Four Competing Conceptions of Indian Identity

by Eddie Copeland

‘There is not, and never was an India… possessing according to European ideas, any sort of unity… political, social or religious; no nation, no “people of India”.’ John Strachey, 1885

The opinion expressed above by former Labour MP, John Strachey, may well have accorded with the attitudes of many of his countrymen during the period of British colonialism in India. There was certainly an element of truth in his remark since, just as today, India in the late nineteenth century was a land of astonishing diversity. When the British finally left the country in 1947, the new Indian government inherited a population containing a ‘multitude of Hindu castes and outcastes, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and tribes; speakers of more than a dozen major languages (and thousands of dialects); [as well as] myriad ethnic and cultural communities’ (Khilnani, 2003: p.151). Despite this, Strachey’s claim of there being no ‘people of India’ has been heavily contested by a range of political actors and commentators – not to mention Indian people themselves – and in strikingly different ways. For whilst it is uncontroversial to state that there is no universal view of what it is to be ‘Indian’, it does not follow that everyone is acquiescent with the judgment that there is nothing that unites India’s heterodox communities. This study is an attempt to understand what other opinions have been suggested, by whom and with what justification. The central issue is thus one of Indian national identity and its contested status.

There is a large body of literature relevant to the subject of national identity. Some is written in generic terms, for instance Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, whilst other works make specific reference to India, exemplified by Chatterjee’s Nationalism and its Fragments. The information in this study is sourced from a wide range of material, including works which deal explicitly with questions surrounding Indian identity, such as Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, as well as other sources which are manifestly on different topics, such as Nandy’s At the Edge of Psychology, but which can nonetheless be mined for information salient to the current task. Biographical texts are also utilised where appropriate in Sections 1-3. The present study aims to differentiate itself from the existing literature by exploring specifically how certain key individuals, organisations and art forms have defined or portrayed Indian identity, and to what extent those conceptions have commonalities or differences. Attention is paid not only to what answers there have been to the question ‘who is an Indian?’, but also how and why those responses have been justified by those who have provided them.

Here, Indian identity is addressed from four distinct perspectives, which this author believes shed light on some of the most influential contributions relating to competing notions of Indianness. The areas examined consist of Indian identity as conceived by Mohandas Gandhi; Jawaharlal Nehru; and the Hindu nationalists; and as portrayed through India’s cinema. Some of these four may appear to be more obvious candidates for inclusion than others. Little needs to be said by way of justification for discussing Gandhi, since he is commonly recognised as being one of the most (if not the most) influential and iconic figures of twentieth century India. Section 1 details how he not only went about defining Indianness as it existed around him, but also how he was proactive in changing how Indians viewed themselves. Nehru too, as one of the leading figures in Congress prior to 1947 and India’s first prime minister thereafter, has iconic status, and wrote extensively on what it was to be Indian, as well as presiding over the daunting task of uniting his heterogeneous country in the turbulent post-Partition climate. The Hindu nationalists are included not only because of their radical views on Indianness, but also because of the exponential increase in their national influence during the last century, culminating in their main political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party, becoming the largest party in the coalition government of 1998-2004. Lastly, attention to Indian cinema potentially provides a chance to view this subject from a totally different angle, by investigating how Indians choose to represent artistically their own identity. As Inden comments, ‘Film dominates art and entertainment practices in India… [so] looking at representations of the nation in films is to look at that form of representation that figures most prominently… in the everyday lives of people’ (1999: p.43). These particular areas have been chosen not only because they aptly demonstrate the wide spectrum of thoughts that have been put forward on this subject, but also because their perspectives are important due to the very real influence they have had on defining Indian identity for significant numbers of Indians themselves.

Whilst a diverse range of themes are addressed in this article, including language, caste, and equality, to name but a few, by far the most dominant is that of religion. In each of the four sections the level of importance attached to religion (either in general terms, or with reference to a specific religion) is shown to have a great impact on the overall conception of Indianness being proposed. Section 1 argues that Gandhi saw India’s religious nature and spiritual values as being the cohesive force which united its disparate communities. Believing that those spiritual values were something in which all Indians could partake, he promoted secularism in the sense of having parity amongst religions. Section 2 reveals how Nehru rejected some aspects of Gandhi’s philosophy, instead seeing religion as a divisive force that had to be removed from the political sphere for the sake of national unity. For Nehru, there were considerable practical motivations to define Indianness without reference to religion. Despite their differing views on the exact place of religion in national consciousness, both Nehru and Gandhi promoted all-Indian, inclusive definitions of identity based on human equality. Section 3 offers powerful contrasts to both Gandhi and Nehru, as the parity between different religions is shown to have been utterly rejected by Hindu nationalists, replaced instead with a religious hierarchy in which Hinduism features at the summit. The idea of synonymy between ‘Hindu’ and ‘Indian’ is argued to be a key feature of Hindu nationalism, showing its conception of Indian identity to be borne out of policies of exclusion. Finally, Section 4 illustrates how, generally speaking, elements of both Nehruvian and Gandhian philosophies are portrayed in Indian cinema, promoting an idea of national identity in which adherents of all faiths are equally entitled to be Indian.

In exploring both religion and a multiplicity of other issues, this study critically examines four of the most influential answers that have been provided to the question: ‘who is an Indian?’. As the following sections demonstrate, the apparent simplicity of that question very much belies its underlying complexity.


Section 1 – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 – 1948)

‘[Gandhi] came as near being India as one person could be. He called himself Harijan, Moslem, Christian, Hindu, farmer, weaver. He wove himself into the texture of India.’ (Fischer, 1951: p.368)

Attempts to provide a definitive account of Mahatma Gandhi’s thoughts about Indian identity face at least two significant difficulties. Firstly, not only must one analyse the explicit textual evidence Gandhi left through his innumerable articles, but it is further necessary to examine his actions and his use of symbolism, since he frequently communicated through those mediums. The problem lies in that the meaning of such non-verbal communication is often open to wide interpretation. This section thus attempts to make its case with the support of both textual and non-textual evidence. The second major problem is that Gandhi – forever his own harshest critic – was prone to reviewing and amending his opinions, leading to variances in his views on particular matters over time. Where relevant, such apparent changes are investigated with a view to their clarification. Here, Gandhi’s attitude towards Indian identity is studied through analysis of his views on some of the subjects that are known to have concerned him most, including religion; untouchability; industrialisation; and language. The picture which emerges is twofold: firstly, one of Gandhi resisting excessive differences where they threatened the unity of Indian national identity, whilst at the same time celebrating diversity as being fundamental to Indianness itself; and secondly, his proactive creation of symbols around which the Indian people could unite.

Gandhi’s life and work cannot be discussed meaningfully without considerable reference to religion. After returning from two decades of work in South Africa, he declared: ‘My bent is not political but religious… I take part in politics because I feel that there is no department of life which can be divorced from religion’ (quoted in Ali, 1985: p.39). Given this self-professed religious conviction, combined with the fact that he was a practising Hindu, it may seem peculiar that Gandhi has been described as a ‘secular nationalist’ (e.g. Varma, 2004). Clearly, if he agreed with being thus labelled, what he understood it to mean could not have been the same brand of secular nationalism associated with Jawaharlal Nehru, whose every effort went into removing the influence of religion from politics. To Nehru, religion was ‘the Achilles’ heel of the Mahatma… his insistence on using religious symbolism to appeal to the peasantry… made a secular path more difficult to find’ (Ali, 1985: p.38). But Gandhi was committed to the view that when ‘nationalism does not divide, religion can make men brothers’ (Fischer, 1951: p.267). That said, it must be acknowledged that Gandhi cannot have regarded being religious as a necessary requisite for being Indian. This is evidenced by his nurturing of Nehru – a self-declared agnostic – as his rightful political heir.

The ‘secular nationalist’ label applied to Gandhi is perhaps prompted by his unambiguous desire for a united India and his insistence that one religion and its associated community should not be preferenced at the expense or exclusion of another. He was greatly troubled by any possibility of India’s balkanisation, as was demonstrated by his reaction to the 1942 Cripps Mission, which, whilst offering India the chance of Dominion status, also allowed individual states to accede from the Indian Union. This was unacceptable to Gandhi, who thought it would lead to the formation of ‘a Hindu India, a Moslem India, a Princely India, perhaps a Sikh India’ – for Gandhi, ‘the vivisection of India was a sin’ (Fischer, 1951: p.387). Further confirmation of his insistence on Indian unity comes from Gandhi’s continual struggle against the Hindu-Muslim tension and violence which recurred throughout his lifetime. In his view, such tension was ‘a man-made, middle class, urban disease’ and not indicative of the presence of any genuine, fundamental division between religions (Fischer, 1951: p.242). In 1926, Gandhi voiced his concern that the British were, if not the root of, then at least exacerbating the problem, believing them to be cultivating separate Muslim and Hindu identities so as to enhance their own control over India. Yet, indicative of his unique style, Gandhi saw the solution to this as being not with the British but with Indians themselves, declaring that Hindu-Muslim dissension proved Indians could not regulate their own affairs and therefore that they had no claim on the British for more power. For Gandhi, the nation must unify before independence could be granted. For that end, unity of identity amongst Indians had to be established first.

Gandhi’s conception of Indianness did not discriminate on religious grounds. Indeed, though a Hindu (albeit a progressive one), he openly affiliated with members of all religions and was not afraid to criticise some of Hinduism’s most central tenets. The Hindu-derived caste system, and especially the problem of untouchability, is a case in point. Whilst earlier in his life Gandhi can be quoted as saying ‘I consider the four divisions [of the caste system] to be fundamental, natural and essential’ (quoted in Fischer, 1951: p.363), he changed his opinion later in life, asserting his wish to create ‘a classless and casteless India’ (Fischer, 1951: p.457). What never changed was the repugnance Gandhi felt towards the practice of untouchability which effectively relegated thousands of Indians to lives of abject poverty. He penned numerous articles on the injustices of such inequality, even founding and editing a publication called Harijan (a euphemism coined by Gandhi referring to untouchables, meaning ‘Children of God’). He also repeatedly challenged established social taboos by making physical contact with Harijans; eating food they had prepared; and even inviting them to live with him in his ashram. These points show Gandhi to be neither dogmatic about religion in general, nor about the specific tenets of Hinduism in particular. Indeed, more fundamental by far was his unblinking conviction in the absolute equality of all Indians, no matter what their religion, caste or social status.

And what of the status of Indian identity in a global context? The facts suggest that whilst Gandhi thought Indians were equal to their foreign counterparts, they were not the same as them. In support of his believing in global human equality, one notes that many of Gandhi’s references to Indian identity went far beyond just India. Indeed, he often spoke in general – not Indian – terms, asking what it is to be human, rather than Indian. In his own words: ‘We are all members of the vast human family. I decline to draw any distinctions… [or] claim any superiority for Indians (quoted in Fischer, 1951: p.383). But despite talking in the terms above, it is possible to infer from his attitude towards industrialisation that he conceived of substantive differences between Indians and westerners. Nehru, with his British education, advocated echoing the trajectory of Western industrialisation as the best means to rid India of poverty. Not so Gandhi. To comprehend why, his own life can be seen as a micro analogue of India as a whole. As Rudolph asserts: ‘Much of… [Gandhi’s] early life was spent deciding whether he could best master himself and his environment by embracing… a British life path or by committing himself to a[n]… Indian way’ (1983: p.15). The estrangement he felt during his studies in England very much led him to the view that the latter path was the correct one. So too, he believed that Indians could never embrace their real identity whilst it was defined in British terms. Gandhi consequently shunned industrialisation and its ‘dehumanising tyranny’ and instead glorified the idea of the uniquely Indian village republic (Rudolph, 1983: p.63). To fill the Indian identity void left by rejecting westernisation, Gandhi projected the spinning wheel as both economic tool and powerful symbol of social unity (Majumdar, 1976: p.71). For him, the spinning wheel was the very essence of what made India different; what could unite it; and what typified his village republic. What was appropriate for Westerners was not right for Indians.

Language was an area where Gandhi saw a level of diversity that was preventing unity of Indian national identity. Brock (1995) describes the Mahatma as being a ‘linguistic nationalist’, outlining how he supported the creation of linguistic provinces; the adoption of Devanagari script for all the languages of India; and the promotion of Hindi as an official national language. Gandhi seems to have worked from a philosophy concurring with Varma’s view that ‘[a] language is not only a utility; it is a symbol of a culture, the repository of the heritage of a people, an indispensable mark of identity’ (2004: p.111). Presented thus, Gandhi recognised both the risks and positive potential of language for identity. He regarded the formation of linguistic provinces ‘as a bulwark against ethnic friction and a support for the continuity of India, so liable otherwise to be torn apart by interregional animosities’ (Brock, 1995: p.19). The adoption of a common script he conceived to ease Indians’ learning of vernaculars other than their own, thus facilitating pan-Indian communication. The promotion of Hindi as a national language was for the same end.

Above all, Gandhi loathed the fact that English was the sole language which allowed communication between Indians from the four corners of the subcontinent (Majumdar, 1976: p.34). For him, the use of English imprisoned Indians: having to express themselves in literally foreign terms prevented the full expression of their own identity by divorcing them from their ‘mother tongue’ and therefore from India herself. He felt that many of the Indian vernaculars could be on a literary par with English, and thus promoted their use instead. Yet he did not offer the same support for India’s many localised, predominately oral, tribal languages, as he believed ‘Indian unity would suffer if all tribal tongues were to be raised to the level of literary languages’ (quoted in Brock, 1995: p.13-14). In the same passage, Gandhi claimed that a ‘language takes its form from the character and the life of those who speak it’. What this meant in his linguistic theory was that crude, non-literary, tribal languages, which were not conducive to wide expression of thought, reflected a crude, unthinking people. Conversely, an expressive, literary vernacular reflected an artistic and educated society, and therefore should be encouraged. Gandhi therefore supported raising the status of so-called literary languages at the expense of both English – which inhibited the forming of an Indian national consciousness – and the tribal languages, thus simultaneously promoting a sense of identity separate to Englishness, and integrating India into larger linguistic communities which, through the development of a common script, could have extensive intercommunication (Rudolph, 1983: p.80). Gandhi understood linguistic differences were fundamental to regional identities and should be consolidated, but he also saw linguistic variances as a threat to Indian unity and consequently promoted linguistic interconnectedness.

Throughout the above points, another construal of Gandhi’s importance in defining Indian national identity emerges. For perhaps Gandhi’s effect on Indian identity should not be seen solely in terms of what he thought regarding ‘who is an Indian?’, but rather in the fact that he actively created mechanisms (for example, participation in Satyagraha – the non-violent protest movement) and symbols (the spinning wheel) for Indian national unity, and even became part of Indian identity himself. As the quotation at the very start of this section suggests, Gandhi united India because he was India. As Brown declares: ‘the Mahatma used his own life, body and clothing as a powerful symbol of a moral politics and of service to a new nation, particularly the poor… [and] the spinning-wheel as a mark of unity across class and caste’ (2003: p.198). Most importantly, Gandhi not only defined Indianness from pre-existing social factors, but additionally worked to change Indians’ self perception as well. ‘He understood both the fundamental fear of Indians that those Britons who judged them as lacking in basic components of moral worth… might be right and the more superficial doubts about their technical ability to do anything about removing the raj’ (Rudolph, 1983: p.7). Gandhi, using as icons the spinning wheel; participation in non-violent protest; and his own body, emanated the idea of a united India and a sense of Indianness which was defined on Indians’ own terms, empowering them to have pride in their own, unique identity.

The premises laid out above seem to support two key conclusions. The first is Gandhi’s subtle mix of celebrating diversity whilst simultaneously fighting against divisions which led to the subversion or exclusion of particular groups. The evidence suggests that this was not only driven out of a desire for national unity, but also out of his fundamental belief that all Indians were equal. That Gandhi passionately believed in a united India cannot be doubted. Rather than seeing diversity as a problem, national identity as conceived by Gandhi was ‘predicated upon belief in the existence of difference,’ but difference combined with ‘distinctly Indian spiritual values’ (Corbridge & Harriss, 2000: p.37). Indeed, it seems that he viewed religion as being the common adhesive of India’s heterodox communities. The second conclusion comes from the sense of Indian identity which Gandhi himself brought about through his person and use of symbols. It is perhaps Rudolph who best captures Gandhi’s impact on Indian identity, saying: ‘Gandhi’s greatest contribution to political modernization was… helping India to acquire national coherence and identity, to become a nation, by showing Indians a way to courage, self-respect, and political potency’ (1983: p.64).


Section 2 – Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 – 1964)

‘I think that a country with a long cultural background and a common outlook on life develops a spirit that is peculiar to it and that is impressed on all its children, however they may differ among themselves.’ (Nehru, 2004: p.52)

Ask most students of Indian politics whose name they associate with Indian secular nationalism, and the answer will invariably be Jawaharlal Nehru. But as the previous section noted, Gandhi also received the ‘secular nationalist’ label, yet there are undoubtedly profound differences between what that term denotes in relation to these two men. This section demonstrates how Nehru’s and Gandhi’s different interpretations of secular nationalism derived from their differing conceptions of Indian identity. It is proposed that Nehru’s exposure to Western influences impacted heavily on his understanding of Indianness, but that his conception of Indian identity was less derived from any ideological position than that of the other figures considered in this article. Rather, due to a number of factors, he was, by necessity, primarily concerned with the need to address inescapable practical requirements. His conception of Indian identity – which encompassed all Indians, no matter what their religion, caste or social status – is shown to be a product of that need.

Like Gandhi, an essential precursor to understanding Nehru’s stance on Indian identity is outlining his judgments regarding religion. During the fight for independence, Nehru vehemently opposed the idea that what was being sought was a Hindu nation, feeling sure that religion played into the hands of vested interests and would increase the prevalence of communalism in society and politics. This was no easy position to take, since many both inside and outside of Congress believed that the logical consequence of a Muslim Pakistan was a Hindu India (Khilnani, 2003: p.31). But for Nehru ‘privileging… religious identity above other identities in the political arena… bred violence and threatened the very existence of an inclusive and national body politic’ (Brown, 1999: p.46). His view on this was far from mere hypothesising, as he personally witnessed outbreaks of religious violence in northern India in the wake of the collapse of non-cooperation; then at the ending of the Khilafat movement in 1924; and later in the extreme Muslim-Hindu bloodshed which ignited immediately after Partition (Brown, 2003: p.76). These events explicitly demonstrated to him that communal tensions threatened to destroy the very Indian nation for which he and others had for so long fought.

It is no surprise therefore, that Nehru saw the need to adopt a secular position. The logic of his view can be argued as follows: Given the formidable power of the Raj, Nehru saw that the only way to achieve the goal of independence was ‘to unite every possible section of Indian society, so that Congress would become the sole authentic voice of India’ and thereby be able to negotiate or force a result with the British (Manor, 1990: p.28). Nehru also had pressing practical motives for maintaining this secular path after independence, since, as India’s first prime minister, he had the singular task of forming the Indian nation and ensuring its national integrity and stability. The creation of Pakistan, which unleashed religious fighting on an unprecedented scale, directly threatened that stability, raising the much-feared spectre of India’s balkanisation (Brown, 1999: p.72). Consequently, both before and after independence, it was a matter of practical political imperative that a sense of Indianness be fostered which encompassed all the communities of the subcontinent – especially the significant minority Muslim population. Whilst Gandhi saw religion as the force to unify those communities, Nehru was unequivocal in his view that the question ‘who is an Indian?’ must be answered without reference to religion.

Hindu nationalists have claimed Nehru’s notion of a secular, aggregate India – including myriad religious and cultural groups amongst its constituent parts – is an ‘alien’ and artificial construction, used to serve modern-day practical ends (Alam, 2002: p.90). Whilst this article concurs to the extent that practical concerns were Nehru’s predominant concern, it must be recognised that this is not the whole picture. In Discovery of India, Nehru refutes the Hindu nationalists’ claim, appealing to the historical tradition in India for the harmonious co-existence of composite cultures to justify his own secularism. One may speculate whether he used this historical interpretation merely to bring round more people to his position, which was really driven by practical ends, but it might also indicate that he did have a belief that ‘Indianness’ had always been definable without religion. Other commentators add weight this view, arguing that it was the British who introduced the idea of a ‘naturally divided’ India, and then sustained that perception through the use of separate electorates and the provision of protection of one religious group against the other – the so-called ‘divide and rule’ strategy (Washbrook, 1997: p.40). Nehru argued against the British view, declaring that despite their differences, there is some quality – however intangible – that ultimately unites the peoples of India, saying: ‘I think that a country with a long cultural background and a common outlook on life develops a spirit that is peculiar to it[self] and that is impressed on all its children, however they may differ among themselves’ (Nehru, 2004: p.52). Of quite what this ‘common outlook’ consists remains vague, but Charkravarty makes the particularly sharp observation that:

‘At the heart of The Discovery [of India] is a paradox: to construct an identity (selfsameness) out of an entity which, being the product of constant historical change, must also be established as having no stable identity. The “national personality,” in other words, has no personality; rather what is distinct about that personality is the fact that it is an accretion over centuries and millennia and is in ceaseless mutation’ (1993: p.19)

Trying to construct a defining element of Indianness out of such diversity was thus extremely problematic. What remains important is that Nehru’s interpretation of India’s history added further weight to his commitment to an all-inclusive definition of Indianness.

There were many elemental differences between Nehru and Gandhi which caused strain on their relationship. These included Gandhi’s condemnation of the West, his hostility to industrial society and his failure to understand what Nehru saw as the inevitable conflict between capital and labour under a capitalist system (Brown, 2003: p.87). In the latter – Nehru’s socialist tendencies – can be found another practical motive for his wishing to nurture a truly state-wide conception of Indian national identity. To make India a socialist state that had the power and capacity to act to ameliorate the conditions of the Indian people required a centralised government ruling over all of India. The only way to gain that power and capacity was by encouraging Indian unity. This in turn could only be achieved by combating communalist tendencies and therefore promoting secularism. It seems that Nehru thought that this would be a self-reinforcing process, as some of his comments suggest that he envisaged Indian identity becoming more unified as a result of state-wide participation in the economic life of the nation. For instance, he said of the first Five Year (Economic) Plan that it was representative of ‘India’s unity and of a mighty co-operative effort of all the people of India’, which could counter ‘provincialism, communalism, casteism and all other disruptive and disintegrating tendencies’ (Brown, 2003: p.238). Two areas on which Nehru and Gandhi did agree (though for different reasons) were those of the injustices of caste, and the related belief in the equality of all Indians. Gandhi refuted the caste system’s legitimacy because it was demeaning to untouchables; Nehru’s primary concern was that it was anti-democratic. Since democracy pre-supposed equality, he asked ‘How can the concept of equality and of equal opportunities for all exist side by side with the caste system which divides people into compartments and leads to suppression of one section of society by others?’ (quoted in Brown, 2003: p.230).

In fundamental contrast with Gandhi, Nehru ‘presented a vision of an industrialized India, rational and scientific in outlook, and modernized in the Western sense of the term’ (Varma, 2004: p.104). This ‘vision’ of modernity was the result of several factors. Nehru’s wide reading on the history and politics of Europe was certainly one. Another was the Western values he had absorbed during his education in England, which led him to see the right direction for India’s future as echoing nineteenth century European industrialisation (Brown 2003: p.239). In this way, Nehru regarded India as being in an earlier stage of development than its western counterparts, but nonetheless capable of a parallel rise in wealth, development and status. Part of his conception of Indian identity must therefore have included the belief that Indians were fundamentally the same as their western counterparts, including having a desire for material wealth; and an ability to partake in industry. As Brown states: ‘Nehru did not feel that there was any essential difference between India… and the modern West; but he felt that Indian civilisation had… lost its creativity and its ability to respond to change, partly as a result of its religious and social formations’ (2003: p.189).

Yet to leave the argument there would be to paint a very colourful picture in black and white, as other evidence shows his position to be more complicated. Interestingly, Nehru does not seem to have believed he shared the very Indian identity that he promoted for the Indian people, writing of himself whilst in jail in 1943: ‘You do not represent India or the average Indian; you cannot walk in step with the West. It is your fate to fall between the two’ (Brown, 2003: p.155). The fact that he regarded himself as perpetually hovering between two cultures – Indian and Western – suggests he must have conceived of there being something basically different between the two. If the idea was beginning to appear attractive that Nehru’s answer to ‘who is an Indian?’ would involve nothing more than a territorial requirement (to live the geographical area called ‘India’), this evidence would seem to render such a view untenable. Instead, perhaps it would be plausible to suggest that the reason Nehru never explicitly defined Indianness was – yet again – because of the practical requirements of nation-building. For any definition he might have provided (other than the virtually vacuous one of mere territoriality) would almost inevitably exclude some group or other and thus threaten his wish for a united India. Moreover, creating any such exclusive definition of Indianness would lead to the disintegration of the very thing – the tenet of all-inclusiveness – that separated his version of Indian nationalism from that voiced by Hindu nationalists, against whose philosophy he consistently argued. As mentioned earlier, promoting a secular path in India involved swimming against the powerful tide of Hindu nationalist definitions of Indianness. It was therefore impossible for Nehru to define explicitly what it was to be Indian without undermining the very project of nation-building in which he was engaged.

This section has revealed some of the fundamental differences that exist between what Indian identity meant to Nehru and Gandhi, and has also hinted at some of the contrasts with the Hindu nationalists which are discussed in the next section. The theme which has recurred repeatedly has been how Nehru’s belief in the practical benefits – indeed the essentiality – of secularism, led him to construct a sense of Indianness which was not constituted by any reference to a person’s religious persuasion. Other practical concerns such as his view of the need for industrialisation, socialism and democracy gave him impetus to remove divisions of any sort, whether caste, regional or religious. Despite alluding to something that these disparate groups had in common, Nehru either did not really believe it or could not take the political risk of its articulation. Based on the quotation about his own identity, this section concludes that, whilst only conjecture, the latter is the more likely. Overall, Nehru’s was an all-inclusive notion of Indian identity, driven more by practical imperatives than all else.

Section 3 – The Hindu Nationalists (1875 – Present)

‘The idea that India might have a ‘composite’ culture made up of numerous religious strands, as well as non-religious cultural currents, and is the all the greater for it, is simple anathema to the forces of Hindutva.’ (Brass & Vanaik, 2002: p.2)

Providing an exposition of the Hindu nationalist view of Indian identity is far from straightforward. The reason for this is that the term ‘Hindu nationalism’ is not constituted by a homogeneous collection of conceptual components, but rather acts as an umbrella under which shelters a spectrum of associated yet diverse concepts, held by a variety of groups and individuals over an extended period of time. This section therefore limits its evaluation to the conceptions of Indian national identity held by the most central figures and organisations of the Hindu nationalist movement and spans from the late nineteenth to late twentieth century. Despite the differences in views held by the figures discussed, commonalities are shown to emerge, including a preoccupation with the idea of a primordial era of Hindu greatness; the belief that Hindus are the rightful heirs to Indian territory; and a conception of Hinduness that is defined against groups conceived to be ‘other’. For most Hindu nationalists, being Indian becomes a case of synonymy with being Hindu.

Four names are particularly prominent in laying the ground for the views of Hindu nationalists: Dayananda Saraswati (1824–1883), Sri Aurobindo (1872 – 1950), Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902), and Vinayak Savarkar (1883-1966). The first and last of these men are particularly worthy of note, as they not only powerfully influenced the course of the Hindu nationalist movement, but are also illustrative of the contrasting philosophies that are encompassed under the Hindu nationalist label. Taking the same starting point, both men appealed to the notion of a Hindu golden age, claiming that their ancestors – primarily constituted by the powerful Aryan warrior race – had either originated or achieved their cultural apogee in India. The Aryans, they believed, had ‘energy, power, mobility, innovation, animation, industriousness, enterprise, genius and daring’ (Bhatt, 2001: p.87). But the formidable Aryan character and the harmony of this ‘Vedic era’ gave way to sectarian strife because of the degradation of Hinduism. For Dayananda, responsibility for this lay at the door of corrupt Hindu Brahmins, who deviated from their caste duty and advocated brands of Hinduism that went against the teaching of the Vedas, considered to be the most ancient (and for Dayananda the only proper) texts of Hindu orthodoxy. In 1875 he founded the Arya Samaj to advocate his particular Vedic interpretation of Hinduism, which included belief in the virtue of the four castes of the varma system (whilst shunning sub-castes); the cessation of the worship of idols and multiple gods; and the end of child marriages, to name but a few (Bhatt, 2001: p.18). Savarkar supported a different theory, believing that Hindu degeneration was primarily caused by the expansion of Buddhism and its propaganda of love, equality, righteousness, toleration and non-violence, which led to Hindus’ ‘effemination’ (Bhatt, 2001: p.89-90). However it occurred, this dilapidation in Hindu values and character was conceived by both men as leaving their ancestors open to foreign attack and suppression, most notably by Muslims and Christians, and contemporaneously, the British. Those groups ‘polluted’ the pure Aryan race in blood and culture, weakening both Hinduism and the Hindu. To return to an age of greatness, the Hindus had to reclaim the traits and culture of the Vedic era (Sharma, 2003: p.11).

The preoccupation of the early Hindu nationalists was not therefore ‘who is an Indian?’ but rather, ‘who is a Hindu?’, a question which Savarkar addressed in his book: Hindutva: Who is Hindu? Whilst it might seem self-evident that a Hindu is someone who practises Hinduism, this is not necessarily the case, as it is a highly heterogeneous religion, with no universally agreed belief-set, texts or established church. Dayananda’s definition of what it was to be Hindu excluded everyone who did not adhere to his specific interpretation of the Vedas. Contrastingly, Savarkar sought to include Sikhs, Jains and (despite his theory about their damaging effect on Hindus) Buddhists in his definition, seeing them as branches of the Hindu faith (Sharma, 2003: p.9). But Savarkar’s wish to regard these different groups, as well as the widely divergent schools of Hindu thought represented by the Arya Samaj and the Santanists (who held a Brahminical worldview) as Hindus, meant that he could not then define Hindutva with reference to any specific beliefs (Bhatt, 2001: p.85). This evidently presented a problem: at some stage Muslims and Christians had to be excluded from the Hindu definition precisely because of the content of their religious beliefs. His solution to Hindu diversity offers interesting parallels to that utilised by Nehru. Just as Nehru felt compelled to secularise Indian society as a means to bring about Indian unity, Savarkar had to internally secularise Hinduism to allow for Hindu unity.

Savarkar’s definition of Hindu identity can be generalised to three necessary conditions. The first was ‘citizenship by paternal descent within this physically bounded territory of India’. However, ‘Inhabiting the territory designated as Hindustan [India] was… not sufficient to either be a Hindu or to participate in the continuum called Hindutva. It was imperative to have bonds of common blood as well’ (Sharma, 2003: p.162). Common blood was therefore the second criterion and it is telling that he acknowledged admiration for the Nazis and fascist Italy, believing their ideologies of racial homogeneity to provide salient case studies for India. The insistence on common blood presented a quandary for Savarkar since Hindus who had been converted to Islam could satisfy these two conditions but were unequivocally not Hindus. Thus he added his third criterion, of having to partake in the common vedic culture, Sanskriti (Bhatt, 2001: p.96). Muslims, Savarkar argued, could never be part of Hindutva because they belonged to an alien cultural matrix in which their heroes, objects of worship and festivals had little in common with Hindus’ (Sharma, 2003: p.164). Despite having laid out these three criteria, Savarkar elsewhere seems to undermine himself by stating: ‘We [Hindus] feel we are a JATI [brotherhood]… and therefore it must be so’ (Bhatt, 2001: p.95). This suggests the real condition for being a Hindu was simply the self-perception that one was one, indicating that there may be some truth in Heywood’s assertion that it is impossible to define a nation using objective factors alone (2002: p.106).

To understand how the above comments can be interpreted in light of the central question ‘who is an Indian?’, it is necessary to understand Savarkar’s understanding of the issue of territoriality. Who was rightfully entitled to the geographical area marked ‘India’? Savarkar affirmed that the whole subcontinent belonged to Hindus, since the arrival there of their Vedic ancestors preceded that of communities of other religions (Bhatt, 2001: p.90-91). Whilst other religions, especially Islam, shared India as a fatherland with the Hindus, they did not share a holy land. As Sarkar clarifies:

‘Territoriality remains the starting point in developed Hindutva ideology, as epitomised above all in… Savarkar’s Hindutva: Who is a Hindu… in which pitribhumi (fatherland) is immediately equated with punyabhumi (holy land), and the latter is unambiguously identified with “the cradle-land of… religion”. Only Hindus, therefore, can be true patriots’ (1996: p.274).

According to Savarkar, the holy land of the Muslims was not in India but ‘Arabia or Palestine’, yet, he claimed, Muslims cherished the dream of ‘re-establishing Muslim rule in India’ and he constantly harped on the theme of Muslims being anti-Hindu, anti-Indian and harbouring Pan-Islamic ambitions’ (Sharma, 2003: p.141).

What does all this mean in terms of Indianness? As the arguments above have indicated, Savarkar began by outlining who could be considered part of the Hindu nation in the abstract (in other words, divorced from any notion of territoriality), which seems to say nothing in itself about who is an Indian. The devil is in the next step, when the question of territorial entitlement is introduced. Savarkar, in common with many Hindu nationalists, said that Hindus had entitlement to all the land of the subcontinent, for justification pointing to ancient Hindu texts which ‘illustrated not simply the religious and (frequently) ‘racial’ unity of its past, but pre-eminently its national unity, as Aryavarta (the land of the Aryans) or Bharatvarsha (the kingdom of Bharat)’ (Bhatt, 2001: p.12). Savarkar’s inevitable conclusion was this: that since the Hindus’ rightful land was coextensive with India, ‘India’ was effectively synonymous with ‘Hindu’. He saw India as containing ‘two antagonistic nations’ (Sharma, 2003: p.141), Muslims and Hindus, but since it was only the latter who were entitled to the land, Muslims were essentially impostors and therefore faced an ultimatum: either leave India or wholly adopt the values, faith and identity of Hindutva. Savarkar’s conception of Indian identity was one and the same as Hindu identity. Those who refused to partake in the Hindutva project were not Indians at all.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the nationalist right-wing organisation founded in 1925 by Dr. K.B. Hedgewar, represents a different viewpoint. Whereas Savarkar defined Hindu identity through a descriptive (if idealised) account of Hindu history, the RSS, particularly under its second leader, Madhav Golwalkar, gave a more normative account. As Bhatt suggests: ‘The RSS’s idealized vision of Hindu nation is of an organic, disciplined, integrated, ordered social formation based [on] the consolidation of a strong, collective Hindu majoritarianism’, adding ‘[h]ence, the RSS disowns the… existing social formation and… beliefs and practices of Hinduism as fundamentally deficient and defective in comparison with its own form of organization’ (2001: p.140). Aware that the Hindu character had been imbued with aforementioned traits of effeminacy, the RSS aimed to mould its young recruits into the image of their mythologised and masculine forebears. Conceived of thus, Hindu identity was not just something that one was born with, but also an aspirational ideal. Where Golwalkar’s views left Muslims is not altogether clear, since he both argued that the RSS did not advocate a Hindu Raj to the exclusion of non-Hindu citizens but also that they should be taught to revere the ‘Hindu nation’ and its Gods as their heroes, if necessary by force (Bhatt, 2001: p.146-7). The difference is arguably between the public and private faces of the RSS. In public, Muslims can co-exist with Hindus so long as they recognise and respect the rightful dominance of Hindutva in India. But, in private, ‘recognition’ is a euphemism for a choice between conversion or absolute exclusion. Whilst the RSS declares itself to be a cultural, not a political group, Hindu nationalists have also ventured into the politics and governance of India through their political organisations, and promoted similar themes. The Janata coalition, whose principal party was the Jan Sangh, held power from 1977-80, standing for ‘One country, one nation, one culture and the rule of law’, and argued for the nationalising of all non-Hindus ‘by inculcating in them the idea of Bharitya culture’ (Ali, 1985: p.198). When the Bharatiya Janata Party was formed in the wake of the Jan Sangh’s collapse, it declared an almost identical quest of ‘Indianization’ with the aim of forging ‘one nation, one people, one culture’ (Khilnani 2003: p.151).

Inasmuch as it is possible to generalise, there appear to be several dominant themes that emerge from this brief insight into Hindu nationalist conceptions of Indian identity. At its heart is the conviction that Hindus are the rightful occupants of India and that members of other religions must either offer unquestioning submission to Hinduism; whole-heartedly adopt Hindutva; or leave India. The notion of being a Hindu is predicated on an idea of racial purity combined with an attempt ‘to mobilize political identification through an affective dimension based on the cultivation of a ‘nostalgic’ remembrance of a fiction’ (Bhatt, 2001: p.93). On the basis of these thoughts, the underlying assumption has been that ‘Hindu’ and ‘Indian’ are synonymous, such that to be legitimately called ‘Indian’ requires than one can be classified (however that may be) as a Hindu. At bottom, Hindu nationalists have a simple answer to the question ‘who is an Indian?’. ‘A Hindu’.


Section 4 – Indian Cinema (1912 – present)

‘The cinema is widely considered a microcosm of the social, political, economic, and cultural life of a nation. It is the contested site where meanings are negotiated, traditions made and remade, identities affirmed or rejected.’ (Chakravarty, 1993: p.19)

India has been making films since 1912 and in 1971 became the world’s largest film producer, in recent years producing over eight hundred titles annually. The sheer number of productions means that it would be erroneous to expect that one could build up a single, coherent statement of how Indian films define Indianness. There is also significant diversity within India’s film industry itself, with profound variances in the themes dealt with by commercial as compared to art cinema, as well as between the main regional producers of film, including Bombay, Madras and Tamil Nadu. Bearing these factors in mind, and aware of the limited space available, this section does not trace a chronological history of Indian film, but instead highlights some of the most dominant themes (particularly those which relate to previous sections) which have permeated mainstream commercial cinema, including the promotion of secularism; veneration of the Indian village; and the injustices of untouchability. Furthermore, comment is made on how cinema itself has not just portrayed but actively shaped Indian identity through its sharing of images.

Until the advent of ‘talkies’ (films with sound) in the 1930s, the majority of India’s cinema screens displayed foreign productions, primarily originating from Hollywood. But with sound and the consequent inclusion of language in film came an exponential rise in audience desire for specifically Indian films which portrayed their own culture, and which had dialogue in languages that they could understand. Yet even the earliest silent films produced by Indian filmmakers were centred on distinctly Indian values. Prasad comments on Dhundiraj Phalke (the maker of India’s first indigenously produced feature film, Raja Harishchandra) that he ‘conceived of film-making as a nationalist, specifically ‘swadeshi’ enterprise, and produced Indian images to occupy the screens’ (1998: p.2). Its very deliberate focus on Indian themes, values and iconography makes Indian film a rich source of information for the study of national identity.

Religious issues have received considerable attention by Indian filmmakers – the dominant message being one of support for secularism and communal harmony. Particularly prominent during the communal unrest of the 1940s and 50s, this theme is also found in earlier and more recent productions. The appeal for tolerance expressed in Pukar (1939), and Coolie (1983), which has a clear appeal for communal harmony underlying its tale about a Muslim orphan who is saved and brought up by Hindus, are fitting examples (Thoraval, 2000: p.127). It is Thoraval’s assessment that the bent of most directors and artists in the film industry (whatever their religion) has been to portray the ‘other’ religion in a fair and impartial way, often emphasising the good (2000: p.69). Chakravarty meanwhile notes that the promotion of secularism has often been disguised in the genre the mythological epic (1993: p.125). Humayun (1945), was of this ilk, using the historical reconstitution of the Mughal emperor Humayum’s reign as a means to communicate the message of Muslim-Hindu unity. In Thoraval’s words, such films were attempts at ‘affirmation, through the narration of a national glory, of a ‘pan-Indian’ or regional identity’, adding, ‘[a]fter… 1947, the need was to create a national awareness, and the emphasis shifted to periods and heroes perceived as great ‘federating’ forces’ (2000: p.89). In showing Muslims at their historical apogee, directors were able to display the indisputable Indianness of Muslims, so contrary to the views of Hindu nationalists. It is also telling that in the majority of films, audiences are not explicitly told of a character’s religion, thus emphasising its unimportance, suggesting links with a more Nehruvian than Gandhian style of secularism. The clear message from most films is that religious pursuasion does not matter for being Indian.

Another theme very much reflects a key component of Gandhian philosophy, namely veneration of the village, and hostility towards that which threatens it, namely: the city, industrial modernity, and unethical zamindars (landlords). Many productions can be found which expound the virtues of a poor and virtuous life, while rich city dwellers are depicted as Westernised ‘egoists and materialists’, often shown as villians, drinking and associating with prostitutes (Thoraval, 2000: p.50). In 1925, Savkari Pash was released, didactically condemning moneylenders who exploited poor villagers, as well as highligting the differences between virtuous villagers and hard-hearted city-dwellers (Thoraval, 2000, p.10). The 1953 film Do Bigha Zamin also typifies this genre, and illustrates not only the struggle of the peasant against the all-powerful zamindars, but also the destruction of the village by the ‘forces of modernisation allied to capital’ as the developers (from the city) show no respect for the ancient village, seeing it merely as a means to make money (Thoraval, 2000, p.82). Of the same film, Charakravarty comments: ‘The city… is [shown as] a ruthless jungle where it is easy to become dishonest and where the poor are trampled upon, women are molested, children are exploited’ (1993: p.96).

What has motivated the cinematic image of the simple villager as representing the true core of Indian identity? Chakravarty suggests that one needs to look at the historical context, saying of post-independence India: ‘the problem of holding onto established norms and value systems while the nation made the challenging… transition from feudalism to industrialism, from colonialism to democracy, from economic backwardness to material advancement’ was a significant source of tension affecting the social and national consciousness (1993: p.99). The city is thus seen as threatening traditional Indian identity by undermining those established social norms. Vasudevan connects this theme with Indian identity itself, saying, ‘[o]ften the street, the space of physical and social mobility, is also the space of the dissolution of social identity, or the marking out of an identity which is unstable’ (2000: p.110). Another factor has links with Gandhian philosophy, conceiving of poverty not as a negative condition, but rather as an integral step towards spiritual gain. The 1950s offered many films whose narrative concerned Indians trying to escape village poverty, attaining wealth in the city, and then returning back to – and actively embracing – the village. ‘A view of money as tainted and of poverty as sublime is… part of the Indian psyche’, argues Chakravarty, adding that ‘it is the act of becoming poor, not the state of being already poor, that attracts the Indian imagination’ (1993: p.101). Varma largely concurs with this view, emphasising that the celebration of a deliberate return to poverty is not so much reflective of how Indians view themselves, but rather is a virtually unreachable, admirable aspirational ideal they admire in others – part of the great aura surrounding Gandhi himself (2005: p.81). Connections with Hinduism should also be noted. According to Hindu orthodoxy, which postulates the idea of there being four distinct stages in life, in the last, moksha, one should give up worldly ties and thereby gain spiritual knowledge and liberation (Varma, 2005: p.60). The highest human achievement for Hinduism is thus the renunciation of the material world.

Associated with the idea of the village as being the natural foundation on which Indian values are built, is the mother figure. Of special interest is how there has been a trend for filmmakers to use the mother figure as a symbol of the motherland – in regional cinema to represent that particular area – but more broadly to represent India as a whole. Bankim Chatterjee (1838-1894), a key figure of Bengal’s literary renaissance, is thought to have introduced the idea of mother-as-India into Indian nationalism, and this symbology has been extensively adopted and developed by filmmakers. Nowhere is this better evidenced than in Mehboob Kha’s classic Mother India (1952), invariably held up as being one of India’s most defining films. On viewing this film, one cannot help absorbing its underlying allegorical theme of the mother representing the land itself. Not only is she the mother of her two sons, but also of the whole community. In this way the film, like many after it, parallels Indians’ relationship with their nation with the way children relate to their mother. The depiction of the mother endlessly sacrificing for her children, however much they differ or fight with each other, is another key component of this and other films. Within the metaphor of mother-as-India, this arguably symbolises wider communal tensions, representing the idea of Indian identity being defined in all-inclusive terms.

There is an interesting dialectic in Indian filmmakers’ treatment of the established social order. On the one hand, Indian cinema has been incredibly socially progressive, whilst on the other, the status quo has not been directly challenged. Nowhere is this more evident than in films concerning caste and untouchability, and Sujata (1959) provides a powerful casestudy. The film essentially is about a brahmin family who adopt Sujata, an untouchable child, after her natural parents perish in an epidemic. Sujata is shunned by her adoptive mother after Adhir, the suitor intended for the family’s biological daughter, falls in love with her instead. However, the mother has a serious accident and requires a transfusion of a blood-type which only Sujata can provide. The film thus didactically addresses the issue of untouchables’ ‘polluted’ blood, and, in its sympathetic treatment of Sujata, clearly shows this notion to be borne out of predudical superstition. Following the transfusion, Sujata’s place in the brahmin family is ensured. Yet despite her blood sacrifice, and the film’s clear message that untouchability is groundless, it does not go so far as to challenge the caste system itself: The brahmins in the film are shown in a very positive light, whereas the untouchables are depicited in unflattering terms; Sujata is ‘elevated’ to brahmincal status rather than the characters realising their inherent equality; and she is perpetually an untouchable to brahmins, and a brahmin to untouchables. The established social order is thus preserved (Charkarvarty, 1993: p.113). So whilst Indian film has promoted Gandhian messages of fundamental human equality, it has failed to make a clear appeal for social reform for its realisation.

Section 1 commented that Gandhi’s influence on conceptions of Indian identity should not just be analysised in terms of how he defined it, but also in how he impacted on it. In a similar way, Indian cinema itself has had a uniting effect on the Indian populous. As Gandhi concluded, the disparate languages of India were prohibitive to the formation of a pan-Indian consciousness, and it was a point of frustration to him that he failed to spread the use of Hindi as a truly national language. Sen points out that ‘cinema is less dependent on language, since people can be informed… by gestures and actions’ (2005: p.124), but additionally, Indian films have managed to address the problem of linguistic variance in two ways. On the one hand (mainly for commercial reasons) many Indian films are made in at least two languages, usually Hindi and another regional vernacular such as Bengali or Marathi (Chakravarty, 1993: p.91). This has widened films’ possible audience, facilitating the sharing of images, icons, and themes throughout India’s disparate linguistic communities. On the other hand, the fact that most Indian films are made in Hindi, combined with the rise in availability of cheap audio cassettes of Hindi films songs, has meant that Hindi is now heard, and its songs sung, far and wide, even by people who do not comprehend its meaning. Where Gandhi failed, Indian cinema is making headway in spreading Hindi as India’s national language.

Despite the diversity in Indian films, this section has observed that some major themes recur. The promotion of secularism has featured with great frequency, both explicitly by showing Muslims to be equally Indian as Hindus; and also implicitly by making characters’ religion entirely inconsequential to their lives. Gandhi’s veneration of the village as being at the very heart of Indian identity has been adopted in film, as well as his suspicion of industrial society, depicted by the moral instability of the city. Both Gandhi’s and Nehru’s inclusive definition of Indianness is reflected in the way the mother figure (representing India) embraces all her children, however they differ. Yet despite these appeals to equality, the message concerning the fundamental inequality of the caste system is at best mixed. Beyond its themes, its wide audience has allowed Indian cinema to impact on Indian identity itself, by surmounting linguistic barriers to represent common icons and images to Indians all over the subcontinent. Overall, this section has found that those icons and images have most closely mirrored Nehruvian and Gandhian, all-Indian conceptions of Indianness.



This article has attempted to evaluate critically some of the most influential competing conceptions of Indian national identity. Through examination of each of four interpretations, various commonalities and differences have emerged.

Chakravarty surmises well the predominant similarity between Gandhi’s and Nehru’s attitudes towards Indianness, saying the two men ‘attacked separatist identities and argued for what might be called a “boundaryless” conception of identity, a pan-Indian consciousness’ (1993: p.20). Both men also shared a passionate belief in the equality of all Indians, albeit for different reasons, yet had fundamentally different views concerning India’s and Indians’ position in relation to the West. Section 4 emphasised the inclination of Indian cinema to reflect these ideas, particularly supporting Nehruvian secularism and Gandhian themes of equality and veneration of the village.

Considerable contrasts clearly exist between the conceptions of identity held by Gandhi and Nehru, compared with Hindu nationalists. Nehru’s rejection of the role of religion (particularly the dominance of Hinduism) in politics, is antithetical to Hindu nationalists’ promotion of the Hindutva agenda. That said, there is a certain methodological similarity between Nehru and Hindu nationalists, as both interpreted history for their own ends, although respected scholars such as Amartya Sen note that the Hindu nationalist interpretation has a far looser basis in fact than Nehru’s (2005, Chapter 3). Sharma meanwhile comments on the essential difference between Gandhi and Savarkar, asserting that unlike the latter, for Gandhi ‘identity was not a rigid, ossified and regimented entity. Rather, it was a set of flowing currents, not a fixed place or a set of stable objects’ (Sharma 2003: p.12). Without doubt, the most profound difference evident from Sections 1-3 is the inclusive nature of Gandhian and Nehruvian conceptions of Indian identity compared with Hindu nationalists’ exclusivity. One also gets the impression that the Hindu nationalists started with their conclusion of how to define Indian identity (excluding all non-Hindus) and then worked backwards to try to justify it, leading to the definitional difficulties mentioned in Section 3. Contrastingly, the evidence in Sections 1 and 2 points to Gandhi and Nehru arriving at their conceptions of Indianness at the end of a chain of reasoning from their wider belief-set.

Overall, this article has found that Indian identity can be defined in myriad ways, arguably stemming from different reactions to India’s considerable diversity which the varying interpretations seem either to embrace or reject. Religion has been shown to be a key discriminator, either seen as an integral part of identity or as an irrelevance: Religion (with a small ‘r’) was a uniting force for Gandhi, whilst Hinduism was the main component for Hindu nationalist definitions of identity; Nehru had overwhelming practical motivations for rejecting the place of religion in conceptions of Indianness, whilst Indian cinema has promoted secularism by showing religious persuasion to be largely inconsequential. Fundamentally, in its critical evaluation of competing conceptions of Indian national identity, this article has shown that the question ‘Who is an Indian?’ has no straightforward answer, but is rather the starting point of a heavily contested and ongoing debate.


Sources directly quoted by this article:

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