Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

April 3, 2011

The fiction and fact of nationality

Filed under: Civilisation,Culture,Hinduism,India,Islam,Pakistan,Two Nation Theory — Razib Khan @ 10:19 pm

In the comments below I quipped that the “Two-Nation Theory” is obviously “made up.” By this I was pointing more to the importance of construction of identity and founding myths more than anything else. For example, in the United States of America I grew up with a founding myth of a righteous revolution against the British monarchy, predicated on taxation without representation. By “I grew up with,” I mean that in elementary school the myth was both explicit and implicit in the instructional materials. As I matured, and began exploring history with more texture and depth, I  came to conclusion that this is a myth in the most literal sense. There were many shades of gray. The revolutionaries, who never formed more than one out of three Americans even during the height of the rebellion, were operating more out of particularities of self-interest (though there was clearly a strain of idealism, as evidenced by Thomas Paine). It seems likely that much of their rationale was either false or fictional.

Nevertheless, I am proud of America and Americans. History is what it is, and whatever the justice of the founding myth (or lack thereof), on the balance the American republic has been a success. Even the child of rape can attain greatness.


Similarly, I think the idea of a Muslim Indian nation is clearly fictional in terms of a legacy from the past. Similarly, a Hindu nation is also a fiction which does not accurately represent the past. A maximalist argument would suggest that there was near total disjunction between the Turco-Iranian Muslim elites of India’s Islamic period and the large communities of artisans and peasants who shifted their nominal religious identity from India’s indigenous traditions to that of the rulers. Similarly, many would argue that a coherent Hindu identity is an recent artifact of the collision with confessional universal faiths such as Islam and Christianity. That the penumbra of religio-philosophies which we would term “Hindu” had almost no contact with the lived experiences of the vast majority of India’s peasantry. A cold materialist reading might argue that the old ashraf Muslim elite duped the Muslim masses into a communal identity which was congenial to their classic game of extracting rents. Similarly, the high culture Hindus synthesized a common Hindu identity from old and new ideas which bound South Asians together, also to further their own material interests by allowing for the formation of a macro-state which allowed for grand economies of scale and power projection.

I think there’s some reality to this cynical reading, but I think the idea that a Hindu and Muslim identity arose circa 1850 is too cute and ideological. It too is a fiction, often promoted by those with post-colonial leanings to whom white Europeans are the only Creators, of all that is good and bad in the world. A more neutral telling might argue that the nation as a concept was birthed by the French Revolution, and confessional identities gained coherency with only the Radical Reformation. I do not accept this.

We need to turn our backs to black and white certitudes. A certitude which my flip language below implied, but which I do not hold to. Clearly the Muslims of India, initially intrusive aliens, had an identity which made them distinct from the native religious practices. But unlike the magi of the Iranian world the Indian religious traditions did not whither in the face of these powerful superior Others; rather, Indian religion entered into a phase of involution, co-option, adaptation, and eventually reflexive counter-action. But this was only a phase in a long history. Islam did not create Hinduism. Many elements of Indian religion clearly have deep roots which go back to the initial conflicts between Brahmanism and Sramanism. One should be cautious of imputing to Hinduism a purely reflexive and responsive dynamic. Some have suggested that the Bhakti devotional stream in Indian religion was shaped by the interaction with Islam. To me this seems tenuous not only on chronological grounds, but the analogs to Bhakti are also clearly evident early in some strains of Buddhism during its late Indian phase (e.g., see the origins of Pure Land). This does not entail that the religious traditions of different faiths did not influence each other. But, it removes from any given faith a particular genius from which others had to borrow.

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