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Reclaiming India’s soul

Smita Gupta | Updated on December 21, 2020

Long haul: Tharoor does not suggest a road map to counter the rise of Hindutva   -  THE HINDU/ VIVEK BENDRE

Shashi Tharoor’s new book provides an analytical overview of patriotism to readers grappling with swiftly changing definitions of nationalism

* Even after the Modi era ends, “The genie will still be out of the bottle; hypernationalism will still be around”

* He does briefly refer to his own party and the accusations made against it of being soft saffron, and acknowledges that the Congress has not done enough to take the BJP on ideologically

***

Shashi Tharoor’s new book is, in a way, a sequel to his earlier work Why I am a Hindu, in which he had sought to seize “that most plural, inclusive, eclectic and expansive of faiths” from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Hindu right wing. Over the years, and more so since the BJP came to power in 2014 under Narendra Modi, the BJP has endeavoured to appropriate, codify and rebrand the Hindu religion, Semitise it as it were, and set its followers at odds against those practising other faiths, and even Hindu liberals, many of whom are deeply religious, too.

The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism, And What It Means To Be Indian takes off from that earlier book, and is, in the current context, a “political” work, too. Of course, it is much more than that. It provides an erudite and comprehensive analytical overview of nationalism and patriotism for the reader grappling with swiftly changing definitions of who is national and who is anti-national.

For the Indian National Congress, the more than century-old organisation to which Tharoor belongs and represents as a third-time MP, the book should be the starting point for a debate on how to counter the BJP’s alternative vision of majoritarian nationalism, its attempt to bully a diverse population into uniformity, and push a richly multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual society into a saffron homogeneity. He does briefly refer to his own party and the accusations made against it of being soft saffron, and acknowledges that the party has not done enough to take on the BJP ideologically.

The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism, And What It Means To Be Indian / Shashi Tharoor / Aleph Book Company / Non-fiction/ ₹550

 

Tharoor, of course, emphasises that it is not “just a political battle against the party in power or the government of the day, but an existential issue that transcends the moment”. Even after the Modi era ends, he writes, “The genie will still be out of the bottle. Hypernationalism will still be around, mistrust between Hindus and Muslims will persist, the hollowness of weakened institutions will exist, the chasm between versions of history will remain, the abandonment of unifying civic principles in favour of divisive and exclusionary slogans will continue, the gaps between North and South may have increased, and the abusiveness on social media will continue.”

The book is divided into six sections. The first part provides a historical context to ideas such as nationalism, patriotism, humanism and democracy and sets it in the context of globalisation; the second deals with the idea of India, as it was formulated during the freedom struggle and continued to dominate the public discourse in the coming decades, while the third expands on the Hindutva idea of India.

The fourth section brings us to the present and deals with the “Modi-fication” of India, the battle over the controversial Citizenship Act, the end of autonomy in Kashmir, and the decision to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya, signalling the enshrining of a Hindu rashtra. The fifth section — ‘The Anxiety of Nationhood’ — dilates on subjects such as Gandhi’s Hinduism vs Hindutva, the North-South divide and civic nationalism. The final part, “Reclaiming India’s soul”, seeks to answer whether in a post Covid-19 world “which seems to be retreating behind protective and protectionist barriers... we are witnessing a revival of the nationalism of primordial identities”, and how the world — and India — should deal with it.

In brief, Tharoor’s passionately argued case for “a civic nationhood of pluralism and institutions that protect our diversity and individual freedoms” rather than the “ethnic-religious nationalism of the Hindu Rashtra” is a call to arms for all Indian patriots.

But while the book very lucidly explains what “true Indianness” is and what it means to be a patriotic and nationalistic Indian in the 21st century, it falls short in one crucial aspect: It does not suggest a road map to counter the rise of Hindutva. Tharoor merely says that as the battle over Indian nationalism is still being fought, “it is impossible to predict exactly how it might be resolved”.

For all those who want to understand how we as a people find ourselves living in a society where hate and unreason rule, I commend this scholarly and elegantly written book that is a pleasure to read. As for that blueprint to restore the idea of India to its rightful place, I ask Tharoor to urge his political colleagues across the secular spectrum— and not just those in the G-23 (a group of Congress leaders who publicly declared their unhappiness with the way the party is functioning) — to read the book and get to work. There is a battle to be fought and won.

Smita Gupta is a Delhi-based political journalist

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Published on December 21, 2020
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