Indian Nationalism and Religious Identity

Indian Flag
Indian Flag

Ashik Kumar


The twentieth century saw the creation of many new nations as the Empires of France, Britain, and others fragmented. In India, regional territories coalesced into a nation state. Areas where people had defined themselves by their religions and communities joined other areas and people had to find new ways to construct their identities, ways that would set them in a larger context. India is still young, and the question “What does it mean to be Indian?” is still widely felt to urgently require an answer. And it is a difficult question to answer. Why are people who do not speak the same language, who are of vastly different cultures, and who are of different religions, and who will never know nor meet each other connected?  This research guide is not meant to provide answers to these questions. Rather, it seeks to acquaint the reader with all the mainstream sides of the debate about Indian identity. The debate in the public sphere at present is between the secular nationalism of the Congress and the Hindu nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party. And it is not just nationalisms that are competing but versions of History. The Congress see pre-colonial India as model of religious unity and the legacy of India as one of syncretism. The BJP see the History of India as the story of two invasions of an idyllic Hindu civilisation, one by Muslims (which led to the establishment of the Mughal Empire) and one by the British.  They seek a return to the Hindu past.

BJP Party Logo: Saffron Lotus
BJP Party Logo: Saffron Lotus

The Congress view has been the conventionally accepted one for most of contemporary History but is now being challenged, not only by the BJP, but also by recent scholarship that is vigorously critical of conventional Indian nationalism.  Many scholars I have cited argue that what, by conventional historians like Bipan Chandra, is called Communalism and presented as the opposite of nationalism, is actually implicit in Indian Nationalism (Partha Chatterjee, Sudheer Kakar, Peter Van Der Vier) Some (Partha Chatterjee) have even called into question the authenticity of post-colonial nationalisms?  Two prominent methodological trends I see in the scholarship I have read are the application of Edward Said and Michel Foucault. In the former’s case, there is a significant amount of work detailing the ways in which British misconceptions of Indians led to the formation of new identities among Indians. In the latter’s case, there is a significant amount of work historicizing words like  ‘secular’ (Ashis Nandy) and  ‘communal’ (Gyanendra Pandey).

Congress Party Symbol.
Congress Party Symbol.

This guide is split into four sections. The first section is composed of Histories of the relevant period.  Anyone who wishes to study this topic seriously needs to have a working knowledge of Indian History from the mid nineteenth century to the present day. There are texts listed that give case studies or examples from earlier periods, but these can be understood without familiarity with the history of those periods. Regardless, several of the books in the first section begin with the decline of the Mughal Empire in the early seventeenth century. The second section is composed of propaganda (no pejorative implication) of the two mainstream nationalisms.  Section  three is composed of scholarship about nationalism, Indian nationalism,  Indian identity, and religious violence.



India’s Struggle For Independence is a comprehensive history of the Indian National Movement from the Decline of the Mughal Empire and the arrival of the East India Company in the seventeenth century to Partition and Independence in 1947. However, it is hagiographic toward the Congress and vigorously subscribes to their brand of nationalism. The chapters on Communalism entitled “The Early Phase”, ” The Middle Phase”, and “The Extreme phase: Jinnah, Golwalkar” provide an excellent understanding of the Congress view of the religious based nationalisms of the Muslim League and the RSS. Communalism, according to Chandra, is the belief that (a) people of the same religion have the same social and economic interests (b) that people of different religions have opposed social and economic interests and so cannot live in the same country.

Bipan Chandra et al. India’s Struggle For Indepenpence. Penguin India, 1989.


This is a broader and more recent history of India. It begins with the arrival of the East India Company in the 17th century and about a decade after independence. It was written for First Year History students at Indian colleges and so is a great introduction to the History of India under the British. Unlike the previous book, Bandyopadhyay devotes whole chapters to the perspectives of Muslim, Tribal, and Lower Caste communities. Also, he is critical of the Congress, particularly of the way the National Movement alienated Muslims. For example, Congress propaganda was heavily saturated with Hindu imagery. It is not difficult to see why this lead to Indian nationalism being conflated with Hindu nationalism.  Partition, the event in Indian History that most dramatically made Indians question the secularism and inclusiveness of their National Movement, is examined from both perspectives in this book (unlike in Bipan Chandra where only the Congress viewpoint is represented). Bandyopadhyay also devotes an entire chapter to historiography, in which he provides short summaries of many of the authors of the other books in this guide.

Sekhar Bandyopadhyay. From Plassey to Partition. Orient Blackswan, 2004.



The only comprehensive overview of post-independence Indian history. Covers the events between 1947 and 2007.  It contains nothing about historiography and is hagiographic toward the Congress. However, it is reliable and highly detailed (it is almost 900 pages long). This book will acquaint readers with the event, that along with partition, most dramatically forced many Indians to question the alleged syncretism of their nation. In 1992 on December 6, a group of RSS volunteers demolished a Mosque called the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya because they thought it sacreligious that a Muslim building be in the birthplace of Ram.

Ramachandra Guha. India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. Harper Collins, 2007.





A poster for the film of Anandmath
A poster for the film of Anandmath


One of the first and most influential works of nationalist literature. It contains what became, in effect, the official song of the national movement “Bande Mataram” (a song that it sung in its entirety at the beginning of every RSS meeting to this day). The novel is controversial because it portrays “heroic” resistance against “invaders” who happen to be Muslim. “A truncated version Bande Mataram” (one without the overtly Hindu imagery) almost became the national anthem but was jettisoned in favor of Rabindranath Tagore’s “Jana Gana Mana”.  Subash Chandra Bhose explained why well:

“The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankimchandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman [Muslim] can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh’ [the nation]. This year many of the special [Durga] Puja numbers of our magazines have quoted verses from Vande Mataram—proof that the editors take the song to be a hymn to Durga. The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate. When Bengali Mussulmans show signs of stubborn fanaticism, we regard these as intolerable. When we too copy them and make unreasonable demands, it will be self-defeating.”

That a song much sung during the Congress led National Movement  is also the official anthem of the religious nationalism purportedly opposed to the Congress’s secular nationalism  suggests that the two have more in common the traditional Nationalists would like to admit. This view is elaborated on by many of the scholars I have listed.



Mother, I salute thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
bright with orchard gleams,
Cool with thy winds of delight,
Dark fields waving Mother of might,
Mother free.

Glory of moonlight dreams,
Over thy branches and lordly streams,
Clad in thy blossoming trees,
Mother, giver of ease
Laughing low and sweet!
Mother I kiss thy feet,
Speaker sweet and low!
Mother, to thee I salute.

Who hath said thou art weak in thy lands
When the swords flash out in seventy million hands
And seventy million voices roar
Thy dreadful name from shore to shore?
With many strengths who art mighty and stored,
To thee I call Mother and Lord!
Though who savest, arise and save!
To her I cry who ever her foeman drove
Back from plain and Sea
And shook herself free.

Thou art wisdom, thou art law,
Thou art heart, our soul, our breath
Though art love divine, the awe
In our hearts that conquers death.
Thine the strength that nerves the arm,
Thine the beauty, thine the charm.
Every image made divine
In our temples is but thine.

Thou art Durga, Lady and Queen,
With her hands that strike and her
swords of sheen,
Thou art Lakshmi lotus-throned,
And the Muse a hundred-toned,
Pure and perfect without peer,
Mother lend thine ear,
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
Bright with thy orchard gleems,
Dark of hue O candid-fair

In thy soul, with bejeweled hair
And thy glorious smile divine,
Loveliest of all earthly lands,
Showering wealth from well-stored hands!
Mother, mother mine!
Mother sweet, I salute thee,
Mother great and free!


Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people,
Dispenser of India’s destiny.
Thy name rouses the hearts of Punjap, Sindh, Gujarat and Maratha,
Of the Dravida, Utkala and Bengal;
It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas,
mingles in the music of Yamuna and Ganga and is
chanted by the waves of the Indian Ocean.
They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise.
The saving of all people waits in thy hand,
Thou dispenser of India’s destiny.
Victory, victory, victory to thee.


A racial and religious theory of the History of India and a founding text of extreme Hindu nationalism. Asserts that India is a Hindu country and has been since “time immemorial”.  Calls for the reclaiming of India’s “Hinduness” after centuries of rule by Muslims and then the British. Says that those living in India who are not Hindu must convert or leave. The influence of Nazism and its theories of race is highly visible.



A collection of three essays entitled Independence, Partition, and Republic respectively.  It is a short and aggressive polemical critique of the “Idea of India” as conceived and instituted by the Congress. Anderson is highly skeptical of the Congress’s claim to secularity and spends much ink detailing the ways in which the National Movement failed to bring into its fold the Muslim population of India as well as on how inequalities between Hindus and Muslims persist in contemporary India. Also of use, are Anderson’s analyses of the thought and actions of key National Movement figures like Mohandas Gandhi and Jawarhalal Nehru (who he claims to be the chief architect of “The Indian Ideology”)

Perry Anderson. The Indian Ideology. Three Essays Collective, 2013.


What is a nation? It is a group of people who you will never know or meet but to whom you are somehow connected. Your connection to your countrymen is imagined. So goes the premise of Benedict Anderson’s trenchant book about the how nations are formed and nationalisms are constructed.  Particularly relevant is a chapter entitled “The Last Wave” which details the formation of postcolonial nations and nationalisms. In India, for example, the leaders of the National Movement were the western educated elite whom introduction of English allowed to communicate with each other (previously a leader in Madras would have been unable to talk to a leader in Bombay because they would have had no languages in common) and who were exposed during their education through the reading of Voltaire, Rousseau and so on, ideas like the modern nation state and democracy.

Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities. Verso, 1983.


This book’s thesis is an explicit refutation of Anderson’s thoughts on anti-colonial nationalisms.  Chatterjee takes issue with Anderson’s viewing of anti-colonial nationalisms as “modular” i.e., replicating or modeling themselves on Western nationalisms. He claims that this sort of community is “pre-imagined” rather than imagined.  Chatterjee argues that anti-colonial nationalisms are all dissonant, in that they are anti-colonial but copy the thought and the political models of their colonizers. They are constricted. Chatterjee wishes to reclaim imagination and seek original forms of statehood. He wants, in his own words, to newly independent countries to free themselves of  “colonization of the mind” by the very Western ideas that sanctioned their subjugation.

Partha Chatterjee. The Nation and Its Fragments. Princeton, 1993.


Secularism has two meanings in contemporary India. One is the conventional definition of secularism: the separation of religion and politics. Secular as the opposite of the word sacred. The Indian definition of the word: equally respectful of all religions.  The leaders of the national movement, argues Nandy, payed lip service to the first definition while abiding by the second in practice. Nandy laments that in contemporary Indian politics, actors have to choose between the two definitions. Nandy argues that abiding by the second “Indian” definition is the only tenable course, because the populace will be alienated by a disregard for religion. He calls into question the notion of  being an Indian first, then a Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh, claiming that it is incomprehensible to most of India’s population. This is a thought provoking critique of the National Movement’s surface nationalism and is full of insight into how ambiguous and variegated the Nationalism of the Independence Movement really was.

Ashis Nandy.   India International Centre QuarterlyVol. 22, No. 1, SECULARISM IN CRISIS (SPRING 1995), pp. 35-64


This article argues, rather audaciously, that the religious nationalism that is and has been a pretext for violence in India is not in contravention of the imagining of India as a nation, but implicit in it (particularly in imagining India as singular and unified). Chatterjee argues this using 19th century Bengali history textbooks. He shows that the constructed past of India was a Hindu past and the constructed Indian a Hindu.

Partha Chatterjee. Social Research, Spring 1992, Vol.59(1), p.111RELIGON AND NATIONALISM


This book is a collection of essays by many highly regarded scholars on the subject of religious nationalism, Indian identity, and communal violence. It was compiled to remedy a dearth of good books on the subject suitable for undergraduates.  Its point of departure is the destruction of the Babri Masjiid by Hindu Extremists in 1992. The book is split into three sections. Part one is entitled “Mobilizing Hindutva” and is about the History and ideology of Hindu nationalism. Part two is entitled ” Genealogies of Hindu and Muslim”  and is concerned with past and present constructions of Hindu- Muslim relations. Part three is entitled “Community and Conflict”  and is concerned with contemporary (well, then contemporary) politics  and communal violence. I have annotated two essays from part three (van der veer and Sarkar), and one from part two (Hasan):


Is a criticism of the manner in which communal violence in India is written about in Nationalist Histories and journalistic accounts. The author believes that the aforementioned sorts of writing tend to obfuscate what he terms ” the dark undercurrents of nationalism, which must be engaged with if we are to reach an understanding of it”, particularly in their tendency to portray the conflicts as having arisen from economic or class animosities rather than religious ones.


Is about the disunity created by the misconstruction of the Other. The British, in order to make India manageable have to homogenise it in some way, and ignorant of the regional and class identities of its people, classify them broadly according to religion. During the National Movement the Muslim elite create an “Islamic identity” detached from and more important than class or nation.  The Congress constructed and Indian identity far too attatched to Hinduism to be syncretic or inclusive e.g., Tilak’s Sivaji Festival which attempted to arouse nationalist sentiment by presenting Sivaji, a rebel against Muslim rule (Mughal rule).


Is written against books like Gyanendra Pandey’s The Construction of Communalism in North India, which, according to Sarkar, mischarecterizes communalism as an elitist labeling of community identification.  Communalism does exist and it is a threat to national unity (national unity in the conventional sense is desirable to Sarkar). However, Sarkar is critical of Congress created Indian nationalism, arguing that the seeds of Hindutva were contained in it. For example, the overtly Hindu rhetoric of Mahatma Gandhi or Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s Sivaji and Ganapati Festivals (Hindu festivals that were used for the purpose of political mobilization).

David Ludden. Making India Hindu: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India. Oxford, 2005.


The Demolition of the Babri Masjid
The Demolition of the Babri Masjid



Sudheer Kakar is is psychoanalyst in Hyderabad. His books offers a highly original attempt to make sense of religious violence that is grounded in narrative and not in the least abstruse.  The book contains sections on Hindu identity and Muslim identity made especially valuable because Kakar is not seeking to support a thesis or make political or historical arguments. He is trying to understand individual motives. His conclusion can be broadly summarized as follows. The values of Indian society according to the majority of Indian people and as manifested in their behaviour are values that have their origins in Hinduism. For most Indians, Indian values are Hindu values. This is felt, not only by Hindu’s, but by India’s Muslims. They feel, according to Kakar, like culturally apart from “India”. Kakar also argues that Indian values as perceived by most people, have their origins in Hinduism. He concludes that being Indian, in effect, amounts, according to popular perception, to being Hindu.

Sudheer Kakar. The Colors of Violence. Chicago, 1996.


Though it lacks skepticism and accepts uncritically the elite secular nationalist instituted “Idea of India”, is an excellent source if one is unacquainted with the subject. Nussbaum conducts in depth interviews with many of the hindu right’s most eminent spokesmen and the chapter “The Human Face of the Hindu Right” will give you their perspective on India from the horse’s mouth. The book also provides an excellent, though not detailed, account of the Indian Constitution. Particularly important and relevant to the subject at hand is a section on “Personal Laws”.  India has tried to be secular and syncretic and so has laws (e.g., relating to marriage) that differ for Hindus, Muslims etc .,to accommodate traditions and customs. Is equal but different equal? A central question. Should a Uniform Civil Code be introduced?  The chapter entitled education wars is good window into one of the main ways in which Indian identity has been constructed: textbooks. You see this in Bipan Chandra and in Partha Chatterjee as well. This creates antagonism and false identity. The chapter entitled “The Rise of the Hindu Right” is an accessible history of the RSS and its offspring.

Martha Nussbaum. The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future. Cambridge, 2007.


The author argues that communalism is a modern phenomenon that emerged along with Indian nationalism and was, like nationalism, a reaction to colonial rule. Pandey argues that the in pre-colonial India there was no sharp religious divide between Hindus and Muslims. People identified with their region and their class more than they did their religion (or they identified with a highly specific combination of the three rather than a broad conception of their religion). With colonization and the necessary homogenization of India (for the British had to administrate with some uniformity) Indians were classified, incorrectly, using broad categories and British misinterpretations of the Indian situation led to a sharp divide between Hindus and Muslims.  British accounts of conflicts driven by economic or class antagonism as religious conflicts  in what became History textbooks, for example, constructed a false history of Hindu- Muslim conflict.

Gyanendra Pandey. The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India. Oxford, 1992.

Additional Sources

The author was a Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard. The last two sections, “India’s Struggling Identity” and “Conclusions” are the only ones relevant here. This project should not be read for the author’s opinions but for the deft summaries of important books about the theory of Indian nationalism. Many of the authors in this guide (Sudheer Kakar, Partha Chatterjee, Ashis Nandy) are explained as well as many authors who I would have liked to have read but did not find the time to (Sunil Khilnani, Ashutosh Varshney).



The Times of India is the most widely read English language  newspaper in the country and was founded in 1838.  The Univerity of Pennsylvania has every issue from the paper’s founding to 2001.


Founded in 1992 and partnered with the center of the same name in New Delhi, this center has three goals. The first goal is to engage in policy-relevant research focused on the challenges facing contemporary India. The second goal is to nurture students’ interest in contemporary India through internships at the Center and interactions with visiting scholars who are in residence at CASI, as well as by providing them with opportunities to work and conduct research in India. And third, the Center aims to act as a public forum on contemporary India by hosting seminars, workshops and conferences year-round, and through our online publication, India in Transition, which provides scholars around the world a medium to exchange ideas about contemporary India.