Questioning India’s ‘nationhood’ reflects Rahul Gandhi’s constitutional and historical ignorance

The Congress leader's ‘India is not a nation’ statement exposes his long-held colonial beliefs and that he is still trapped and influenced by the colonial narrative

Shishir Tripathi May 24, 2022 20:57:44 IST
Questioning India’s ‘nationhood’ reflects Rahul Gandhi’s constitutional and historical ignorance

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. ANI

A list of fundamental duties was added to the Indian Constitution by the 42nd Amendment Act of 1976. One of the duties enunciated in the list is: Strive toward excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement.

Other duties also call for respecting the National Flag and national anthem. It talks about cherishing and following the noble ideals that inspired the national struggle for freedom.

The preamble of the Indian Constitution also talks about assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation. Just a cursory glance at the Indian Constitution would make it evident that India as a nation was not only recognised but was celebrated by our constitution-makers and also by those who took charge of it after Independence.

On 21 May, when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi reasserted his claim in London, first made in the Lok Sabha in February 2022, that “India is not a nation”, he must have surely missed the voice of those charged with the responsibility of drafting our Constitution including his great grandfather.

In February 2022, addressing the Lok Sabha during the motion of thanks to the president's address Rahul Gandhi said, “India is described in the Indian Constitution as a Union of states and not as a nation. One cannot rule over the people of a state in India. Different languages and cultures cannot be suppressed. It is a partnership, not a kingdom.”

Less than four months later he reiterated his views in London, last week.

Rahul Gandhi’s “India is not a nation” statement exposes his long-held colonial beliefs and the fact that he is still trapped and influenced by the colonial narrative. He made the statement to buttress his claim that India is not a nation in the sense that its constituents are not bound by any single imperium and they exist together because of mutual agreement and not out of any compulsion. Rahul Gandhi while making this statement was wrong in his history and politics and most importantly in his reading of the Constitution.

During one of the Constituent Assembly debates, Dr BR Ambedkar who was chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution said, “Some critics have taken objection to the description of India in Article 1 of the Draft Constitution as a Union of States. It is said that the correct phraseology should be a Federation of States. It is true that South Africa, which is a unitary state, is described as a Union. But Canada which is a Federation is also called a Union. Thus the description of India as a Union, though its constitution is Federal, does no violence to usage. But what is important is that the use of the word Union is deliberate. I do not know why the word 'Union' was used in the Canadian Constitution. But I can tell you why the Drafting Committee has used it. The Drafting Committee wanted to make it clear that though India was to be a federation, the Federation was not the result of an agreement by the States to join in a Federation and that the Federation not being the result of an agreement no State has the right to secede from it. The Federation is a Union because it is indestructible. Though the country and the people may be divided into different States for convenience of administration the country is one integral whole, its people a single people living under a single imperium derived from a single source.”

Dr Ambedkar added, “The Americans had to wage a civil war to establish that the States have no right of secession and that their Federation was indestructible. The Drafting Committee thought that it was better to make it clear at the outset rather than to leave it to speculation or to dispute.”

So, if we are not ready to ignore the words of Dr BR Ambedkar, it is beyond doubt that the transformation of India into a modern polity in 1947 was not the result of some mutual agreement between its constituents but rather was the political expression of a nation that has existed for thousands of years.

In the landmark Berubari Union case, the Supreme Court held that nothing short of a constitutional amendment under Article 368 will be required to cede a part of Indian territory to a foreign country.

By this judgment the apex court exempted even the Union Government, leave alone its constituent states to cause any cession without following the route of a constitutional amendment which in turn will be open to judicial review. This is possible only in a polity that does not have the character of a loose federation but rather possesses the credentials of a unified nation.

American historian and jurist Granville Austin wrote his seminal work chronicling the making of the Indian Constitution and named it: “The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of the Nation”.

In his book, which is considered one of the most authoritative studies on Indian constitutional law, Granville Austin makes an important observation when he writes, “The Indian Constitution was to foster the achievements of many goals. Transcendent was that of social revolution.” He adds, “Rivalling the social revolution in importance were the goals of national unity and stability.” According to Austin, they were considered to be necessary prerequisites for social renascence.

Austin also writes that the “unity stood out as the central issue during the framing of the federal and language provisions as well as during the drafting of legal provision”.

Author and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor in his book India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond writes, “Amid the popular ferment that made the Italian nation out a congeries principality and statelets, the nineteenth-century Italian novelist Massimo Taparelli, d' Azeglio wrote memorably, ‘We have created Italy. Now, all we need to do is to create Italians.’”

He adds, “Oddly enough, no Indian nationalist succumbed to the temptation to express the same thought: ‘We have created India; now all we need to do is to create Indians.’ The prime exponent of modern Indian nationalism, Jawaharlal Nehru, would never have spoken of ‘creating Indians’. Such a sentiment would not, in any case, have occurred to the preeminent voice of Indian nationalism, Jawaharlal Nehru, because he believed in the existence of India and Indians for millennia.”

While making his statement, if Rahul would have read the views of his great grandfather and his party colleague, he would have gotten his history right. Or for that matter if he would have cared to read the views of Mahatma Gandhi whom he often quotes, he would have known why India is a nation, and a great one.

Mahatma Gandhi in Hind-Swaraj while exposing the British claim of ‘India not being a nation’ writes, “The English have taught us that we were not one nation before and that it will require centuries before we become one nation. This is without foundation. We were one nation before they came to India. One thought inspired us. Our mode of life was the same. It was because we were one nation that they were able to establish one kingdom. Subsequently, they divided us. I do not wish to suggest that because we were one nation we had no differences, but it is submitted that our leading men travelled throughout India either on foot or in bullock-carts. They learned one another's languages and there was no aloofness between them. What do you think could have been the intention of those far-seeing ancestors of ours who established Setubandha (Rameshwar) in the South, Jagannath in the East and Haridwar in the North as places of pilgrimage? You will admit they were no fools. They knew that worship of God could have been performed just as well at home. They taught us that those whose hearts were aglow with righteousness had the Ganges in their own homes. But they saw that India was one undivided land so made by nature. They, therefore, argued that it must be one nation. Arguing thus, they established holy places in various parts of India and fired the people with an idea of nationality in a manner unknown in other parts of the world.”

The imperium that Dr BR Ambedkar talked about is the Indian Constitution. And it is the Indian Constitution which Granville Austin referred to as the “cornerstone” that provides a foundation to the aspirations of India which is a nation and not an India which is merely a “Union of States”.

But to understand this one needs to be acquainted with the worldviews of our nationalist leader and not remain enamoured by the narrative of our erstwhile colonial masters.

John Strachey, the British Indian civil servant who made the infamous remark that “there is not and never was an India”, was reflective of the sentiment of his British masters who were perplexed by the diversity of India and could not fathom how given such religious and cultural plurality, India could exist as one nation.

The existence of India as a nation was beyond the comprehension of British and other Western colonisers and the easiest way out of this confusion was to question the very existence of India as a nation.

To question the identity of India as a nation today reflects the hangover of the same sentiments.

The “India is not a nation” hypothesis presented by Rahul on multiple occasions is by design or ignorance can be a matter of debate, but his lack of understanding of the Indian Constitution, its ideas, and its ethos are more than evident.

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