Is Nationalism a Cultural or Political Phenomenon?

By | March 2, 2021
Nationalism a Cultural or Political Phenomenon

This article on ‘Is Nationalism a Cultural or Political Phenomenon?’ discusses different views of philosophers in order to observe whether Nationalism is a political or cultural phenomenon.


The word Nationalism in recent times has been a recurring phenomenon in the life of ordinary Indian Citizens. In the media houses, we have seen much ill-informed debate taking place where only rhetoric is used define as to who is a true nationalist and what is true Nationalism means?

We have seen in these debates that people of one culture argue that they are true nationalists and the right inheritors of India pasts in comparison to other cultures. Therefore we see that in recent times the idea of culture has been linked to Nationalism. So taking a clue from the present time will it be wise to conclude that Nationalism has been a cultural phenomenon? Probably not.

Nationalism is too wide in scope and it cannot be fitted in a single phenomenon. In the growing trend of imposing a particular kind of nationalism by the majority community, it is very important to do in-depth research to assess the different forms of nationalism which prevailed in the world. The paper is written with the objective to educate the community about different forms of nationalism with the main focus on India and we will try to observe whether it is a political or cultural phenomenon.

Keywords: Culture, Nationalism, Politics, State, Nation

Views of Philosophers

Ernest Renan in his article “What is a nation” tries to define a nation. Renan’s idea of nation is based on the ideological formulation that a nation comes into existence only by mutual consent of people and there exist a strong bonding between them which is a result of common past and it leads to an agreement to stay together and governed with consent.[1]

If we go by this simple definition we can say that in order to form a nation, a group of people need to have common moments of joy, sadness which will ensure cohesion among them. Renan’s argument on nationalism in the context of South Asia can be applied to India. For example, the idea of India only came into existence in response to the atrocities committed by the British.

The people from different religions were equally exploited by the British and therefore it united the people who saw the British as unfit to govern Indians and there was a need for Indians to govern themselves was realized. Renan also brought a concept of civic nationalism where he believed that culture could not operate in isolation and it exists with politics.

Ernest Gellner in his book Nations and Nationalism argues that nationalism is a recent phenomenon of the Industrial Age. Such a concept never existed in an agrarian society that lacked social and economic mobility and people did not fight to impose culture on each other. In the Gellner concept of nationalism, nationalism is a response to the changes occurring in the modern world which undermines traditional hierarchies. Therefore in the world of social mobility and economic changes, it is a source of identity for people and as a political ideology, its role is to create citizens which are filled with loyalties towards the state. He believed that nationalism does not arise in a stateless society.[2]

However, applying Gellner’s theory of Nationalism to India would be problematic. According to Gellner, the homogenization of culture is an inescapable imperative for any industrializing and modernizing country.[3] However, this is not the case with India which has grown industrially but has remained secular in nature. In recent times a tendency has emerged to paint India in Hindutva ideology but still it would be a farfetched argument to believe that India in the coming future will embrace Hinduism in culture. Thus we can argue that India and European political integration is a challenge to classical theories of Nationalism.

Benedict Anderson’s in his most important work “Imagined communities talks about nationalism and argues that it is a cultural phenomenon.[4] Anthony Taylor argues that for Anderson, the nation is imagined as a political community that is imagined as limited {territorially} and Sovereign {state}. It is imagined as a horizontal community regardless of a hierarchical reality.[5] According to Vasudha Dalmia, Anderson sees the nation as growing from the roots provided by religious communities and dynastic realms primarily by the means of print capitalism which supported nationalist ideologies in the endeavor to associate particular languages with particular territorial units.[6]

The print language which thus emerged further laid the basis for National consciousness in that they created unified fields of exchange and communication, gave a new fixity to language, creating thereby languages of power different from that of older administrative vernaculars.

Anderson’s views on nationalism can be summed by saying that he is interested in showing the discursive element that went into the shaping of imagining a nation. He moves beyond the structuralist, Marxist paradigm but he focuses on structuralist transformation. He believes that cultural nationalism first begins in opposition to colonialism first in Spain by cereals and from here it is spread to other parts of the world and this is called modular transformation.

Tapan Rayachaudhari seems to hold a different opinion on Anderson’s concept of world nationalism. He argues that in the context of India in Bengal the nationalist traditions which emerged were not only due to influence from the west but it was also influenced by old Sanskrit traditions.[7]

Homi k. Bhabha in his book ‘Nation and Narration’ describe the location of Nation in temporality argued the fact that the narrative of the nation tended to be split into a double-time: in one, the people were an object of National pedagogy because they were always in making, in a process of historical progress, not yet fully developed to fulfill the destiny of the nation but in the other, the unity of the people, their permanent identification with the nation, had to be continually signified, repeated and performed.[8]

Bhabha also shows how Anderson, in borrowing Walter Benjamin’s notion of the Homogenous empty time of the national narrative, entirely failed to notice the profound ambivalence that becomes inescapable when one tries to tell the story of the fullness of the national life.

Partha Chatterjee in his article ‘Anderson utopia and the nation in heterogeneous time‘ has criticized Anderson’s concept of bound and unbound serialities.[9] For Anderson unbound serialities include nations, citizens which are imagined in print culture namely the newspaper and novel. The bound serialities include those things which are countable for example, government, number of citizens in a state counted by a modern instrument like Census. Bound serialities are fixed and they are tools of ethnic politics.

He argues that Anderson has defined the United nation as unbound serialities but if we look closer then we can count the fixed number of members it has and so they come under bound serialities. For Chatterjee bound and unbound serialities can exist together.

Chatterjee also criticizes Anderson on the issue of modular nationalism and homogenous time. Anderson believes that nationalism first emerged in America, in Europe, in Russia, and from there it spread uniformly thought the world.  However, Chatterjee doesn’t endorse this view because he feels that Anderson just talks about one side of the picture and his view on modernity is one-sided. In simple words, Anderson talks about the spread of Industrialization, politics in a homogenous way but Chatterjee believes it to be heterogeneous in nature. For e.g., In the context of South Asia, we see that in India many big industrialists don’t buy iron on Saturday and still indulge in prayers before starting a business.

Garrett Field in his article Veiling the modular, argues that Chatterjee has talked about the crucial reason why Anderson did not comprehend the different nature of nationalism in colonized countries was because Anderson had failed to discern how nationalism came into being in countries before the state was a matter of contention. Chatterjee in his work has shown that two kinds of nationalism existed in India. The first is Political Nationalism which is the Outer domain{material} where colonizers are superior and the other is Cultural Nationalism{spiritual} which is the Inner domain where colonized were dominant.[10]

Dipesh Chakrabarty in his essay, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference have criticized Anderson’s idea of Modular nationalism by using the cultural nationalism of Rabindranath Tagore to argue the fact that it is not in every case that Indians have copied the west in the development of Nationalism. He believes that words are like Imagination, modular nationalism represents a Eurocentric bias which believes that everything first started in Europe and then proceeded to other places.[11]

Manu Goswami criticizes Homi Bhabha’s approach to Nationalism by further elaborating on reworking Anderson’s concept of the Modular Form of Nationalism. According to Manu, firstly acknowledgment of ambivalent character of Nationalist discourse need not entail the strong assumption that nationalism disconnection was solely in its undecided nature that does not really mean an exclusive focus on the undecidability or on the particularity of nationalism threaten to jettisoned the comparative historical analysis that is based on material and objectivist approach and they can show some definitive feature in the phenomenon of nationalism.

The discourse of nationalism is played out as a divergent move that testifies the nation as a status of the boss. One of the most legitimately degradation of group identity and one of the most enduring and presumptive forms of modern particularism. The theorist’s work within a subjective framework failed to examine the socio-historical condition that mediates the universally legitimate form of nation and conditions of growth globally.

Goswami critiques Chatterjee and Chakrabarty who she believes overstate the particularity of local nationalism in colonized countries. She critics Anderson for overemphasizing the global nature of modular nationalism and the failure to explain in sufficient detail how such nationalist module can be linked to the local process.

Garret has used the idea of Goswami of modular nationalism to focus on a new dimension of Musical nationalism in South Asia. He argues that the 1950s was the decade in south Asia in which state and institutional politics become inextricable from linguistic nationalism. Garret has traced the process of development of Sinhalese Music as the most important and National music of Srilanka and how it has influenced the growth and creation of classical Telegu and Karnatic music.[13]

Rabindranath Tagore’s views on Nationalism were radically different in comparison to his contemporaries.[14] In the book The Nationalism, Tagore has criticized the aggressive nationalism of Japan. I believe that he was against the political dimension of nationalism but he supported cultural nationalism.

He gave more importance to human value, unity, cultural heritage rather than a political ideology of nationalism which divide people on basis of territorial nationalism, and most probably he did not like the concept of the nation associated with territory and it did not surprise me as well because a person who has written national anthem of more the one country probably did not saw himself attached to political boundaries of a nation.[15]

According to Shashi Tharoor, In his essay on Nationalism, he argued that ‘There is only one history-the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one’. National pride does not feature in his thought, only the immutable goals of knowledge, learning, and the pursuit of truth.

Ashis Nandy has described Tagore as a patriot and not a Nationalist. [16]He thought that there was nothing in common between the territorially associated with various vernacular concepts of patriotism and the new idea of territoriality grounded in the idea of nation-state and ideology of Nationalism. Nandy stands in line with Anderson when he argues that Nationalism was a reaction to a sense of being uprooted or rendered homeless.

Nandy argues that Tagore believed that the idea of nationalism is intrinsically non-Indian or anti-Indian, an offense against Indian civilization and its principle of religious and cultural plurality. According to Nandy, Tagore’s position allowed people to view India as a cultural entity defined by a number of mystics and saints, the boundaries of whose religious identity were never clear. Hence we can say that in this aspect Tagore was very close to Anderson’s idea of cultural nationalism in this aspect.

Nandy argues that in the context of South Asia nationalism has a very thin presence and people are more related to each other on religious lines and saints and the ideology of nationalism is present mostly in the elite class. He further argues that South Asia nationalism is quite related to European nationalism and he justifies it by saying that it is because in the late 19th century this place was marked by the presence of European powers at a time when countries were becoming independent and getting organized on nationalist lines and they wanted to beat European powers in their own game which led to this similarity.

Further, he argued that in recent time India is becoming more nationalist compared to Pakistan, US and UK and the ideology of Tagore and Gandhi is getting sideline and the ideology of A Q Khan and Raja Ramanna is being promoted all over the south Asia.[17]

Michael Dusche in his article Origins of Ethnic Nationalism in Germany and Repercussions in India have talked about the concept of ethnic Nationalism and have argued that most civilian lives have been lost in places where partition has taken place on ethnic lines for eg, Greece-Turkey, India-Pakistan. He discusses the various stages through which ethnic nationalism becomes a political ideology. He finds its origin in the reactions of German intellectuals and Political elites to the French Revolution and to the Napolean conquest of Europe. It establishes its model character for future ethnic-nationalist movements in Europe and Asia and it indicates its pathways to India through the intellectuals of Communalist movements.[18]

Therefore with respect to this definition, we can visualize certain similarities with Anderson model of modular nationalism, where an ideology{ethnic nationalism} developed in Germany and reached India and it is a root cause of the problem between Hindu-Muslim identity politics and many secessionist movements in the country running in Punjab and North East India.[19]

Michael argued that Nationalism in India has a positive connotation. Nationalism is associated with the struggle for self-rule in India and with an ambitious project of Liberalization from homegrown injustices. He further argued that the idea of German Nationalism has influenced ideologues of Hindu Nationalism such as V.D Savarkar, M.S. Golwalkar.

Tharoor argues that the German notion of a volksegeist, a ‘race spirit’ to which everyone would have to conform, appealed strongly to Golwalkar. Golwalkar made it clear in his writings that India was the holy land of Hindus. He further rejected the concept of territorial nationalism. For Golwalkar this made no sense: a territory was not a nation, a people constituted a nation. In the case of India, it was Hindus for Golwalkar.[20]

Savarkar was opposed to Golwalkar and he accepted the concept of territorial nationalism and he believes in the concept of Akhand Bharat where he drew inspiration from ancient dynasties like Mauryas who managed to knit most of the subcontinent under their territorial control. Therefore in his view, Hindus were the nation in Bharat, and that Hindutva was Rashtriyatva(nationalism).

For Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya ‘A nation is not a mere geographical unit. The primary need for Nationalism is the feeling of boundless dedication in the hearts of the people for their land. For him, love for the motherland is an essential feature of nationalism. Upadhya felt the need for a Hindu political philosophy befitting an ancient nation like Bharat and it has to be based on the positive concept of patriotism. For him, national culture needs to be Hindu and not Muslim and he believed in a need to purify and nationalize Indian Muslims to make them proper Indians.

C.A. Bayly has challenged the entire theory of modular transformation. He emphasizes old patriotism. Bayly thinks that Partha Chatterjee has left little room for any kind of proto-nationalism. He argued because Chatterjee shows how nationalist leaders had appropriated Western discourse of power that had left very little room for indigenous patriotism that arose in a particular country.

Bayly thinks it is difficult to maintain that the domestic sphere or indigenous sphere was very less affected by modernity. Western nationalism did impact the private sphere. It was as impactful as in the public sphere.

Bayly feels the need to focus on the particularity of nationalism. He, therefore, expresses the need to focus on the tradition and customary practices of 19th century India which he grouped under the old patriotism. For him, Nationalism was deeply rooted in the society and molded by ideologies, political norms, and social organizations which derived from a deeper indigenous inheritance that became a pioneer of nationalist ideologies in the 19th century.

To prove his point, he talks about [21]Puna Sarvajanik Sabha and he shows how eastern and western, old and new ideas mixed together in many ways in the 19th century. He says that Poona Sarvajinik Sabha modeled up on Western form claim to represent the people of puna when it adopted its own constitution. This is a new idea that shows the western concept of a nation.

However, Indian tradition has also played a role in evolution. Sabha was an attempt to reform of Parvati temple at Pune. Sabha was also actively involved in the working of the system of Dakshina fund that is an example of how they were rooted in the indigenous idea and practice. Even the working member adopted the power of attorney which is an Indo-Islamic feature.

He argued that even the sabha demanded the protection of Indigenous industry and it was based on patriotism and sympathy for those who were deprived of their legitimate rights in this sense that it is Indigenous base and based on the popular notion of the modern economy or the tradition of statecraft.

Chatterjee counter-argue that these are itself a selective retelling of the past by Nationalism since therefore they are also modern. He denies the instrumentality of perpetuating colonialism in the colonial order.

Charu Gupta through his studies has highlighted the role of gender in shaping nationalism in India which was largely cultural in nature with some political motives.[22] She argues that terms like Matri Bhoomi, Janani Janmashtami tell us the fact that how nationalism is imagined through a female body in the Indian context. She also cites the example of the Bharat Mata temple where a political map of India is imagined as Bharat Mata and it is constructed by using the scientific technique but it has an emotional and cultural appeal.

It was built to instill a feeling of nationalism across people irrespective of caste, religion. However, it used a symbol that was largely Hindu in nature and related to the upper caste. Therefore Gupta has called it Hindu nationalism of the upper caste. On the issue of language, Urdu was being sidelined and compared to prostitute whereas Hindi was claimed to be related to Sanskrit and mother of different Indian language.

In this context, even the material body of cow equated with the Hindu nation, and it was compared to foster mother. The arguments of Charu Gupta can be equated to Renan and Gellner’s model of nationalism where a Hindu nationalism is trying to unite itself on common things like cow, language, map, and minorities are being sidelined.

Alok Rai in his book Hindi Nationalism has explained the phenomenon as to how Hindi came to be associated with Hindu nationalism. He talks about the debates which occurred between Urdu and Hindi proponents and has also talked about the debates of constitutional assembly where the Hindu elite is very eager to establish Hindi as the national language and forcefully argued for the removal of English.[23]

Sudhir Chandra in his article has talked about the fact that in the Indian context communalism and nationalism have coexisted. He cites the writings of Pratap Narain Misra which were biased against Muslims and he wanted to build a nationalist ideology by uniting all the Hindus against Britishers. He even coined the slogan of ‘Hindi Hindu Hindustan’. It did not occur to him that many of these children might be attracted to the cause of the country without feeling enthusiastic about the other two causes.[24]

The debate on nationalism and its development in the context of South Asia can be summed by with a view that nationalism is both a cultural and political phenomenon. In starting it might begin as a political tool but it can sustain only by using cultural symbols. Politics and culture don’t operate in isolation, therefore nationalism cannot be just associated with politics and it has a cultural side too.

– Ashish Shukla

The author, Ashish Shukla, Campus Law Centre – Faculty of Law, University of Delhi is the Rank 6 of the 5th National Essay Writing Competition on Nation and Nationalism 2021.

[1] Ernst Renan “What is a Nation? text of a conference delivered at the Sorbonne on March 11th,1882, in Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?, Paris, Presses-Pocket,1992. {translated by Ethan Rundell],p.6.

[2] Ernest Gellner, Nations, and Nationalism, Basil Blackwell, England,  7.

[3] Michael Dusche, “Origins of Ethnic Nationalism in Germany and Repercussions in India”, EPW, Vol xlv, No.22, {May 29}, 2010, p.40.

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, First Published, 1983, Revised Edition 1991, pp.1-36.

[5] Anthony Taylor, The Influence of Water Benjamin on Benedict Anderson, International Journal of Indonesian studies, Issue 3: (Spring) 2016,p.2.

[6] Vasudha Dalmia, The Nationalization of Hindu Tradition: Bharatendu Harishcandra and Nineteenth-Century Benaras, Oxford University Press, Delhi,1999,p.11.

[7] Ibid

[8] Partha Chatterjee, “The nation in heterogeneous time”, The Indian Economic and Social Historical Review, 38, 4, 2001,p.402.

[9] Partha Chatterjee,”Anderson Utopia”, Diacritics, Vol.29, No.4,[Winter],1999,pp.128-132.

[10] Garret Field, Veiling the modular: literary language and subjective nationalism in Sinhala radio song of Sri Lanka,1957-1964, The South Asianist, Vol, No. 1,2015,p.3.

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Sir Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism, San Francisco, The Book Club of California,1917, pp. 65-78.

[15] Shashi Tharoor, India Shastra, Aleph Publication,2015,p.122.

[16] Ashis Nandy, “Nationalism, Genuine and Spurious”, EPW, Vol.41,No.32,{12 August 2006},pp.3501-3502.

[17] Ibid

[18] Michael Dusche, “Origins of Ethnic Nationalism in Germany and Repercussions in India”, EPW, Vol xlv, No.22,{May 29},2010,p.37.

[19] Ibid

[20] Shashi Tharoor, Why I Am A Hindu, Aleph Publication, 2018, pp.150-175.

[21] C.A Bayley, Origins of Nationality in South Asia: Patriotism and Ethical Government in the Making of Modern India, 1997, pp.106-108.

[22] Charu Gupta,” The Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India: ‘Bharat Mata’, Matri Bhasha’ and ‘Gau Mata”, EPW, Vol.36, No.45,(Nov. 10-16),2001, pp.4291-4297.

[23] Alok Rai, Hindi Nationalism, Orient Longman, Delhi,2001, pp.3-12.

[24] Sudhir Chandra, “Communal Consciousness in Late 19th Century Hindi Literature”, in Mushirul Hasan (Ed.), Communal and Pan-Islamic Trends in Colonial India, Manohar, Delhi, 1981, pp.179-182.

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Author: Ashish Shukla

Student, Campus Law Centre – Faculty of Law | University of Delhi

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