We are little men serving great causes, but because the cause is great, something of that greatness falls upon us also.—Jawaharlal Nehru, 1946.
The resurgence of muscular Hindu ethnonationalism under Narendra Modi’s BJP government has led to a proliferation of social media users with Indian flags in their profile pictures and avatars of an angry Hanuman, Karan Acharya’s menacing image of the usually genial monkey god. Most of them sport the motto proud Indian in their bios.
There is no rational reason to be proud of something you did not choose—like an accident of birth—or of achievements in which you had no part, like those of your ancestors. Yet most of us find it comforting to conceive of ourselves as part of a tribe and—however illogically—we want to take credit for the successes of its members. Few of us are athletes, but many of us feel invested in the fate of our local or national football or cricket team. Few of us can be heroes, but we feel a swelling of pride when eminent people produce great works of literature, make scientific discoveries, act with statesmanlike dignity on the world stage, embody our heroes on the big screen. Our own lives can be pedestrian and petty, but we have vivid imaginations that must feed on the doings of more prominent people, huge ambitions that can only be realised vicariously.
If the famous and heroic have something in common with us—because they are our co-religionists or compatriots, for example—we like to think that that shared characteristic helped them achieve greatness. Because that means that we, despite our own obscurity and mediocrity, have the possibility for greatness within us. And we don’t have to prove it, even to ourselves. We were born with it. This is even more true when such figures are prophets or deities. Gods demand our worship and, in return, promise us a bit of unearned, reflected glory.
So pride in being Indian, for many enthusiastic Modi supporters and for much of the Hindu right, means pride in being Hindu. The danger, however, with pride is that it often implies a sense of superiority over others, which can lead to bigotry and xenophobia. When pride in an ethnicity is combined with nationalism, it creates the heady but toxic cocktail of ethnonationalism, which is the belief that a geographical region is the property of only one of the groups that make their home there (usually the majority group) and the others should be—at best—discriminated against as second-class citizens. When this dangerous ideology takes hold, it generally leads to inter-group conflicts, the oppression of minorities, political polarisation, divisiveness, fear and eventually, inevitably, violence.
There is probably no country in which the resurgence of ethnonationalism is more dangerous than in India: one of the most culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse of nations, around 15% of whose citizens are non-Hindus, including the world’s second largest population of Muslims. And few countries have experienced more bloody intergroup conflicts in the recent past. The fighting between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs that accompanied the country’s foundation left around two million dead and created eight million refugees.
Yet, despite all this, Indians have a lot to be proud of. They have upheld the world’s largest democracy for seventy-two years. The odds against this can scarcely be overstated. India is an extreme statistical outlier among democratic countries: in its size, poverty and diversity. The horrors of Partition can lead us to see the birth of the country as a division—a cracking, as Bapsi Sidhwa famously put it. But it was also an extraordinary victory for unification. Before Independence, India (and Pakistan) were a patchwork of British-ruled territories, interspersed with more than 250 princely states—all of which eventually acceded to one of the two fledgling nations. It also contained—and contains—a dizzying number of ethnic and religious groups. Even Hinduism, the major religion, traditionally splits its adherents into castes: endogamous communities which, as DNA analysis has shown, have rarely intermarried over the course of two millennia. India is kaleidoscopic.
Yet, after the British withdrew—taking almost all their military and civil service personnel with them—India did not descend into chaos, as many predicted.
Instead, against all the odds, a nation was formed and it was neither a theocracy nor a military dictatorship. One of the world’s most intensely religious countries opted for a secular constitution—whose drafting committee was chaired by a Dalit (formerly called untouchable) the erudite, eloquent and snazzily dressed B. R. Ambedkar. A territory without a common tongue, with twenty-two official languages—and, estimates suggest, at least four hundred unofficial languages—united into a single nation. A country home to one fifth of humanity, and one third of the world’s poor at the time of its founding (India has since significantly reduced its proportion of poor) established a stable, multi-party democracy.
And democracy has held for seventy-two years today—no mean feat. I write this from Argentina, another former colonial nation, more than a century older (founded in 1810). Our longest period of sustained democracy to date (from 1983) has lasted for less than half that time.
These are astonishing achievements. The existence of India is a testament to people’s ability to live together, peacefully, creating, from a vertiginous array of different cultures and beliefs, a single identity: Indian. Now that’s something to be proud of.
Disagree with your views. 1. As the tenets of Sanatam Dharma goes- you are not born somewhere and to someone by a fluke / random card being pulled out of a deck/ hat sorting. Most Hindus believe that they could be born as any of the many many millions of genus/ life forms/ species that exist- but a human birth was accorded to them based on what “karmas’ they committed. 2. In other words- ( and a reductionist approach at that)- good deeds lead to graduation to the upper orbit in the food chain , and animalistic deeds lead to a demotion in the food chain( for more on this – you can look up the ’84 lakh yoni concept). 3. By 1 & 2 above- the practicing Hindu believes that they could have been born a pig or a bird or an American – but were born in India… Read more »
Hi Iona. I liked your piece! Do you have any recommendations for book length projects on India? I see a lot of hot takes in the Western press on India and Hindu nationalism but not a lot of measured analysis. Also, I wanted to know your thoughts on attempts to link U.S. presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard to Hindu nationalists. She is a western convert to Hinduism.
Anyone interested in the ideas raised by this piece should read Amartya Sen’s brilliant collection of essays ‘The Argumentative Indian’. He’s a fierce critic of Modhi style Hindu Nationalism, but more importantly Sen shows a number of things. Like so much ethnic/religious nationalism it’s largely ahistorical and a modern invention. That for all its ethnic conflict India has a long tradition of religious pluralism, tolerance and a tradition of public discussion as a means of working out public policy, social ethics etc. Sanskrit for instance had the largest collection of atheistic/secular writing of any classical language. Whatever influence British rule may have had, the roots of Indian democracy are also very much Indian. Obviously, like all places and all faiths Hinduism has its unpleasant and parochial side, but the democratic secular religiously tolerant Indian isn’t something it just learnt from the West. It’s a version of being Indian and Hindu… Read more »
I left India in 1965 at 17 to return to my homeland, Canada. I visited India after 40 years, having been told of the major changes I would see. What shocked me was the areas in which little change had occurred – attitudes to and treatment of servants, continued caste endogamy and dowrys (technically illegal), denial of any rights to seasonal migrants, caste considerations in employment, shock at a 60-year old woman going to the bazaar alone, suppression of news about a state election in which a candidate was murdered (all travel to Bihar was banned at the time + news blackout), and so on. A veneer of cell phone and jeans did not cover this kind of thing. In spite of this, I recognise that millions are better off than they were in the 1960’s, and all Indians have a right to be proud of this.
This is a very interesting and well written article. Your concern over “nationalism” is well founded, but we have to recognize that “tribalism” and “nationalism” are fundamentally part of our moral makeup. Morality is a survival mechanism and one way it is displayed is through close identity to one’s group — sharing in its successes and being depressed by its failures. To denigrate this instinct is to undermine the social impulse that allows us to sacrifice ourselves for others. When the Americans put a man on the moon they also erected an American flag. This instinct expresses itself in many ways and can be constructive as well as destructive. Your second major point, the amazing achievement of India remaining a democracy under such difficult circumstances, is also noteworthy. But India, like the United States (my country), Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, etc. was fortunate enough to be led… Read more »
For once I disagree with Iona, tho it’s a subtle thing: > There is no rational reason to be proud of something you did not choose—like an accident of birth—or of achievements in which you had no part, like those of your ancestors. Yet most of us find it comforting to conceive of ourselves as part of a tribe But we are part of tribes. > Because that means that we, despite our own obscurity and mediocrity, have the possibility for greatness within us. And we don’t have to prove it, even to ourselves. We were born with it. But we do have the possibility, tho we *do* have to prove — not that we have the possibility, but that we can actually achieve. What kid, afraid to do something, has not been given the courage by watching his friend do it? What son, watching his father do something has… Read more »