ImagiNation, or the Politics of Nation and Imagination

NRC-CAA protests in India in 2019 © Sandeep Banerjee

When I think of India, I think of many things: of broad fields dotted with the innumerable small villages; of towns and cities … of the magic of the rainy season which pours life into the dry parched-up land and converts it suddenly into a glistening expanse of beauty and greenery, of great rivers and flowing water; of the Khyber Pass in all its bleak surroundings; of the southern tip of India; of people, individually and in the mass; and, above all, of the Himalayas, snow-capped, or some mountain valley in Kashmir in the spring covered with flowers, and with a brook bubbling and gurgling through it.[1]

This is Jawaharlal Nehru, who became independent India’s first Prime Minister, writing about his country in The Discovery of India. Nehru’s descriptors range across scales, from the local to the regional, invoking – and presenting to his readers – India’s physical and political geography. He goes on to note that:

… the Bengalis, the Marathas, the Gujratis, the Tamils, the Andhras, the Oriyas, the Assamese, the Canarese, the Malayalis, the Sindhis, the Punjabis, the Pathans, the Kashmiris, the Rajputs, and the great central block comprising the Hindustani-speaking people … have retained their peculiar characteristics … and yet have been throughout these ages, distinctively Indian…[2]

These passages show Nehru not only seeking to give his readers a sense of the country that is India but also attempting, just as crucially, to imagine India as a space and as a community.

Imagination is a crucial aspect of any nation’s nationhood. Benedict Anderson has famously taught us that a nation is an imagined community. And specifically, it is an imagined political community that is understood to be limited and sovereign. It is crucial to understand the idea of “limited” in this formulation. A nation is limited because it constitutes a landmass and a community that is never coterminous with the world or the global population. And how a nation is imagined determines what bits of the world and which (kinds of) people will be allowed in. To say this in another way, the field of imagination then becomes a site of ideological struggle: not simply because it gives us a sense of the place but also because it settles the questions of who belongs to the nation and, just as crucially, to whom the nation belongs. Let me now turn to some crucial ways in which the Indian nation has been imagined.

The Nation in imagination

It is indisputable that postcolonial India – its space and sense of community – bears the mark of the colonial era, so let me begin with the words of the colonial bureaucrat John Strachey. Writing about India, he asks: “What is India? What does this name India really signify? … There is no such country, and this is the first and most essential fact about India that can be learned.”[3]

Presenting India as a terra nullius, or an empty space that is given content and form by colonialism, Strachey goes on to suggest that there is no such category as India, or the “people of India”:

This is the first and most essential thing to learn about India—that there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India, possessing, according to European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social, or religious; no Indian nation, no ‘people of India,’ of which we hear so much.[4]

A crucial aspect of the Indian anti-colonial movement was to counter the British imagination of India as a colony, which attempted to present India as lacking in any cohesive identity. And to counter that, Indians proposed their own imagined identity.

Writing about India in a tract, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the doyen of Hindu Right thought in South Asia, notes: “this Bharatbhumi [India], this Sindusthan, this land of ours that stretches from Sindhu to Sindhu is our Punyabhumi [holy land], for it was in this land that the Founders of our faith and the Seers to who[m] ‘Veda’ the Knowledge was revealed.” [5] In this passage, Savarkar situates India exclusively as a space of Hindu revelation and proceeds to equate the category of “Indian” with “Hindu.” This allows him to make claims about who does, or does not, belong to India. Savarkar writes:

So to every Hindu, from the Santal to the Sadhu[,] this Bharata bhumi [India][,] this Sindustan is at once a Pitribhu and a Punyabhu – fatherland and a holy land. That is why in the case of some of our Mohammedan or Christian countrymen . . . [who] have inherited along with Hindus, a common Fatherland and a greater part of the wealth of a common culture – language, law, customs, folklore and history – are not and cannot be recognized as Hindus. For though Hindustan to them is Fatherland as to any other Hindu yet it is not to them a Holyland [sic] too. Their holyland [sic] is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and Godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil. Consequently their names and their outlook smack of a foreign origin. Their love is divided.[6]

Savarkar, undoubtedly, is challenging the colonial conception of India as an empty space. But this counter-colonial imagination nevertheless draws on another kind of colonial idea, the orientalist idea of India as a land of Hindus to which Muslims were outsiders and came as invaders.[7] These ideas are scattered across the writings of orientalist scholars such as William Jones, and find their most potent expression in the works of James Mill, James Todd, and Monstuart Elphinstone – the so-called “British historians” – which were propagated by the British through the entirety of the colonial state apparatus, and ranged from the repressive to the ideological.[8] In effect, Savarkar is re-deploying one colonial notion of India to counter another, and thus remains trapped in the logic of orientalism.[9] And in so doing, Savarkar’s imagination of the Indian nationexcludes some of its inhabitants from the space of India and the community of Indians.

In contradistinction to Savarkar’s imagination of the Indian nation is the one offered by Rabindranath Tagore, poet extraordinaire and colonial India’s single-most important public intellectual. Tagore’s imagination of India is shot through with a message of hope and unity as is evident in the words of the lyric Jana Gana Mana [জনগণমন]. Most Indians know the first stanza of this lyric as it is India’s national anthem, and the rest of the lyric, barring a few notable exceptions, is not sung. But it is to the second stanza that I want to draw readers’ attention, as it presents an expansive imagination of the Indian community – an imagination, one must admit, that appears almost parodic in the face of contemporary reality. Here is the lyric’s second stanza:

Daily is your appeal made, hearing your welcome call Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Parsee Muslim, and Christian, come all The West with the East meet Weave love’s garland by your seat. For you the people’s unity – glory to thee! India’s destiny you decree glory, glory, glory to thee![10]অহরহ তব আহ্বান প্রচারিত, শুনি তব উদার বাণী হিন্দু বৌদ্ধ শিখ জৈন পারসিক মুসলমান খৃস্টানী পূরব পশ্চিম আসে তব সিংহাসন-পাশে প্রেমহার হয় গাঁথা । জনগণ-ঐক্য-বিধায়ক জয় হে ভারতভাগ্যবিধাতা! জয় হে, জয় হে, জয় হে, জয় জয় জয় জয় হে ।।[11]  

Notice how this stanza in deploys a register of enumeration to list the various religious identities who make up the community of Indians at large: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsees, and Christians. And just as importantly, the stanza does not present India as a space of uniformity but as a variegated entity that gestures towards a sense of unity in difference. Note also how Tagore deploys the spiritual: India is not equated with gods or deified as in the case with some patriotic lyrics. Rather, the poet makes, and maintains, a distinction between the divine and India. The call of this divine welcomes diverse communities – Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsees, and Christians – who meet at the throne to weave “a garland of love.” This stanza also constructs an idea of the Indian community. People belong to India because they have lived ties with the country and not through some primordial claim on this land. Such an imaginative gesture not only makes visible the multiple religious communities that inhabit India but also sets them up as groups who belong, and are equal claimants, to Indian space. And this is precisely where the image of India becomes hopeful and also fantastic in the context of our present.

Tagore’s idea of India, imbued as it is with a sense of hopefulness, finds expression throughout his poetic oeuvre. His sonnet from the 1901 anthology Noibedyo [নৈবেদ্য] offers readers a vision of a future for India and the world that is structured as a prayer. Some readers may be more familiar with Tagore’s own translation that begins with “Where the Mind is Without Fear” (the version Martin Sheen recited in the climate action protest at Capitol Hill in the United States of America a few years ago). The text that follows is my translation from the original Bengali:

Where the mind is fearless, the head held high And knowledge, free. Where, by day and by night, This earth has not been kept broken By walls. Where all that is spoken Springs forth from the heart. Where human action, Journeys unfettered in all direction And across all the lands, to express Itself in forms diverse and countless. Where the sandbars of petty custom Have not engorged the streams of reason, Humankind not shattered into a hundred parts. Where each day, you lead all pleasures, thoughts, and tasks. Be ruthless my Lord – with your own hand strike! Wake India up into that paradise.  চিত্ত যেথা ভয়শূন্য, উচ্চ যেথা শির,   জ্ঞান যেথা মুক্ত, যেথা গৃহের প্রাচীর   আপন প্রাঙ্গণতলে দিবসশর্বরী বসুধারে রাখে নাই খণ্ড ক্ষুদ্র করি,      যেথা বাক্য হৃদয়ের উৎস মুখ হতে    উচ্ছ্বসিয়া উঠে, যেথা নির্বারিত স্রোতে দেশে দেশে দিশে দিশে কর্মধারা ধায় অজস্র সহস্রবিধ চরিতার্থতায় —        যেথা তুচ্ছ আচারের মরুবালুরাশি       বিচারের স্রোতঃপথ ফেলে নাই গ্রাসি, পৌরুষেরে করেনি শতধা, নিত্য যেথা তুমি সর্ব কর্ম চিন্তা আনন্দের নেতা–  নিজ হস্তে নির্দয় আঘাত করি, পিতঃ, ভারতেরে সেই স্বর্গে করো জাগরিত॥[12]             

The vision of this poem locates India in a state of becoming that would, in the future, transform into “that paradise.” And “that paradise” has specific attributes: where the mind is without fear, the head held high, and knowledge, free. The world, too, is envisioned here – as one entity that is not broken into parts by walls or boundaries. This is of course a fantastic list of attributes by all accounts but one that makes explicit the utopian desire for a more equitable India and a more just world. And by insisting on a borderless world of which India (the local) is a part, the poet collapses the collapses the distinction between the local and the global. The sonnet, in fact, seeks to stretch India to make it more than itself, and stand in of the world.

The texts that I have showcased show how the realm of imagination is central for positing, contesting, and negotiating ideas of India. Specifically, it shows how Indians pushed back against the colonial imaginaries to re-imagine the Indian nation in a counter-colonial vein. This process of contestation – and this is important to bear in mind – is not just, or simply, between the colonial and counter-colonial but also, more crucially perhaps, between different kinds of counter-colonial imagination that gesture towards radically different ideas of the Indian nation.[13]

To say this another way: the counter-colonial imaginations point to very different ideas of what India is and could become even as they set down ideas of who is – or is not – an Indian. And while my examples are drawn from South Asia’s colonial period, this process as such is by no means restricted only to that time. In contemporary India, in this second decade of the twenty-first century, a complex set of socio-cultural processes are seeking to imagine India an exclusively Hindu country as they push the Indian nation gradually, but firmly, down the path of a blut und boden kind of nationalism. The need of the hour is to contest these ideas to re-imagine India once again as a nation of plurality and inclusivity.

NRC-CAA protests in India in 2019 © Sandeep Banerjee

[1] Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989 [1946], 62

[2] Ibid., 61.

[3] John Strachey, India (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1888), 2.

[4] Ibid., 5

[5] Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? (Bombay: Veer Savarkar Prakashan, 1969), 111.

[6] Ibid., 113.

[7] For a revisionist history in the context of Bengal that goes against this commonsense, see Richard Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

[8] For an excellent engagement with colonial historiography, see Javed Majeed, Ungoverned Imaginings: James Mill’s The History of British India and Orientalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

[9] See Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

[10] All translations, unless otherwise specified, are by Sandeep Banerjee.

[11] Rabindranath Tagore, “Janoganomono-odhinayako” [জনগনমনঅধিনায়ক],” in Gitobitan [গীতবিতান] (Calcutta: Vishwabharati, 1993), 249-250.

[12] Rabindranath Tagore, “chitto jetha bhoyshunyo,” [চিত্ত যেথা ভয়শূন্য] in Noibedyo [নৈবেদ্য] (Calcutta: Vishwabharati, 1901), 83.

[13] For a fuller discussion on colonial and counter-colonial spatial imaginations in British and Indian literary texts, see Sandeep Banerjee, Space, Utopia and Indian Decolonization: Literary Pre-figurations of the Postcolony (London: Routledge, 2019).


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