Culture and Nationalism: Politics of Identity in India S.M. Michael Ambedkar phule periyar


S.M. Michael, SVD
Culture and Nationalism: Politics of Identity in India


I – Introduction


Culture and Identity in India

In recent years, the question of the identity of India has been at the top of the agenda at debates on culture, politics and Indian nationalism. We are confronted on the one hand with a militant Hindu revivalism trying to define India in terms of an upper-caste Sanskritic Hindu identity, and on the other hand, with voices from below, from tribals, Dalits, religious, linguistic and ethnic groups which are demanding elbow room and acceptance of their specific cultural identity in the Indian national commonwealth. This paper sets out to explain the cultural situation in which this power game is played and the importance of dialogue in this context.

The Indian Nation is multi-cultural and the Constitution recognizes this. The Indian Constitution grew out of the challenges and contending visions for the future of India’s cultural, religious and ethnic plurality at the time of the freedom struggle. Hence, it is important to understand that patriotism is not the monopoly of any one ideological or religious group in India.

We will shortly show that the secular Constitution of the Republic of India is the outcome of conflicting views on the secular form of the modern state and various religious claims on Indian identity; between contending visions of what India should be; between the enthusiastic support for the promotion of Hindi and the fearful reticence of the non-Hindi speaking majority; and between the demands of a centralized government and policies defined by local needs and visions.

After fifty years of loyalty to the Constitutional pledge to honour the principles of pluralism and secularism, India now faces a challenge and an unconstitutional attempt to redefine India soly in terms of a mono-cultural, Hindu Rashtra (Nation). The steady growing Hindu orientation of our political culture and national self-understanding, with its consequent marginalization of other groups has caused much communal disharmony and discontent in India in terms of violence against Christians, Muslims and others. This paper sets out to highlight the dialogue that took place at the birth of the Indian nation. History may teach us a lesson that we need to learn in order to promote and enhance the dialogue here at the beginning of the new millennium. It is my hope that knowledge of the past will help us in the present to point out the road that must be traveled to arrive at a concept of Indian identity that is comprehensive enough to include the totality of her many sub-cultural groups. Such reflections are urgent and important in a context of globalization and the present upsurge of ethnic and religious unrest worldwide, and also for us here in India who must find a way to respond to the challenges of the present times.

Awareness of these issues is also very important for the Church in India. Its concern for inculturation, social justice, and the theological training of Church personnel has to be voiced in an inter-cultural dialogue on Indian identity and Indian nationalism.


Indian Civilization and Indian Nationalism

India is a sub-continent with a vast population of the most diverse levels of culture. Anthropological knowledge of the people of India reveals that almost all known racial groups have migrated to India at different times in the past with their own language, religion and culture. Since there was plenty of space, the migrating cultural and racial groups could pass on and penetrate further into the interior without much opposition. Thus, the various cultural groups did not destroy each other, but continued to live on and consolidate into the main components of the present-day population. The caste system also helped to keep the diverse racial, social and cultural groups apart, for it prevented them effectively from mixing with one another. The population of India is thus very heterogeneous. Variety and diversity permeates the whole sub-continent, every state and district, every town and village.

Indian civilization is the outcome of a confluence of various cultural, religious, linguistic and ethnic traditions. Over the years of mutual fecundation, synthesis and challenge, Indian civilization has come to be characterized by diversity of culture, religion, language, race and caste groups. According to Kothari, “in the absence of a centralized political authority it was ‘the Indian civilizational enterprise’ which ‘over the centuries achieved a remarkable degree of cohesion and held together different sub-systems in a continental-size society’” (Kothari, 1988:2223). Thus, the unifying force of Indian civilization was the acceptance of multi-culturality and linguistic diversity rather than a political ideology of regimentation.

The Age of Nationalism in the modern sense of the word is a recent phenomenon. It developed in the eighteenth century in the West and emerged at a later period as a universal political concept. According to Kohn, it was only between 1815-1920 that the political map of Europe was redrawn, while the political map of Asia and Africa changed between 1945-1965 (Kohn, 1968:63). Before this period nationalism with its present implications did not exist; there were city-states, tribal groups and dynastic states and empires (Gellner, 1994:62).

The development of nationalism is seen as an integral part of the same historical process that saw the rise of industrialism and democracy. According to Gellner and Hobsbawm the emergence of modern nationalism is an inevitable consequence of capitalism and industrialization (Hastings, 1997:10). Partha Chatterjee expresses similar views with regard to the emergence of nationalism. In his opinion, nationalism required the replacement of a traditional, group-based culture by the culture of an industrial society, i.e., a shared culture of a larger group but where the individual and not the group was the primary unit (Chatterjee, 986:5). Nationalism thus presupposes the existence, in fact or as an ideal, of a centralized form of government over a large and distinct territory (Kohn, 1956:4).

In India nationalism emerged in the context of colonialism (see Oommen, 1997; Singh, 1997:117-130). It can be traced to the political and administrative unification followed by the economic unification by the British. Politically speaking there was no India at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and for at least a century before that neither did India possess a knowledge of its own past and its ancient history (Majumdar, 1965:4). The introduction of English education, European science and philosophy, as well as the pride in India as a nation and her past culture, emerged at this historical turning point.

II – Contending Visions of Indian Nationalism


What is the Cultural Foundation of Modern India?

In its early manifestation, the struggle for nationalism, anti-colonial consciousness and the need for independence were not in the realm of politics but in the realm of ideology and culture (Pannikar, 1995:57). The first expression of this consciousness was in the form of social and religious reform movements. The important question then was — what is the cultural foundation of Indian society and how are we to reconstruct it as a modern nation on a par with other modern nation states?

Two strands of thought emerged from upper caste Hindus: one led to an attempt at reconstructing Indian society on the basis of Western ideas originating in the age of Enlightenment and Liberalism, and the other wanted the reconstruction to take place on the basis of ancient Hindu traditions. These two visions of India developed their own ideology, leadership and organization in the course of freedom struggle in India. A third vision was voiced by oppressed and marginalized people of India. These three visions of modern India shaped the course of dialogue in India at the birth of the Indian nation and the framing of her Constitution. They are also influential in the current political debates today.

Let us concentrate on these strands of thought.


The Concept of an Indian Nation built on a Rational Approach to Culture

The Enlightenment philosophy of the West began to have its impact on the newly Western-educated Indians during the colonial period. It gave rise to the “Indian Renaissance”. The spirit that was promoted by English education was usually that of British liberalism, rationalism and utilitarianism, a spirit that challenged many of the presuppositions on which the orthodox Brahminic Hindu world outlook was based. With ruthless self-criticism the new Western-educated elite sought to lay the basis for a total social transformation, to weld science and rationality to recreate India.

The beginnings of this social revolt can be easily identified in the thoughts of Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833). Roy vividly described the degraded state of society and acknowledged without embarrassment the virtues of Western learning, liberal legal and social institutions, and Western social ethics (see Damle and Aikara 1982:77). With a view to cleansing Hindu culture and society of its weakness and incongruities, he founded the Brahmo Samaj in 1828 at Calcutta. Its main ideological thrust was to transform Hinduism in the mould of Christianity. The assumption was that Hindu society could only be healed of its social evils if it adopted the Christian rejection of polytheism and idolatry.

The purpose of the Brahmo Samaj was to restructure Hindu culture in terms of modernity. Roy campaigned for the prohibition of sati until Governor-General Lord William Bentinck enacted it in 1829. His revolt against the living Hindu society and his appeal to Indians to purify their religion and reform their social institutions echoed throughout the century after his death. The Brahmo ideologues imbibed quite a bit of Christianity along with some Deism of the European Enlightenment. The third-generation Samaj leader Keshub Chandra Sen (1838-1884) professed a Christian-like veneration of Jesus of Nazareth and interiorized the Christian concept of man’s basic sinfulness.

The massive all-India impact of such reform measures led to a widespread reaction to restrain its further diffusion and subsequent erosion of traditional Hindu values.


The Concept of an Indian Nation Built on Aryan Vedic Culture

While Rammohun Roy cherished held a vision of an Indian society rejuvenated by centuries of exposure to Western science and Christian morality, Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883) urged a regeneration of Hinduism through adherence to a purified “Vedic faith”. The Vedic Aryans are praised by Dayananda as a primordial and elect people to whom the Veda has been revealed by God and whose language (Sanskrit) is said to be the ‘Mother of all languages’ (Dayananda, 1981:249). They migrated in the distant past, at the beginning of history from Tibet — the first land to emerge from the Ocean — towards the Aryavarta. Their territory, the original homeland of the Vedic civilization, covered the Punjab, Doab and the Ganges basin. From there the Aryans were in a position to dominate the whole world till the war of the Mahabharata, a historic watershed that inaugurated a phase of decadence. National renaissance for Dayanda implied a return of the Vedic Golden Age.

The chief object of the Arya Samaj, which he founded in 1875 in Bombay, was to bring about social and religious reform through a renaissance of early Hindu doctrines. Popular slogans were “Back to the Vedas” and “Aryavarta for the Aryans” (Smith, 1938:57). This view simply equated Indian culture with Hinduism and Hindu culture; all non-Hindu cultural traditions were regarded as contaminating influences. The Arya Samaj is probably the first movement in India to define nationalism in terms of ethnicity: in Dayananda’s writings, the Hindus are the incontestable descendents of the Aryans.

Dayananda’s attack on other religions as Christianity and Islam was vigorous. His book, the Satyartha Prakash (“Light of Truth”) contains a polemical chapter against Christianity, one against Islam, one against Buddhism and Jainism, and several against allegedly degenerative trends in Hinduism. The Arya Samaj had two items in its manifesto: Shuddi, the meaning of which is purification, a term for the ceremony by which non-Hindus were converted to Hinduism, and Sangathan which literally means union, that is the promotion of solidarity among Hindus. In short, the Arya Samaj wanted to establish a Hindu nation by propagating a common religion and culture in India and converting others to Hinduism through the ceremony of Shuddhi (see Jordens, 1978).

The idea of world domination by the Hindus was voiced at that time by another Arya Samajist based in the Rajasthani British enclave of Ajmer, Har Bilas Sarda (1867-1955). In the second chapter of The Hindu Superiority (1906), entitled “Hindu Colonization of the World”, the author rejects the Central Asia theory of emigration of the Aryans to India, and asserts that Aryavarta was the birth place of a race which subsequently spread and settled in Egypt, Ethiopia, Persia, Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, Turkistan, Germany, Scandinavia, the Hyperborean countries, Great Britain, Eastern Asia and America (Sarda, 1975:109-163). According to Sarda most civilizations of the world could be traced back to the Hindu-Aryans, a race which had colonised the whole world before the Mahabharat war (Sarda, 1975). The ideological impact of the Arya Samaj was one among several factors that influenced the subsequent ideology of Hindu nationalism that emerged in the 1920s (Jaffrelot, 1996:17).

Vivekananda’s (1863-1902) thought marked the culmination of the 19th century social revolt. He founded the Ramakrishna Math and Mission for the dissemination of Hinduism and for social service. He believed that India alone had a spiritual message whereas the West was steeped in sensuality: “Up, India, and conquer the world with your spirituality” (Vivekananda, 1957:600).

There are thus two predominant versions of nationalism in India: Indian nationalism and Hindu nationalism. The basic question raised by these nationalistic movements was “What should be the cultural foundation of the Indian nation?” Indian nationalism was mainly supported by the western-educated Indian élite, who were secular and utilitarian in their approach. In the words of Heimsath, this brand of nationalism had “at its base an anti-traditional, liberal democratic, secular and politically oriented concept of the nation,” so at an early stage a nationalist ideology was developed which “could properly encompass all Indian cultures and religions” (1964:39). Hindu nationalism developed as a reaction against the liberal and inclusive Indian nationalism.


Cultural Controversies in the National Congress

A second stage in the development of a modern Indian nationalism emerged in 1885 with the foundation of the National Congress by Allan Octovian Hume. The Indian National Congress tried to define a new India in terms of borrowed ideas from the European political experience and Western social ethics. Most of the leaders of the Congress understood the need for a truly all-India nationalism which would rise above regional and communal loyalties (see Smith, 1963:88).


By the end of nineteenth century there was a mighty struggle for the control of the Congress. Two factions, the moderates and the extremists, held radically different views as to the proper ends and means of the nationalist movement. While the moderates in the National Congress such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Madhava Govinda Ranade and Gopal Krishna Gokhale promoted reforms in Hindu culture, extremists glorified Hindu culture and opposed any kind of reform in it. While liberals envisioned a modernization of India through the adoption of the Western parameters of justice, order, rationality and the secular state, Tilak glorified the Vedic civilization (Parvate, 1959:463). According to him Vedic religion was the religion of the Aryans from a very early time. During Vedic times, India was a self-contained country. It was a united and great nation (Varma, 1967:197). He became the proponent of the Hindutva ideology of his time.

Tilak’s overall consideration was the promotion of solidarity among the Hindus, and so he emphasized the superiority of their religion, encouraged revivalism, politicized the Ganapati festival in 1893 and converted Shivaji into a cult figure in 1895, thus serving both religious and political objectives (Michael, 1986:185-197). Tilak effectively invoked the spirit of resurgent Hinduism to support the nationalist cause, but at the inevitable cost of alienating the Muslims.

The leaders of the Hindu nationalist movement in favour of a revival of Hindu culture openly acknowledged their identification of nationalism with Hinduism. Tilak at one time put the matter this way: “The common factor in Indian society is the feeling of hindutva (devotion to Hinduism)” (see Wolpert, 1962:210). The style of the revivalists was more aggressive and tended to reflect a kshatriya (warrior) worldview. The partition of Bengal in 1905 created a Muslim-majority area, widened the breach between the Hindu and Muslim communities, and gave further stimulus to extremist activities.

The religious symbols that Tilak used so effectively in Maharashtra had no appeal in Bengal, but others of even greater potency were at hand. The land of Bengal, and by extension all of India became identified with the female aspect of the Hindu godhead, and the result was the concept of a divine Motherland. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s (1838-1894) poem Bande Mataram (“Hail to the Mother”) soon became the Congress nationalist song popular thoughout India. The country was the Mother, but not a defenceless female: “Thou art Durga (the Mother Goddess), Lady and Queen, with hands that strike and swords of sheen” (Smith, 1963:90). According to Majumdar, Bankim’s nationalism was Hindu rather than Indian. In his novel he converted “patriotism into a religion and religion into patriotism” (Majumdar, 1965:479).

Some of the most passionate statements of the extremist creed came from Aurobindo Ghose who wrote in 1907: “Liberty is the fruit we seek from the sacrifice, and the Motherland the goddess to whom we offer it”. “Nationalism is not a mere political programme; nationalism is a religion that has come from God” he declared (Ghose, 1965:135).


The cult of Durga or Kali, with its tantric ritual and animal sacrifices, quickly became associated with revolutionary terrorism in Bengal. A pamphlet printed secretly called upon the sons of India to rise up, arm themselves with bombs, and invoke Mother Kali: “What does the Mother want? A coconut? No! A fowl or a sheep or a buffalo? No!… The Mother is thirsting after the blood of Feringhis (foreigners) who have bled her profusely” (Quoted in Griffiths, 1952:296; also in Smith, 1963:91).


The marriage of politics and religion was consummated in the formation of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1915. In 1909 the famous Arya Samajist nationalist leader Lala Lajput Rai declared, “Hindus are a ‘nation’ in themselves because they represent a type of civilization all their own” (Jaffrelot, 1996:19). He was echoing the use of the German word ‘nation’, which connoted a people, implying a community possessing a certain civilization and culture. He published some articles by Lala Lalchand in the paper Punjabee on how to build a Hindu country: “This can only be achieved by asserting a purely Hindu interest, and not by an Indian propaganda. The consciousness must rise in the mind of each Hindu that he is a Hindu, and not merely an Indian, and when it does arise the newly awakened force is bound to bring its result”. In another article Lala Lalchand wrote: “The point I wish to urge is that patriotism ought to be communal and not merely geographical”.


Muslim Nationalism as a Response to Hindu Cultural Nationalism

The monopoly of the nationalist movement by Hindus who had a culture different from that of the Muslims, created nervousness among the Muslims as to the future of their own culture should the Hindus succeed in attaining independence. Moreover, the large-scale participation by the Hindus in the nationalist movement inevitably put a stamp of its own on the movement. The various symbols used for promoting the nationalist movement like the anthem Bande Mataram were suggestive of Hindu culture. A historical figure like Shivaji was a political hero to most Hindus; but to many Muslims he was an opponent of Muslim rule in India. All this drove a wedge between the Muslims and the Hindus and the division became more acute with the gradual politicization of religion. During this time a number of Hindu-Muslim riots occurred in various parts of India.

Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan, a prominent Muslim leader realized the position of the Muslims and opened a college for Muslims in Aligarh in 1877, which later developed into the Aligarh University. At first an ardent nationalist, Sir Sayed affirmed that Hindus and Muslims in India formed one nation. At the same time, however, he opposed the Congress movement from its inception, urged the Muslims to stay away from it, and set up organisations with a view to opposing it, all because he feared that the Hindus as the majority community would ride roughshod over the interests of Muslims.

Sir Syed Ahmad’s advice to the Muslims not to join the Indian National Congress was based on the following considerations. He held that its aims and objectives reflected ignorance of history and the present reality, and that the Congress did not take into consideration the fact that India was inhabited by several nationalities. As India lacked homogeneity, the result of differences in educational background and political consciousness, it would not be in the interest of the Muslims to caste their lot with the Congress, which was largely dominated by the Hindus. This fear continued to dominate the minds of Muslim leaders thereafter and shape their political objectives and course of action in subsequent years. Like the parallel movements among the Hindus, the Muslims too formed their own organizations. These Islamic movements tried to assert the superiority of their religion, their culture and their past and succeeded in at least giving substance to the idea that their religion, culture and philosophy were not inferior to others (Haq, 1992). To serve them as the political platform to propagate their views of identity in India they founded the Muslim League in 1906.


Revivalist Response to Gandhi

Revivalism was a movement the object of which was to promote a renewed interest in traditional religion. The followers of Arya Samaj and the Congress faction led by Tilak wanted the revival of Hindu tradition in building modern India. After the death of Tilak in 1920, when Mohandas Gandhi publicly emerged on the Indian political scene as the Mahatma, he received widespread revivalist support. Indeed, many believed him to be one of them.

While Gandhi has much in common with revivalists, gradually many came to oppose him as they became better acquainted with his ideas. Gandhi strove unceasingly for Hindu-Muslim unity, convinced that ultimately both religions were true and valid (see Gandhi, 1949). His deepest conviction was that God, Truth and Ahimsa (non-violence) were all one and the same. Satyagraha (truth-force, non-violent resistance) was based on Gandhi’s personal religious faith and which he successfully employed against the British who were firmly committed to the maintenance of law and order and vis-à-vis non-violent resistance appeared ruthless and brutal.

The revivalists were disturbed by Gandhi’s ascetic non-kshatriya style of leadership, his definition of dharma (right conduct) as the nonviolent pursuit of “truth”, and his assimilationist conception of the Indian nation, which he saw as a brotherhood or a confederation of communities.

Dr. Kurtakoti, sankaracharya (religious head) of the Karvir Peeth, expressed the views of many revivalists when he wrote in the 1920’s that Gandhi’s use of ahimsa (non-violence) in the non-cooperation movement would “uproot the very principle of Hinduism and Aryan philosoply” (Mahratta, Pune, 20 October 1922). He claimed that ahimsa as employed by Gandhi weakened the Hindus. Moreover, he maintained that “passive and non-resisting sufferance is a Christian and not Aryan principle”. He implored Hindus to return to the militancy advocated by Tilak, Vivekananda, and Ghose. Many other revivalists were in agreement, and when Gandhi took control of the Congress in the 1920’s the stage was set for a revivalist search for new forms of protest (Anderson and Damle, 1987:20).

As a result of the intensification of Hindu-Muslim tensions between 1921-1923, a renewed importance was attached to the dormant Hindu Mahasabha (Great Assembly), formed in 1915 as a forum for a variety of Hindu interests (e.g., cow protection, Hindi in the Devanagri script, caste reforms, etc.) (Anderson and Damle, 1987:28).

It is in this setting of Hinduism-in-danger that a new influential Hindu militant organisation known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang (RSS) (Association of National Volunteers) was established in 1925 by Dr. Keshab Baliram Hedgewar who was deeply influenced by Tilak. The RSS purports to defend Hinduism against its so-called antagonists. Its avowed objective is the unification of the Hindu community and the inculcation of a militant awareness of its common heritage and destiny.

One of the most influential works in the development of the Hindu nationalist ideology was the treatise on Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? First published in Nagpur in 1923 by a Maharashtrian Brahmin and future president of the Hindu Mahasabha (1937-42) Veer D. Savarkar (1883-1966), a close associate of Tilak. Hindutva refers to a people united by common country, blood, history, religion, culture and language. The concept stems from the mythical reconstruction of the Vedic Golden Age of the `Aryan’ race (Klostermaier, 1989:33). The idea of Hindutva became influential in all RSS’s organizational activities. While rejecting politics as the means to attain its particular objectives, the RSS has nevertheless in the past supported the political work of the Hindu Mahasabha, and has been closely linked with the Jana Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Pary.


The Hindutva Vision of Nationhood

According to Golwalkar, who succeeded Hedgewar, the Hindu nation has existed for 8,000 to 10,000 years, and Hindustan has been in the possession of the Hindus for at least that length of time. In fact, the Hindus are not immigrants but indigenous sons of the soil, whatever scholars may say to the contrary. At the heart of the Hindu religion are the noble ideas of the Vedas. Golwalkar claimed Bharatvarsha had been a rashtra (country) since Vedic times. He states that every race develops a language of its own. The diverse languages of India are offshoots of Sanskrit, the dialect of the gods.

Race is a population with a common origin and with one culture. Therefore, the maintenance of racial unity in a nation necessitates the assimilation, or inextricable fusion, of foreign populations in it into the mother race — in other words, they should merge fully into an original national race not only economically and politically but also religiously, culturally, and linguistically. Race is by far the most important of the five ingredients in a nation. Hindustan, suggests Golwalkar, can learn and profit from Germany, where racial pride led to the attempt to eliminate the Jews because deep-rooted differences prevented their total assimilation into the German race.

Golwalkar makes it crystal clear that India is a Hindu nation. Muslims and Christians, though born in this country, do not feel that they are the children of the land, after they have changed their faith. He goes on to suggest that such people should be placed behind bars during the time of national crisis.

Golwalkar reiterates that secularism is not his path for national integration; it should come through Hinduization. His idea of the best solution to the problems of minorities is contained in one word — assimilation. According to him they should be “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment — not even citizen’s rights” (Golwalkar, 1947:55-56). Like Savarkar’s Hindutva, Golwalkar’s definition of Hindu is political rather than religious (Heehs, 1998:117).

Linked to the RSS in India are several affiliated organizations (referred to in the RSS literature as the “family”), working in politics, in social welfare, in the media and among students, labourers and Hindu religious groups. The symbiotic links between the RSS and the “family” are strengthened by the recruitment into the affiliates of swayamsevaks (members) who have already demonstrated organizational skills in the RSS (see Lambert, 1959; and Seunarine, 1977; Koenraad, 2001).

So the river of Hindu revivalism flows on. The origin of Hindutva and its promotion by Hindu nationalistic groups such as the Hindu Mahasabha, the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Ram Rajya Parishad, The Jana Sangh, the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the Shiv Sena, Bajrangdal and Bharatiya Janata Party, have their roots in the traditions of late nineteenth-century Hindu nationalism (see Anderson and Damle 1987; also Malik and Singh, 1995).

In an interesting speech a Hindu Mahsabha leader attempted to list the cultural changes which Indian Muslims would have to undergo in order to become acceptable nationals of the Indian (Hindu) state of the future. First, they would have to accept the Ramayana and Mahabharata as their epics and reject the Arabic and Persian classics. They would have to regard Ramachandra, Shivaji, and Hindu gods Ram and Krishna as their heroes, and condemn various Muslim historical figures as foreign invaders or traitors (Despande, 1949:10; Smith, 1963:375).

The formation of Vishva Hindu Parisath (VHP) in 1964 marks a new phase in the history of Hindutva. The VHP was specifically set up to forge a corporate Hindu identity, to unite all Hindu sects in opposition to Islam and Christianity. The VHP uses the latest media technology to exalt Puranic heroes as the model of Hindu character. A bid is made for a Hindu state ruled by an explicitly “Hindu” political party.

Thus, Hindu nationalism in India emerged at that phase of the Nationalist Movement where religion was sought to be made the basis for the emerging identity of India. As Juergensmeyer explains, when a religious perspective is fused with the political and social destiny of a nation, it is referred to as religious nationalism. He maintains that religious nationalists were not just religious fanatics. For the most part they were political activists who were seriously attempting to create a “modern” language of politics and provide a new basis for the nation-state (1994:406).


An Alternative Cultural Vision of Indian Nationhood – The Voice of the Oppressed

The concern for social reform at the beginning of the Indian nationalist movement was given a back seat with the emergence of militant Hindu nationalism. Upper caste Hindus identified “nation” and “national culture” as basically Hindu, as deriving from Vedic times, and as fundamentally a creation of the Aryan people. And with this they tended to accept as an inherent part of their culture some form of the varnashrama-dharma and to relegate other Indian cultural traditions to a secondary and inferior position. As we have seen, they not only made use of high-caste religious symbols in their mass organizing; they also made use of the “Aryan theory of race” in interpreting cultural traditions. It is in this context of what constitutes Indian national culture that we should examine the alternative vision of prominent non-Aryan or non-brahmanic leaders within India.

The main figures of this larger non-Aryan and anti-Brahmin vision of Indian nationalism are Jotiba Phule, E.V. Ramasami ‘Periyar’ and Babasaheb Ambedkar, with many others throughout India (Narayanswami Guru in Kerala, Acchutanand in Uttar Pradesh, Mangoo Ram in the Punjab). They attacked of exploitation at all levels, culturally, economically and politically.

a. The Vision of Jotirao Phule (1826-1890)

Jotirao Phule was the first Indian in modern India to proclaim the dawn of a new age for the common man, the down-trodden, the underdog and the Indian woman. It was his aim to reconstruct the social order on the basis of social equality, justice and reason.

The “Aryan theory of race” constituted the most influential intellectual guideline in discussion on caste and society in Phule’s time. European Orientalists used it to establish an ethnic kinship between Europeans and the ancient Vedic peoples. The constant interest of European scholars in ancient Aryan society and their praises of this society was an important moral boost to high caste Indians. Thus, Indian civilization was seen as primarily derivative from Aryan civilization, and the caste system was lauded as a means by which people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds were brought together and subjected to the civilizing influence of Aryans (Omvedt, 1976:103).

At one level, Phule simply reversed the perception, arguing that the low castes, whom he sometimes called “Shudras and Ati-Shudras” and sometimes simply listed as “Kumbis, Malis, Dhangars… Bhils, Kolis, Mahars, and Mangs”, were the original inhabitants of the country, enslaved and exploited by conquering Aryans who formulated a caste-based Hinduism as a means of deceiving the masses and legitimizing their power.

It was the confirmed view of Jotirao that the ancient history of India was nothing but the struggle between Brahmins and non-Brahmins (Keer, 1964:120). Hence, Phule consciously sought to bring together the major peasant castes (these were, besides the Kumbis or cultivators, the Malis or ‘garden’ cultivators and Dhangars or shepherds) along with the large untouchable castes of Mahars and Mangs in a common ‘front’ against Brahmin domination.

Jotirao’s attack on Brahminism was unmistakable. He realized that the seeds of Brahmin power, supremacy and privileges lay in their scriptures and Puranas; and that these works and the caste system were created to exploit the lower classes. Phule also reinterpreted sacred religious literature, for example, by reading the nine avatars of Vishnu as stages of the Aryan conquest. He used King Bali (a non-Aryan King) as a counter-symbol to the brahminical scriptures and Puranas. He revolted against priestcraft and the caste system and set afoot a social movement for the liberation of the Shudras, Atishudras (untouchables) and women.

To achieve his life’s ambition for a casteless society, Phule founded the Satya Shodhak Samaj on 24 September 1873. The Samaj opened the first school for girls and untouchables and organised widow remarriages, marriages without Brahmin priests, etc.. Phule’s view of exploitation was thus focused on cultural and ethnic factors rather than economic or political ones.

b. Pariyar’s (1879-1973) Self-Respect Movement

E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, known as Periyar (Great Sage), was born in 1879 in Erode of a respectable middle class family of artisans. He married at the age of 13, but after six years he became a sannyasi, travelling as a religious mendicant over the whole of India. In his visits to pilgrim centres, he gained an intimate knowledge of the evils of popular Hinduism and also the exploitations of the masses by Brahmin priests.

Periyar was convinced that casteism and Hinduism were one and the same. He wanted Hinduism, as he saw it, to go altogether out. His movement took a turn towards racial consciousness and became a ‘Dravidian’ movement, seeking to defend the rights of the Dravidians against Aryan domination. The Aryans were blamed for introducing an unjust and oppressive social system in the country (see Hardgrave, 1965:17).

Periyar immediately realised what the new ideology of the Indian elite, the ‘Aryan view of race’, would imply. This view was adopted enthusiastically by the Indian elite as a new model for understanding caste. That is, Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas were held almost as a matter of definition to be the descendants of the invading Aryans; Shudras and untouchables of the native conquered inhabitants. In the light of the new ideology to claim “Aryan” descent was equivalent to claiming “twiceborn” status; to say “Dravidian” or “non-Aryan” almost equivalent to saying “Shudra”. The high caste élite of India began to define Aryan and Sanskritic culture as the basis of “Indian nationality”, but by so doing they were in fact highlighting the culture of the north Indian upper castes and mistaking this fraction of Indian culture for the whole.

Periyar sought to defend the rights of the Dravidians against Aryan domination. He saw in the Brahmins the representatives of Hindu arrogance and a stronghold of social injustice. He left the Congress attacking it as a tool of Brahmin domination. In 1925, he organized the “Self-Respect Movement”, designed as Dravidian Uplift, seeking to expose Brahmin tyranny and the deceptive methods by which they controlled all spheres of Hindu life. Periyar publicly ridiculed the Puranas as fairy tales, not only imaginary and irrational by grossly immoral as well. He also attacked religion as a tool of Brahmin domination.

The Hindu religion was denounced as an opiate by which the Brahmins had dulled and subdued the masses. “A Hindu according to the present concept may be a Dravidian, but a Dravidian in the real sense of the term cannot and shall not be a Hindu” (A.S. Venu cited in Harrison, 1960:127). Measures were taken to destroy the images of Hindu deities such as Rama and Ganesha. According to Periyar, “Rama and Sita are despicable characters, not worthy of imitation or admiration even by the lowest of fourth-rate humans’. Ravana (a Dravidian hero represented as a demon in the north), on the other hand, is depicted as a Dravidian of “excellent character”. In his preface to The Ramayana: A True Reading, he states that “the veneration of the story any longer in Tamil Nad is injurious and ignominious to the self-respect of the community and of the country” (Naicker, 1959:iii-iv).

Today, several Dravidian political parties in Tamil Nadu trace back their inspiration to Periyar in their efforts to build a Dravidian civilization in the Indian subcontinent.

c) Ambedkar (1891-1956), a Revolutionary

Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was very much inspired and guided by the noble example set by Mahatma Jotiba Phule. Phule was no more there to guide Ambedkar. Nevertheless, his example made an indelible impression on the mind of Ambedkar, who was determined to complete the work began by Jotiba: this became his life’s ambition (Rajashekhriah, 1971:18-19); also see Keer, 1974:vii).

Ambedkar was a revolutionary. He led the fight against untouchability, Hinduism, and the Brahmin caste. He taught that caste was not only unjust but also immoral. He established a new dispensation, a new religion (Neo-Buddhism), whose foundation is its unequivocal rejection of Hinduism.

Ambedkar criticized the caste system vehemently. For him the fight against casteism and untouchability was central, at the heart of his agenda. Hence, he was very critical of the two prevalent approaches in his time to reform the caste system, namely, that of Dayananda Saraswati and of Gandhi. Society should be based on the three fundamental principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.

If caste was to be destroyed, he said, then its religious foundation, the Vedas and Shastras, must also be destroyed. Faith in these scriptures was nothing more than a legalized class ethic favouring the Brahmins.

If you wish to bring about a breach in the system, then you have got to apply the dynamite to the Vedas and Shastras which deny any part to reason, to the Vedas and Shastras which deny any part to morality. You must destroy the Religion of the Smritis (Ambedkar, 1945:70).

Ambedkar also rejected the position of Gandhi with regards to caste and its reform. Gandhi felt that the ancient Hindus had already achieved an ideal social system with the varnavyavastha. So according to Gandhi, “the law of varna means that everyone will follow as a matter of dharma-duty the hereditary calling of his forefathers… he will earn his livelihood by following that calling”. In contrast Ambedkar believed that an ideal society had yet to be achieved in India. For him, the priority was not making “Hinduism” or Hindu society “shine forth” but building a new, equal, free, open, non-hierarchial, modern India.

According to Ambedkar, “it is wrong to say that the problem of the untouchables is a social problem…. The problem of the untouchables is fundamentally a political problem (of minority versus majority groups)” (Ambedkar, 1945a:190). Hence, Ambedkar launched his revolutionary movement for the liberation and advancement of the Dalits. On 20th July 1942 he declared at Nagpur:

With justice on our side, I do not see how we can loose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of full joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or sordid in it. For our struggle is for our freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of human responsibility which has been suppressed and mutilated by the Hindu social system and will continue to be suppressed and mutilated if in the political struggle the Hindus win and we lose. My final word of advice to you is, “educate, organise and agitate”; have faith in yourselves and never lose hope (see Das and Massey, 1995:viii).

Thus Ambedkar was able to put the untouchability issue at the centre stage of Indian politics.


Ambedkar painfully realised that in Hinduism the untouchables would never be able to obtain a respectable status and receive just treatment. He was also convinced that individual and group mobility was difficult for untouchables within the Hindu social system. In this context, he saw two possibilities of social emancipation: the political unity of untouchables and mass conversion. Hence, in 1936 he talked of conversion to another religion: “Though I have been born a Hindu, I shall not die as a Hindu” (1936-31st May, Bombay). He had already made a first mention of conversion in the Yeola Conference of 1935.


Hearing the conversion call of Ambedkar, Hindu leadership was very disturbed. Several leaders began to persuade him not to go ahead. Ambedkar expressed surprise that the caste Hindus who had never shown fellow-feeling for the untouchables were suddenly beseeching them to stay within Hinduism. Since untouchables have been for centuries ill-treated and humiliated by caste Hindus, why did they now suddenly take such an interest in keeping them within the Hindu fold?

After long deliberation and a conscious choice in favour of Buddhism, on the 14th October, 1956, Ambedkar took his diksha (initiation) at Nagpur at 9:30 a.m. Assembled were about five lakh Mahars, who all were converted to Buddhism on that day. His embracing Buddhism was a strong protest aimed at all that the Hindus had failed to do. For him swaraj (freedom) did not mean anything if it did not also put an end to the slavery of the untouchables (Gore, 1993:144).

The above Phule/Periyar/Ambedkar tradition represents the effort to define an alternative identity for the people, based on non-Aryan and low caste perspectives, that was critical not only of the oppressiveness of the dominant Hindu castes, but also of the claim to antiquity and to being the major Indian tradition (see Michael, 1999; Oommen, 2001). The issue, however, was not basically racial but cultural, a matter of group identity.

III – Dialogue & Convergence of Contending Views

11. The Constitution & the Contending Visions of Indian Identity

The above survey on identity in India shows that there have been several contending visions of Indian identity. All these visions were active and influential in the formation of the modern Indian State during the freedom struggle. A continuous dialogue took place with regard to identity in free India. The failure to reach a satisfactory conclusion on the question of Indian identity resulted in the separation of Pakistan from India. Mahatma Gandhi fell a victim to excessive and narrow nationalism.

In spite of these setbacks, after almost three years of deliberation, the Constituent Assembly of India on 26 November 1949 adopted a constitution for the world’s largest liberal democracy. The debate in the Assembly reflected the paradoxes of the Indian situation, which we highlighted above as the contending visions for India. The founding fathers of the Indian Constitution defended the notion of a pluralistic society and a neutral state based on equal rights and citizenship. The Indian Constitution may justifiably be described as secular and multicultural. Recognition and protection was offered to religious, cultural and linguistic minorities. Equal respect, fairness and non-discrimination were to be the guiding principles of state policies towards minorities.

Differences are recognized but so are the values of equal citizenship and equal rights. After protracted discussions in the Constituent Assembly, the Constitution was passed upholding ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious pluralism in India and promising recognition and protection for all and non-discriminatory state policies. It articulated a secular and inclusive nationalism of equal opportunities and equal liberty for all, regardless of their religious affiliations or social status. It meant that the state itself was not to become partisan to any particular group, nor does it privilege any particular religion. The equidistance to all religions became the quintessence of secularism and this is ensured in the Constitution.

IV – Established Constitutional Rights under Attack

12. Dialogue on True Patriotism and Nationalism

Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Constituent Assembly, K.M. Munshi and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar played an important role in the formation of the Indian Constitution. They understood well the different aspirations of contending groups and the importance of recognition in the Indian nationhood. The idea that all Indian citizens should inherit as their birthright such basic civil rights as were recognized by all modern nations in the world was enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

All the same, the Nehruvian and Ambedkarian vision began to break down by the late 1960s and several Constitutional rights are being questioned today. Over the past two decades the rise of Hindu nationalism and the growing political strength of regional and low caste and tribal parties have helped expose the tears in the fabric once again. As a result of the differing ideologies between Hindutva and of the oppressed and marginalized forces, we observe today the emergence of two opposite socio-political and cultural movements. On the one hand, backward castes and classes are in search of a culture based on egalitarian social and economic principles with greater political participation; on the other hand, upper caste Hindus are equally strong in trying to retain control of their present position of privilege and dominance by consolidating ancient hierarchical Brahmanical Hindu values. Thus, culture in India has become polarised by the contrasting interests of the upper and the lower groups, the former vigorously clinging to their traditional status, and the latter fighting for justice, equality and human dignity.

The most vociferous and militant Hindu nationalists are now training their guns on the very basic constitutional concept of pluralism. Public opinion is being shaped to the effect that some people i.e. the upper and middle classes/castes are patriotic whereas others are not. Tribal people are looked at with suspicion and their national loyalty is being questioned. Similarly, the aspirations of the whole Dalit community and their movements for equality have been brushed aside as suspect. There is, in the minds of religious nationalists one supreme value — the Hindu nation — on whose altar everything including claims for equality must be sacrificed. Their policy of cultural regimentation has one aim — the consolidation of a Hindu national identity.

Today, there is an imminent danger that anti-liberal forces may set the agenda for Government policies. History is now being re-written to suit Hindu nationalism. The educational system is being redefined in order to influence young minds to believe in Hindutva ideology. Hate literature is being distributed to create aversion against Christians and other religious groups. Propaganda is being designed to turn Christians and Muslims into enemies of true patriotism and supporters of anti-national activities. Such a policy is highly dangerous for Indian society, which is basically multi-cultural and multi-religious. Today the terms nationalism and patriotism need clarification.

The concept of patriotism is much-debated. Sometimes the word is given such an ethnocentric and narrow meaning that it is bound to wreak havoc among us, if applied in practice. It is a general observation that where the spirit of extreme nationalism prevails people are being taught from childhood to hate the `enemy’. That is why Rabindra Nath Tagore wrote long before the country won independence; long before it witnessed partition, “Nationalism is a great menace. It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles” (Tagore, 1992:83, original 1917). Tagore sees in nationalism instincts of self-aggrandisement, of whole peoples organized together with all the paraphernalia of power and prosperity, of flags and hymns and patriotic bragging, nations engaged in a wrestling match; and not bound to listen to the voice of truth and goodness. His version of Indian nationalism can be discerned from the following statement: “Even though from childhood I had been taught that idolatry of the nation is better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe that I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their Indianness by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity” (1992: 84).

Writing in a similar vein, Earl Stanley Jones, a visionary and close associate of Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “One of the greatest dangers to world peace is the rise of modern nationalism. It has taken that lovely sentiment called patriotism and has turned it into the deadliest enemy known to the modern world. It causes men to sin where they otherwise would not”.

People of one nation usually have no reason to hate people of another. But narrow and exclusive nationalism takes hold of different communities and subjects them to propaganda, instills fear, inspires hate, puts bayonets into their hands and flings them against one another.

In the present circumstances fresh dialogue is needed animated by the experience of our past history in order to bring to light the true nature of patriotism and nationalism in India. It is also very important to call attention to all the efforts that were made to define the concept of a comprehensive Indian identity during the birth pangs of the Indian nation.

V – Dialogue in Action

13. Christianity and Humanistic Nationalism

Dialogue in words should end in action. What does nationalism mean for the poor, for the oppressed and marginalized? Is it possible for them to experience a sense of common and shared humanity in the Indian nationhood? Or is nationalism the luxury of the rich and the powerful? As Christians we need to be concerned about human dignity and the integration of all Indians. In the face of Hindutva and an exclusive and narrow Hindu nationalism, we need to define nationalism in such a way that the poor and the downtrodden receive their due attention and care. As concerned citizens we need to ask what nationalism means for the poor; for Dalits, for tribals and other weaker groups. Behind the dreams and aspirations of these marginalized groups lingers the hope that a nation of fairness and justice will be realized, a nation, humane and inclusive.

Such a humanistic nationalism has to be pursued not by the Church alone but in collaboration with emerging humanistic peoples’ movements. Widespread support of the cause of suppressed groups and identities will take us in the direction of a more complete and integral understanding of nation. Lay Christians should be encouraged to get involved in issues of justice, equality, fraternity and ecology. Christians must be active in the civil society. A healthy civil society marked by an active pluralism will ensure also an authentic and humanistic nationalism. Christian intellectuals should collaborate with secular humanist intellectuals in bringing to light the history and cultural traditions of tribals, Dalit and other marginalized people. This would be a constructive move in promoting a holistic and integral nationalism in India.

VI – Conclusion

India is a multi-cultural and multi-religious country. Its unity derives from the fact that it welcomes and embraces diversity. When the issue of the nature of Indian nationhood was being discussed during the freedom struggle there were contending visions of India. A continuous dialogue was alive and the outcome was an inclusive secular Constitution. But today, there is an active and powerful move to unify India in terms of Hindu Rashtra (Nation). The impression has been created that upper and middle caste Hindus are the true patriots, whereas others are not. Steps have been taken to rewrite history to suite the above agenda. The education system has been revamped to influence young minds to accept the Hindutva ideology. To carry out the Hindutva agenda, devices have been envisaged to change the Constitution. We have in this paper attempted to highlight the informal dialogue which took place during the freedom struggle for the purpose of defining an Indian nationhood. Dialogue of the past could guide us in our present situation. Indian nationalism should give dignity to all Indians and make them wanted and respected citizens. But what we see today is that Dalits, tribals, backward castes and other marginalized and suppressed communities are in search of a nation inspired by egalitarian values, social justice, economic opportunities and participation in political decision making; the Hindutva ideologues, on the other hand, are equally strong in trying to retain control of their present privileges and dominance by insisting on ancient hierarchical Brahmanic Hindu cultural values. Thus, culture and nationalism in India has become polarized by the contrasting interests of the upper and lower groups, the former vigorously clinging to their traditional status, and the latter fighting for justice, equality and human dignity.

The Church in India is placed in this complex situation. The question the Church in India needs to address is how can Christians interact with the social, political and cultural processes of Indian society. We have suggested that the Church first of all need to be aware of the historical processes that took place at the birth of the Indian nation. Christians should understand the how’s and why’s of the present pulls and pushes that are going on in the socio-political arena in Indian politics. This paper set out to highlight this. Secondly, inspired by the continuous dialogue that took place during the freedom struggle in the making of the Indian nation, the Church should engage itself in dialogue on socio-political questions of the present times. We also suggested that since the institutional Church cannot officially intervene in the political field, it should encourage committed Christians to involve themselves and actively participate in promoting an integral humanistic nationalism. Lay people should be called upon to join people’s movements to build a just and a humane society in India.

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