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BEYOND NATION AS PEOPLE

THE FELT COMMUNITY: COMMONALITY AND MENTALITY BEFORE THE EMERGENCE OF INDIAN NATIONALISM By Rajat Kanta Ray, Oxford Rs 795

This book is a further working out of themes sketched in Ray’s Exploring Emotional History. The Felt Community moves away from the Bengal- and literature-centric approach of the earlier book and attempts to answer the question — was there an idea of India before the rise of modern nationalism, and if so, what was it, and how was it formed' — on a larger canvas. Here Ray essays a wider study of “old” forms of patriotism before the nation-state as we know it entered the consciousness of India. Through his marshalling of sources that express the ideological and emotional orientation of leaders and administrators in pre-European India, Ray dispels some cobwebs left behind by colonial readings of India’s polity.

He draws on Europe’s own history of an earlier age to show that the patriotism of, for example, Joan of Arc, was comparable to that of the Mughal mansabdars who resisted early English aggression, and was grounded in a sense of qaum/jati that is equivalent to the earlier connotation of “nation” as “people”. In addition, there was a sense of the unique integrity of Hindustan that has developed in definition from the time of Ashoka to the Mughal sunset. There are thus more parallels between the prehistories of nations than the scorn of contemporary European historiographers for the institutions and sensibilities of their predecessors in Bengal would suggest.

Ray also documents the way in which waves of outsiders coming to India helped to define and refine the sense of qaum/jati and “Hindustan”. When the various Islamic immigrations settled and integrated with the population, the outsider’s views of the land mingled and synergized with native views, changing them and being changed in turn. This helped to solidify the idea of what it was to be a “Hindustani”, and gave rise to the concept, “Hindus and Muslims of Hindustan”, to express the composite polity that grew out of this interaction.

Ray goes on to treat two defining moments in the building of India where external aggression (in both cases from the English) crystallized a sense of community among the Hindustanis. The first is the resistance to English expansion in Bengal at the time of Plassey. The second is the war of 1857.

The study of Mir Qasim and his sense of himself as a conduit for Mughal justice and law shows that Mughal authority was an enabling moral force for local administrators. Mughal authority represented the rule of law that was above local jealousies and rivalries, and ensured stability of taxation, trade and a legal monopoly on force. The Europeans violated all these tenets by erecting fortified settlements, defying the justice of the emperor and arrogating to themselves the right of duty-free trade. The expectation that their foreignness would dissolve into the dynamic solution of Hindustan proved tragically mistaken. It is curious to see that as Mir Qasim’s position weakens prior to 1763 and his lifeline to the Mughal court decays, he asserts more and more his position as indigenous protector of the poor against the rapacious foreigner. For Mir Qasim the last ditch on the way to defeat was popular nationalism, but it was too little too late.

This earlier history adds a new perspective to the motives and methods of the rebels of 1857, and uncovers the true motives for their attempt to reinstate Mughal rule. Ray finds an organic development of the old-style patriotism of Mir Qasim. Free as he was of the crippling conventions of Mughal chivalry, he failed to develop true solidarity across local communitarian lines; the idea was available, but the emotional bonding could only feebly translate into action. This is a valuable reassessment of an aspect of Indianness that has so far not had a history.

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