This essay is part of Firstpost’s ‘India and the Indian’ series, which examines the renewed idea of nationalism in vogue today, and what it means.
I was born in a small village called Papaiah Pet in Telangana state. No doubt it is in India. During my childhood, I did not know anything about Telangana even as a region; worse, I did not know anything about India as nation. Not just me, all the villagers’ nation and universe was our village itself (or at best, the surrounding villages). My love for my mother, father, sisters and brothers moved out of the family only to reach out to the villagers.
If the village was not good to me, I might gradually think of migrating to some other village that could offer a better life and comfort. So also my state and country.
Nationalism survives in an environment of livability. It survives around a common national education and the good life in a language that all citizens could speak to each other.
The Brahminic nationalism, of which the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh is also a part, stands exactly opposite my nationalism.
My nationalism starts with love for my village if it is providing me enough to live, even with the hard work required in grazing cattle, tilling fields, building water bodies and so on. For the whole of the Shudra/OBC/Dalit/Adivasi communities who built our villages and cities, nationalism and patriotism were unknown concepts till perhaps Mahatma Phule was born and was educated in a modern school in the mid-19th century in a language that he could use to converse with the rulers (of course, colonial) and also outsiders – English.
The village builders, whom we now know as the real nation builders, never knew, till the colonial English language landed in India, any other national languages like Sanskrit, Persian which were both ruling and scholarly languages at the pan-India level.
Sanskrit was a Sanathan (Hindu) divine language which was not accessible to the whole of the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi masses. The village economy builders’ languages were tribal, local and regional. The nation, as it came to be constructed during the early nationalist period by Sanskrit, Persian and Urdu writers, was outside of the realm of Shudras, Dalits and Adivasis' vocabulary. (Urdu also became a national language by the time the Two Nation Theory was constructed by Allama Iqbal, later on the Muslim nationalist leader Mulana Abul Kalam Azad wrote mostly in Urdu.)
Neither the Brahmin nor the Muslim pundits were engaged with them. There were no intellectuals among the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi masses to connect their socio-spiritual and cultural life with the Brahminic-Islamic nationalist discourse.
The most important question is: without knowing at least one national language, how do people become nationalist?
Therefore it can be safely said that till Mahatma Phule, and more importantly Dr BR Ambedkar, came onto the scene with a nationally communicable language and also knowledge (in English) there was no national connectivity to the Shudras/Dalits/Adivasis of different regions.
Sardar Vallabai Patel came from the Shudra background with good reading and writing ability in English, but he never educated Shudras/Dalits/Adivasis with their identity and advancement in view. He lived as Gandhian or as an RSS-type Hindu without infusing a sense of identity and advancement of Shudras as a whole. That was why he never became a national leader/thinker of all India Shudra/Dalit/Adivasis. Hence, they do not own him as they own Phule and Ambedkar as their icons.
Narayana Guru and Periyar EV Ramsamy emerged from Malayalam and Tamil linguistic regions but they could not speak and write in any pan-national language (English, Sanskrit or Urdu); thus, their impact was confined to Tamil and Malayalam nationalist enlightenment. Though Kanshiram tried to introduce them to the rest of India, they could not become pan-Indian Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi nationalist icons as Phule and Ambedkar did.
The nationalism of the RSS is a pure Brahmin Sanskrit-centered communitarian ideology which never connected with the productive communities that built our village economy, culture and civilisation. The RSS nationalism draws heavily from Sanskrit texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayan and Mahabharata but not from our regional language discourses and their production ethos and their spiritual cultures. The Sanskrit texts focused on war and violence but never focused on cattle economy, crop system, irrigations systems and so on.
Only after the English language became Indian are these productive sub-national cultures getting connected. Hence, Mahatma Phule who wrote Gulamgiri with an English introduction and universally known human equality and Ambedkar who wrote Annihilation of Caste and Who Were The Shudras? connected the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi to nationalist discourse.
The cultural nationalism of the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasis and that of RSS is not one and the same. When a Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi cannot even become a priest in a Hindu temple that the RSS believes in as source of its nationalism, how do they get fused into that Brahminic nationalist culture? Spiritually fused oneness is a critical component of cultural nationalism.
The Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi cultural nationalism does not see the cow or any other animal as goddess as they graze them as economic animals as god-given to them for economic use but not for spiritual worship. The RSS, which does not train its shakha karyakathas to graze cattle in the fields, rather trains them to be around urban centers to work on religious issues and raising slogans of Gorakshan but not doing the Gopalan (which is seen as Shudra job). Their nationalism is essentially of Sanskritic Brahminism, which has nothing to do with production and distribution – key egalitarian nationalist concerns. Without having concern for all humans — men and women — equally, nationalism becomes a negative weapon for vote mobilisation.
My nationalism — that is Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi nationalism — competes with China but not so much with Pakistan. The Chinese nationalism debates more and more about augmenting production and egalitarianising distribution. Both Pakistan and RSS do not bother much about augmenting production and egalitarianising distribution.
Further, RSS wants the nation to be vegetarian, but the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi food cultural nationalism is multi-cuisine, like the Chinese one. In our historical heritage, from the Harappa civilisation (of production and construction of villages and cities) days to the present, neither pork nor beef are untouchable to our nationalism. For a Harappan man/woman, for Gautama Buddha, for king Ashoka ( the builder of first welfare state) cattle rearing, vegetable production are integrated food-related activities.
Production and consumption are interrelated, always leaving something for the future. In the process of production, greater production and lesser consumption in order to maintain the ecological balance and futurism, remains an essential condition. The RSS does not believe in production but believes in consumption. That is where ecological destruction is.
For food producers, Gaay (Cow) is an animal, like the buffalo, and the Ganga is a river, like the Krishna or Godavari. They never saw God in an animal or in water and they never saw their nation as an isolated entity from the universe. Their problem, till recently, was lack of language and education to communicate with people who live like them in all other regions and states.
The Brahminic nationalism, by controlling Sanskrit as its national and divine language, made them disconnected. Phule and Ambedkar have shown us a way — English, dignity of labour and multi-cuisine food consumption — as the real, productive Indian nationalism. It does not believe in war and violence vis-à-vis other religions or other nations.
Our political life, lived around only village panchayats before 1950, is now connected to a larger constitutional democracy. In the future, this nationalist view will gain more prominence. The RSS nationalism will slowly but surely wither away.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author