Establishing The True Indian-ness
Dr Shashi Tharoor (b. March 9, 1956) – an Indian politician, author and former diplomat who was formerly Under Secretary General of the UN and contested for the post of Secretary General in 2006 – has discussed various aspects of Nationalism in his latest publication, ‘The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism, and What It Means to Be Indian’.
The Indian Parliamentarian has claimed that there are two types of Nationalism… Ethno-nationalism and Civic Nationalism. He has explained that Ethno-nationalism is based on ethnic identity that one acquires by birth, and it also includes religion-based nationalism. On the other hand, Civic Nationalism is not defined by religion, race, language and caste, but by voluntary and active inclusion of independent citizens of Democratic countries. It may be noted that this division is not Dr Tharoor’s own, as previous discussions on Indian Nationalism had largely been based on this division. Many have expressed doubts about whether India can be understood through this division. However, that is a different issue.
Dr Tharoor’s publication can be roughly divided into three parts. In the first part, the author has discussed the essence of different (competitive) Theories of Nationalism, and how the concept of Nationalism has secured its place in Indian Politics. The second part deals with the dangers of the contemporary concept of Indian Nationalism. In the third part, Dr Tharoor has made an attempt to find a way out… how to rescue India from the grip of Pluralist Nationalism. Divided into six sections, the book starts off by exploring historical and contemporary ideas of Nationalism, Patriotism, Liberalism, Democracy, and Humanism, many of which emerged in the West in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and quickly spread throughout the world. The author, then, summarises India’s Liberal Constitutionalism, exploring the enlightened values that towering leaders and thinkers, like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, Dr B R Ambedkar, Vallabhbhai Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and others invested the nation with. These are contrasted with the narrow-minded, divisive, sectarian, us versus them alternatives formulated by Hindutva ideologues, and propagated by their followers who are now in office.
Dr Tharoor has captured the idea of Nationalism on a large canvas, as if there are multiple books between its two cover pages. It certainly allows interested readers to take a look at the current arguments in favour of Nationalism at a glance. Also, there is a problem. When one discusses a lot of things at once, it becomes difficult to analyse a particular issue deeply. Dr Tharoor, too, could not avoid this problem. He has argued in favour of Civic Nationalism, showing how India gradually deviated from the path in which it started the journey as an Independent Nation seven decades ago.
Nationalism cannot be discussed without Politics, because these two subjects are closely related. As the author is an important figure in contemporary Indian Politics, he has mentioned the Narendra Modi Regime repeatedly in his book. It has made things more complicated. There is no doubt that Indian Prime Minister Modi and his cronies are very prominent and influential personalities. If one discusses the concept of Nationalism from their perspective, the discussion is bound to be stuck at a relatively low level. In one chapter, Dr Tharoor has discussed Mahatma Gandhi‘s concept of Hinduism. However, he has repeatedly mentioned Narendra Modi in that chapter. What the author said in that context is an open secret, and his readers are well aware of those facts. He, himself, has identified his readers in a chapter, saying that readers should be Liberal, Secular and Receptive while going through this book. In other words, they should be the representatives of Nehru-era India. Then, the readers may want to know how did Gandhi, whose Political Discourse was all about Hinduism, avoid the religious path? Without addressing this issue at length, Dr Tharoor has concluded the chapter.
Dr Tharoor could have discussed ways to counter Modi’s concept of Hinduism (or Hindutva) in the third part of the book, where he has made an attempt to establish the concept of Civic Nationalism. The author has said that the war on Nationalism will go on, and it is difficult to predict who will win the battle. However, it is quite possible to find a strategy to fight the war. Quoting an eminent Political Scientist, Dr Tharoor has stated that the solution should not be merely Metaphysical, but it must be Political. It is a fact that the battle, which is being fought in the realm of Politics, cannot be won only at a Philosophical level. However, the seasoned diplomat-turned-politician did not try to find that political weapon in the end. He has only talked about Democracy and the Spirit of the Constitution! It is not that his views are wrong… but again, the readers know these views very well. The expectation was to find a new path that would lead to a positive logical conclusion.
Still, Dr Tharoor’s book is important, keeping in mind the current political scenario in India. Readers may consider this publication as a description of the current Indian political juncture. Furthermore, the book has been written by an active politician. Hence, there is a possibility that his analysis will be based on ground reality, and not on theories. The task of a Leader is to bridge the gaps in Society. While writing this book, Dr Tharoor has tried his best not to allow his political identity to influence his arguments in favour of Civic Nationalism. He has maintained a neutral stand while analysing the issue of Nationalism. He did not hesitate to criticise the Indian National Congress (INC), the oldest political party of India as it was founded on December 28, 1885. It may be noted that Dr Tharoor has been serving as a Congress Member of the Indian Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram since 2009. One would have to admit that Hindutva has gained recognition in Indian Politics mainly because of PM Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Interestingly, the INC, too, has tried to play the Hindutva card in Indian Politics. Unfortunately, Dr Tharoor did not show any way to help his party get rid of this Communal Politics. In fact, he has denied this tendency of the INC. This discrepancy may surely hurt the feelings of some of his readers.
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