It is widely agreed that the spectre of growing communalism is the most important issue facing India today. In the battle for the soul of Indian nationalism three positions have been staked out. Firstly, there are those who insist that Indian nationalism must rest on cultural and psychological foundations of an impeccably Hindu provenance, though the ecumenical character of Hinduism licenses pragmatic shifts in interpretation so as to deflect charges of communalism. Secondly, there are those who insist that Indian nationalism must derive from secular principles. Notwithstanding the enduring problems of precise definition, the term ‘secular’ does possess an agreed core meaning: state neutrality with regard to religion. In a multireligious society like that of India, this can mean either a fundamental separation of the state from religious activity and affiliation, or state impartiality on all issues relating to the religious interests of different communities. In practice, ‘Indian secularism’ has been a mixture of the two: an unsatisfactory attempt to reconcile what some consider to be essentially incompatible approaches.

The third position has, to date, had a narrower field of operation, confined for the most part to academic rather than activist or popular debate. Nevertheless, it has been claiming an increasing number of adherents. It holds that because secularism is in origin a profoundly Western, or at least unlndian, concept, it is intrinsically at odds with the reality of non-Western/non-Christian existence in general, and with Indian genius in particular. What is thus called for is not secularism, nor Hindu nationalism, but an anti-secularism which opposes factitious attempts at separating religion from politics and instead encourages the use of the ‘authentic’ resources of faith to create a sociopolitical culture with a more deep-rooted and genuine tolerance of diversity and pluralism than ‘Western secularism’ can ever generate. Religion itself is to be the key resource in the struggle against communalism. State-centred theories of how to engineer the social good (the modern secular state) are themselves the problem, the stimulus behind communalism; to these must be counterposed the resources of a religiously suffused and religiously plural civil society. Here Indian anti-secularism can to some extent join forces with post-modernist celebrations of difference, diversity and pluralism, likewise located in civil society and threatened by the technocratic state.

These competing claims provide the context for the following reflections on communalism and nationalism, and their putative common ground. In order to fight communalism we must be certain that we understand what it is and how it grows. To fight it in the name of a secular nationalism requires us to understand nationalism as well, to know exactly what it shares and does not share with communalism. Some attempts at definition are therefore clearly in order.

There is a consensus of opinion that nationalism is a modern phenomenon attendant upon the emergence of capitalism, though its longevity has undoubtedly surprised those who thought the globalizing tendencies of late capitalism would render nationalism increasingly anachronistic in the post-1945 period. But what are ‘nationalism’, ‘the nation’, ‘nationality’? Up to 1945, nation formation and the emergence of nation-states has mostly taken place in four kinds of ways. There was first what Benedict Anderson has called creole or settler nationalism of the New World, where language was not the differentia specifica of nationhood and nation-state formation.footnote1 Then came the linguistic-based territorial nationalisms of western and eastern Europe. In the case of the latter, national yearnings were intimately related to the dissolution of the Hapsburg, Ottoman and Tsarist multinational empires. Then came the tide of anti-colonial nationalisms of this century, whose boundaries of resistance coincided in almost all cases with the seemingly artificial border demarcations of colonial administrative convenience. In these ‘new’ nations, nationhood and nation-state formation were much more clearly connected to the existence of self-conscious national movements intent on expressing a distinct national culture and history which could not always, or even often, be congruent with the spread of some single indigenous language or ethnic group. In the postwar period, not only have we seen the resurgence of the supposedly resolved ‘older’ nationalisms and the prolongation of the phase of anti-colonial liberation struggles, but also the emergence of post-colonial nationalisms whose raisons d’être are new and distinct and cannot be simply ascribed to the distorting legacies of colonial rule. Such is particularly the case with South Asia—for example, Bangladesh, the national movements in Pakistan, Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka, and the secessionist struggles in India’s northeast, in Punjab and in Kashmir.

There is an important lesson here: there is no single feature or identifiable factor common to all nationalisms, to all nations, to all nation-state formations. Though many cultural characteristics occur in different nationalisms, they never combine in any fixed or immutable package of ‘national markers’. Furthermore, no single characteristic is ever indispensable. Nations (and nationalisms) are not intrinsically secular categories. For good or ill they can rest on exclusivist racial, tribal or religious claims. Indeed, in India religious groups have been among the strongest candidates for nationhood—as testified to by secessionist struggles in Kashmir and Punjab and in the fact of Partition itself.