In our history course, we explored the different theories that explain nationalism and its origins. This was a topic that generated quite a bit of controversy among us students, because we all prided in us being “nationalistic” without even understanding the context in which nationalism arose and its applicability to India.
There are two major schools of thought in studies in nationalism – the perennialists and the modernists. Initially, the former proposed the theory that nations are perennial organizations that had existed everywhere and in every age – right from the Ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Indians, Chinese and others to the present. This understanding of a nation stems from its interchangeability with the notion of race. The British, French, German and Russian nations were at the same time also seen as the British, French, German and Russian races. Therefore, the socio-political community was linked to biology, thereby creating a category called ‘nation’ which had always existed although individual nations had come and gone.
Such a tribalist and racial understanding of nations came under heavy flak after the fall of fascism and its racialist nationalism during World War II. There was a clear tendency for scholars of nationalism to expose the modern and secular character of the nation, and its relationship to rationalism and liberalism. Modernization was thus seen as an important step in the creation of the nation-state.
A key figure in developing this ideas is Ernest Gellner. He theorized that modernity swept out of the West and did away with traditional societies, replacing ties of kinship and tribal roles with linguistic and cultural links. According to him, nationalism created nations where they did not exist previously, and not only was the nation a sociological necessity but it also facilitated the functioning of industrial modernity.
This was not a radically new idea, for the Marxists used to proclaim a similar message. According to Eric Hobsbawm, the nationalists (who were the elites) had to invent myths, traditions, suitable history, etc in order to create the nation and control the newly enfranchised masses of the industrialized democratic European states. Similarly, Benedict Anderson said that nations were ‘imagined communities’ based on vernacular languages and were propagated for the middle class reading public by ‘print capitalism’.
The modernist understanding of nationalism became orthodoxy in the academia during the 1960s and 1970s. However, it has come under severe criticism. Even though modernist claim that there was no ethnic ‘navel’, there did exist pre-modern cultural material upon which ‘modern nationalism’ was based, such as language or a pre-existing state tradition. The form of extended kinship that stemmed from the family was the nucleus around which the national community was formed. Such critiques created new theories of nationalism such as sociobiological and cultural primordialism, neo-perennialism, the post-modernist understanding of nationalism and ethno-symbolism.
How do these theories help us define the national identity of an Indian? India is a land of diverse populations. There are countless identities that exist based on race, ethnicity, religion, language, culture, caste, etc. What is that single identity that unites us into a nation? There is no concrete answer to this question even today, and our class was left with more questions about ourselves than answers.