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Religion, Nationalism and the State: Gandhi Ambedkar and India's Engagement with Political Modernity

Religion, Nationalism and the State: Gandhi Ambedkar and India's Engagement with Political Modernity

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Revisiting some epochal debates on imagining India as an independent nation-state
Revisiting some epochal debates on imagining India as an independent nation-state

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Published by: Sukumar Muralidharan on May 01, 2013
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 1
Religion, Nationalism and the State
Gandhi, Ambedkar
and India’s engagement with
 political modernity
Sukumar Muralidharan
(First published:
Social Scientist
, Volume 34, Numbers 3-4, March-April 2006)
Late in the year 1909, Mahatma Gandhi set sail from England to South Africa after concluding an unrewarding political mission in the "mother country". He had as company on thelong voyage, a laconic Muslim businessman who had been partof the mission of representing the cause of the Indiancommunity in South Africa. With little to divert him,Gandhi turned his attention to India, a country he had visited only in brief and sporadic intervals over the pasttwo decades. Writing at a furious pace, Gandhi completed 
Hind Swaraj
inthe course of the voyage, setting out the terms of his political engagement with Indian nationalism. Organised asa dialogue with an unidentified interlocutor,
Hind Swaraj
  was a book that he insisted till his last days, represented the clearest distillate of his political philosophy.
1
Anearly biography of Gandhi holds that the interlocutorGandhi engaged with, was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the political agitationist then living in London, shortlyafterwards to be brought to trial by the British
raj
forcrimes of sedition and convicted to a life in thedesolation of the Andamans penal colony.Gandhi and Savarkar had just weeks before, shared a platform at a Dassehra gathering of the Indian community inLondon. As guest of honour, Gandhi had in his remarks,gloried in the generosity and loving kindness of Ram, afigure from the Hindu pantheon who he saw as an intimatecompanion and retained as a source of inspiration to hislast days. But with a little subtlety, in disregard of therule he had himself laid down that the Dassehra observance would not be converted into a political platform, he wenton to suggest that the conquest of evil was a mission thatstill lay ahead in India's life as a nation. If all creedsand races in India were to unite behind the banner of Ram,evil would soon be banished from the land, he declared.
 
 2
Speaking shortly afterwards, Savarkar held forth on thecultural richness of India, which was only enhanced by its many-coloured diversity. "Hindus are the heart ofHindustan", he said:
 Nevertheless, just as the beauty of the rainbow is notimpaired but enhanced by its varied hues, so also Hindustan will appear all the more beautiful across the sky of thefuture by assimilating all that is best in the Muslim,Parsi, Jewish and other civilisations.
2
 He went on to echo all that Gandhi had said about Ram  before pointedly referring to the celebration over the ninedays preceding Dassehra, of the cult of Durga, who embodied the attributes of anger and retribution.That was a fateful first encounter, where the seeds of a momentous political divergence in later years were sown. An
Indian “nation” then seemed a prospect greatly to be
desired, though one subject to extreme differences ininterpretation. Closure in some respects was applied fourdecades later, when Savarkar went on trial for Gandhi'sassassination and secured an acquittal because ofinfirmities in the legal process and his own clever and evasive testimony.
3
But closure from the viewpoint ofsecuring India's national identity to a secular ideal isyet to be attained. That much is evident from the recenthysteria over an imagined slight, inflicted posthumously,on Savarkar.
4
 Over the years following his authorship of
Hind Swaraj
,Gandhi revisited the themes of the pamphlet on numerousoccasions, without ever giving a hint of the identity ofhis interlocutor. In his preface to a 1921 edition, herevealed that it was written in "answer to the Indianschool of violence" after contacts with "every known Indiananarchist in London". He also chose the occasion toreaffirm his undimmed faith in the principles laid out:
 My conviction is deeper today than ever. I feel that ifIndia would discard `modern civilisation', she can onlygain by doing so.
In three years since returning to a tumultuous welcome inIndia, Gandhi had been propelled to the forefront of theIndian nationalist movement. And what he had by way of prognosis for the movement was very simple.
Hind Swaraj
had fallen into neglect, he wrote, since the "only part of the programme which is now being carried out in its entirety isthat of non-violence". With great regret though, he had to"confess", that "even that is not being carried out in the
 
 3
spirit of the book". Indeed, if it were, then "India would establish
swaraj
in a day".
5
 
 An Indian nation in the making
 An Indian nation struggling to come into being was a verydistinct component of Gandhi's vision, as he wrote
Hind Swaraj
. Unlike Rabindranath Tagore, who he was yet to personally encounter, he had little reserve about embracingnationalism as an organising principle of political action. And again unlike Tagore, he was willing to give theCongress ample credit, as the principal vehicle of theIndian nationalist project then. For all its failings, theCongress, said Gandhi, had imbued all of India with thespirit of nationalism. "The spirit generated in Bengal" inresponse to the imperialist stratagem of dividing up the province, had "spread in the north to the Punjab, and inthe south to Cape Comorin".
6
 If Gandhi was quick to recognise the power of nationalism -- as a slogan and a concept -- for mobilising the peopleagainst British colonialism, he remained sceptical aboutthe moral and ethical legitimacy of an organised polity.Though the term did not enter his political lexicon till much later, Gandhi in
Hind Swaraj
, had little use for what would be called "the State" in the vocabulary of modern political science. Indeed, the modern State for Gandhi,seemed to embody man's impertinence in seeking to supplanta benevolent God.This seeming conceit of the human race was best expressed  by his ideological adversary in
Hind Swaraj
. "We must haveour own navy, our army, and we must have our own splendour,and then will India's voice ring through the world", saysthe "reader", intent on challenging the most deeply held  beliefs of Gandhi, who speaks through the medium of the"editor". Gandhi is equal to the challenge, though notquite able to descend to the same level of banality. In hisguise as the "editor", he gently chides the "reader":
You have drawn the picture well. In effect, it means that we want English rule without the Englishman. You want thetiger's nature, but not the tiger; that is to say, you
 would make India English…. This is not the Swaraj that I
 want.
The challenge that Gandhi posed before his "reader" then was daunting: it was "to learn, and to teach others, that we do not want the tyranny of either English rule or Indianrule".
7
 

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