The Congress and Muslim League’s Ideas of Nation and Nationalism

The Congress and Muslim League's Ideas of Nation and Nationalism

By: Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed

The ideas of nation and nationalism upheld by the Indian National Congress and the All-India Muslim League were two different conceptions of nation and nationalism. Before explaining those, let us put their thesis in perspective.

A nation, in a minimum sense, is a group of people who share some cultural affinity and claim a special relationship with a territory over which they demand the right to establish a state. In a loose sense, one may describe religious communities or a linguistic nationality as nations, but in a strictly analytical sense, unless they campaign and struggle to establish a state, they are not a nation. For example, Jews were a persecuted religious community until Zionism emerged as an ideology demanding a state for them.

Not all cultural groups which start claiming that they are nations succeed in achieving their goal. Others may be nations, but they lose their independence. For example, the pre-Columbian peoples of North and South America were defeated by the Europeans, subjugated and killed in large numbers. In Canada, they are called the First Nation – which is indicative of the fact that once they were free people living in their own land.

Nationalism as a doctrine about self-determination belongs to the modern period, but its echo can be heard down the centuries into the medieval and ancient periods. Tribes have fought one another for winning control over the same territory, oppressed peoples have risen against empires in history.

However, nation and nationalism are the salient phenomena of the era of capitalism and industrial society. Just as religion was the supra-ideology of the medieval and early modern period, nationalism has been the supra-ideology of the modern period beginning with the 18th century. The American War of Independence (1776) inspired European settlers to revolt against metropolitan states in Europe. Such nationalisms were the first way of nationalism, but it did not have much influence outside the Americas. The reason was that these were movements of European settlers against European rulers.

Right now, it is important to grasp the two contrasting conceptions of nation and nationalism underpinning the two principal parties involved in the freedom struggle and the ultimate partition of India in 1947.

It was the French Revolution of 1789 which has had the most profound impact on the politics of Europe. Originally a movement inspired by the Enlightenment philosophers such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Condorcet, its main social base were millions of oppressed peasants and urban proletariat against the antiquated French monarchy and feudalism.

The underlying logic of the French Revolution was the presumption that since individuals are rational beings, they are, therefore, entitled to autonomy and liberty vis-à-vis state and society. Then, by the same token, rational beings sharing the same territory and language are entitled also to the right of self-determination including the right to independent and sovereign statehood. The French language became the cultural affinity shared by all. The French Revolution was indeed a bloody affair which cost hundreds of thousands of lives. But, in the end, the subjects of the king burdened by duties toward superiors under the feudal system became citizens entitled to individual civil and political rights as citizens of the modern nation-state.

In contrast to the French model of nation and nationalism which is based on autonomous individual citizens, a contrasting idea of nation and nationalism emerged in Germany. The Napoleonic invasions which tried to spread French ideas of reason and science to the rest of Europe resulted in the defeat of the German states including Prussia. As a reaction instead of reason and science, a pride in German particularity deriving from a combination of a putative common descent and blood and the celebration of an idyllic pure past became the hallmark of the German model of nation and nationalism. Such a disposition meant that German-speaking Jews or Roma people could not be assimilated into the German nation. On the other hand, Germans living outside German states and principalities were considered part of the extraterritorial German nation.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia was a curious mix of class struggle and Russian nationalism. Although based on an internationalist ideology, it developed a framework for a multinational state consisting of groups defined as nations, nationalities and cultural entities. Although equal citizenship rights were conferred on citizens and the Soviet constitution even included the right of nations to secede from the federation, in practice, the Soviet system came to represent bureaucratic paternalism, which did not brook any right to opposition or dissent or active citizenry. Marxism had a position on nationalism but it was an anti-nationalist doctrine which celebrated internationalism.

These three models of nationalism held an attraction for the colonised people of Asia and Africa. These were led by indigenous elites usually educated in colonial institutions and many had studied at metropolitan universities and legal schools. A mixture of romanticism and rationalism permeated the nationalist ideologies, especially if the anti-colonial struggles emerged in regions considered cradles of civilizations where pride in the past, real and imaginary, was an important psychological need to assert the right to statehood.

The Indian National Congress adopted the French model of nation and nationalism, tempered with British constitutionalism and Gandhian-Nehruvian synthesis of idyllic village simplicity and socialist idealism. The Congress claimed that all those born on the Indian territory were Indians and, therefore, part of one Indian nation. Beginning with the Motilal Nehru Report of 1928, it proclaimed that in free, independent and sovereign India, there will be no state religion; men and women will have equal rights as citizens; and India will be a federation with a strong centre. Upon such a basis, it challenged British colonialism. Hindustani with two official scripts – Devanagari and Urdu-Persian – was to be the national language of India while all provinces were to conduct their affairs, including education, in regional languages.

In reaction to the Congress’s approach on nation and nationalism, the All-India Muslim League adopted shared religion, Islam, as the hallmark of the Muslim nation of India and set forth the Two-Nation Theory to demand the partition of India so as to create Muslim states (generically called Pakistan). It declared Urdu as the exclusive language of the Muslims and adopted it as the national language of Pakistan. In that sense, ideationally and logically, it belonged to the German tradition of nation and nationalism based on particularism and exclusion instead of universalism and inclusion about people living in India. Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah tried to modify the exclusionism inherent in the two-nation theory in his famous 11 August 1947 speech when Pakistan was achieved.

How the two different conceptions of nation and nationalism have played out subsequently in the last 70 years is the subject of another study. Right now, it is important to grasp the two contrasting conceptions of nation and nationalism underpinning the two principal parties involved in the freedom struggle and the breakup of India in 1947.

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