India has been locked in an abusive relationship with history for some time now. Plenty of Indian history has been written, but very little of it can be called neutral; much of it was, and is, blatantly partisan. Writers of Indian history often wish to present India in a particular light, and this has led to distortions, omissions and fabrications. Most of the history we currently have therefore serves as a poor guide for anyone asking the important question: what kind of a ‘nation’ is India? For readers and writers alike, India still remains much easier to imagine than to know.
Despite unbroken links to one of the world’s oldest civilisations, India is at present a country where history is often a source of real anguish. Why is she not a country confident with her own long past, able to draw upon it for common guidance? Why are sections of the Indian public so willing to convert wild, unfounded theories about remote antiquity into unassailable truth? The short answer to both these questions is ‘modern politics’. For in India, over the last few centuries, perceptions of the past have been unduly shaped by political necessity – by the needs of the present. Divisions in Indian politics have repeatedly appeared as both cause and effect in disputes over the nation’s history. In many ways, popular Indian history has yet to find the sort of comfortable middle ground that ‘national’ history occupies in the US or Britain. A ‘straight’ version of India’s past has still to be agreed.
This is not a trivial matter. In India the argument over history bleeds into all sorts of areas; it is hardly possible to say anything historical without offending somebody. Important national figures, from Shivaji to Gandhi, can be represented as divisive. Any film with a historical setting is inevitably criticised for misrepresenting India’s past. The fundamental nature of Muslim ‘invasion’ or British colonial rule remains controversial in terms of who did what to whom. Even the actual words used to describe significant events are not agreed, as with the 1857 Mutiny/Uprising/War of Independence. Further back, things are worse. Within the Hindu tradition it remains unclear where ancient literature shades into scripture, and to what degree scriptural history can be taken as figurative or as literally true. This, of course, presents enormous problems in dealing with basic source materials.
India’s problems with the past are not unique; other countries have their difficulties too. All over the world there are painful or forbidden areas within national histories, the legacies of invasion, dictatorship, defeat or massacre. The Japanese and Germans have had to face up to militaristic pasts; the Russians have had to look at purges and repression; the French and the Dutch at collaboration with invaders; the Spanish and the Greeks at popular fascism. Even the British, once super-confident and entirely rational in their own estimation, have reluctantly begun to face the darker aspects of a racist, imperialist past. But modern India, above all, seems to be unable to look at herself in a mirror and agree what she is seeing. The result has been a fundamental dispute about what constitutes an acceptable Indian nationalism.
Is this not just a matter for Indians? No, because India’s business is increasingly the world’s business. Who runs India’s government, with its moon rockets and nuclear weapons, already matters a great deal, but projections indicate that by 2022 India will be the most populous country on the planet, and within the near future will definitely become an economic superpower. Some estimates even suggest that the Indian economy will be as large or larger than that of the US, albeit with lower per capita income, by around 2050. The alarming thing is that India, steaming into global influence and potentially only a few years away from claims to world primacy, plays host to a right-wing, nationalist political party – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), some of whose supporters subscribe to the narrowest possible view of India as a society, a view justified by recourse to a heavily religious version of India’s history. Hardline BJP history is of a most untenable and unfounded kind, settled firmly outside academic boundaries. It is divisive, and fully intends to be so. Anti-communism is one thing; religious supremacism is quite another.
The BJP is not a fringe party. It led a coalition national government between 1998 and 2004, and was a serious contender for power in the elections of 2009. Narendra Modi then won the 2014 elections at a gallop. He has not publicly espoused Hindu supremacism, but he is regularly upbraided with his possible involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots/pogrom, though he has never been officially inculpated. Even giving him the full benefit of the legal doubt, and even though he may have moderated his stance, some members of his party, and some of his fellow travellers in the wider Sangh Parivar, do certainly hold very confrontational and intolerant views about minorities in India.
Any country is, of course, entitled to elect whatever party it may think fit, if it is granted the privilege of choice. But healthy social and political institutions cannot be built on untruth. The last time a major power fell into the hands of people with a radically chauvinist and distorted view of their own history – in 1933 in Germany – the world was soon plunged into disastrous war. Fortunately India is hardly the cauldron of resentment exploited by the Nazis, and is a thriving and integral part of the global economy. But ultraconservative, religious nationalism is not a good starting point from which to approach the many challenges that face India as an important member of the world community. It is therefore important not just for Indians but for everyone else as well, that Indians can develop a clear picture of what kind of a ‘nation’ they live in.
In the last hundred years there have been three very distinct positions on this question.
The imperial British view was that there was no such place as ‘India’, never mind any such thing as an Indian ‘nation’. Lord Mayo, Viceroy from 1869-72, considered that there was ‘no real patriotism in India’, and Churchill in 1931 famously declared that India was ‘no more a united nation than the Equator’. In this view, whatever unity India may have had was given to her by the British. Patriotic Indians – who certainly existed in Mayo’s time – have had two contrasting views. Some look to the future and think of India as a new nation emerging from a multi-stranded, plural past, while others look backwards and prefer to see India as an ancient nation long complete – the world’s oldest, and best.
Clearly these three views come from different places and have very different implications in the political sphere. They have also been the genesis of three schools of Indian history, which can be named British, Congress and Hindu. The first directly supported colonial rule, the other two were based on forms of nationalism. All three grew out of the abnormal politics of colonialism, and they all serve (or served) political purposes rather too closely to be good history. Each has its distinctive distortions, omissions, and falsehoods.
In thus subdividing Indian historiography into British Imperial, Congress pluralist, and Hindu nationalist, there is no intention to assert that these three are the only kinds of Indian history. There are several others. There is a school of Christian history; for example India: The Grand Experiment (1997) by Vishal Mangalwadi. There are also many types of history influenced in various degrees by Marxist views, from writers such as R. Palme Dutt, D. D. Kosambi, M. Athar Ali, Ranajit Guha and many others. But the main three schools analysed here are the only ones with a clear view of India as a nation.
There are several major touchstone issues that distinguish the three schools. The main ones are; the ancient Aryans, the Muslim invasions, Akbar and Aurangzeb, the benefits of colonial rule, and Partition. Any one of these subject headings will soon force a writer out of neutrality.
The three schools contrast and align in a number of illuminating ways.
– The British and Congress schools have relatively shallow roots. The British view grew out of government – the necessity to understand a society delivered by conquest into the hands of outsiders. The Congress line was a reaction to the British establishment’s views, and its main exponents were Congress leaders, notably Gandhi and Nehru. The Hindu view, however, has a long past, and does not strictly count as a modern school, although it has developed a modern voice to fulfil a modern mission. It is also, at heart, less a school of history than an extension of the authority of scripture, taking ancient ‘Hindu’ texts to be not only reliable guides in matters of spiritual development, but also to be literally true in historical terms. This third school also assumes a complete equivalence between India’s geographical, spiritual and political forms, which together define a ‘natural’, specifically ‘Hindu’, identity. This leads its supporters to believe that India, as a plural society, has somehow lost its way.
– Congress and Hindu schools both represent forms of Indian nationalism, but they reflect deeply incompatible approaches to the central issue of what constitutes the Indian ‘nation’. One is designed to include, the other to exclude; one to make a nation out of many, the other to take many out of the nation.
– The British and Congress schools share a basic attachment to liberalism, and both viewed colonial rule as bringing some benefits to India, but they fiercely disagreed about the ability of Indians to rule themselves. Imperial-era British historians took the line that Indians were adept in spiritual matters, but also fractious, excitable and incapable of self-government. Congress history maintained that all India’s problems were the result of British rule and that it was the British who stood between India and modern nationhood. The Hindu school differed profoundly, with a firm belief in the ancient, sacred unity of India and its stable, self-regulating social order. India’s problems were the result of repeated attacks by malign outside forces; Muslims, then Christians, whether Portuguese, Dutch, French or British. In this account, ancient Hindu society was perfect and unblemished, its wisdom was complete, and Vedic culture ruled the entire ancient, civilised world.
– British and Hindu schools happily agreed that Britons and Indians were somehow fundamentally ‘different’. Each believed the other inferior, while the Congress school believed the two groups to be essentially similar, and roughly equal. This belief was the basis of the Congress idea of ‘unbritish’ rule in India – the accusation that the British were not living up to their own declared (liberal) principles, and that in demanding self-rule, the Congress was not asking for anything unreasonable within British constitutional practice.
– The British and Hindu schools were both keen to emphasise the antiquity, inevitability and savagery of Hindu-Muslim clashes, whereas Congress writers were determined to deny any permanent or ‘natural’ qualities to communal divisions within India, maintaining that the Hindu-Muslim issue was a distraction, and that accounts of mediaeval conflict were either exaggerated or irrelevant. It is because of this that the Hindu nationalists entirely agree with the imperialists that Tipu Sultan was a Muslim fanatic, whereas in the Congress account he is simply a ‘patriot’.
– The British and Congress schools were ‘modern’, while the Hindu was always ‘archaic’, yet ironically it is the Hindu school that has come down to us today as the most active and confident. The imperial British view largely disappeared after 1947, having outlived its political uses. It no longer has any standing as a serious academic position, and endures only as vague and uncritical nostalgia. The vast literature it produced, however, is still sitting on the shelves of every library in Britain and India. The Congress view lived on for a while in Indian politics, but its reluctance to examine India’s past, originally the result of optimism and expediency, gradually became a handicap and a symptom of isolation. The Congress used to maintain that the only thing wrong with India was British rule, but by the 1980s the same was being said by many Indians about Congress rule.
The British and Congress schools defined the independence struggle in India, both adopting positions that reflected familiar mainstream modern politics – secular, individualistic politics. This, however, is not the sort of politics of which the Hindu archaists approve.
Hindu nationalist political thinking explicitly rejects Western ideologies, like capitalism and communism, condemning them as materialistic and un-Indian. ‘Integral Humanism’ – a socio-economic approach based on Hindu traditions – is preferred. This philosophy, primarily the work of Deendayal Upadhyaya, is an attempt to promote the well-being of individuals through traditional Indian forms of religion – Hinduism, and institutions – the village. The liberal-socialist India that the Congress delivered after 1947 is not at all in step with this. Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of independent India, is a particular hate figure, because he betrayed the sacred legacy of ancient Hindu tradition by pursuing a secular, materialistic, even crypto-communist vision of the future. BJP ideologues prefer a static, spiritual, ‘Vedic’ India, in which everyone knows their ancient allotted place, where women do not wear trousers or go out alone, where Muslims are silenced or banished, and where foreigners stay away, although they are permitted to send funds for investment.
This may strike many as a bleak denial of future possibilities, and it is, because the focus of Hindu nationalist obsession is the past. Imagining a national future for India is a kind of blasphemy, because India’s salvation is not to be found in the future, but in ancient times. To such minds, new models of society will all be worse than old, established ones.
Although they do not all agree on every point, most Hindu nationalists believe that ancient India possessed a sacred, divinely inspired culture that spread all over Asia, and perhaps even over the whole planet, taking Vedic civilisation to Sumer, Mexico, the limits of continental Eurasia, and Africa. India was at the centre of a prehistoric global hegemony, which was the most wise and elevated civilisation the planet has known, one that may even have possessed yogic anti-gravity technology. Some believe that India was a land full of flying machines and nuclear weapons, or even that Pangaea, the ancient proto-continent, was inhabited by Sanskrit-speaking rishis, and that the name we use today is the name they originally gave to the land they lived in. Most think that this culture was destroyed by the war described in the Mahabharata, which they take to have been a real event, described literally. That war unleashed such destruction in India that the world was then deprived of (or simply forgot) Vedic culture, and lapsed into permanent barbarism, paying a high price in the currencies of slaughter and ignorance.
If any of this is true, then the entire European understanding of the world’s ancient history must, of necessity, be profoundly wrong. This undoubtedly adds to the attractions of believing such things.
When the narrative jumps to 711 CE, all Hindu nationalists will agree that the ancient cradle of world civilisation was savagely attacked by fanatics from the west who, over succeeding centuries, razed its temples and massacred its people. These invaders threw away the accumulated wisdom of millennia for the sake of one book. Then came pale-faced exploiters, less bloodthirsty but much more cunning, who swindled the peaceful Hindus out of their wealth, then tricked them out of their history, labelling their ancestral wisdom as ignorance and superstition.
This sort of Indian history is obsessed with a list of five M’s – (Max) Müller, Macaulay, Marxists, mullahs and missionaries – all bringers of spiritual and cultural destruction. Alternatively these obsessions might be summed up in terms of four F’s: fear, fallacy, fantasy, and fraud.
The popularity of such extreme and unsubstantiated versions of history reflects clear divisions of opinion in modern India about what Indian society represents. The Congress tradition imagines India as a modern state with modern problems, of infrastructure and investment, labour laws, healthcare and wealth distribution. People who think like this are comfortable with the idea of India as an evolving nation state – diverse, tolerant, aspirational; they see India as a rising force in geopolitical issues. These forward-lookers are confronted by those who view India as a sacred manifestation of an ancient conception, currently in peril, drifting away from safety, beset by enemies at home and abroad. This pessimistic view imagines India, or more specifically Hindu culture, as a declining force. It imagines that India’s problems are not about money but primarily about religious faith and its social expression. From this standpoint India, culturally, has lost much of what she once had, and is in danger of losing the rest. What holy Bharat needs is not more foreign contact but less. Notions of economic justice or norms of social conduct conceived in distant parts have no place in a sacred land that was given all it needed to know tens of thousands of years ago. Different colours of government must, then, either push ahead, or slam on the brakes.
These incompatible conceptions are forcing Indians to untangle a particularly twisted skein of disputed history, militant religion and fluid popular politics. From a distance this all seems clear enough, but distance is by definition denied to actors on the ground, and in the front row things are unruly. Historians of the standing of Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar are vilified by militant Hindu opinion, because of their Western approach to evidence and their refusal to adopt the correct nationalist agenda. In consequence they are routinely denigrated as scholars, or directly accused (inaccurately) of extreme leftist leanings. A whole subsection of Indian publishing has grown up dedicated to putting out books with uncompromising, religious readings of Indian history, that fully subscribe to the maximum possible age for Indic civilisation, the ancient domination of the world by all things Vedic, and the natural superiority of Hinduism – respectfully restored to its original name and position as Sanatana Dharma.
Indians, therefore, are now reading nationalistic history from authors who have the outlook of victims, determined to even up the score. This is catch-up, restitutional history. One of the central purposes of the essay pieces on this site is to show that although history written by winners – i.e. the British – may be bad, the kind of history written by losers is generally far worse. It is much keener to score points at any cost.
Despite its historical trappings, the confident Hindu nationalism we see now is actually new. ‘New nationalism’ should be an oxymoron, but India has managed to manufacture a highly popular version of such a thing, and one that possesses a coherence that its supporters can recognise without special instruction. This Hindutva nationalism, although its adherents would hate to admit it, has been shaped by two modern phenomena; Congress inclusiveness and imperial British arrogance.
Hindutva nationalism is not the nationalism of Gandhi and Nehru; it is a bitter reaction to it. The Congress nationalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was an all-inclusive doctrine, charged with a specific purpose: to create a ‘big tent’ oppositional movement to British rule. The main characteristic of this faith was its anti-Britishness, and its main inspiration was the kind of loose liberal nationalism that had united Germany and Italy in the half century before the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885. Congress history had its own selectivity and oversights – its principal fiction being that all India’s problems began with the arrival of the British, and would be solved by their removal – but the movement it supported was inclusive, in that it assumed that everyone living in India was equally an Indian. A contrary perception, that Congress-style inclusiveness means that everyone in India has rights except Hindus, has been a major part of what sustains the BJP.
Modern Hindu nationalism is also strangely miscast in the way it imitates European expansionism. It is a last echo of empire, a delayed reflection of the worst of imperialism’s assertive confidence. And it is imperialism that it envies most. Where Gandhism was about adapting weakness, Hindutva is about strength – unleashing it, feeling it, often literally worshipping it. Hindutva nationalists are apparently desperate to escape imperialism, but they keep running back to its basic tenets, to its claims of superiority. Its devotees reject Muslim supremacism but erect in its stead a rickety version of the same thing, based on a much less focused, or worldly religious tradition.
India has therefore managed to develop and sustain not one nationalism, like most nation states in the world, but two. Strangely for nationalism, the battleground is religion. Most nationalism is not explicitly religious, and can be quite tolerant in faith terms. The Kaiser was a Protestant, Hitler was a Catholic; both were indisputably German nationalists. Nationalism is very much a this-life programme, not an afterlife belief. It is about people and land; soil not soul. But Hinduism is so intimately intermeshed with the living structure of India that it has nurtured its own version of nationalism. Unlike broad Congress nationalism with its liberal nineteenth century models, this narrow Hindu version has more in common with styles of militant nationalism from Europe’s modem Dark Age. It can only be earnestly hoped that Indians will not have to learn the folly of this path for themselves from direct, dire experience. Meanwhile the Hindutva movement will eventually have to accept that by now India cannot escape Western influence. The notion of an insulated Indian culture is an illusion in the modern world. Every time a Hindutva author (invariably male) is compelled to get his message out in English via the internet, these ironies must recur poignantly. Perhaps this explains the resolute humourlessness of much of what appears. Take warning: Hindutva literature is hard going.
Hindutva history is mostly an amateur phenomenon, and serious scholars across the globe have largely ignored it. This may be because its principal natural enemies, left-wing academics, are still choosing to concentrate their fire on the defunct certainties of British imperialism. Foreign scholars, particularly in the ‘post-colonial’ field, can have fun venturing opinions about how the whole concept of ‘caste’ was really a devious British bureaucratic plot designed to prop up colonial rule, but such scholars are not required to answer pointed questions about reserved occupations for Backward Castes. Indians will have to supply their own political answers for themselves, guided by their own lights. Whether either post-colonial studies or Hindutva history can ever help in this task remains to be seen.
But India has not been totally ignored by modern scholars. Academic history is now being supplied from all parts of the globe by writers who do not fit directly into the three schools outlined above. Foreign scholarship on India in the post-independence period has brought forward many dedicated and (relatively) neutral scholars who have done much to weed out imperialist fictions. Stewart Gordon’s research on the Marathas has rehabilitated them from the role of vagabond plunderers and freebooters, showing them to be more constructive and disciplined than the British suspected, or were prepared to admit. Thomas Metcalf has explored the ideologies of the Raj and questioned its ‘civilising mission’. P J Marshall has done magisterial work on the plunder of Bengal under the East India Company, and C A Bayly has worked hard to dispel the idea of late Mughal ‘anarchy’. India is thus now defended from imperialist history by a substantial body of well-informed scholars. Rather less energy has, as yet, been put into challenging the myths of Hindu history.
The Hindutva outlook is certainly vulnerable. It is based primarily on religious faith, which means that it is weak on self-criticism. Its strong suits are a trust in the literal truth of old Sanskrit literature, and a dogmatic belief in the bad faith of Westerners. But the past that its devotees revere, or wish to recreate and retreat into, is an illusion.
Here is the unreality of Hindutva archaism; the life to be returned to is not old, in any true sense, because it is a modern conception of an imagined past, heavily tainted with anachronism and what can politely be called guesswork. India, unfortunately, is uniquely susceptible to this strange mixture precisely because of the genuinely ancient roots of her civilisation. These roots are scarcely knowable; the true nature of Vedic society can become sharply clear only to modern minds determined to simplify matters. There can be no return to an unreal past while in the grip of an outlook that is a product of current political purposes.
Where did this passion spring from? The roots of specifically Hindu nationalism can be seen as early as the 1820s in resistance to British social reforms, but the full package of spiritual and political thinking evolved slowly through the rest of the nineteenth century. An important development was the appearance of Dayananda Saraswati’s Arya Samaj movement of the 1870s, which sought to purify Hinduism and return India to a Vedic state of perfection. Organised political nationalism was almost monopolised by the Indian National Congress after its birth in 1885, but strands of more specifically Hindu politics still remained outside the Congress, coalescing gradually into the Hindu Mahasabha by 1915, with more radical elements going on to form the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organisation) in 1925.
It was only in the 1920s that Hindutva’s full ideological framework finally arrived. This was based originally on the theoretical outlook of V D Savarkar (1883-1966), who wrote extensively on Indian history as an ‘Extreme’ nationalist in the early 1900s, producing his definitive work in 1923 – the short tract Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? In reply to his own question, Savarkar’s answer was very different from that provided by Congress philosophy. The Congress wanted to include as many people as wished to trail along. Savarkar required that an ‘Indian’ had to be someone who looked to India not only as a homeland-motherland, but also as a Holy Land. This included the whole Indic family of faiths – Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and all traditional or reformed Hindus of whatever stamp. But the more recent version of Hindutva has moved away from this position. It remains generously inclusive in who it wishes to label a ‘Hindu’ within ancient historical situations, but is rather more strict within the context of contemporary India.
The slightest acquaintance with this modern, reformed nationalism reveals a stark agenda. All foreign influence in India is bad: sexual laxness, social disrespect, the abandonment of old ways – all disastrous. Two things must now be done; all Western (i.e. Christian) influence must be reduced, and the Muslim population of India expelled or reformed. These Muslims are either intruders or, if they are descendants of converts, they must recover their lost Sanatani roots. Muslims habitually plot and argue, goes the story. They are unruly, aggressive and intolerant; they endlessly abuse the hospitality extended to them by the tolerant Hindu majority in India. This general attitude can be, and regularly is, dressed up in semi-academic language, and a coterie of writers – including Professor K S Lal, Ram Swarup, N S Rajaram and S R Goel – has written a large body of works based on this analysis. The BJP dips into this ideological reservoir as and when it pleases.
Although Hindutva history is transparently political in intention, it was actually the Nehruvian-Congress history that was in some ways the most political of the three historical views under discussion, having been developed and expounded by active politicians for explicitly political ends – to mobilise and sustain the Indian National Congress. After independence, this inclusive view of history was then promoted from within government, notably through the school system – and it worked, politically at least, giving the Congress a virtual monopoly of national power for more than a generation. But the post-independence Congress consensus gradually fell apart, undermined by the sluggish growth of the Indian economy under state regulation, while the masses became increasingly disillusioned with corruption and faction at the highest levels. It was the long-term political failure of the Nehruvian approach that finally opened up the new era of Hindutva activism in the 1980s, as the historical amnesia required to support the Congress political balancing act became outmoded. Repeal of the pardon granted by Nehru for all acts of Muslim aggression then became the great Hindutva cause.
One of the most important results of this crisis on the Nehruvian, ‘soft’ socialist wing of Indian politics was that a much more confident style of history began issuing from the right wing than from the left. This also fitted into a longer, larger process. The global Left has always found it hard to explain why America never had a revolution, but India was an even harder case. If Russia and China, then why not India? Meanwhile Marx’s writings on India presented problems for patriotic Indians. His theories about the ‘Asiatic mode of production’ seemed patronising, but worse was his attitude to British colonial rule, which he failed to condemn because he saw it as part of an inevitable transition from feudalism to socialism via an intermediary stage of bourgeois capitalism. In his view India was – deservedly – ripe for the plucking. The intellectual left also had problems recognising, let alone approving of, traditional Indian culture, with its emphasis on caste and religion. Unlike in China and Indo-China, any Marxist-nationalist alliance in India was bound to be a strained affair.
The first Indian national ideology was therefore never going to be very far to the left. In the end it was a local variant of liberal nationalism, but one in which the most prominent unifying element was not social or economic liberalism, or even a precisely articulated nationalism; it was simply a vigorous anti-colonialism – the one common denominator in all Indian politics. Anti-colonialism was a necessary preliminary stage in nation-building, though insufficient in itself. Now we can see a phase of intellectual post-colonialism. This too will not be enough, although there has developed out of it a new approach to history on the left, namely Subaltern Studies. But Subaltern history remains politicised rather than political. It is highly theoretical and rather demanding to read, and thus remains divorced from electoral politics and the common herd.
Those on the left not willing to go all the way to a Maoist revolution are still somewhat stranded in India. The Hindutva right, however, has never been hobbled in this way. Because its philosophy and methodology are thoroughly local, and because the global ideologies of the left have found restricted space in India, the most coherent contender for primacy in current Indian politics is the ideology of Hindutva.
This is to some degree logical, but it is also disturbing. As a belief system Hindutva nationalism denies diversity, and most especially it denies the absorptive and flexible nature of Indian society – qualities that other views of Indian history regard as real and beneficial. Rather than believing in the tolerance and syncretism of Hindu tradition, a Hindutvavadin is more likely to subscribe to the idea that the ‘broad church’ model of Hinduism is a myth, a Western plot intended to weaken Indians’ sense of unity, to sap India’s will to resist, to cast Indians as indecisive and confused, and above all to allow them to accept Christian masters – even Christianity.
Most non-Hindutva writers, however, have no problem accepting that India, in many ways, was the world’s leader in multiculturalism over very many centuries. Nehru picked up on this, and the sanitised version of Indian history he promoted was the result. Nehru believed in, created, and even lived out a new Indian national myth – of national strength in diversity – which flourished in the period between the decline of the British myth of India’s fragility and the rise of Hindutva’s image of strength in conformity.
But myths need receptive soil to grow in, and no nation can truly paint itself as great without something to boast about. Nehru’s regime delivered few grounds for bragging, and managed to provide only dry ideals – of modernity, science and progress. India is still nervous in the area of self-respect, and Hindu partisans have taken constant recourse to achievements that are not real. The ancient Vedic global empire is pure fiction, and will not bear the weight of a nation’s pride. Empty boasts easily become opportunities for ridicule.
Indians now have a choice between two rival ideals; a modern political nationalism, and a pseudo-ancient social nationalism. The modern version is flexible and tolerant, the antique version is strident and exclusive. There are signs that Modi has taken this lesson on board, He is the least archaic BJP leader ever, and his talk is all of modernity, bullet trains, agricultural revolution – wealth creation in the service of national strength, without apparent cultural nervousness.
What India meant to a Hindu like Gandhi is something very different from what India means within the most fearful stream of feeling expressed by the RSS, whose members insist it is a ‘cultural’ body, while its opponents characterise it as the paramilitary youth wing of Hindu fanaticism. This all means that, for India, nationalism is now a potential source of fractiousness and discord, even violence. Too many of the arguments that were avoided and deferred before Independence have never been properly settled.