What Nationalism are we really celebrating? by Akhil Kang

There is a very poignant moment in the Marathi movie ‘Fandry’ where the only untouchable family in the village is trying to catch the pigs and just at the moment when it seems that the father of the family would catch them, the school nearby starts reciting the Indian National Anthem. Needless to say, the father (along with his entire family) are required to leave whatever they are doing and stand upright, in a savdhaan position (standing in attention) to pay their respect. Meanwhile the pig runs away and the moment the National Anthem stops, the family continues to run behind the pigs…the family continues to suffer the humiliation and continues complete the task of touching (and capturing) the ‘impure’ animal simply because of the caste they belong to.

As we reach our country’s 69th Independence Day, one wonders, what kind of nationalism are we really instilling in ourselves and the coming generations? Is therea sense of equality in its true form? Does it really exist among each and every one of us? The ‘Indian nationality’ as Michael argues while being conceptualized was based on the culture of upper castes and mostly northern groups.[1]Gandhi while talking about attaining Swaraj (autonomy) spoke of it not just in terms of emancipation from the British rule, but attaining self-truth, self-purification and self-reliance.[2] For Tagore, this idea of Swaraj, included an inward experience of pride and glory coupled with co-operative self-determination.[3]

The infinite problems that emerge with a certain idea of nationalism (mostly a Brahminical form of nationalism) have been well documented in the Dalit literature and otherwise since decades. As Ambedkar points out that achieving Swaraj would never be enough because one needs to ask, in whose hands that Swaraj would be.[4]So important is Ambedkar to the idea of Dalit nationalism that Kancha Ilaiah documents Telugu poet Gaddar’s emotional attachment to Ambedkar. He points out how one should understand the meaning of nationalism in the context of the bond between Dalits and Ambedkar.[5]Hebden argues that the language of nationalism within the folds of Hinduism or any other religion is quite oppressive and politically stagnating. He furthers says, that among Dalits, there ought to be a subversion of this language of nationalism which involves developing ‘liberative themes of subversive foreignness.’[6]The nationalism associated with Dalits expresses not just the desire to be a process of nation building but an aspiration to emerge as an active participative group in social modernization.[7]

Once again, I take the reader back to the movie Fandry. Another moment(s) in the movie are when Jabya (the main character and from the lower caste) falls for an upper caste girl, there is perpetual moral policing by his male class mate who belongs to the upper caste. Besides there being obvious restrictions on inter-caste interactions, this policing also exudes a certain sense of masculinity by the class mate. This brings me back the same question I asked before. What kind of nationalism in a particular masculine form are we instilling?

It becomes a little hard to see Gandhi or Tagore talking about Swaraj in isolation from their other writings. For instance, as Gandhi explains how historical instances of terror before the English advent weren’t a mighty thing and how the British rule hasn’t really established peace from the age old ‘terror’, he exclaims that he would rather suffer the ‘Pindari peril’ than seek protection from someone rendering us (Indians) emasculated and effeminate.[8] Similarly Tagore argues that Indian (before taken over by the British rule) was once a marvellous universe, an action-loving ‘masculine’ power and has been reduced to an effeminate and feminine village.[9] Therefore, as Dutta argues, the nationalist ideology of masculinity routed common patriarchal anxieties about failed or degenerated masculinity.[10] Thus, the idea of nationalism was placed in opposition to a sense of failed masculinity or effeminacy. Talking about the changing notions of power, property, public and private changes as one moves up the caste hierarchy, Kancha Ilaiah notes how in neo-Kshatriya homes, there is a strange sense of ‘aggrandized masculine power’ which associates perfectly with Brahminism and fits perfectly with the philosophy of casteism.[11]

The Dalit subversion of mainstream Brahminical nationalism also presents avenues of challenging the image of an ideal Indian who should be running away from effeminacy and femininity. As Guru notes that the Dalit response to Indian nationalism is articulated from the standpoint of pride and humiliation; that the Dalit response puts Swabhiman (self-respect) before Abhiman (pride).[12] This sense of self-respect becomes significant in stepping away from a particular form of nationalism (not just in terms of caste but beyond) which rejects anything that does not match the masculine nature of country worship. Thus, respecting one’s own sense of masculinity or femininity before situating it in the bigger discourse of nationalism becomes important.

Now, let’s ask ourselves the same question again. Are we really celebrating a particular form of nationalism? Or are we just living in an illusion that all of us stand tall while singing “Jana GanaMana”?


[1]     S.M. Michael, Dalit Vision of a Just Society in India in, Dalits in Modern India: Vision and Values 118 (2nd ed. 2007)

[2]     M.K. Gandhi, Young India, 28 June 1928 (772)

[3]     Rabindranath Tagore, Towards Universal Man 283 (1961)

[4]     Dhananjay Keer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission 360 (1995)

[5]     Kancha Ilaiah, Buffalo Nationalism: A Critique of Spiritual Fascism 43 (2004)

[6]     Revd.Dr. Keith Hebden, Dalit Theology and Christian Anarchism 157 (2013)

[7]     Badri Narayan, Women Heroes and Dalit Assertion in North India: Culture, Identity and Politics, Cultural Subordination and Dalit Challenge 94 (Vol. 5, 2006)

[8]     Anthony J. Parel (ed.), M.K. Gandhi: Hind Swaraj and other Writings 44 (1997)

[9]     Rabindranath Tagore, Swadeshi Samaj, in, The Sky of Indian History: Themes and Thought of Rabindranath Tagore 407 (2010).

[10]    Aniruddha Dutta, Section 377 and the Retroactive Consolidation of ‘Homophobia’, in,ArvindNarrain & Alok Gupta (eds.), Law like Love: Queer Perspectives on Law 170 (2011)

[11]    Kancha Ilaiah, Why I am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy, 42 (1996)

[12]    Gopal Guru, Liberal Democracy in India and the Dalit Critique 78(1) Social Research 99, 100 (2011)

Akhil Kang is a law graduate from NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad and is currently working with Partners for Law in Development on issues related to gender and sexuality

(AMBEDKAR READING GROUP: A Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minorities Collective, Delhi University)


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