On Nationalism is a compilation of three essays by the historian Romila Thapar, the lawyer AG Noorani and the cultural commentator Sadanand Menon. In the book, Thapar, Noorani and Menon discuss the concept of nationalism—which, in his foreword to the book, the novelist David Davidar terms “one of the most contested ideas in twenty-first century India.” In recent times, Davidar writes in the foreword, nationalism has come under siege from a “vocal set of politicians, sectarian organizations, god-men, trolls and assorted thugs.” “That is why the book is being published,” he adds, “to make its own small contribution to the ongoing debate.” Thapar examines the evolution of the Indian state and how nationality and national identity moved through the ages; Noorani provides a look at the crucial cases and judgments that shaped sedition in India, as well as the origins of the slogan “Bharat Mata ki Jai”; Menon writes on the idea of a “national culture,” and why culture and nationalism are close allies.
The following excerpt has been adapted from Romila Thapar’s essay ‘Reflections on Nationalism and History.’ In it, Thapar discusses the conflation of religious and social history, and their relation to caste hierarchies.
On the face of it, the relations between religion and society in the cultures of India and China were different from Europe, as indeed they were different from each other. So the specificity of the culture, the way its religion related to its society, as well as its historical context, all these factors imprinted the form it took. We have to see how and why they differed, what was specifically Indian about its religion, and the nature of its interface with society. We have tended to study the texts and theologies of the religions without giving sufficient attention to analysing the social institutions and enterprises and sectarian and community observances that the religions gave rise to, or on which they had an impact.
This would need an analysis of the history of religions in India as part of the pattern of life of the society, and not just as a history of their respective texts. Religious organisations that run religious institutions such as temples, mosques, churches and gurdwaras, as well as schools and other educational institutions have to be assessed in terms of their social functions apart from the religious, and for their efficiency in these functions. It was claimed that social codes, such as the Manava Dharmashastra (popularly referred to as the Manusmriti) and the Islamic Shari’a, had divine sanction, but these were drawn up and imposed by human sanction, and were and are liable to change. Practices do not necessarily follow the code but the code is quoted to restrict the autonomy of society and for retaining control over it by religious authority.
Even if one accepts the divine origin of religious belief, the activity associated with a religion lies in the hands of its human devotees and has to be seen as its history, as all else is seen. How did this interaction vary from sect to sect or across sects of the various religions practised in India? New needs led to the creation of new sects. What came to be called Hinduism in later times was, in essence, the juxtaposition of a large number of sects with their own focus of worship and ritual, some tied in to caste and inevitably reflecting some of the differences associated with caste, and some negating it.