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Indian Nationalism

A/N: Pt II Paper 26. Essay Topic 15: Imagining India: Indian Nationalist Thought. Week 4 essay, I was supervised at Churchill by Leigh Denault. 

Was Indian nationalist thought ‘a derivative discourse’?

In the latter part of the nineteenth century Indian nationalism began to emerge as a concept. Attempts were made by intellectuals to create a coherent history of India, a history that could unite its people and encourage a unified identity. This spilled over into administration, and politics began to take on an overtly nationalist flavour. In 1986 Partha Chatterjee declared that Indian nationalist thought was, in fact, a ‘derivative discourse’, implying that it was simply modelled on British nationalist thought. This essay argues that whilst aspects of British political movements were taken on board by Indian nationalists, it is overly simplistic and dismissive to claim that Indian nationalist thought was ‘a derivative discourse’.

Indian nationalist thought certainly looked to British examples to establish itself. Nandy for example describes how, in the early stages in particular, Indian writers sought to frame traditional Indian stories in a way which would make them be taken seriously by the British. Bankimchandra Chatterjee for instance reinterpreted the story of Krsna, portraying him as ‘a normal non-pagan god who would not humiliate his devotees in front of the progressive westerners’. Again in the work of Michael Madhusdan Dutt there is a reframing of Indian mythology to better fit a western world view. Nandy points out his retelling of the Bengali epic Ramayana as being especially westernised. Rather than three genders being apparent in these new stories, purusatua (masculinity), naritva (femininity) and klibatva (hermaphroditism), there is a clear male / female divide. Evidence such as this would seem to add credence to the idea that Indian nationalist thought at this stage was simply ‘a derivative discourse’.

There were attempts to codify Hinduism into a coherent national religion, rather than a disparate network of beliefs bound by common rituals. This has been seen by some historians as an example of the ‘christianization’ of Hinduism. Perhaps however this is a disservice to what reformers were hoping to achieve by their actions. Making religion more easily accessible and understandable may have been restrictive on the one hand; the attempt made by the British to catalogue scriptural doctrine and apply it as law, as with the case of sati, provides an example here. But, on the other, it also provided a rallying point for Indian nationalism. Self-identification is an important part of nationalism, and by installing a more coherent structure of belief people could feel they had more in common with each other. This suggests that whilst the idea may have come from Christianity and the west, it does not mean that these early reformers were merely attempting to carve out a religion in the same mould as Christianity.

This use of western methods for Indian ideals can again be seen in the work of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Throughout the 1860s for example he worked on simplifying the Bengali alphabet, thus making it easier to put into type. He embraced modern – western – science and translated the biographies of eminent scientists such as Newton and Herschel into Bengali. At times he even seemed to go against the principles of Hinduism by insisting that all Indians, regardless of caste, should receive a good education. However, by taking on board western knowledge and principles Vidyasagar sought not to ‘westernise’ India as we might understand it today. Rather he sought to create a sense among the Indian people of belonging to India, of being Indian. Vidyasagar supported the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856, something which was believed to go against the fundamental principles of Hinduism. This is not simply an example of agreeing with British thought on the subject. It is instead an example of how British thought could be appropriated; Vidyasagar believed the act would provide a better quality of life for Hindu women, and thus create a greater sense of pride for and self-identification with the faith.

The form which the Indian Independence Movement was to take might seem to support the idea that Indian nationalist was ‘a derivative discourse’. The National Congress, a political party established in 1885, seems to have much in common with western movements. British domestic protest was usually political in nature by this time, the Chartism movement for example had attempted to unite the middle and working classes around a political rallying point. The Indian National Congress grew throughout the final years of the nineteenth century to eventually become the leading voice in the struggle for freedom from British rule. By the early twentieth century people were looking to the party for leadership.

However the National Congress also provides an example of the way in which Indian nationalist thought was a divided discourse, regardless of whether or not it was derivative. The party was split over attitudes towards the British in 1907 for instance, into the Garam Dal and Naram Dal factions. The Khilafat movement, for protection of the Ottoman Empire, again split the party, resulting in a number of key figures leaving to establish the Swaraj party. This shows that even in a discourse that took its cue from western models, there was still great variation. Religious divides between Hinduism and Muslim beliefs were to become increasingly important.

This can be seen clearly by looking at the great central figures of Indian nationalism like Gandhi and Nehru. Nehru wanted to unify the Indian people behind a discourse of modernity, whereas Gandhi sought to emphasise the past. At first it seems as though this is a simple case of Nehru being more ‘westernised’ in his outlook than Gandhi. Indeed in many ways Gandhi seems very traditional, for example his refusal to accept the Smritis as set in stone. This reflects the reality of older Hinduism, which was relatively fluid. This meant that he could stand against the caste system with some justification, arguing that it was ‘contrary to universal truths and morals’. However Gandhi had been educated in Britain, and was close friends with C.F. Andrews, an English Christian cleric. Gandhi knew how to work within the British system of administration, for example making public appearances and framing his arguments in terms which were easily understood by foreign nationalists.

The idea of peaceful protest was not something unique to India, nor unique to Hinduism. Romila Thapar shows how ‘historic’ Hinduism was a construct of Indian nationalists of this period, seeking to present a structured vision of the past which suited their present circumstances. Saivite persecution of the Sramanic sects is pointed to as proof that Hinduism was not the strictly peaceful religion it later came to be portrayed as. What we see then is an appropriation of the western practice of writing history to fit with modern preconceptions for nationalist purposes. This means that whilst nationalist thought apparent in such work is in one sense derivative, it is also separate in that it provides a uniquely ‘Indian’ history for nationalism to grow around.

Thapar argues that a Hindu community was an essential requirement for mobilisation of nationalist sentiment. There needed to be some common cause for people to rally around. However this could be as divisive as it was cohesive. Focus on Hinduism alienated members of other faiths, particularly evident in the schisms in the National Congress with Islam. Later this would again be witnessed over language for example. Agreement that English should be ousted as the official language was broadly reached, yet in favour of what remained a problematic question. There was no ‘national’ language that could easily replace it, the ‘majority’ languages such as Hindustani were still only spoken in relatively small areas of India. Here we see that not all nationalist discourse was derivative. Language had never been a major focus for British nationalism for instance, even in areas where other languages were spoken such as Wales and parts of Scotland. So a derivative system – the political party – is employed to solve Indian issues.

That derivative discourse should be a part of the story of Indian nationalist thought is perhaps unremarkable. Many of the intellectuals who were to take up the cause had been educated with western methods, or even in Britain itself. Aurobindo Ghose for example was sent to Britain at a young age to be educated, only returning to India over twenty years later, having made his way through the British education system, including a stint at King’s College, Cambridge. Even when he turned against Britain, joining the fight for Indian independence and, later, concentrating on a more spiritual existence the impact of this British upbringing would have remained with him. For Aurobindo and many of his contemporaries, using a western discourse to promote nationalist thought would have come naturally. This was a result of the importance placed on Western education by the Indian middle classes, such as the Bengali Bhadralok, and the permutation of western culture into Indian life.

Shruti Kapila argues however that just because a western model is used, it does not necessarily mean that it remains foreign. Instead the model is transformed as it is applied to its new problem. Chatterjee highlights this in his discussion of Kedourie’s work. Kedourie claims that ‘Nationalism as an ideology is irrational, narrow, hateful and destructive. It is not an authentic product of any of the non-European civilizations…’ Chatterjee suggests that this isn’t the case. Just because the form nationalism has taken has at times been destructive in Europe, for example in Nazi Germany, it does not mean that all instances of nationalist discourse should be looked upon equally as negatively. In India European ideas of nationalism were utilised, but then changed by the leaders of the Independence Movement. Divides within Indian nationalist thought serve both to reflect its unique Indian origins. For example the splits over religion and language. But also to highlight the fact that this was a model that had been applied elsewhere. Political activism regularly resulted in schisms over policy, as in the contemporary women’s suffrage movement in Britain for example, or the early Chartist movement.

In conclusion Indian nationalist thought was a derivative discourse. It looked to western models of framing nationalist sentiment, and sought to recreate them in India. For example the publication of reworked histories and myths. However the term ‘derivative discourse’ seems overly dismissive. The tools utilized by Indian nationalists were the obvious ones for them to choose. Many had been educated within a westernised system and, in any case, the effectiveness of political parties and ‘propaganda’ literature had already been proven successful. They did not just copy from what had gone before, instead they altered it to fit their own purposes. It also ignores the divides within the nationalist movement, for example between Hindus and Muslims. It was derivative, but still complex.

  • Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse, Delhi, 1986 
  • Romila Thapar ‘Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity’ Modern Asian Studies, 1989. [JStor] 
  • Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India, London, 1998 
  • Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, Delhi, 1983 
  • Shruti Kapila, ed. Special Issue, ”An Intellectual History for India” Modern Intellectual History April 2007. [See introductory essay.]


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