This nationhood has evolved through a series of tropes that range from cultural symbols, like language and religion, to instruments of modernity such as the Constitution and parliamentary democracy. Its form, obviously then, is far from defined—a state that is its strength. The ongoing debate on nationalism that is mostly being played out on TV channels and social media has only made it appear more chaotic than it ever was. Historian and Lok Sabha MP Sugata Bose, in his new book, The Nation as Mother and Other Visions of Nationhood, explores the role of these tropes in building the narrative of the nation.
His point of departure is Rabindranath Tagore, who believed that “the idea of the Nation” is “one of the most powerful anesthetics that man has invented”. And yet, Tagore was not without profound love for his nation. Bose, too, does not dismiss the nation, but underlines “a certain intellectual failure in the post-colonial period to unravel the complex weave of nation, reason and religion in historical analyses”. Without discarding religion, he discusses it with a critical passion.
Though a lot of reasoning was involved in forging modernity in colonised nations, Bose suspects, and rightly so, whether “hyper-rationality” was indeed a “characteristic of modernity under colonial conditions”. The book opens with a scholarly essay on the idea of nation as mother and instantly problematises the concept. Was the idea of Bharat mata a cultural artefact that emerged during the national movement, or was it entrenched in Indian tradition?
Though this embodiment occurred during the colonial rule, obviously as a nationalist enterprise, the idea of the mother has dominated the consciousness of various cultures in India. It has found manifestation in multiple forms of goddesses through the centuries. In recent decades, even the most popular male character of Indian cinema is not an “angry young man”, but an “angry young son” who, having been estranged from his mother, mostly due to his own deeds, either tries to redeem her lost honour or yearns for a reunion with her.
To paraphrase Ashis Nandy’s formulation, the idea of mother “is always round the corner in the Indian’s inner world”. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s hymn Bande Matram, thus, reflected a cultural heritage that was given a decisive nationalistic shape by subsequent invocations and interpretations. Yet, both the hymn and the invocations were not without some historical errors. Chattopadhyay’s rather unsavoury portrayal of Muslims in Anandamath and the depiction of the motherland as a Hindu goddess eventually prompted Tagore to advise the Congress that the later parts of the song be removed from the version that was sung at party gatherings.
It has, however, gone relatively unaddressed that this gendered image of the nation also inflicted cultural and psychological injury on to its women residents. Bose cites Sara Suleri, who so accurately underlined that “the continued equation between a colonized landscape and the female body” caused “considerable theoretical damage to both contemporary feminist and post-colonial discourses”. Such an equation inevitably establishes gender hierarchy and male superiority, as it now becomes his solemn duty to “free” this woman.
Invoking a layered nationalism that was composed through a contest among multiple ideas, Bose traverses from Bipin Chandra Pal, Aurobindo, Tagore to Mahatma Gandhi. He acknowledges the role of religion in forging the national identity, but does not spare fundamentalist tendencies. It’s obvious that this book responds to the ongoing campaign that is asserting a monolithic national identity. Significantly, the first prime minister receives little space in the discourse of nationhood, as Bose lists a series of stains on the “Nehru jacket”.
However, notwithstanding these justified stains, Nehru’s contribution to forming a national consciousness after independence through several instruments needed greater elaboration and appreciation. Though the economic planning introduced in the earliest years of the Republic, for instance, turned out to be a flawed exercise, it did have its role, as historian Partha Chatterjee noted, in building a national or pan-Indian narrative around the economy of a post-colonial state that was founded on the institutional substructure of the colonial rule.
Chatterjee, incidentally, figures repeatedly in the intellectual furnace of this book. Bose often counters his propositions on nationhood and modernity, but is also in agreement with him at several instances. Underlying the problematics involved in “intimations of an anti-colonial modernity”, Bose extensively quotes from Chatterjee’s essay, Our Modernity, that while in the West modernity was “the site of one’s escape from the past”, in countries like India, “the colonized intellectual in search of a national modernity had to escape (from the present) to find solace in an imagined past”.
This book also has several parliamentary speeches delivered by Bose and his book reviews. They bring tonal variation, as one moves from scholarly essays to such pieces, but this also affects the intensity and grip of the text. Keeping these speeches apart for another volume would have enhanced this well-researched work. If Bose elaborates on several ideas, he also leaves several oblique marks. These pointers carry the aspirations that the book could not realise or wants its successors to realise. The role of the Indian novel in introducing and deliberating the ideas of modernity and nationalism has been well documented.
In a footnote, Bose, acknowledging the contribution of the novel, notes that poems and songs also created the “languages of nationalism”, but received little scholarly attention. Indian languages have produced a rich body of poems in the last hundred years. The encounter of the Indian poet with the nation and how poems confront and nourish the idea of Indian nationhood can be the subject of significant works in future.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla