thinker in this phase when the idea of a nation or state was both articulated and consolidated within this mould. Nationalism therefore became a state ideology by clearly guiding the incipient state to an ideological goal that was peripheral in both the earlier phases.
The evolution of nationalist thought needs to be contextualized in the larger social processes in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The two most obvious ones are nationalism and democratization. In the context of the first, the question that deserves careful attention is why do communities seek to redefine themselves as nations. What mark of distinctiveness does being a nation carry and as a corollary, what is denied to a community and its members if they do not claim their status as a nation? After all, the obsessive desire of communities to claim the status of nations or to define India as a nation is historically conditioned and textured. Simply put, after the late nineteenth century the claim to any form of self government was shelved so long as it was not articulated as the claim of a nation. Colonial sovereignty in part rested upon denying that India was a nation. The nationalist project was not simply something-that the elite dreamt up to define others in their image, but it sought to identify and highlight the distinctive features of a population to justify its claim for nationhood.
The belief in an Indian nationhood as a historical fact was based on western models. But it ‘was also an emotionally charged reply to the rulers’ allegation that India never was and never could be a nation’. The construction of even a vaguely defined Indian nationhood was a daunting task simply because India lacked the basic ingredients of conventionally conceptualized notion of nation. There was therefore a selective appeal to history to recover those elements transcending the internal schism among those who were marginalized under colonialism. Hence, an attempt was always made in a concerted manner to underline ‘the unifying elements of the Indian religious traditions, medieval syncretism and the strand of tolerance and impartiality in the policies of Muslim rulers’. So the colonial milieu was an important dimension of the processes that led to a particular way of imagining a nation in a multi-ethnic context like India which is so different from the perceptions, based on western experience. The political sensibilities of Indian nationalism ‘were deeply involved in this highly atypical act of imagining’.
Apart from colonialism, the major factor that contributed to the formation of a political entity that was India was the freedom movement. It is therefore no exaggeration to suggest that the Indian consciousness, as we understand today ‘crystallised during the national liberation movement’. So national ‘is a political and not a cultural referent in India’. This perhaps led the nationalist leaders to recognize that it would be difficult to forge the multi-layered Indian society into a unified nation state in the European sense.
The early nationalist responses were, for instance, highly fractured in diametrically opposite ways. While the Moderate viewpoints were articulated in opposition to the British rule in a strictly constitutional manner, the Extremists, by simply paying no heed to this, experimented with a completely different method of anti-British campaign in which violence was justified as well. The idea of ‘independence’ dawned on them though their definition of ‘nation’ did not appear to have reflected the highly diversified Indian society. For instance, the lukewarm attitude to the Muslims followed their interpretation of the Islamic rule as ‘barbaric’. Yet, there was ambivalence in characterizing the Indo-Islamic phase of Indian history. In its later conceptualization, radicalism however was defined to incorporate the Muslims as well presumably because of the impact of Gandhian mass politics. With the rise of the Muslim League in 1906 and the increasing role of religious schism in nationalist response, Muslims grew in importance not only in the British-initialed constitutional arrangement but also in the nationalist political articulation. The other dimension that gained political mileage was the nationalist urge to incorporate the hitherto neglected sections of society, namely peasants and workers. Drawn on their faith on ‘national democracy’ the radicals of the Gandhian period sought to mobilize both the peasantry and workers within, of course, the broad nationalist paradigm of anti-British struggle. What it suggests is the growing complexity of radicalism as a socio-political goal as well as its ideological components, which were contingent on the milieu in which it was articulated.
Nationalism is therefore not only a political method but it is also about fashioning ‘self-representations’. While the Hindu identity governed the political discourse in the first phase of radical politics, the complex national identity, inclusive of both religious and other vertical divisions within different religions, figured prominently in later radical conceptualization. Not only were ‘the subalterns’ sought to be mobilized, but there were also attempts to avoid ‘the nationalist language’ that tended to homogenize the nation ignoring the socio-cultural distinctiveness of religious communities. Drawn on the dichotomy between nationalism and communalism, the early nationalist argument contributed to a nationalist ideology that was an upshot of a search for alternative which was neither derivative nor purely indigenous.
Realising the conceptual limitation of nation as a category for political mobilization in a fractured society like India, the radical thinkers put forward an innovative formula seeking to expand the nationalist domain by linking regional issues with their pan-Indian counterparts. This resulted in two types of complementary responses: on the one hand, it created awareness among the people in various parts of the country though not always affected in the same degree of the exploitative and anti-Indian nature of British rule which, on the other, linked the regional aspirations for political freedom with the national campaign. In such a process where regional issues became national, the unifying role of the British administration was no doubt significant. The process was not without friction however. But, the internal ideological struggles produced probably the most complex and non-western construction of nation and nationalism. As evident, a claim to difference and at the same time appreciating the western deals of reason and humanism seemed to have figured prominently in the radical search for ideological alternative. Past was given great descriptive salience so long as it served the present purpose. So, it was not surprising for the early nationalists like Rammohan, Bankim or Dayanand that the Hindu past was preferred to the Islamic past in accordance with an ideological design that had a natural appeal to the majority Hindu community.
By ideologically dissociating from the ‘mendicant’ nationalism of the first generation of Congressmen, the Extremist thinkers made the nationalist discourse ‘highly masculine’. Whether it was social radicalism of Jotirao Phule or Rammohan or political radicalism of Bankim, Aurobindo, Bipin Chandra Pal or Tilak, what ran through their writings was an aggressive stance on both social and political issues. Based on opposition, the radical nationalist discourse was articulated in two distinct, and yet complimentary, ways: First, the ideologues of social radicalism expressed their resentment, in categorical terms, against ‘distorted’ Hinduism while those with politically radical views suggested inspirational ‘elite-action’ plans as illustrative of the masculinity of the nationalist endeavour. It was not therefore surprising that both Rammohan and Phule argued strongly against the archaic Hindu social customs that, inter alia, privileged the upper castes as against those at the bottom of ‘an artificial’ social hierarchy in the name of the so-called religious purity. Similarly, issues like widow remarriage or education of girls that Phule took-up clearly indicated the extent to which they were grounded on an urge for dramatically altering the prevalent social norms and value systems despite strong opposition from those supporting the status-quo. Even the arguments that Phule made to defend Ramabai’s conversion to Christianity were an aggressive critique of Hinduism that completely lost its vitality by the distortions, made by the Brahmins to sustain their hegemony in society. Secondly, radical nationalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries underlined its ‘masculine’ character by encouraging violence against the rulers. This new stress was best represented by some of the most impotent forms of protest against colonialism, [such as] the immensely courageous but ineffective terrorism of Bengal, Maharashtra and Punjab led by semi-westernised, middle class, urban youth. Despite its failure to attain the goal, radical nationalists sought to redeem Indian’s masculinity by their aim to defeat the British even by resorting to violence.
So, radical nationalism in its various forms not only influenced the course of freedom struggle but also contributed to its conceptualization. Central to this articulation was a concern for change-whether in the social, cultural or political front. Radical thinkers inspired the nation by drawing upon its distinct socio-cultural identity while their political agenda was informed by an urge to get rid of oppression of any kind. For the early nationalists, it was the ruler – whether the Mughals or their successor, the British – that was the principal target; for the later radicals especially in the Gandhian phase, apart from the alien government, their attack was also directed against the landlords and industrialists as well. What it shows was not only the changing ideological contours of radicalism but also its expanding scope that took into account the gradual extension of the constituencies of nationalist politics. So it would be wrong to characterize radicalism as an example of ideological dilution because it was, for obvious reasons, hardly a static conceptual formation. Instead, given its dynamism, radicalism was, as shown above, a creative formulation both as an oppositional method of struggle and a device to ideologically combat the prevalent conceptualizations of nationalist politics whether in its militant or non-violent form.
The second broader context that appears to have decisively shaped the nationalist thought is democratization. What sort of ‘unity’ does democracy require? After all, it was a staple of liberal discourse (J.S. Mill, for instance) that democracy could not flourish in multi-ethnic societies. The important thing about Jinnah and Savarkar is that they were deploying precisely the liberal argument about why a unitary nationhood is necessary for a modern polity. And then, they provided their own interpretations of how this was to be attained. Second, democracy complicates the problem of ‘representation’, what is being represented and on what terms? After all, the divisions between the Congress and Muslim League turned on issues of representation. This is however not to suggest that the state created two monolithic communities and these communities came into being through ‘the politics of representation’ since the relationship between identity and democracy is far deeper and complex than it is generally one’s agency and creating new forms of collective agency. In this sense, they are part of the democratic ferment – where people want to fashion identities for themselves. This process will happen at all levels with a complicated relationship between the levels.
Furthermore, democratization is both inclusive and exclusive as well. Inclusive because it unleashes a process to include people, at least theoretically, regardless of class, clan and creed; it is essentially a participatory project seeking to link different layers of socio-political and economic life. As a movement, democracy thus, writes Charles Taylor, ‘obliges us to show much more solidarity and commitment to one another in our joint political project than was demanded by the hierarchical and authoritarian societies of yesteryears’. This is also the reason why democratization tends towards exclusion that itself is a by-product of the need of a high degree of cohension. Excluded are those who are different in so many ways. We are introduced to a situation where a communal identity can be formed or malformed in contact with significant ‘others’ generally projected with ‘an inferior of demeaning image’.
The 1919-21 Non Cooperation-Khilafat Movement is illustrative here. By a single stroke, both the Hindus and Muslims were brought under a single political platform submerging, at one level, their distinct separate identities. At another level, this movement is a watershed in the sense that these two communities remained separate since they collaborated as separate communities for an essentially political project. So, the politics of inclusion also led towards exclusion for the communities which identified different political agenda to mobilize people.
In the imagination of national identity, both these forces of nationalism and democratization, appeared to have played decisive roles. Nationalism as a concerted effort was not merely unifying, it was also expansive in the sense that it gradually brought together apparently disparate socio-political groups in opposition to an imperial power. The character of the anti British political campaign gradually underwent radical changes by involving people of various strata, region and linguistic groups. The definition of nation also changed. No longer was the nation confined to the cities and small towns; it consisted in innumerable villages which so far remained peripheral to the political activities, generated by the freedom struggle. Whatever the manifestations, the basic point relates to the increasing awareness of those involved in nation-building both during the anti-imperial struggle and its aftermath.
The construction of national identity has thus to be viewed in the context of a search for nationhood by those who apparently felt threatened under the prevalent socio-economic configurations. For instance, one of the first serious attempts to establish the Indian Muslims as a separate national community was made by Rahmat Ali. Although Rahmat Ali clearly articulated the demand for ‘a separate national status’ for the Muslims, the 1916 Lucknow Pact appears to be the first well-defined attempt in this direction. In his earlier incarnation as the member of the Congress, Jinnah underlining the distinctiveness of the Muslims as a community defended separate electorates for them as ‘the only mechanism’ to defuse inter-community tension. Such Muslim leaders were clearly in favour of separate electorates for the Muslims for protection of their distinct identity as compared with the Hindus. It was therefore easier for the British to pursue a policy that culminated in the 1932 Communal Award. Not only was the Communal Award an institutional device to split the Indian communities on grounds of religion, it was also an obvious choice for the British given the fact that Indian society is essentially a congregate of widely separate communities with divergences of interests and hereditary sentiments which, for ages, have precluded common action or local unanimity. The 1932 scheme was the culmination of a series of efforts, undertaken by the Muslim leadership to ascertain both the distinctiveness of the community and thus the extent to which it was separate from the Hindus. In the context to the new political arrangement following the adoption of the 1935 Government of India Act, the communal equations appeared to have significantly influenced the course of India’s freedom struggle. A.K. Ghuznavi, a prominent Muslim leader, in his memorandum to the Simon Commission, 1927, emphasized that as the Muslims permanently in a position subservient to the Hindus’. Jinnah’s Fourteen Points Programme was the formulations of the above in concrete terms. These points, inter alia, demanded that all legislatures in the country and other elected bodies should be reconstituted on the definite principal of adequate and effective representation of minorities in every province without reducing the majority of any province to a minority. The representation of communal groups had to be governed by means of separate electorate. So, what was articulated in the 1932 Communal Award was nothing but a well-prepared design to strengthen the argument that since Muslims were a separate community with a distinct identity their claim for a separate status within the British India appeared most logical.
Constituted by fifteen units, this course is organized around major themes in Indian social and political thought within a chronological sequence. Since the dividing line between social and political is very thin in the context of nationalist thought, one must not stretch the distinction literally. In other words, nationalist thought contains elements of both social and political in its articulation. It would therefore be wrong to categorise ideas or thinkers as purely social or political since they are enmeshed in a very complex manner to take a concrete shape. So, those identified as social reformers in the context of the nationalist movement had a clear political goal because social regeneration was at the root of any successful political mobilization against a colonial power. By challenging the religious orthodoxy, Rammohan Roy tried, for instance, to scuttle the divisive tendencies in Hindu society. In order to build a socially cohesive and emotionally vibrant collectivity, Roy seemed to have underplayed his concern for political freedom. His appreciation for the British was governed by his critical admiration for the philosophy of Enlightenment that accompanied the colonial rule in India. So, Roy’s critical response to the Company rule was an offshoot of an era that was still uncertain over the nature of an alien administration at the behest of the East India Company. What ran through Roy’s socio-political ideas appeared in Bankim and Dayanand Saraswati and others confronting the growing importance of colonialism. It is debatable whether they were primarily social reformers as some analysts tend to characterize them presumably because they were not entirely de-linked from the contemporary political questions relating to the devastating nature of colonialism. Furthermore, that they expressed concern over the relative weaknesses of ‘the nation’ vis-à-vis the British due to religiously-justified and socially-endorsed superstitions, introduces a clear political tone to their ideas and thoughts. The priority for them seemed to develop ‘a strong’ nation to confront a foreign power that colonized India by virtue of their socio-political strength. What guided them was based on their assessment of a reality that was still unfolding.
The story is more or less the same among certain section of Muslim thinkers who equally appreciated the ‘modernising’ zeal of the British Empire. Syed Ahmad Khan considered, for instance, the colonial rule as a significant influence on the orthodox Muslim society. Given his reformist stance, it is clear as to why he opposed the 1857 Revolt because of its drive to bring back the feudal authority of the past rulers. His admiration for the British rule was based on unstinted belief in the importance of the foreign rule in laying the foundation of a new society based on modern scientific knowledge. Like Rammohan Roy, he favoured contact with the West as a significant step to ‘modernise’ the Indian society. In this regard, the formation of Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, which later became Aligarh Muslim University, served a useful role. As the discussion in the text shows, the socio-political processes of colonialism had a decisive bearing on the articulation of social and political thought in modern India. Whether Hindus or Muslims, the trend remained almost similar in the sense that the response was always guarded while commenting on colonialism and its increasing role in changing India’s social and political fabric.
The British India underwent radical transformations in the twentieth century. In a nutshell, there are three major characteristics of the period that appear to have influenced, if not determined, the way in which social and political thought is both articulated and conducted. First, nationalism underwent radical changes as a result of the link between peripheral struggles with the centrally organized Congress-led freedom movement, as evident in the Non-Cooperation-Khilafat Movement. Secondly, in organizing movements, activists with political affiliations of whatever kind faced serious challenges, based sometimes on ideological differences, sometimes on communal division; the latter, in fact, became decisive in causing a permanent fissure in the nationalist political platform. Both Hindu and Muslim leadership drew on religion to gain politically under circumstances when individual identity was uncritically conceptualized and strongly defended in terms of religious affiliations disregarding other probable influences in its construction. Thirdly, in the development of the nationalist ideology, several competing ideologies, not always properly articulated, had significant roles representing the views of those in the periphery. For instance, the Congress, especially in the aftermath of the Non Cooperation Movement, formally recognized the importance of the peasantry and workers in anti-imperial movements. Although the agenda of the periphery was accommodated in the all-pervasive nationalist ideology, it was never decisive in the articulation of nationalist response that was largely, if not entirely, codified around the anti-British sentiments. In other words, the nationalist ideology prevailed over other alternatives, which if allowed to flourish, would have probably fashioned the struggle for freedom differently. Despite various possibilities, Indian freedom struggle continued to remain largely ‘nationalist’ in which the goal other than resistance to a colonial power was not sincerely espoused presumably because it would dilute the campaign for independence. In India’s freedom struggle, nationalism as an ideology never sought to create a nation state but was primarily an ideology inspiring a subject nation to fight for independence. The nationalist movement was thus structured around ‘freedom from British rule’. Foreign rule was unacceptable not for any conventional nationalist reasons, but because it choked and distorted India’s growth as a civilization.
As evident, Gandhi emerged on the political scene in dramatically altered socio-economic and political milieu. Hence it would be difficult, if not impossible, to characterise Gandhi in a straight-forward manner. In fact, Gandhi is an enigma. Although he had written extensively on various themes pertaining to India’s socio-economic and political life, it is difficult to search for a well-argued thesis in Gandhi presumably because there are areas in his thought that often project a different Gandhi altogether. In order to deconstruct Gandhian thought in the perspective in which he was involved in a gigantic nationalist struggle of the twentieth century what is probably incumbent is to assess Gandhi in two different ways: first, relating Gandhian political ideas to the actual anti-British onslaught that began with the 1920-2 Non Cooperation Movement and culminated in the 1942 Quit India campaign in which Gandhi reigned supreme. Secondly, there were events, more significant perhaps from the point of view of anti-imperial struggle which though drew upon the Gandhian preaching, deviated from the well-established norm of ‘non violence’; the implication of such a deviation appears disastrous to Gandhi himself, but for those who participated in political movements which ran counter to non violence, the means of political action seem to have been derived from Gandhi. This perhaps suggests for ‘autonomy of political movements’ even in the context of an overarching influence of a major political ideology, like non violence, in a struggle against an imperial power. In other words, what is sought to be argued here is that the context needs to be analysed to explain the transformation of an ideology that had, more or less, prevailed over other competing ideologies during the Gandhi-led freedom struggle. One should also be careful to underline that despite marginalization of non violence as a guiding force on occasions, the anti-imperial counter offensives with whatever ideological underpinnings, were not, at all, spontaneous, instead, they were preceded by the consistent Congress efforts at mobilizing masses both at the national and local levels through either social work or direct political campaign. Given the complexity of socio-political environment in British India in which Gandhi articulated his voice of opposition, it is difficult to ignore the importance of the context which unmistakably had a bearing on his views. Gandhi’s social and political thought is thus an articulation of such a complex process that cannot be de-linked from the reality in which he undertook perhaps the most gigantic anti-imperial struggle in the twentieth century. As discussed in the text, the ideas which the Mahatma propagated wee not absolutely indigenized but were a creative articulation in which the prevalent socio-economic and political processes played significant roles.
There were competing strands in India’s social and political thought though Gandhian approach to the freedom struggle remained most crucial. While EV Ramaswamy Naicker (Periyar) articulated, for instance, the voice of the peripheral socio-economic groups, BR Ambedkar pursued the argument further within an ideological framework challenging Gandhi and his theory of accommodating conflicting social and economic interests. The agnostic Jawaharlal Nehru did not subscribe entirely to what the Mahatma stood for and yet he carried on, as his most trusted lieutenant, in the freedom struggle. What was unique in Nehru’s conceptualization of Gandhi and his thoughts was probably most creative in the sense that he constantly redefined his ideological commitments keeping in mind the importance of the Mahatma in India’s struggle against imperialism. MN Roy and EMS Namboodiripad put forward arguments in favour of socialist revolution. Being disillusioned, Roy however became a radical humanist suggesting that revolution was possible not through class struggle but through proper education. By defending peasant revolution as most appropriate for India, Namboodiripad reiterated the Maoist interpretation of Marxism. Unlike these thinkers who argued for a specific plan of action, Rabindranath Tagore commented on the growing divisions within the Indian society undermining basic human values. For Tagore, interaction with the West paved the way for a critical assessment of the so-called eastern values though he rejected the European notion of nationalism as simply inadequate for a diverse society like India. Seeking to combine Gandhian ideas with socialist thought, Lohia, through his conceptualization of saptakranti (seven revolutions), articulated an indigenous response to social and political thought with significant roots in India’s diverse socio-cultural milieu. In a significant way, Jayaprakash Narayan’s sampurna kranti (total revolution) is drawn on Lohia’s political thought. Theorizing total revolution as a permanent revolution, Jayaprakash Narayan also suggested a meaningful participation of the people in the decision making process.
To conclude, Indian social and political thought is perhaps the most creative and complex response to the issues with roots in colonialism as it unfolded during the British rule. It was a critical engagement on the part of those who confronted an alien system of governance and its foundational ideas that always sought to cripple what were known as indigenous values. For an appropriate conceptualization of such intricate processes what is required is to accord adequate importance to the dialectical interaction between both the imposed and the prevalent social and political ideas in the context of hegemonic influence of colonialism. The articulation of these processes were however not uniform throughout India. As shown, extremist ideas struck roots in Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra, and their influences elsewhere in the country was almost absent. Illustrative of the importance of a specific socio-economic reality in supporting a particular political ideology, this example draws our attention to the dialectics of the growth of ideas in a transitional society. Similarly, based on their reading of Indian society, those identified as ‘social reformers’ undertook reform agenda seriously than anything else. Gandhi was a class by himself. Not only did he talk about social reforms, he had also a clear political agenda at a time when Indian national struggle was capable of negotiating with the foreign power in its own terms. It is therefore difficult to provide a straight jacket description to Indian social and political thought due perhaps to its complex unfolding during the struggle against imperialism. Notwithstanding this difficulty, the task is further complicated for reasons connected with the rise and consolidation of both complementary and contradictory strands in Indian social and political thought. Given the diverse socio-cultural circumstances in which the subcontinent was placed, one can provide a plausible explanation by liking the social and political thought to their immediate location. It is therefore not surprising that the Congress party became an umbrella organization capable of accommodating individuals with conflicting, if not contradictory, ideas. What is most significant in this course is the attempt to map the broad framework of both rising and later declining imperialism. By dwelling on both the ideas and also the individual thinkers, the course is perhaps a useful exercise in conceptually dealing with the complex world of social and political thought in a transitional society of which India is a certainly determining example.
The course, Social and Political Thought in Modern India, is both conceptual and descriptive. As it deals with ideas in their complex evolution, the course is structured around certain major themes that struck roots during India’s struggle for independence. So the ideas unfolded in a reality that acquired new social and political dimensions in the wake of a dialectical interaction between an indigenous value system and its bête noire, colonialism. Here lies the distinctive characteristic of this course that by underlining the dialogical nature of social and political thoughts seeks to develop an argument by challenging the foundational viewpoints in this genre of study.
The course is not merely analytical it is also descriptive in the sense that it has dealt with the subject in a most detailed manner. Within a broad chronological sequence, the course dwells on the representative thinkers articulating specific points of views in the context of the British rule in India. Structured in an evolutionary mould, the course discusses various strands of social and political thought with reference to their articulation and defence in a context. These various strands are not disjointed presumably because the context in which they gained salience continued to remain the same.
Thematically, the course has three clearly demarcated parts: first part, with the first three units, deals with the general characteristics of social and political thought in India with reference to its evolution in the early years of colonialism. The second part – units 4-7 – concentrates on the ideas of leading social and political thinkers where the social reform agenda appeared most crucial. These units are about those ideas which are relevant in conceptualizing the structural and ideological features of an incipient nationalist political agenda. Unit 8 underlines the importance of Islam in the growth of Muslim thought in India. By selectively dealing with the ideas of Syed Ahmad, Mohammed Iqbal, Maulana Maudoodi and Mohammand Ali Jinnah, this unit provides adequate emphasis on the Muslim thought in India which remains an under-researched area even today. Seeking to acquaint the students with the protestant strands in Indian Social and political thought, unit 9 pays attention to the ideas of Naicker, Nazrul, Ramabai, Jaipal Singh and Kahn Singh which are relatively unknown. This unit is a significant pointer to an alternative conceptualization of nation and national identity challenging the hegemonic brahminical ideological domination in the Indian social and political thought. The final part is about the clearly-defined political ideas of Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar who, while confronting the alien ideas, provided a creative intervention in legitimizing what was known as Indian social and political thought. Similarly, the ideas of MN Roy, EMS Namboodiripad, Rammonohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan are also illustrative of new ideological trends based on a unique reading of the classical texts on socialism, both the Marxist and non-Marxist varieties. Unit 13 that deals with the ideas of Rabindranath Tagore may appear to be slightly disjointed if he is viewed in isolation of the socio-economic context of colonialism and nationalism. Tagore’s ideas on European version nor coincide with the dominant indigenous variety. The poet is thus most innovative social and political thinker with his significant arguments opposing the derivative nature of the nationalist discourse in India.
By no means, the course is exhaustive for obvious reason. But this course shall undoubtedly introduce the students to the complex world of the evolution of social and political thought in the context of Indian national movement. The extended bibliography at the end of the compilation is most useful. Literature on the subject is well-developed and students are well-armed in view of this long and intelligent selection of written works in the bibliography.
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