Nehru and Gandhi.
Nehru and Gandhi.

No saints or miracles

Perry Anderson’s ‘The Indian Ideology’ bores through the orthodoxies of Indian nationalist history.

(This article was first published in our quarterly issue Are We Sure About India? (Vol 26 No 1), January 2013.)

"Nations without a past are contradictions in terms," wrote Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. Precursors to every modern nation are stories about its past and the present – stories full of invention, exclusion and exaggeration – which help forge a 'national consciousness'. Historians, wrote Hobsbawm, have "always been mixed up in politics" and are "an essential component of nationalism"; they participate in shaping a nation's mythos and self-perception. In his vivid analogy, "Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market." The more nationalist a historian, Hobsbawm held, the weaker his bid to be taken seriously as a historian.

But not all historians are equally complicit. Some are deeply sceptical of dominant national histories and claims of nationhood. "Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation," wrote the scholar Ernst Renan. The sceptical historian may see value in nationalism, but he always sees a pressing need to inspect and critique its claims, assumptions, omissions, myths and heroes. Scrutiny may reveal that a 'cherished tradition' is neither cherished, nor a tradition; likewise supposedly ancient origins and customs, traits and virtues, arts and culture, and other qualities of life and mind said to define the essence of a nation and its people. This approach is especially common among Marxist historians (their analytical orientation defines the genre, not their views on communism). The best of them know that there is no ultimately objective history, but yet seek to write history from below and attempt to expose the actual conditions of social life, including the divisions, conflicts and oppressions that plague any nation.

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