Mainstream, VOL LIX No 29, New Delhi, July 3, 2021
Contesting the Monolithic Idea of India | Arup Kumar Sen
Friday 2 July 2021, by#socialtags
In recent years, a monolithic idea of India reigns supreme in the Statist discourse of nationalism. Anyone who contests the language of nationalism being promulgated by the Indian State may be branded as “anti-national”. This is not the idea of India preached by the great thinkers of our country.
Recently, our prime minister, Narendra Modi, quoted Rabindranath Tagore in his speech on the occasion of a cultural event in Kolkata — “India’s history is not what students study for examinations”. The prime minister reportedly alleged that several important aspects of the country’s history were overlooked by historians in postcolonial India. (See The Indian Express, January 12, 2020)
What is the idea of India imagined by Rabindranath Tagore in his essay ‘Bharatbarsher Itihas’ (History of Bharat) - published at the beginning of the 20th century - which Narendra Modi quoted in his speech? In the same Bengali text, Rabindranath actually made a critique of State-centric idea of India and derived his notion of ‘desh’ (country) from the folk tradition of Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya and Tukaram.
Niharranjan (Roy) Ray wrote a seminal book, Bangalir Itihas:Aadi Parba (History of the Bengali People : Early Period), which was published in 1950 (Foreword of the book was written by Jadunath Sarkar, the eminent Indian historian of the time). In the Preface of the book, Ray observed: “When I began writing this book, Bengal was undivided and was a part of an unpartitioned India; now, when that writing is finished, the political leaders have subtly realized the partition of Bengal along with the severing of India’s most ancient bloodlinks. In two thousand years of its history, Bengal had never been confronted with such a profound and far-reaching calamity...Nevertheless, whatever the wishes of the politicians, Bengal and the Bengali people are, historically, one and undivided. This book commemorates that undivided land and its people. Such remembrance is fitting, and will continue to be for a long time to come”. (Translated by John W. Hood)
Rabindranath Tagore’s folk view of ‘swadesh’(own country) and Niharranjan Ray’s people-centric imagination of the Bengali nation raised fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the nation state as well as state-centric imagination of our nationhood.