The Crisis of the Indian World

The relationship between cosmopolitanism and nationalism is, generally speaking, not mutually sympathetic. Nationalists tend to regard cosmopolitans with suspicion, and cosmopolitans look upon nationalists with alarm and condescension. The two ways of constructing the Self are, of course, not mutual incompatible either. Kwame Appiah suggested that an ethically meaningful cosmopolitanism necessarily begins with strong affiliation with a specific community. Certainly, cosmopolitan nationalism can be imagined in at least two different ways: a nationhood that is internally cosmopolitan, and one that engages actively with a community of nations. I want to talk about how these two possibilities have come together, and come apart, in modern India. I want to suggest that the limits of internal cosmopolitanism in India – most specifically, a sweeping delegitimization of the concept of national minorities – have set up the limits of being Indian in the world, and that these limits are particularly evident in the present historical moment.

I want to begin on the margin of India, with ‘Muslim Zion,’ as Faisal Devji called Pakistan. I do not need to go into details of Devji’s thesis now, except to point out that such ‘Zionism’ – Muslim or Jewish – rested upon a willingness to think of nationhood outside majorities, well before it reached the point of imagining a new state with a new majority. Even when such a state emerged on the horizon, it remained connected to communities that were, apparently, within the nation but without the state. It can be argued that the failure of the first phase of Pakistan in 1971 reflected the pitfalls of this kind of cosmopolitan nationhood: whereas the patriots of the West Wing remained over-attached to a Muslim identity that transcended the nation-state, and failed to cultivate an affiliation with their subcontinental fellow-citizens, those of the East Wing possessed and cultivated the more conventional, compact nationalism in which ties beyond the territorial state are not relevant to your identity, and being the majority counts for something.

The Iqbalian nationalism of the West Wing had relevance beyond the 'nation' of Indian Muslims. Here again Faisal Devji has been an illuminative historian, arguing that for Gandhi in South Africa and even afterwards, nationalist politics was about negotiation between groups dispersed over a wide geography that could be imperial or Indian, but in either case was unconcerned with majorities and borders. Devji implies that this cosmopolitanism is precisely why Gandhi fell afoul of Savarkar, Godse and their ilk, and Godse himself was quite explicit about it. The refusal to grant an absolute value to the majority concept, as much as any quixotic attachment to non-violence, made Gandhi a misfit and a traitor in the new nation.

Gandhi was especially dangerous because he was not such an outlier in the last decades of colonial rule. There was, of course, Rabindranath Tagore, whose universalist humanism could be at odds with the politics of organized nationalism, and who notoriously wrote, ‘That what you call a patriot, I am not.’ The words and the posture are easy to misconstrue, and indeed, they have been misconstrued. Far from disavowing national identity, Rabindranath was articulating a way of being Indian in the world, and more generally, of being a nationally-identified subject in the world. What he was rejecting was the primacy of allegiance to a single state and its defining majority.

That rejection could be the foundation of moral responsibility for people anywhere in the world, as it was for Rabindranath. But it could also be the basis for establishing a relationship with people who were of the nation but not of the state, and here, it was relevant to nationalists who have actually been located on the right wing of Indian politics and intellectual history. The sociologist Benoy Kumar Sarkar, for instance, was not a bleeding-heart lover of all people. Between the world wars, he spent much of his time in Germany and Italy, and became a little too fond of the governing strategies he saw here. He wrote voluminously about the Indian relationship with the world in the past, present and future, and was an unsentimental ‘hard’ nationalist, who imagined sovereignty in terms of state power.

Yet Sarkar did not get along well with the mainstream of the Indian National Congress, who in the late 1930s and 1940s were on the verge of inheriting the Indian state. They saw him as an unreliable nationalist. The reason was Sarkar’s evident indifference to the Congress’ goal of a single, unified Indian state. What matters, he wrote, was independence; it mattered less whether there was one independent Indian state, or several. Also, he seemed to care nothing for majorities and their natural privileges: the vanguard of modernity, for Sarkar, was necessarily a minority. There was, of course, a particular context for Sarkar’s remarks, and that was the demand for Pakistan. We should keep in mind that Pakistan was not the only ‘secessionist’ proposal on the table: there were also demands from various princes that their states remain outside the control of a centralized Indian government. In that context, Sarkar’s willingness to accept multiple independent states was, from the Congress perspective, close to treason.

Treason, however, is a complicated thing. Sarkar’s openness to multiple Indias was similar to Jinnah’s, which is all the more reason to revisit the cosmopolitanism of ‘Muslim Zion.’ Muslim ‘separatism’ in India was not merely, or even primarily, a matter of being enchanted by a globally dispersed minority-nation. For Jinnah and arguably many others, the enchantment, so to speak, was with an Indian minority-nation, whose dispersal was a political problem that could not be solved within a unified state in the time available. That vision of cosmopolitan nationhood as a political problem, and a limited timeline for a solution, was explicit in Sarkar. To wait indefinitely for a nationhood that could be politically organized into a single state, he suggested, was to prolong colonial rule. It is possible to read this attitude as stemming from an internationalism that was not oriented towards the sovereign nation-state, as Manu Goswami has done. I think, however, that such a reading is incorrect. Sarkar remained, to his core and to his death in 1948, an ideologue of the sovereign state, and specifically an Indian state, maneuvering in a world of sovereign states. But the contours of that state were negotiable.

So were the contours of the nationalized Self, up to a point. Multi-state adjustments were simultaneously a dispersal and a shrinking of the Self, coupled with a partial relinquishing of claims upon the part amputated. The Bengalis of eastern Bengal must now accept that they are foreigners, Sarkar wrote in 1948, thinking specifically of Pakistan’s Hindu minority, not Muslims. He did not claim special privileges for Indian Hindus, laid no claim upon a Hindu diaspora on behalf of an Indian state, conceded that many erstwhile compatriots would be foreigners to the specific state that would henceforth be known as India, but implied also that foreigner did not necessarily mean alien. There could, in other words, be overlapping Indian subjectivities, which were both rooted (in specific states) and dispersed (across borders).

Sarkar would be strictly loyal to only one India, but remain cognizant of his kinship with the others. Likewise, when Jinnah insisted that there was no such thing as an Indian nation, he was not saying that he saw Hindus as aliens. He was articulating the difficulty of reconciling peoplehood with statehood. Multiple centers of sovereignty produced new possibilities, not only in the form of federalism within the state, but also as a trans-state federalism, or a multiplication of sovereignty. For Sarkar, as for Jinnah, the adjusted, compact Self was both affiliated with one particular state, and linked to a nationally identifiable region, in the process of being located in the world.

Jinnah and Sarkar were able to ‘problem-solve’ in these terms because they occupied an intersectional moment, when multiple, overlapping ways of imagining the nationalized self could be brought to bear upon emerging states and citizenships. The Republic of India had not yet acquired its monopoly on Indianness. We might recall that in 1947, Sarat Bose and Shaheed Suhrawardy, men with very different political allegiances, could join forces in suggesting that Bengal remain united and external to both India and Pakistan. Sarat Bose, certainly, was not disavowing his Indianness. But he and Suhrawardy were Bengali patriots at a moment when that identity could be governmentally expressed outside an Indian nation state, or a Pakistani state for that matter, without nullifying either their conviction that nation-states were key instruments of dignity and sovereignty, or their investment in a capacious sovereignty that accommodated many kinds of Indian subjectivities.

The degree to which the Indian National Congress shared in these cosmopolitan possibilities is a vexed question, not least because the Congress had many ideological factions. Even if we were to look at the overtly cosmopolitan Nehru, there is no easy answer. We can certainly hold Nehru responsible for pushing so hard for a centralized, unitary state that alternative formulations of sovereignty were nipped in the bud. When he wrecked the Cabinet Mission Plan, for instance, he aborted not only the last chance to avert the Partition, but also what would have been, in some ways, a binational state. It has been suggested by Ayesha Jalal that Nehru and the Congress deliberately expelled ‘Muslim India’ from ‘India,’ in order to bypass the political challenges of governing a binational state. Unlike Sarkar, they restricted Indianness to the rump state for which they settled, effectively partitioning not just a state, but an identity. It can be argued, therefore, that Nehru gave us a curtailed Indianness.

That model of Indianness, however, was also a way of being engaged in the world, not just as a sovereign power (as Sarkar wanted) but as an instrument of justice. It was that cosmopolitanism of justice, an extension of the Nehru-and-Ambedkar-driven nationhood of justice, that caused India to take on quixotic positions like the boycott of apartheid South Africa, to support the Palestinians, and to criticize the Western wars in Suez and Vietnam.

We can also say that Nehru’s government presided over a formative important stage of Indian federalism, which made it possible for a federal identity and administrations to coexist with their provincial counterparts. The connections between this internal federalism and internationalism in foreign policy are not immediately obvious, but they are real. We know that Nehru initially resisted linguistic federalism; it was, to some extent, forced upon him. But he – and more importantly, large numbers of his compatriots – came to accept the arrangement as a reasonable solution to the problem of ‘unity in diversity.’ While it may very well have complicated the project of ‘national unity’ and made secessionist agendas easier to formulate, it was also visibly a countermeasure against a monolithic nationhood premised on, say, the dominance of Hindus or Hindi-speakers. Nehruvian India had a Hindu majority and a legitimate Muslim minority (whose legitimacy was bemoaned by some as ‘appeasement’); it was, simultaneously, a nation in which all ethnic groups – even Hindi-speakers – were minorities. It was, in that sense, a citizenship of accommodation and mutual engagement: a big-tent nationhood, oriented towards a big-tent world.

If we compare that Indianness with the subjectivity of Hindutva or the Hindu right, there are some obvious overlaps. Savarkar, who coined the term Hindutva, was a Maharashtrian nationalist and an Indian nationalist who wanted a Bengali sister-in-law. He was representative of an Indianizing agenda within the Hindu right that was impatient with narrow or provincial identity-projects, seeking to complement them with something that was new and pan-Indian, and that could be articulated in terms of national culture or even race, as in M.S. Golwalkar’s writings.

Those new structures, however, were often quite coercive, in that they relied upon the state to steamroller political opposition. They were also narrow, being upper-caste, north-Indian, Hindu, and Hindi-speaking, even when articulated by Maharashtrians or Bengalis. To use a couple of American metaphors, if federated Indianness was a salad-bowl, the Indianness of Hindutva was a melting-pot in which the final product had been preordained. Moreover, as the RSS and VHP became the principal institutions for setting the agenda of Hindutva, the nature of the preordination moved sharply away from the relatively secular Hindu nationalism of Savarkar, towards a Hindu nationhood that was nakedly concerned with religion and mythology.

The nationhood of Hindutva has its vision of the world, but it is a different world – different not only from the worlds of Sarkar, Gandhi and Jinnah, but also from that of Nehru. It saw no world at all beyond India. Ironically, this India was not the truncated India of Nehru, but the India-as-neighborhood of Sarkar and Jinnah, nostalgically and aggressively reimagined as Akhand Bharat. Whereas Sarkar and Jinnah had been willing to entertain a pragmatic disaggregation, Hindutva fantasized about reaggregation of territorial sovereignty, although not of people. But beyond the reaggregated neighborhood, lay a void of knowledge and imagination, akin to the horizon at the edge of the flat earth. When Indians were forced by circumstances to engage that world, it filled with monsters of the local imagination, like Stephen Greenblatt's New World. Engaging 'realistically' with that horizon, either in terms of justice or in terms of realpolitik, was unimportant. It was, essentially, a modern peasant’s view of the world, stopping at the edge of the neighborhood: a small world, not much bigger than a small nation.

To illustrate how his shift in Indian cosmopolitanism has played out, I want to compare, very briefly, the Indian responses to two crises: the Bangladesh crisis of 1971, and the Myanmar crisis of the present time. To recapitulate very quickly, in 1971, India took in around ten million Bengali refugees, remained clear that they would have to go back to their territory, began to intervene in the civil war in Pakistan on the side of the Bengalis, engaged in a complicated diplomacy involving the US, the Soviet Union, China, and the UN, and eventually went to war. Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s government did these things for a number of reasons, some of which can be called unsentimental and others humanitarian, but in either case, they have to do with a particular notion of cosmopolitan Indianness. They involved, for instance, a sophisticated understanding of a world of nation-states, whose postures and possibilities were shaped by history and politics. They involved a sensitivity to Indian federalism, in which Bangladeshi refugees generated sympathy in West Bengal and resentment in other border states. They involved the recognition that Bangladeshis – or Pakistanis, for that matter – were not Indians who could simply stay on (even when they were Hindus, which the majority of the refugees were). But they were not aliens either, and Indians were linked to them by ties of history and affect, and by political and moral responsibilities that could not be encapsulated within the sovereignty of any single state. The Indian calculus involved, thus, a particular understanding of the location of the self in the nation, the nation in the state, the state in the neighborhood, and the neighborhood in the world.

In the current situation involving the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya from Myanmar, the Indian position has been (i) to give almost unqualified support to the Myanmar regime, which is conducting the ethnic cleansing, (ii) to categorize the Rohingya as a threat to Indian ‘national security,’ and (iv) to not only refuse to take in Rohingya refugees, but to deport the ones already in India. In the process, the current Indian government has not only shown itself to be on the wrong side of a humanitarian crisis, it has also seriously damaged its relations with Bangladesh, which is bearing the brunt of the exodus from Myanmar without diplomatic support from the largest, most powerful state in South Asia.

The Indian position can be hard to understand, in the sense that it is a departure from older patterns of policy, and in that the ‘national security’ argument is absurd. (Arguably, there would be a greater threat to Indian security if the Rohingya became another permanently stateless and homeless people.) But the position does have a logic of its own: there is an expectation that supporting the Myanmar junta will balance Chinese influence, there are the oil fields that the Reliance corporation has acquired in Myanmar, there is fear of Muslims, there is contempt for Bangladesh. ‘Bangladeshi’ has long been the Hindu right’s synonym for ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘undesirable alien.’ Even among many Indians who can agree that the Rohingya are being ill-treated by the Myanmar regime, there is a feeling that it is not an Indian problem, and that the Indian state has no obligations in the matter.

But what there is, more than anything else, is that warped new way of thinking about the self, the nation, the state, the neighborhood and the world. Not only is there none of the worldliness, i.e., the solidarity with the alien, that was the hallmark of Nehruvian cosmopolitanism, there is no sense of kinship or empathy with a Bengali-speaking people, including Hindus as well as Muslims, in the immediate neighborhood of India. Indianness has receded further within the neighborhood: there is no sense of responsibility that comes from a historical bond with Bangladesh, i.e., that sense of Bangladesh as another India. There is none of the regret and responsibility that animated people of the Partition generation, from Manto to Ritwik Ghatak, who remained cognizant that the borders of the new nation-states were ethnically untrue, and who continued to recognize themselves on the other side of the line. Indianness has, in fact, been diminished even within the Indian state, where questions of whether being a Bengali-speaker makes you at least contextually a Bengali, and whether being Bengali gives you a claim on India, have been swept aside by the all-powerful claim of citizenship. Whereas the apparent Bengaliness of the Rohingya has gained them a measure of sympathy in Bangladesh, provincial and parochial identities (as legitimate political claims upon the whole) have lost ground in India. There is now only a national majority. To be a minority is to be anti-national. This investment in a majority responsible only for itself is reinforced by the post-1991, neoliberal cult of the individual living in a gated community, stepping and sometimes driving over the homeless.

Where a wide spectrum of ideologues once saw a natural multiplicity of identities, responsibilities and centers of affiliation, there is now an Indianness of exclusiveness, that excludes from empathy, fellow-feeling and responsibility all those who cannot be captured within the shrunken boundaries of the majority, the state and the self. I want to close with two observations. One is that this shrinking is an abdicating of liberalism, and democracy without liberalism is inherently fascist. The failure of Indian cosmopolitanism is thus a part of a graver crisis of Indian society, with its majoritarianism and mob violence. The political consolidation of a national majority – pushed to the point of majoritarian nationalism – has, ironically, not only diminished the Indian ability to act in the world, it has precipitated a moral leprosy that can only be demoralizing to those who value an ethical society. The other is that this is not a peculiarly Indian problem. It may be acute in India, where liberalism has historically had shallow roots. But we see it also in Brexit and in Trump’s America. It forces us to face the inherent tension between nationalism and liberalism in the best of circumstances, and the reality that whereas nationalism finds its fulfillment in the mobilized majority, liberalism (especially in the nation-state) is always a minority ideology. Cosmopolitan nationhood is the resolution of that tension, but it is also, much of the time, a contradiction in terms.

September 21, 2017