fuels Indian Nationalism?
A deep sense of inferiority
and fear, says Ashis Nandy
anxieties have continued to plague us since the mid-1980s. The first is
the diminishing role of the sacred in everyday life, even though India continues
to be seen as a country surfeit with religions and rituals. Indian religions
are organised around rituals, family priests, village and family specific
gods, pilgrimages and mannats—all predominantly local or regional.
The traditional religious sensitivity built on these has become increasingly
unsustainable as people have moved from villages to cities, from state to
state, and from one linguistic zone to another. This uprooting has created
a need for a generic version of faith, in which a person who moves from
Kerala to Uttar Pradesh can continue to believe that he is a part of his
religion. All-round secularisation of life has underscored the fear of losing
The second anxiety is the product of urbanisation. Technically, India is
still predominantly a rural society. However, urban norms, life styles and
tastes have begun to make their presence felt in a way that would have been
unthinkable two decades ago. The cities have opened up the possibility for
an individual to escape and reinvent himself in an ambience of anonymity
and impersonality. Yet, the anonymous impersonality also demands a form
of individualism and capacity to live with the loneliness that grows out
of weakening family and castes ties. If you happen to be a first-generation
migrant to the city, you are bound to look back nostalgically on the life
and social ties you have left behind, and seek the old sense of belonging.
Third, since the 1830s, the Indian middle class has been consistently exposed
to a form of modern education that has underwritten a global hierarchy of
cultures. Over 150 years they have come to believe that western societies
are modern and Indian society is premodern and backward. Distinctions between
westernisation and modernisation have not touched the bulk of western educated
modern Indians, who are convinced that their future lies in being exactly
like Europe and North America. Do not be taken in by radical rhetoric. If
you examine where most of our Left and Swadeshiwallahs send their children
to study, you will find remarkably little difference between them and other
sections of the Indian bourgeoisie. Inevitably, modern Indians have come
to live with a deep feeling of inadequacy. They seek parity, not with other
Asian countries doing well, but with the West itself. Last year, a study
found that Indians are the most nationalistic people in the world, overtaking
countries like the US, Japan and Pakistan. This nationalism is propelled
by a deep sense of inferiority.
The only set of political actors who have sensed and responded to these
anxieties are the Hindu nationalists, though their close competitors, the
Islamic fundamentalists, too, have come close to reacting to these anxieties.
Neither have done so self-consciously or by design; they are too dumb to
identify or know the psychological space they occupy. They have done so
Nevertheless, they have reaped the benefit of what they have done. During
the first 40 years of Indian independence, the electoral support base of
the Hindu nationalists ranged between seven to nine percent, roughly speaking.
It has expanded to more than 20 percent now. This support base is disproportionately
higher among the urban middle classes and among educated, modern Indians.
Among NRIs in the First World, I shall not be surprised if some survey finds
that the support base of Hindu nationalism is more than 90 per cent. It
is true that this base is unlikely to rise much further. But even this base
goes a long way in Indian politics today, given the fragmented party space.
The democratic process in India has brought close to power many social sectors
that would not have dreamt of having access to power only 30 years ago.
But in the process of creating a nation-state called India, this process
has also ensured that those who are close to the Indian state also imbibe
its global, homogenising message. A part of that message is that if you
want to be successful as a nation-state in the global arena, you have to
do to your cultural diversity, to your minorities, your forest dwellers
and your tribes, what Europe and North America and Australia have done to
theirs. The Hindu nationalists seem well-equipped and well-qualified to
The writer is an eminent social scientist