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National Culture vs. Cultural Nationalism

In common parlance nationalism is understood primarily as a political concept meaning an ideology which provides basis for national integration and cohesion, as well as for seeking national independence from colonial or semi-colonial rule of imperialist powers. It is clear that this political ideology is not something eternal, it comes into being with the advent of capitalism when feudal exclusivism in politics and economy gives way to unified market and unified centralised governance of a country. Destruction of old socio-economic system in India and initiation of modern trade and industry and most importantly, rise of new classes constituted the basis of nationalism. This ideology was adopted by the Indian people in the 19th century, during their movement for independence from British colonial domination. It was in this process that multifarious national and ethnic identities, who had for the most part of their history lived under separate rulers, but now for nearly a century had come under the same foreign power's rule, came closer to each other. It is in course of this very struggle against the common enemy, the British colonialists, they together forged a nation.

As politics is the concentrated expression of economics, often political nationalism, particularly in its early phases, gets manifest in its economic demands. One can call it economic nationalism. In our country too, in the early phases of national movement, liberals represented by Dadabhai Naoroji although did not oppose British rule but criticised its discriminatory economic policies harming Indian industries as "un-British" and opposed the drain of Indian wealth to Britain. Swadeshi and boycott movements launched during the independence struggle period and several other demands and movements including the Salt Satyagraha fall under this category. Lala Lajpat Rai said, "Swadeshi movement will teach us how to use our capital, our resources, our labour, our energy and our skill so as to maximise the welfare of all Indians irrespective of religion, race or caste. In my view Swadeshi should become the common creed of united India." In the present-day post colonial scenario too, when economic blockade, sanctions etc. have become weapons overtly or covertly used by imperialist powers to subdue the weaker nations, this concept of economic nationalism serves its political counterpart in withstanding political pressures.

However, to BJP it is cultural nationalism which constitutes the core of nationalism. Its election manifesto says that "our nationalist vision is not merely bound by geographical or political identity of Bharat but it is referred by our timeless cultural heritage". Now, if "timeless cultural heritage" becomes the main prerequisite for formation of a nation, the United States of America can never be called a nation proper, despite its successful struggle for independence against the British empire, which even inspired the French Revolution! It is clear that the BJP does not regard nationalism as a modern concept. And therefore, as we will later see, its ideology of cultural nationalism is capable neither of unifying or integrating the nation nor protecting our country against imperialist domination.

In its election manifesto BJP has brazenly said that "this cultural heritage which is central to all regions, religions and languages, is a civilisational identity and constitutes the cultural nationalism of India, which is the core of Hindutwa". It says that "Sanatana Dharma" is synonymous with Indian nationalism, and it was on this basis Gandhi coined the phrase "Ram Rajya". It asserts that "BJP is convinced that Hindutwa has immense potentiality to re-energise this nation and strengthen and discipline it to undertake the ardous task of nation-building. This can and does transform the country to greater levels of efficiency and performance." Then BJP gives its practical application : "It is with such integrative (sic!) ideas in mind, the BJP joined the Ram Janmabhoomi movement" ... "the greatest mass movement in post-independence history"... which "reoriented the disoriented polity in India and strengthened the foundation of cultural nationalism". BJP further asserts that "Ram lies at the core of Indian consciousness". Concluding its arguments, BJP states that it is committed to 'one nation, one people and one culture.

Marxists do uphold the task of promoting national culture by critically assimilating old and newer scientific elements from various sources basing on mass acceptability and adaptability. In this sense the slogan of national, scientific and mass culture was given by Mao. However, cultural sources of a nation do not necessarily lie in a given geographical domain. In fact history from the very beginning has witnessed great transmigrations throughout the globe and no nation which has entered the modern world can claim exclusivity. Neither Europe nor India, nor China or Egypt can claim that the elements of their present-day culture are indigenous in the sense that they originated in their soil. In this respect a modern culture is essentially more cosmopolitan and international than national.

What is exclusively Indian? Our script, academies, sculpture, dances, dishes, music, language, dress, and what not, everything has its origin in lands other than this subcontinent. Cultural elements from Assyrian and Phoenician, Greek, Roman and Persian, Shakas of Middle East, Turkish-Chinese Kushanas, Ahirs and Gurjars, Afghans and Arabs, and lastly Mughals, have all in the course of our history got so inseparably ingrained in our culture that without them Indian culture unimaginable. If with its ulterior motives this "timeless cultural heritage" is denoted by BJP as "Sanatan Dharma" to look exclusively Indian, how can this cultural nationalism serve any objectively true nationalism?

We must note here that culture is something very different from politics and economics. Nationalism is a product of a definite stage of development of society and its political and economic aspects take concrete shape in that particular period, and in this respect they do draw a demarcating line from the past socio-economic systems. Democracy based on adult franchise and capitalist production relations are manifestations of these aspects. But culture is continuous, it trangresses the dimension of geographical space and time. It cannot be bound to nationalism because its sources cannot be bound to a geographical territory. Cultural nationalism teaches us to treat religions and customs originating in other geographical territories as alien. By its nature it is bound to do so. Therefore, cultural nationalism is exclusivist and reactionary ideology. It is in fact a fascist ideology. In order to make our national culture modern and scientific we have assimilated various cultural elements from the people in imperialist countries in the past and will continue to do so in future.

Basing on the logic of cultural nationalism some people peddle the theory that Marxism too is inapplicable in Indian conditions because its genesis lies in Europe. Not only that, of late some revivalist (erstwhile Marxist!) intellectuals have started demolishing the great renaissance movement too. Thus Dante and Shakespeare, Micheal Angelo and Beethoven, Rousseau and Balzac have all become proponents of a foreign ideology of humanism, which does not put the balance of nature at the centre of consideration. Thus the project of renaissance is being demolished and Indian Vedic cultural renaissance is being invoked for reinstalling balance of nature as the centerpiece of human consideration. Post-modernism has very much entered into the soul of cultural nationalism.

If we recall the past, it was so-called cultural nationalism which immensely undermined the movement for national independence by putting a wedge between two great religious communities of India, Hindus and Muslims. Panicked by the First War of Independence in 1857, in which Hindus and Muslims fought shoulder to shoulder to oust them, British rulers resorted to "the old policy of Roman Empire" in the words of Elphinstone, i.e., "divide and rule". However, it was of little success when under this policy British Bengal was divided in 1905. In 1906 Congress session at Calcutta, Muslim representatives including Mohammad Ali Zinnah participated in large numbers and it was Zinnah who moved a proposal against reservation of council seats on religious basis, saying that "The basis of founding Indian National Congress is that we all are equal and there should be no reservation for a class or a community." However, under the impact of cultural nationalism, revivalist trends grew among several Hindu leaders, including radicals (Garampanthis), which found it facile to mobilise Hindus around old Hindu religious symbols. Naturally Muslims could not adopt these symbols as their own, because some of them even betrayed anti-Muslim overtones (such as "Bande Mataram" of Bankimchandra).

Rajendra Prasad, an avowed Gandhian has at one place explained that Indian culture, which symbolises unity in diversity has Ahimsa (non-violence) as its central essence which has been derived from Vedic sources. According to him it is Ahimsa which has binded diverse identities together from time immemorial, because this principle entails a relationship not based on violent conquest but on brotherhood and mutual progress. One can see in the above episode how Ahimsa in the modern times divided the two great communities of India and not only split the country into two, but also engendered bloodshed unprecedented in Indian history.

We are carrying on the burden of that legacy on our backs to the present day. This vicious cultural nationalism prevents us from making friends with a part of our own body, Pakistan, and it keeps alive the Kashmir question as well. Not only that, it shuts our eyes from the burning domestic questions of exploitation and oppression; it misguides our nationalism by robbing it of its anti-imperialist essence and renders our motherland a happy hunting ground for real Shylocks.

It is really unfortunate that in the present phase of globalisation offensive, when we seem to be losing almost everything we have at our nation's disposal, forces representing genuine nationalism, forces of modern national culture - are lying low. Centrist formations and the erstwhile ruling party have refused to even voice national aspirations in the name of economic realism. Owing to their unpardonable opportunism, sections of the Left also find themselves in initiativeless position. In this vacuum of Indian polity, saffron fascist forces have come up with their distorted and poisonous variety of nationalism, which has gained currency despite being revivalist and retrogressive. With this fascist takeover, not only democracy but Indian unity, integrity and independence is at stake. But most alarmingly, it is Indian culture which is at stake. Saffron forces are bent up on their scheme of writing a second version of Indian history; they are working overtime on their project of "discovery of the other India". This force cannot be tackled with the help of post-mortem type or stereotyped analyses, the call of the hour is to take the bull by its horns. Only a head-on challenge by the radical left forces who are undeterredly shedding their sweat and blood in the project of regeneration of modern India with a mass scientific culture can ensure the defeat of the forces of cultural nationalism.

Brij Bihari Pandey

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