international analysis and commentary

Nationalism with Indian characteristics: the politics of a cultural revival

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Like many other things, nationalism in India is both similar and very different than that of the only country comparable in scale to its 1.4 billion people – China, which has 100 million more inhabitants.

If the Chinese Communist Party and incumbent President Xi Jinping are fond of reminding the Chinese people of their “century of humiliation” following the Opium War (1839-1842) under the influence of Western powers and capital, India has a bona fide bone to pick with colonialism, having been under British rule for nearly two hundred years before its independence in 1947.

Decolonization, therefore, is a major theme of the new reinvigorated nationalism that India has experienced over the last decade. Like Xi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes frequent references to the need to “shed the legacy of the colonial past”, but there is a significant difference. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) destroyed large parts of Chinese cultural heritage and artifacts, including countless antiquities and ancient temples including, most notoriously, the two-thousand-year-old Confucius temple. In India, too, there was significant iconoclastic destruction during the Islamic invasions in the early and medieval period. However, much survived including the Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in history, and the great temples of south India.

This ancient culture is now common currency as the defining ingredient in India’s new nationalistic mood. It appears in conversations and quarrels, in blockbuster movies and the inauguration of massive new statues.

In Rajasthan’s Nathdwara, the tallest statue of Lord Shiva in the entire world was unveiled on October 29, 2022

 

India now defines itself, quite like China, as a “civilizational state”. This simply means that its notion of national identity is derived, not from its constitution alone, but from its ancient culture. Thus, Indian nationalism, which in the past was often sourced to its national movement for freedom from colonial rule, now borrows from a much deeper and older history. The difference – at least in Indian minds – is that while much of the history and artefacts that made up Chinese civilization were destroyed, India has a sense of unbroken continuity to its heritage.

 

Read also: India and China: the uneasy partnership between the Asian giants

 

This idea is popularized by the Modi government, but its offtake is not limited to Modi’s popularity as a politician. It is seen in the renewed interest in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian form of medicine, which has seen exponential growth in recent years, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. India institutionalized an International Day of Yoga (June 21) in the United Nations General Assembly in 2014, which is now celebrated by yoga practitioners around the world, including in Saudi Arabia where universities have introduced it. In its recent trade deal with Australia, called the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement, India added special provisions for yoga teachers from India to receive skilled visas to go work in Australia.

It has also led to renewed interest in bringing back Indian antiquities that were removed during colonial rule, or stolen later, and are now housed in museums abroad.

The focus on India’s ancient history is deeply intermeshed with contemporary politics. For instance, one of the biggest recent films in India is Ponniyin Selvan, which tells the story of the Chola kings of south India, one of the great maritime powers of their time who spread their Hindu beliefs across south and southeast Asia for approximately 1,500 years around the first century.

The first diplomatic interaction between India and China was likely when a delegation of Chola King Raja Raja I appeared at the Song Emperor’s court around 1015 CE. Today, India pits this Chola history against China’s claims on the Indian Ocean, using its own legacy of the sea general Zheng He, who commanded some of the largest ships of his time in seven great voyages in the Indian Ocean around the 15th century. While Xi Jinping is fond of citing the Zheng He example, Modi quotes Chola history, in a sense arguing that India has a much longer and more illustrious history of ruling the Indian Ocean waters. It is worth noting that the year Modi came to power with his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) celebrated the thousand-year anniversary of the coronation of Rajendra Chola I (1012-1044 CE), the Chola king who spread the kingdom’s might across southeast Asia.

Critics of India’s civilizational state proposition say that this makes the state more Hindu, in tune with a lot of its ancient culture, and that violates its constitutional principle of secularism. Adherents argue that India’s civilizational nature is not just Hindu, but draws from Buddhism and Jainism, two other faiths of ancient India. They also say drawing inspiration from India’s ancient Hindu roots does not take away from the secularism of its everyday state machinery. This recalls the belief of the majority of the British (including former Prime Minister David Cameron) that theirs is a Christian country that does not impact secularism in governance.

All this also means greater public uproar for perceived slights to national pride, as evidenced recently after comments from former British Home Secretary Suella Braverman, herself of Indian origin, supporting the British Empire and criticizing efforts of the British government to open the country for greater migration from India. This is a vital clause in an upcoming major trade deal between India and Britain. After Braverman’s comments, “apoplectic” responses from Indian officials were noted, triggered no doubt by outrage in India expressed across television news channels, newspapers and Twitter, and the trade deal’s deadline was reportedly delayed. The issue is also said to have caused Braverman’s resignation within barely a month in office.

India’s new nationalist mood not only cheers ancient culture, but is also unforgiving of contemporary slights. It must be emphasized that this rejuvenated nationalist mood goes hand-in-hand with India’s economic growth, the country is now the fifth-largest economy in the world (and one of the few places in the world where growth is still relatively strong).

In many estimates, India is due to grow to become the third-largest by the turn of the decade. India, today, is a country where the dominant mood demands that the world recognizes its rise to prominence. It believes that economics, politics, history, and demographics (it is ageing significantly more slowly than China) is finally on its side.