Fractured realities: Book review of ‘The Nation as Mother and Other Visions of Nationhood’ by Sugata Bose
A historian argues why in deeply divided India a mere awareness of other languages and religion is not enough
Nations do not emerge from the sea like the Goddess Aphrodite. The transformation of a plural but fragmented society into a nation that demands the right to self-determination, involves interlocking processes that logically predate nationalism. Arguably the interrogation of, and engagement with Hinduism by agents of colonialism, as well as Indian intellectuals, fostered consciousness and awareness of the collective self. In the main, Indian nationalism was constructed around a ‘Hindu identity’, and the harnessing of this identity to the nation-state project, in short a set of processes that were oriented around religious symbols.
Sugata Bose concentrates in the defining chapter of this volume — containing an assortment of essays that sit rather uneasily with each other — on what Bipin Chandra Pal called the sacred biography of the Mother. The Mother figure inspired creativity in Bengali philosophy, arts, poetry, painting, music, drama and, architecture. Worship of the Mother escalated in the first decade of the 20th century, even as people struggled to deal with the partition of Bengal in 1905. It was only when the Mother revealed herself that patriotism worked and saved a doomed nation, wrote Aurobindo.
When Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay authored Bande Mataram, continued Aurobindo, it was a sudden moment of awakening from delusions: the mantrahad been given.
Bose details the heavy symbolism of the mother figure to engage with the literature on mimetic and elite nationalism, and suggests that the narrative left a small opening for the poor and obscure to enter the story. Indisputably however, the worship of the Mother sent frissons of tension among the Muslim community, even if some individuals from the community joined the general acclaim for this symbol of India.
Yet the figure of the mother was also deeply contested and subjected to scepticism. When it was suggested that Bande Mataram should be sung in Congress gatherings, argues Bose, Nehru pointed out that the song was likely to irritate Muslims. And Tagore wrote that a song which adored the Mother, was inappropriate for a national organisation which was a meeting place for different religious communities.
In our national quest, Tagore remarked, we need peace, unity and good sense, not rivalry just because one side refuses to yield. A symbol that could arouse so much political passions could also, writes Bose, be sacrificed by those prepared to die and defiled by those who were prepared to kill. In the end, what was at one point the ‘partitioner’s axe’, has been wielded repeatedly by her own sons to dismember the mother figure. This is a tragic replay of the mythology of Parshuram. The first essay of the volume carries a powerful message for the Hindutva brigade that openly intends to imprint the soul of India with supreme indifference towards religious minorities.
Sugata Bose’s arguments in related essays evokes a sense of a time when imaginations were fertile but troubling. In 1928, the philosopher Krishna Chandra Bhattacharya (1875-1949) who held the King George V Chair at Calcutta University (now the B.N Seal Chair) focussed on the problem of recovering Swaraj in ideas. Genius, he said, can unveil the soul of India in art, but it is through philosophy that we can methodologically attempt to discover it. By that time, intellectuals had realised that the Indian soul was deeply fractured. Within the space of Hinduism, it was fractured along caste hierarchies. Within the political community, the collective self was fractured along religion. Overt Hindu symbolism and imaginaries, collapse of religious ceremonies into political rallies, and hate-filled attacks of the aggressive right-wing Hindu faction, aroused a great deal of apprehension among Muslims. The community was to, consequently, mobilise itself around Islamic identity and the two-nation theory. Our intellectuals problematised colonialism, but they could never problematise Hinduism, though they sought strenuously to reform it.
Sugata Bose deals with some of these issues in this volume. He suggests that the Mahatma’s reason needs to be rescued from the mystical haze created by latter day cultural critics who fly the banner of indigenous authenticity. Also of interest are pieces on Aurobindo, who insisted that despite some dark ages India still lives with cosmopolitanism.
Bose speaks of the strong strain of universalism in Gandhian thought and in Vivekananda. Sadly, this universalism fell prey to the lowly calculations of identity politics. Tagore’s philosophy is painted in vivid strokes throughout Bose’s canvas, and he reminds us repeatedly of Tagore’s warnings against chauvinistic nationalism.
Finally, an important point had been made by Bose in a speech to the Lok Sabha in December 2015. He reminded the House that it is the duty of the majority not to discriminate against the minorities. He concludes that we should cultivate cultural intimacy, a notion taken from Subhas Chandra Bose’s philosophy.
Certainly, cultural intimacy or awareness of, and deep appreciation of other cultures, languages, religion, music, poetry and literature is an essential part of being human. But we must ultimately rely on political/legal norms that ensure that people who speak different languages, and hold different visions of the good should be treated as equal by a democratic state.
When it comes to inter-personal relations, a prime civic virtue — which Bose seems to have misread — is that of tolerance. Tolerance or toleration in political theory is not paternalistic, it is based upon the supreme philosophical value of doubt in our own capacity to know the truth. We have to be conscious of the imperfectability of our own truth, only then can we respect other cultures as repositories of the truth, howsoever partial those truths may be. To learn to respect other ways of life introduces moral restraint on our conduct, teaches us to be receptive to other versions of the truth, and fosters non-violence. This is the Gandhian way.