Critically analyse the adequacy of nationalist responses to different kinds of diversity in India.

The Indian nationalists had to contend with diversity and differences within religions as well as
between religions within the Indian context. Most nationalists, whether they were Hindu revivalists
like Tilak or liberals like Nehru explicitly rejected the idea of a majoritarian rule based on one
religion or language. On the surface, they eschewed thinking of the nation in terms of a single
religious identity.
At a general level, religious diversity, in itself, was not a problem; in fact, it was cherished as a
unique manifestation of Indian, more specifically Hindu, toleration. But communalism, that is, a
‘narrow group mentality basing itself on a religious community but in reality concerned with
political power and patronage of the interested group’ was a problem fuelled by the divide and
rule policy of the British.

But then few nationalists managed to transcend communal thinking and preserve diversity within
and between religions. Hindu revivalists such as Tilak considered diversity within Hinduism as
inhibiting Hindu unity to some extent. Sectarian prejudices were seen as weakening the Hindu
community. He saw history largely as a struggle between different religious communities. In the
past, he claimed, Buddhists attacked Hinduism; in the future, he foresaw Christianity challenging
Hinduism. Against this threat, Hindu community had to fortify itself. The way in which Tilak
looked at the past was to some extent conditioned by his hopes for the future. He did not ask
whether battle lines were drawn in the past in the same manner as they were in the present, that
is, in terms of religious identities and communal loyalties.
Further, Tilak’s vision of the future where he saw the Hindus united into a strong community
also had to be examined. To what extent is such a vision friendly to the diversity within
Hinduism? Most nationalists, be it Tilak or Radhakrishnan approached Hinduism through
selective metaphysical ideas of advaita and neglected the rich layered diversity of practice. To
some extent, they resorted to some key texts like the Gita and Upanishads and attempted to
streamline the diversity of Hinduism along the lines of semitic religions, i.e., one text, one god
and perhaps one organisation or church? In turn, this leads  diversity to a denial of conflicting theologies
within Hinduism that contributed to its strength at different historical junctures. Further, the
attempt to introduce Ganesh and Shivaji festivals to mobilise the Hindus into a community
opened up the dangerous possibility of the political use of religion for majoritarian ends. His
opposition to the Age of Consent Bill which sought to raise the marriageable age for girls from
10 to 12 also lent weight to orthodox Hindus. Although Tilak himself was not personally
against the Muslims and commanded many admirers among them, he inaugurated a style
of politics that contained the seeds of an aggressive Hindu nationalism. Even during his time,
Swadeshi often got mixed up with Hindu religiosity although there were dissenters.
Rabindranath Tagore’s entry and exit from Swadeshi was probably the most eloquent expression
of both the attractiveness and anxiety induced by such a heady combination of radical politics
and religiosity.
In contrast, Gandhi forged a nationalist response that was relatively more inclusive and less
aggressive vis-à-vis other religions. Besides the Gita, he appealed to other sources such as
Sermon on the Mount, Jain ideal of ahimsa and Vaishnavist bhakti. Gandhi continued to conceive
of the Indian nation based on Hindu ideals such as swaraj or Ram Rajya. But through the ideal
of non-violent action, he hoped to temper the assertive impulse from turning into aggressive
Hindu nationalism. His vision of Hindu community did not require new temples on disputed
sites. Also, he would have reminded Hindus that mythic sites are not to be confused with
specific locales; bhakti theology claims that ultimately these spaces are to be found in the heart.
Gandhi was probably only one devotee to have said that the Gita and Koran are his two eyes.
As Ashis Nandy puts it,Gandhi forged a religious tolerance which was perhaps more suited to
the Indian psyche. He was open to others in and through his active religious practices. This
openness was not acceptable to fanatical Hindus.

Read more : eGyanKosh: Semester-I


A third ideological response to religious diversity came from liberal secular persons such as
Nehru. For Nehru, Muslims were not a community opposed to the Hindu community. He saw
them as equally divided by class, language and ideologies. Similarly, he did not see the Hindus
as a homogeneous community. As noted above, he was more concerned about this kind of
thinking leading to conflict. Nehru grasped that people could believe in different gods and books
but he was apprehensive of the political passions generated by faith. But then Gandhi realised

that in modern times, politics is everywhere and so religion gets politicised. The problemof diversity

is not to shield any realm from politics but how to train people so that they respect democratic norms
and are forced to respect rule of law while using religious ideologies and symbols for their own
Now these ideological responses were shaped by different political circumstances and movements
on the ground. Were Hindus and Muslims really divided into clear-cut communities as Tilak
encourages us to think? Or were they really living in perfect amity until the British came to divide
and rule? As Sumit Sarkar points out, the development of communal and national consciousness
are both modern phenomena in that they were facilitated by modern economic linkages and
communications. Before that, Hindus and Muslims in different locales may have discovered
their differences but they may not have thought of themselves as homogeneous communities.
Secondly, though Hindus and Muslims may not have lived in perfect amity, communal riots were
not regular or frequent events. There were quarrels but there were also Shia-Sunni quarrels and
caste conflicts.
The reform movements among Hindus and Muslims helped them acquire a sense of communal
identity. Hindu communalism was made possible thanks to reform movements. In the early part
this century, Dayanand Saraswati’s Arya Samaj succeeded in combining the earlier social reform
issues (opposition to child marriage, idolatry, polytheism, widowhood taboos, brahminical
dominance etc.) with a pan-Hindu consciousness. Along with shuddhi campaigns, they gained
deep roots among a variety of caste groups. By the 1890s the Arya Samaj was beginning to
criticise the Congress for not being Hindu enough and held conferences at Kumbh Melas and
Sanatan Dharma Sabhas. Elsewhere, Ramakrishna Mission in Bengal, Prarthana Samaj in
Pune region and Theosophical society in Madras also promoted a sense of Hindu community
through their revivalist practices.
What about Muslim communalism? Among them too, reformist as well as revivalist trends
arose. In U.P for instance, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s hopes for reforms among the Muslims
found a ready audience in traditional Muslim landowners and service families (Aligarh elites)
which found their influence declining. Initially, the British supported the reformists in order to
counter the spread of strongly anti-imperial, pro-caliphate Islam from the Deoband seminary.
Subsequently, the British encouraged separatism by arguing that Bengal partition would mean
more jobs for Muslims. Though Swadeshi did attract some Muslims, British propaganda
succeeded in driving the upper classes from the movement.
At a political level, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had opposed council entry and competitive exams
for civil service on the general ground that they would only empower the Hindus who had an
edge in English education. The Indian National Congress had not managed to attract many
Muslims. The formation of the Muslim league in 1906 and the concession of separate electorates
ensured that separatist agendas were represented and argued out. In other words, separatism
may be fostered by elite groups who mobilise people for their own interests.
However, people are not always victims; they also act as agents. If they are being influenced by
revivalist and separatist politics, there must be some objective reasons. In the U.P and Punjab,
communal riots became frequent from 1880s. Sumit Sarkar points out that socio- economic
tensions may have played a part in triggering these riots. Hindu peasants faced Muslim taluqdars
and landlords in large parts of Avadh and Aligarh, Muslim artisans, shopkeepers and petty
traders faced big merchants and bankers in towns of U.P while Muslim peasants faced Hindu
money-lenders in the Punjab. In Bengal, riots increasingly occured in 1906-1907 in differen

areas. The targets were Hindu zamindars and money lenders and the Muslim rioters were seen
by nationalists as hired agents of the British. And then in 1917, crowds of upto 50,000 Hindus
attack Muslims in 124 villages in Shahabad and Patna. Cow protection propaganda and Sanatan
Dharma Sabhas played a part in provoking such riots but they were not sole causes; considerable
rumour mongering and gossip about collapse of British rule as well as simmering peasant discontent
may have found an outlet in such riots.
But the people were not always only expressing economic discontent in a communal/religious
garb? And not always were Muslims drawn to pro-imperialist and separatist politics. In the
Khilafat movement, Muslim leaders like Mohammad Ali issued first a call for Non-cooperation
in November 1919. Muslim leaders, conscious of the need for Hindu support to make noncooperation a success, passed a Muslim League resolution calling stopping Bakr-Id slaughter
of cows. Gandhi and the Congress, after the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh joined hands with the
Khilafat activists. Post-Khilafat time saw the revival of separatist identity thanks to separate
electorates and rising unemployment. Hindu communalism was also becoming restive and hostile.
From 1924, the Muslim League would raise the demand for a federation with full provincial
autonomy until the demand for Pakistan in 1940.
The response of the Congress to the Hindu Mahasabha was always ambiguous. Despite his
opposition to Non-cooperation, Madan Mohan Malaviya was courted by the Congress leaders.
From the mid-twenties, it had been active along with the RSS in spreading Hindi, Shuddhi and
Hinduism. In some places like Banaras, the Swaraj Party and Hindu Mahasabha were the same
organisation. Moulana Abul Kalam Azad complained in 1937 that Congress members could
not join the League but they were not barred from being active in the Hindu Mahasabha. It was
only in 1938 that Congress declared the Hindu Mahasabha membership being disqualification
to remain in Congress. Through the mid-thirties, the growth of both Hindu and Muslim
communalism continued, and Nehru would admit to Prasad in 1939 that they had been unable
to check anti-congress feeling among the Muslims. The Muslim Mass Contact Campaign launched
by Nehru was subverted by local Congress committees dominated by Mahasabhites anyway.
Further the nationalist voices among Muslims such as Abul Kalam Azad battled against partition
for long and their voices did not get recognised. He argued with both Nehru and Patel that
partition would not solve the communal problem but make it more permanent. But somehow
the mood of the dominant nationalists such as Patel was to accept partition and be done with it.
We must also note that there were also other voices such as that of the Jam’iyyat-i ‘Ulama-IHind

which were averse to the idea of Pakistan and felt that partition would endanger the
Muslims in India. But they were not an influential voice among the Muslims.

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