A statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the center of downtown Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, where he was thrown off a train on the night of June 7, 1893 for refusing to move from a whites-only rail car. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the center of downtown Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, where he was thrown off a train in 1893 for refusing to move from a whites-only rail car. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Nationalism is back in focus in India as the federal government is giving it a religious color, rival parties are courting Kashmiri separatists and tension is rising on the country’s borders with Pakistan and China.

One question being raised amid this disturbing scenario is how pluralistic and inclusive is nationalism in India 70 years after its independence.

Sadly, such broad-based nationalism espoused by Mahatma Gandhi has been replaced by pseudo secularism of Congress and pro-Hindu outlook of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The narrow view of nationalism taken by these parties is dividing religions instead of uniting them.

One question that emerges is whether the present and future governments can make nationalism inclusive and broad-based – rooted in democracy and India’s ancient wisdom.

Gandhi, a master in using powerful symbols like the ‘charkha’ (domestic spinning wheel especially for cotton) to draw millions from villages, viewed nationalism as the ideal ‘Ram Raj’ where the world is one family that ensures equal rights and justice for all members. He borrowed the name ‘Ram Raj’ from ancient Hindu texts to make it more intelligible to villagers. Unlike ‘Hindu Raj’ of the fringe group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) linked to BJP, Gandhi’s ‘Ram Raj’ had a universal appeal.

Gandhi’s nationalism was different from that of the West which underlines power, prestige, superiority, success and blind faith in one’s nation, political movement or group. His nationalism was based on peace and non-violence, not on wars, victories or failures.

Like his mentor Gandhi, Congress leader and India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, vehemently opposed a narrow view of nationalism. In fact, he was skeptical of nationalism as it often made one turn a blind eye to truth, especially unpleasant facts about one’s own nation.

India needs to revive Gandhian nationalism with changes, if any, as political and religious intolerance is rising and terrorists from across the border are unleashing attacks to trigger communal flare-ups.

But such a revival will be possible only if Congress and BJP leaders realize that politics is a religion, a search for truth, equality, justice and welfare for all beyond religion, caste, color and creed. Gandhi knew this and his whole life was an experiment trying to bring politics and religion together.

He even knew parliament would be reduced to a talk shop by people’s representatives who largely remain silent on the plight of millions of poor villagers.

BJP and Congress seem to be in no mood to experiment with politics and religion. They are more focused on expanding their support base to stay in power.

While Congress is using its secular image to portray BJP as a fascist party, BJP is using its patriotic image to project Congress as a party in league with Kashmiri separatists. Congress recently went to the extent of questioning the federal government over India’s ongoing standoff with China at Dhoklam, which began on June 16.

Such a negative approach by both parties exposes the degeneration in Indian politics. It needs to be regenerated to stop unrest within and attacks from outside. Political parties must sink their differences and stand united when the country is facing internal and external threats.

Patriotism and nationalism as positive feelings should be encouraged by all parties. The trouble starts when one party claims it is more patriotic than others or tries to impose its views about nationalism on others. Such confusion can be avoided if everyone accepts a certain definition of nationalism.

Ideally, a nationalism based on pluralism and inclusiveness is the best option for a diverse nation like India.

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