‘Imagined Communities’ in a Shaky Subcontinent

India & Pakistan: Inventing the Nation

by Ian Talbot

Arnold Publishers, London, 2000

Price: USD 74, Pages: 312

ISBN: 0340706325

-reviewed by Sreeram Sundar Chaulia

Ever since Ian Talbot essayed, in 1996, a remarkable autobiography of Khizr Twana, an outstanding but hitherto unrecognised pre-partition politician and followed it up, in 1999, with a magisterial survey of Pakistan in the last five decades, he has acquired a reputation for historically rich and theoretically stimulating writing. His oeuvre is predicated on fundamental continuities in the Subcontinent’s history before and after independence, which is why his later work, Pakistan: A Modern History, was able to meticulously trace many contemporary authoritarian trends in the country to antecedent British administrative methods. For Talbot there was certainly no “end of history” in 1947. He is, ergo, of greater relevance than the average South Asian chronicler, who tends to probe no further than the “stroke of the midnight hour”. In his new volume, India & Pakistan, Talbot addresses the confounding issue of identity formation in the highly fluid and volatile subcontinental environment before and after 1947. Expectedly, he does not fail the reader.

Given the complexities of identity formation, competing theories vie for scholarly affection. There are primordialists, who see the nation as a “natural order”. Perennialists differ from primordialists in that they consider nationalism to be rooted in long-standing but mutable ethnic allegiances. Modernists, on the other hand, regard it as a recent construct arising from socio-economic transformations of the last two centuries. Of these, the modernist perspective has been the most dominant and has had a potent influence on nation-building schemes of many Third World states, including Nehruvian India. Talbot’s model is a synthesis of all the three approaches, and portrays nationalism as a “blend of tradition and modernity”.


Pre-1947 melting pot

In Talbot’s assessment, a sense of both ‘Indianness’ and religious community pre-dated British rule. John Company did not ‘imagine’ identities into existence but significantly rearranged them by introducing new mediums of communication and new arenas of political competition. The late 19th century communication revolution and educational changes enabled exchange of ideas which “knit India together like never before”. Colonial perceptions of the nature of Indian society (martial-races theory, the essentialisation of caste in the census, and Orientalist association of languages with religions) profoundly altered what Indians thought of themselves. Colonial institutional development (revenue settlements, gradual constitutional reform that made municipal politics a major conflict zone, and separate electorates which engendered a rush for recognition as ‘minorities’), while on paper catering to modernisation/divide-and-rule, ironically fostered a “traditionalisation of Indian society” and provided the impetus for the socio-religious reform movements whose messages played a vital role in the national movement for freedom.

One manifestation of this traditionalisation was the ‘Hindu renaissance’ that swept fin de siecle Indian society. Did this tendency spring merely from a desire
to counter colonial stereotypes even while imitating colonial knowledge or did it have a genius of its own? Talbot cautions those who assert the primacy of the British role against ignoring the creativity and originality of indigenous agency in recasting identities. However, he still presents most Indian ideas of Indianness as being built upon Orientalist notions. For instance, Swami Dayananda, Mahadev Ranade, Jyotiba Phule and P. Sundaram Pillai borrowed from depictions of ancient India by Orientalist like Max Muller.

At the same time, it is worth asking if there were not oral and generational traditions, scriptures and legends that preceded colonial knowledge, which extolled the Vedas and posited Aryans or Dravidians as the original uncorrupted natives of the peninsula. No doubt, Ram Mohan Roy was inspired by Western rational and empiricist thought, but can the same be said of Swami Vivekananda, whose ‘construction’ of Indian identity was suffused with a spirituality bereft of Orientalist baggage? Also, consider the cults of Kali and Durga, analogies of the anthropomorphic Bharat Mata, which were prominent nationalist motifs in the novels of Bankim Chatterjee, the early writings of Aurobindo Ghosh and the politics of Lokmanya Tilak. Likewise, the cult of Shivaji in Marath wada became a rallying point for imagining a virile Hindu past. In the United Provinces, the cow-protection movement mobilised Hindus of reformist and traditionalist persuasions to a common cause. Were not all these symbols of identity adapted from popular cultures of specific regions rather than myths propagated by European thinkers?

Whatever its genesis, the neo-Hindu renaissance hurried Muslim, Sikh and ‘depressed classes’ into community consciousness, especially as Indian nationalism seem-ed often to shade-off into Hindu nationalism. The Congress Party’s inclusive ideology was not always convincing partly due to the presence of orthodox Hindu leaders like Madan Mohan Malviya, Lala Lajpat Rai, Purshottam Das Tandon, Vallabhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad (all of whom shared platforms and beliefs with militant Hindu nationalists like Vinayak Savarkar and Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar). Moreover, the use of Hindu cultural symbols was pronounced in nationalist politics, thereby giving it the appearance of a “Hindu-tinted Indian nationalism”. Muslim ideas of separateness, arguably, came from Islamic universalism and the fraternity of all Muslims politics (ummat/millat) without heed to geography or geo-politics, a theme that was regularly emphasised by the poets Altaf Hali and Allama Iqbal, not to mention Syed Ahmad Khan. Hindu militancy in the Punjab and colonial simplifications of Sikhism as a sub-sect of Hinduism gave rise to a codified and distinct neo-Sikh identity through Lakshman Singh’s “Singh Sabha movement” and other Khalsa Panth associations, culminating, in 1897, in Khan Singh Nabha’s famous pamphlet, Ham Hindu Nahin (We Are Not Hindus).

These new caste, religious and national identities were not mutually exclusive or conflicting until their later politicisation. The prospect of constitutional reform lay at the root of community politicisation and polarisation. The formation of the Muslim League in 1906 sprang from UP ashraf (elite Muslim) insecurities in the aftermath of Hindu domination of municipalities and local councils. The Hindu Mahasabha (1915) was a product of Punjabi Hindu insecurities after the introduction of separate electorates neutralised their dominance in local bodies, and due to fears of colonial bias toward Muslims. The Akali Dal came up in 1920 because of Sikh disappointment at being awarded only a tiny fraction of Provincial Council seats by the Reform Act of 1919. It was also this act, which enabled the Justice Party (precursor to the Dravidian movement in the Madras Presidency) to mobilise on behalf of  the “Tamil Nad for Tamilians” demand.

Such manifestations of ethnicity-based politics were subsumed, by the time of independence, within larger processes. In the end game of empire, why did ‘nationalism’, represented by the Muslim League and Congress, triumph over calls for a Tamil Eelam, Khalistan, Purba Pakistan, Pakhtunistan, Nagaland etc.? Talbot explains this in terms of the relative strengths of these identities. The Congress was relatively “unique in its grassroots support and organisational strength”. The Muslim League, despite weak organisation, was able to demonstrate its strength in the 1946 provincial elections through the lethal marriage of ‘elite communalism’ and ‘popular communalism’, abruptly transforming Jinnah into the “sole spokesman” of the millat at the expense of the more accommodative Muslim politics of Punjab Unionist Party. In the closing stages of the Pakistan struggle, the assertion of Islam’s civilisational incompatibility with Hinduism was also a major factor in mobilising mass support. In contrast, Akali demands for a Sikhistan/Khalistan, ran into British resitance, owing to what Talbot calls colonial “attachment to the concept of a United India”. Besides, unlike the Congress and the League, Akali Dal remained perpetually divided by faction and region. “Frontier Gandhi” Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s demand for a Pakhtun state, while enjoying broad support in the Pushto Northwest, failed to register its presence in the 1946 hustings, inter alia because it was ‘deserted’ by long-time ally, the Congress. In the Madras Presidency, E V Ramswamy Naicker’s Dravida Nad vision was also outrightly rejected because of the complications it posed for an all-India settlement between the Congress and the League, and because the Congress penetrated this constituency of non-Brahmin Tamil-speaking Vellalas. Many other regional, ethno-national and linguistic minorities’ demands ‘lost’ in 1947. However, they were by no means extinguished, and carried over unfinished agendas to independent India and Pakistan.    


Identity reconfigurations

Partition affected perceptions in India of what was, despite Pakistan, the world’s largest Muslim community. Were Indian Muslims ‘left behind’? Had they chosen to stay back? Did geography and the quirk of historical circumstance prevent them from joining their 30 million co-religionists? For India, the sizeable Muslim population was simultaneously an uncomfortable reality to square up to as well as ‘proof’ of the illegitimacy of the two-nation theory. The mass migration and massacres in August 1947 created a “refugee constituency” for Hindu nationalists and widespread hostility towards Muslims in North India. Within the Congress, while Nehru personally strove for a secular-progressive Indiaas the antithesis of ‘reactionary Islamic Pakistan’, the party still had a strident anti-Muslim segment, particularly at the state level. UP chief minister Govind Ballabh Pant was one of the first Congress luminaries to publicly question the Muslim community’s "loyalty to India". After the ‘Congress system’ crossed the limit of unpopularity and anti-incumbency by 1989, the BJP rose to prominence declaring, "India would be strong only if it acknowledged the genius of its Hindu culture".

Besides the rise and broader acceptance of Hindutva, another big identity remoulding in contemporary India has been the rise of Other Backward Castes (OBC). Affirmative action took a new turn with the 1989 extension of reservation in government employment and education to ‘backward castes’. This, a la ‘positive discrimination’ of the British Raj, gave a fillip to new collective self-consciousness among myriad jatis (castes) and sub-jatis, which were previously passive in defining themselves. Today, a multitude of identities straddles across modern India. To some, Hindu and Indian have become coterminous. To others, caste identities matter as primary categories for locating themselves. One billion Indians inhabit, in Shashi Tharoor’s words, "one billion Indias".

The Pakistani state was less successful in adjusting to diversity, essentially due to lack of democratic institutions, according to Talbot. Pakistan had to deal with nation building from scratch. Most Muslim League stalwarts had migrated from the United Provinces and lacked legitimacy in West and East Pakistan. A vice-regal tradition, inherited from the Raj’s "West Punjabi police state", was neatly transferred to the army and bureaucracy after 1947 in the absence of civilian challenge. An unrepresentative body politic put paid to Jinnah’s express desire for a loose federal structure and a secular non-ideological state. The effects of Islamisation and centralisation on an ethnically plural society were disastrous for Pakistani unity in the long-term. A Pakistaniat that abrasively pushed Sunni-Shia, Deobandi-Barelvi and Punjabi-non-Punjabi differences under the carpet in the name of a monolithic, unitary and theocratic state (especially under Zia-ul-Haq, 1977-1988) owed much to the country’s depoliticisation and poor institutional growth in civil society.

Pakistani nationalism demonised ‘Hindu India’ just as many in India coined self-images of being ‘that which is not Pakistani’. But this reactive neighbour baiting failed to cut ice among all the ethnic constituents and proved an entirely inadequate basis for constructing a national community. In India, Hindu communal portrayal of Muslims as lustful and barbaric did not carry significant weight beyond the Gangetic Plain. In Pakistan, testified by Baloch leader Sherbaz Mazari, jingoistic anti-Indian politics found no purchase in Balochistan, Sindh and NWFP. Three full-scale wars and a quasi-war two years ago have kept the flame of a threatening Indian behemoth alive but also diverted resources into what historian Ayesha Jalal has labelled "political economy of defence". Regional economic disparities have intensified the feeling of a state striving for ‘Punjabisation’ and given rise to a ‘Kalashnikov culture’ represented by movements like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi. Altaf Hussain’s "secondary state" is as much an unhealed sore of partition as it is a reaction to what Talbot calls "the formal state’s inability to tackle socio-
economic problems or provide law and order".

National, communal and ethnic energies have erupted into violent anti-state insurgencies since the end of the 1960s in both India and Pakistan, prompting speculations of fragmentation and "declining nation-states". In the earlier period, India co-opted Tamil sub-nationalism by creating linguistic states in 1956 and ‘domesticating’ the Dravidian movement, while Pakistan dealt with the Pakhtunistan demand by bringing in Pushtun nationalists into the army and bureaucracy. But Bangladesh, mohajir nationalism, Khalistan and Kashmir have torn the myths of enforceable pan-Indian or pan-Pakistani nationalism. The road to the division of Pakistan is reminiscent of Hindu-Muslim estrangement in colonial North India. Sustained Bengali marginalisation in Pakistani affairs began in 1952, and assumed proportions that convinced rising stars like Mujibur Rahman that East Pakistan was being colonially exploited. The extent of Bengali disenchantment was proportionate to the dominance of the Punjabi establishment in Islamabad. Talbot sees evidence of a refusal to learn from history in the Pakistani state’s handling of mohajir militancy since the mid-1980s.

In the case of the Khalistan insurgency (1984-1992), Indian authorities refused to address the underlying problem of Sikh ethno-nationalism. Initially, both the militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the Akali Dal called for greater autonomy within the Indian Union. Uneven distribution of Green Revolution prosperity, the rise of the Khalsa religious orthodoxy in response to "wheat-whisky culture" and Sikh insecurity following influx of Hindu landless labourers from UP and Bihar constituted the general background to rising Sikh demands for "fairer treatment" by the centre. But in the face of the central government’s palpable lack of sincerity, the call for autonomy graduated into violent secessionism. India’s much trumpeted asset, democracy, proved its undoing, because the prime minister Indira Gandhi cultivated Bhindranwale in a bid to unseat the Congress party’s Punjab rivals, the Akali moderates. Operation Bluestar (5 June 1984), Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination and the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi reopened bottled-up ghosts of zulm and ghallughara (massacre). Militancy in Punjab was abetted by more than the obvious ‘foreign hand’, Pakistan, as Sikh diasporas in Britain and North America remitted large donations to the Khalistan cause as a demonstration of "politics of the homeland". If Punjab was saved for India, it was thanks to factionalism among militants and efficient but abusive counter-insurgency, whose blisters continue to haunt the celebrated ideal of a ‘multi-ethnic democracy’.

The Kashmir insurgency from 1989 has been an even greater challenge to Indian unity. It is undeniable that New Delhi mismanaged Kashmiri sensitivities and rigged polls in the state, and clung to unrepresentative and unpopular satraps and irked an increasingly literate and upwardly mobile Kashmiri society. Ironically, Kashmir has entered popular Indian perception as an inter-country dispute, whereas the roots of Kashmiri disaffection lay in centre-state disharmony within the Indian Union. A "mailed fist" strategy of wiping out terrorists has yielded counter-productive results unlike in Punjab and the counter-insurgency is yet to claim even propagandistic ‘normalcy’.

In the final analysis, Talbot sagacious advice to India and Pakistan, struggling against seemingly insuperable challenges of militant identities, is to "replace politics of confrontation with politics of accommodation". Easier said than done, but if the import of this simple yet profound prescription is imbibed even in iotas by decision-makers in Delhi and Islamabad, it will go a long way in resolving some fundamental antinomies and threats to their respective societies and nationhoods. From the stylistic point of view, what stands out memorably is Talbot’s deft disentangling and intermeshing of contemporary and historical phenomena. Barring a few factual and descriptive inaccuracies, Inventing the Nation is a major historical account of the subcontinental identity voyage of the last two centuries and a unique one in crossing the Rubicon of 1947 and updating the narrative to present-day India and Pakistan.