The Sense of Collective Belonging: Nationalism In India

Nationalism spreads when people begin to believe that they are all part of the same nation when they discover some unity that binds them together. But how did the nation become a reality in the minds of people? History and fiction, folklore and songs, popular prints and symbols, all played a part in the making of nationalism.

The identity of the nation, as you know most often symbolized in a figure or image. This helps create an image with which people can identify the nation. It was in the twentieth century, with the growth of nationalism, that the identity of India came to be visually associated with the image of Bharat Mata.

The image was first created by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. In the 1870s he wrote ‘Vande Mataram’ as a hymn to the motherland. Later it was included in his novel Anandamath and widely sung during the Swadeshi movement in Bengal. Moved by the Swadeshi movement, Abanindranath Tagore painted his famous image of Bharat Mata. In this painting Bharat Mata is portrayed as an ascetic figure; she is calm, composed, divine, and spiritual.

In subsequent years, the image of Bharat Mata acquired many different forms, as it circulated in popular prints, and was painted by different artists. Devotion to this mother figure came to be seen as evidence of one’s nationalism.

Ideas of nationalism also developed through a movement to revive Indian folklore. In late-nineteenth-century India, nationalists began recording folk tales sung by bards and they toured villages to gather folk songs and legends. These tales, they believed, gave a true picture of traditional culture that had been corrupted and damaged by outside forces.

It was essential to preserve this folk tradition in order to discover one’s national identity and restore a sense of pride in one’s past. In Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore himself began collecting ballads, nursery rhymes, and myths and led the movement for folk revival. In Madras, Natesa Sastri published a massive four-volume collection of Tamil folk tales, The Folklore of Southern India.

He believed that folklore was national literature; it was ‘the most trustworthy manifestation of people’s real thoughts and characteristics’. As the national movement developed, nationalist leaders became more and more aware of such icons and symbols in unifying people and inspiring in them a feeling of nationalism.

During the Swadeshi movement in Bengal, a tricolor flag (red, green, and yellow) was designed. It had eight lotuses representing eight provinces of British India, and a crescent moon, representing Hindus and Muslims. By 1921, Gandhiji had designed the Swaraj flag. It was again a tricolor (red, green, and white) and had a spinning wheel in the center, representing the Gandhian ideal of self-help. Carrying the flag, holding it aloft, during marches became a symbol of defiance.

Another means of creating a feeling of nationalism was through a reinterpretation of history. By the end of the nineteenth century many Indians began feeling that to instill a sense of pride in the nation, Indian history had to be thought about differently. Indians began looking into the past to discover India’s great achievements. They wrote about the glorious developments in ancient times when art and architecture, science and mathematics, religion and culture, law and philosophy, crafts and trade had flourished.

This glorious time, in their view, was followed by a history of decline, when India was colonized. These nationalist histories urged the readers to take pride in India’s great achievements in the past and struggle to change the miserable conditions of life under British rule.

Read More: The Dilemma of Colonial Education: History – Chapter 10

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