How Rahul Gandhi’s idea of ​​nationhood is deeply flawed and even contradicts the Nehruvian notion

The main problem with asserting an Indian nationhood, as per Rahul Gandhi, is its diversity. In reality, however, even the European Union can take a few ‘unity-in-diversity’ lessons from the Indian republic

Congress MP Rahul Gandhi in his recent speech in the Lok Sabha called India a “union of states”. He said, “India is described in the Indian Constitution as a ‘union of states’, and not a nation. One cannot rule over the people of a state in India. Different languages ​​and cultures cannot be suppressed. It is a partnership, not a kingdom.”

The terms “union” and “state” (in the Hindi text: rājyon kā sangh) are quite vague, especially for a juridical document: Both can have several interpretations. A “union” can mean a federation, which is a sovereign state dividing itself in autonomous provinces; or a confederacy, a permanent alliance of sovereign states; and everything in between, with history often showing an evolution from one to the other. An effective confederacy at present is the political structure of the Eurasian landmass’ Western subcontinent, the European Union.

As the Brexit has demonstrated, though to much surprise, a member state of the EU retains its sovereignty, including the defining right to secede. By contrast, the Indian republic does not confer on its lower political units this right of secession. Till last week, not even a Congressite questioned this arrangement, put in place by the Congress party’s own iron man, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

A “state” usually means a sovereign country, but it can also mean a province within a country. It is very common for this class of words not to have a fixed meaning in regard to its dimension of sovereignty, eg “land” in German means a province, in Dutch a sovereign country, and in English it only has the geographical meaning of a non-maritime region. When appearing in a legal text, such words first require a definition. From the wording in India’s Constitution, one can deduce that here the word “state” (rājya) means the political level below full sovereignty.

Trivially, today’s Indian republic is the sum total of its states. Yet historically, it is not correct to imply that India has come about by uniting pre-existing states, as “union of states” might suggest. It came into being as a successor-state to British India. Yes, much of its present territory consisted of theoretically independent states before the Transfer of Power in 1947, the Princely States. But they did not negotiate with British India as equal partners who then decided to merge. Instead, by signing the Instrument of Accession, they gave up their (already theoretical) sovereignty to be absorbed into the republic.

For better understanding, consider the contrast with the European Union. The EU consists of sovereign member states with their own political history, mostly with active nationalist movements that went as far as to foment war against each other. It took the horrors of two World Wars and the common fear of the Soviet Bloc to make them water down their sovereign status by a negotiated step in a common ever-closer union. Each state retained the right to veto common decisions, so that these required a consensus. In India, by contrast, in vital matters the Center can overrule the states.

A great advantage of having a united federation of autonomous states rather than a conglomerate of sovereign states is that it dedramatises what would otherwise become a cause for war: The redrawing of boundaries between the states. The reorganisation of the North East into the “Seven Sisters”, the creation of united Andhra Pradesh or the Panjabi Suba, or the more recent bifurcation of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, are the stuff that other wars are fought over . Yet, under the umbrella of India, they became mere administrative procedures. Though pooh-poohed by Rahul Gandhi, the existence of a national level above the affected states is highly beneficial.

One thing Eurasia’s southern and western subcontinents have in common is that in their founding statements they avoid the term “nation” to refer to themselves. In Europe this would be a denial of history, where nationalist passions and considerable blood-letting were needed for the unification of Italy and Germany, the independence and unification of the Yugoslav states followed later by this federation’s disintegration, etc. The project of countering these old nationalisms with a new EU nationalism has only lived in a small Rightist fringe; the “nation” counts as but a relic from history.

In India, by contrast, the idea of ​​defining the subcontinent’s population as a nation has been alive since the freedom movement, which was influenced by the contemporaneous European nationalisms, most explicitly through V.D. Savarkar’s translation of Italian nationalist thinker Giuseppe Mazzini.

Indians have debated whether they form a nation, and if so, what kind of nation. The Nehruvians claimed India was a new nation (yes, the N-word rejected by his great-grandson), with Mahatma Gandhi as “father of the nation”, and in need of “nation-building”. This is in complete denial of history, when a sense of Indian-ness existed for millennia, on top of local, linguistic, caste and sectarian identities. So Gandhi himself had considered India an ancient nation with himself as its grateful son. The Muslim League applied the Ottoman division into millets, “nations”, meaning religious communities treated as political units. The Left mostly preferred a fragmented India and invoked the European equation of nation with national language, eg the Bengali nation. Prakash Ambedkar thought that the attributes of nationhood apply to the castes: “Every caste is a nation.”

The present Sangh Parivar effectively espouses Gandhi’s view (the asli Gandhi, not the naqli Gandhi who triggered this debate) that India is an ancient nation which includes every Indian. Nowadays it downplays its original Hindu identity and emphatically calls itself a nationalist, forever intoning the mantra “unity”. But in an earlier stage, under MS Golwalkar, it is taught that only Hindus (in the broad sense) form the nation, while the Muslims and Christians are mere guests. The reason was that only Hindus could boast of a civilisational continuity, whereas Christians and Muslims had historically rejected the culture they found here, or from which they converted, explicitly wanting to replace it with their own.

But having outgrown Golwalkar, it is now advisable to outgrow the very concept of “nation”, an ill-fitting garment. Chanakya could do without this unnecessary complication, and so can the new crop of Hindus. They, and even to a large extent the non-Hindus, have imbibed a common civilisation, a far freer type of unity than the modern concept of nation.

The main problem with asserting an Indian nationhood, as per Rahul Gandhi, is its diversity. This is a false problem, simply a higher magnitude of what every country has to deal with. Moreover, it is part of the genius of Hindu civilisation that it can deal exceptionally well with diversity. Thus, nearly every Indian state in India’s history was multilingual, and this was no problem; even today this is rarely a ground for separatism. There has never been a question of “suppressing languages ​​and cultures”, at least under native rule, and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives no occasion for such claims.

While there is always room for improvement, the present federal structure takes care rather well of the needs of India’s diverse demographics. All the way from Brussels, I dare say that in terms of a political structure doing justice to its own motto of “unity in diversity”, the European Union had better learn some lessons from the Indian republic.

The writer is a well-known Indologist from Belgium. Views expressed are personal.

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