Com. Sitaram on the ‘Populist Nationalism: the Indian Context’

May 08, 2018

Populist Nationalism: the Indian Context

Sitaram Yechury
General Secretary
Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Both `nationalism’ and `populism’ are subject matters of multiple interpretations.  I do not propose here to go through the often contentious debates over the meaning of these terms, but would like to briefly discuss the rise of populist nationalism in the Indian context.  This, I believe, has implications that go beyond the borders of India.

In a capitalist world, bourgeois nationalism always promotes the interests of the bourgeoisie.  As long as the bourgeoisie is the ruling class, nationalism is invoked as patriotism.  Populism, on the other hand, is the pursuit of a political objective exploiting the emotions and the psychological make-up of sections of the people by fostering a concept of nationalism which is akin to `false consciousness’.  Under capitalism, populist nationalism always has this twin objective of advancing the interests of the bourgeoisie and, at the same time, advancing the interests of groups that seek transformation of societies on the basis of their populist appeal.


The emergence of Nation States was integral to the long process of transition of human civilization from the stage of feudalism and capitalism.  This period also threw up in Europe, the struggle for the separation of the State from the Church.  The triumph of capitalism over feudalism, at the same time, signified the separation of the political authority from the myth of a divine sanction to rule invoked by Kings and Emperors across the civilizations during the high time of feudalism.  The agreements of Westphalia finally signed in 1648 laid the principles of sovereignty of the Nation State and the consequent international laws and is widely believed to establish an international system on the basis of the principle of sovereignty of States; principle of equality between States; and the principle of non-intervention of one State in the internal affairs of another State usually referred to as the Westphalian system.  Westphalian Peace was negotiated between 1644-48 between major European powers. These treaties laid the basis for a host of international laws many of which remain in force today.

During the course of the defeat of fascism in World War-II and the consequent dynamics of decolonization, the people’s struggles for freedom from colonialism threw up many constructs regarding the character of these independent  countries.  For sure, such constructs arose out of a long struggle in individual countries against colonialism, including India during this period.

‘Idea of India’ -- Evolution

The concept of the ‘Idea of India’ emerged  during the epic people’s struggle for India’s freedom from British colonialism. What is this `Idea of India’?  To put it in simple terms, though conscious of its complex multiple dimensions,  this concept represents the idea that India as a country moves towards transcending its immense diversities in favour of a substantially inclusive unity of its people.  This, in a sense, was the complete rejection of the entire trajectory that emerged in Europe after the Westphalian peace.

The RSS/BJP objective of replacing the secular democratic modern Indian Republic with their concept of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is, in a sense, a throwback to the Westphalian model where the Hindu majority subjugates other religious minorities (mainly Muslim: the external enemy within) to foster ‘Hindu Nationalism’ as against ‘Indian Nationhood’. This, in fact, represents a throwback to notions of nationalism that dominated the intellectual discourse prior to the sweep of the Indian people’s struggle for freedom. Such a State, based on ‘Majoritarianism’ – their version of a rabidly intolerant fascistic ‘Hindu Rashtra’ – negates the core, around which emerged the  consciousness of Indian Nationhood contained in the ‘Idea of India’ as a reflection of the emergence of  `a political psychology of a new kind’.

The RSS/BJP ideologues dismiss the `Idea of India’ as a mere idea – a metaphysical concept.  They reassert as a given reality Indian (Hindu) nationalism, negating the epic freedom struggle of the Indian people.  From this struggle emerged the concept of Indian Nationhood rising above the Westphalian concept of `nationalism’.  The RSS/BJP today are spearheading the most reactionary `throwback’ to Indian (Hindu) nationalism as against the Indian Nationhood (the `Idea of India’) consciousness that emerged from the epic people’s struggle for freedom from the British colonial rule.  Prof. Akeel Bilgrami, Colombia University, New York,  asserts to this: “The prodigious and sustained mobilization of its masses that India witnessed over the last three crucial decades of the freedom struggle  could not have been possible without an alternative and inclusionary ideal of this kind to inspire it.”

India’s diversity – linguistic, religious, ethnic, cultural etc – is incomparably vaster than in any other country that the world knows of.  Officially, it has been recorded that there are at least 1,618 languages in India; 6,400 castes, 6 major religions – 4 of them originated in these lands; 6 anthropologically  defined ethnic groups; all this put together being politically administered as one country.  A measure of this diversity is that India celebrates 29 major religio-cultural festivals and probably has the largest number of religious holidays amongst all countries of the world.

Those who argue that it was the British that united this vast diversity ignore the fact that it was the British which engineered the partition of the sub-continent leading  to over a million deaths and a  communal transmigration of a colossal order.  British colonialism has the ignomous history of leaving behind legacies that continue to fester wounds through the partition of countries they had colonised – Palestine,  Cyprus, in Africa etc apart from the Indian sub-continent.  It is the Pan-Indian people’s struggle for freedom that united this diversity and  integrated more than 660 feudal princely states into modern India giving shape to a Pan-Indian consciousness.

Nationalism: At the Service of
International Finance Capital

The Westphalian definitions of `nation’ arose with the associated bourgeois nationalism  in the period of mercantile capitalism whose theoretical outlook was mercantilism.  The pre-occupation with amassing the wealth of the `nation’ and the consequent gigantic imperial expansion to augment the “nation’s wealth” through direct loot, plundering and mining of gold, diamonds and other mineral resources with slave labour were the methods that were pursued in the name of `nationalism’ which had nothing to with improving the conditions of the vast mass of the working people in these countries.  The `nation’ was projected as standing above the people and, on the other hand, the people, in the name of nationalism, were mobilized for engaging in wars of one imperialist power against another.  The workers of the warring countries were asked to kill each other across the trenches.  Bourgeois nationalism, therefore, was and is always an “aggrandizing” one which projects the metaphysical concept of a `nation’ standing above the people.

Under the global reign and onslaught of international finance capital, bourgeois nationalism promotes the interests of international finance capital at the expense of imposing greater misery on the vast mass of people.  The political support for a neo-liberal regime within the framework of democratic institutions precariously threatens countries like India, in the name of `nationalism’.

Currently, in India, a corporate communal alliance has come into dominance vigorously propagating the ideology of aggrandizing nationalism putting the `nation’ and it’s interests above the people, demanding sacrifices from the people including the forfeiture of their democratic rights in the name of the `nation’.  The leaders of the current government in India often proclaim that “freedom of expression cannot be at the expense of the nation”!

Such a notion of nationalism is also in the interests to further the fascistic agenda of the Indian communal forces led by the RSS. This fascistic agenda seeks to metamorphose India’s secular democratic Republican character into a rabidly intolerant fascistic `Hindu Rashtra’.

The RSS construct of nationalism is its ideological-theoretical justification for the establishment of its “Hindu Rashtra” (which is very far from Hinduism as a religion and should actually be called the ‘Hindutva Rashtra’).  This is premised on an assertion of the late RSS chief that “Hindus have been in undisputed and undisturbed possession of this land for over eight or even ten thousand years before the land was invaded by any foreign race”.  And, therefore, this land, “came to be known as Hindustan, the land of the Hindus” (We or Our Nationhood Defined - M. S. Golwalkar, 1939, Page 6).

Hindutva supremacists, having thus "established" that the Hindus were always and continue to remain a nation on the basis of such an unscientific and a historical analysis, proceed to assert the intolerant, theocratic content of such a Hindutva nation:

"...The conclusion is unquestionably forced upon us that... in Hindusthan exists and must needs exist the ancient Hindu nation and nought else but the Hindu Nation.  All those not belonging to the national i.e. Hindu Race, Religion, Culture and Language naturally fall out of the pale of real `National' life.

" Consequently only those movements are truly `National' as aim at re-building, re-vitalizing and emancipating from its present stupor, the Hindu Nation.  Those only are nationalist patriots, who, with the aspiration to glorify the Hindu race and nation next to their heart, are prompted into activity and strive to achieve that goal.  All others are either traitors and enemies to the National cause, or, to take a charitable view, idiots" (Golwalkar, 1939, pp. 43-44).

This constitutes a regression away from realizing the `Idea of India’ as inclusive nationalism.  What is being promoted today is an exclusive Hindutva nationalism, which, in the Indian context, defines populist nationalism.

For such a regressive project to succeed in India, central is the RSS/BJP effort to replace history with Hindu mythology  and philosophy with Hindu theology.  This BJP government in India is systematically re-working the syllabus taught to our students and youth and appointing Hindutva ideologues to various positions in higher education.

At a philosophical level, however, the effort is to resurrect irrationalism as the mainstay for the success of such populist nationalism.  Georg Lukacs’ seminal contribution, “Destruction of Reason”, in the form of the critique of  philosophical irrationalism needs to be recollected in our Indian context today.  Lukacs traces, amongst others, Germany’s path to Hitler in the realm of philosophy.  His central intention asserts “irrationalism as an international phenomenon in the imperialist world”.

Irrationalism, by its very definition, is an ideological trend hostile to Reason. It’s main objective, in all its manifestations, from the days of European enlightenment to today’s imperialist globalization is to challenge the power of Reason in human affairs and its capacity to provide knowledge about reality.  Knowledge, at any point of time, can never explain the whole reality. However, irrationalism negates the dialectical relationship between reality and knowledge.  Objective reality is, as Lukacs says, far more richer and complex than our knowledge of it.  Instead of seeking to bridge this gap on the basis of rationality, irrationalism concludes  that one cannot obtain rational knowledge of the entire reality. The entire  reality can only be grasped with `faith’ or `intuition’, considered a higher  form of knowledge.  Populist nationalism feeds people with such `faith’ and, thus, feeds itself to promote its twin objectives of furthering the neo-liberal agenda and transforming India into an exclusivist theocratic State.

It is such philosophical irrationalism that permeates all aspects of India’s socio-political-cultural life under this RSS/BJP government today.  This is,  simply put – Unreason.

It is Reason today to seek the realization of the `Idea of India’ by working for an economic agenda that seeks inclusion. It is Unreason to implement neo-liberal economic reforms under collaboration with International Finance Capital that seeks to subjugate the Indian economy to its predatory profit maximization.  Apart from negating the anti-imperialist national consciousness and reducing India as a subordinate ally of imperialism, such a trajectory vastly widens the hiatus between the two Indias – impoverishing  the poor and enriching the rich.  An exclusivist agenda as opposed to the inclusive vision of the `Idea of India’.

It is Reason today to work for the socio-economic inclusion of the marginalised sections of our people like dalits, tribals, religious minorities and women. It is Unreason today to promote  and protect such exclusion.  It is Unreason today to speak of merit divorced from socio-economic realities.

It is Reason today to seek “equality of all citizens irrespective of caste, creed or sex” as our Constitution assures. It is Unreason today to deny this equality.  Such denial of equality is the consequence of the neo-liberal policy trajectory and the offensive of Hindutva nationalism.

It is Reason today to seek the separation of religion from State.  It is Unreason today to promote aggressively communal polarization promoting exclusiveness instead of nurturing inclusiveness. Such Unreason directly attacks the constitutionally guaranteed right to religious minorities, robbing them of security of life and opportunities and making them vulnerable to communal assaults.

It is Reason today to foster values promoting the `Idea of India’. It is Unreason to poison our education system, in addition to restricting its universal access, through negating rationalism and scientific temper.  It is Unreason to seek the replacement of our rich syncretic culture with Hindu mythology.

This is the ongoing battle in India between the `populist’ `Hindutva nationalism’  and Indian nationalism.  The agenda for reclaiming secular democracy means the triumph of Reason in this battle against Unreason. This is the core of the `Idea of India’.