Frank F. Islam
In his Independence Day speech on August 15 this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed, “One nation, one constitution — this spirit has become a reality and India is proud of it.”
Prime Minister Modi is correct when he says that “one nation, one constitution” should be the goal for the Indian democracy. He may not be so correct, however, when he states “this spirit has become a reality.”
Achieving the goal of “one nation” requires a unifying nationalism. What India has achieved over the past several years instead is an overriding and overbearing form of religious nationalism. To my knowledge, Prime Minister Modi has never declared himself a nationalist. And, I am certain that he would never declare himself a religious nationalist. Still, he is proud of his religion and there may be an encroachment of it into his governance. This is evidenced by the plans to build a wide path from the Hindu Kashi Vishwanath to the Ganges River in Varanasi.
I grew up in Varanasi, and even though it is Hinduism’s holiest city it was a place where youth of all religions worked and played together amicably because they were bound together in the service of others. I believe this interdenominational history should be maintained and recognized by placing stations of all religions along that path.
Many pundits in India and in the free press around the world have criticized the Modi administration’s actions in seizing control of Kashmir and revoking Articles 370 and Article 35A of the Constitution which gave considerable autonomy to Kashmir as an example of religious nationalism. I do not know whether that characterization is accurate or inaccurate. The one thing I know unequivocally is that this action does not bring India or all of the Indian people closer together as one nation.
India was founded deliberately as a non-sectarian democracy. In her book, How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and Making the Universal Franchise, Ornit Shani, a scholar at the University of Haifa, Israel explains that India was established from the outset as a country empowering its entire and extremely diverse population as voters. This empowerment of all with a commitment to the country as opposed to a religion is a hallmark of the Indian democracy.
Ruchir Sharma, in an article for the April issue of Foreign Affairs, cites India’s pluralism as a strength observing that “India’s diversity is also a source of political resilience, as strong subnational identities provide a check on ethnic and religious nationalism.” He ends that article by asserting, “At a time when democracy is said to be in retreat around the world it is still thriving in India.”
The Indian democracy needs a unifying nationalism in order to continue to thrive. What is a unifying nationalism? The Merriam Webster dictionary defines nationalism as “loyalty and devotion to a nation especially: A sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” Patriotism is a form or twin of nationalism.
Several years ago, American historian Thomas Bender stated, “Nations are among other things a collective agreement, partly coerced to affirm a common history as the basis for a shared future.”
More recently, Andreas Wimmer, professor of sociology and political philosophy at Columbia University, wrote, “At their core, all forms of nationalism share the same two tenets: first, that members of the nation, understood as a group of equal citizens with a shared history and future political destiny should rule the state; and, second, that they should do so in the interests of the nation.”
Each of those statements supports the need for and importance of a unifying nationalism. Wimmer’s is especially powerful. As I have stated before, “the Indian democracy is not perfect — far from it. But India’s democracy shines as a beacon of light in a world that is becoming increasingly darker.” By embracing a unifying nationalism and elevating it above religious nationalism, India can ensure that democratic beacon continues to shine and grow to be even brighter.
(The author is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed are personal)