Nationalism, Intellectualism, and Us – Makarand Paranjape with Bookstalkist

Makarand R. Paranjape, Professor of English at JNU, New Delhi, is a scholar, critic, poet, novelist, and columnist. He read English at St. Stephen’s College before getting an MA & PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (USA). He has published over 45 books, 170 academic papers, and 500 newspaper/periodical articles. His recent books include Cultural Politics in Modern India (Routledge, 2016), The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi (Penguin Random House, 2015), and Transit Passenger/Passageiro em Transito (University of Sao Paolo, 2016), an Indo-Brazilian book of poems. Makarand is currently a columnist for Swarajya, DNA, and Mail Today. Bookstalkist spoke with him on sidelines of the Bangalore Literature Festival, 2017. 

Tagore’s essays on nationalism are really about the dangers of ideologies and the people who get blinded and brainwashed.



Going through the works of Swami Vivekananda and then the literature of Tagore, do you think there is a conflict between them when it comes to the idea of nationalism?


There is no conflict and that is because Swami Vivekananda did not write about nationalism. People aren’t aware of this but he hardly said anything directly on nationalism. He passed away in 1902 and by that time, the national movement had not yet really arrived at a tipping point. Bengal partition took place in 1905 and he passed away before that. He did see himself as a great awakener of the Indian conscience as well as the dormant force of the nation but he never made a lot of remarks about nationalism whereas Tagore really engaged with nationalism. However, even Tagore had a context, the context was the first world war. What people often do not understand is that Tagore’s comments on nationalism were actually a critique of imperialism and he had a different idea of Indian nationalism which he set forth in Swadeshi Samaj, an essay he wrote long before. There, he talks about, like Gandhi did a bit, about self sustaining communities which are able to look after their own needs  without the intervention of the state. One reason that he became a bit cautious about this ideology of nationalism is that during the Swadeshi Movement when Bengal was partitioned, some people think that it was the source of partition of India and that’s where the idea has come from. British wanted to partition India and Bengal was the first experiment. This experiment was done in Bengal and luckily it was also undone because there was a huge uprising  in Bengal. However, during that time, Tagore was disillusioned with the kind of nationalist ideologues or leaders he saw. He found that they were dividing the community’s unity and causing a lot of havoc. He wrote about this in a book called ‘Ghare Baire’  where the whole family gets destroyed because of the intervention of a demagogue. Tagore’s essays on nationalism are really about the dangers of ideologies and the people who get blinded and brainwashed. Then, they lose their humanity, they lose their sensitivity, and they lose their capacity to be human. For Tagore, as a poet, that was a disaster.


In his lecture on nationalism, Tagore mentions the conflict of nations. There is a reckless competition between nations for making profits and it works like a machine and has been successful in robbing humanity from people. So, when it comes to the subject of this whole capitalist idea of making profits for countries and organisations, is he on the same page or closer to Marxism?

I don’t think that he had anything to do with Marxism. Marxism is about collective ownership of land, goods, and of means of production.  It’s against individually owned property. It’s about the proletariat owning all the resources. So, I think it’s an entirely different ideology. If you want to create some kind of connection, you will have to say that in Tagore, we find some sympathy for the poor, for the underdogs, or for the oppressed. But again our Bengali friends don’t like it but Tagore is a very bourgeois writer and this is what exactly a leading Marxist critic whose name is György Lukács who was a Hungarian and at his time, the leading Marxist literary critic, denounced Tagore as being a charlatan, a minor and a sentimental writer. This is because in Tagore’s writing, the revolutionary impulse is viewed with great suspicion. Tagore was quite obedient to authority. Though he was critical of authority, he was not a revolutionary, he was not a Rebel. He didn’t have rebel characters in his novels in good light. They always came out looking really bad and Lukacs catches this. He says, “you know this Tagore, he is a petty bourgeois. He is not at all a progressive writer.” Our Bengali friends often don’t like this because they have deified Tagore. But there’s one thing, speaking about Bengal, Bengalis, and Bengal Renaissance, there is a major difference between the trajectory of Tagore on one hand and that of Vivekananda on the other. That distinction is clear and the reason for that is that while Vivekananda was definitely for pluralism and respecting diversity, he also wanted to make India strong and his idea of virtue was that ‘weakness is sin and strength is life’. So, this emphasis on  empowerment in Vivekananda’s literature is then picked up by people who are also looking for role models for a more muscular nationalism whereas Tagore is meeker and accommodative. The way that Vivekananda then gets picked up by different factions is essentially in the service of this sort of more militant Hindu self-assertion of identity. But what is interesting about Vivekananda is that love him or hate him, as it were, everybody wants to appropriate Vivekananda. Whichever political ideology you represent they all say that we considered Swami Vivekananda a Hero. So, there is something universally acceptable about him which is not true even of Gandhi because a lot of people don’t like Gandhi But go around asking who doesn’t like Vivekananda, you will find hardly anybody, even the Marxist and the communist have tried to appropriate him.

I would like to go to fundamentals here.  We see that currently most of the writers that we read on social media or otherwise, have boxed themselves inside the Right or the Left.  So, according to you, what is Left and what is the Right?

These are misnomers, specially in the Indian context because according to the more classical definition, if you look at the European context, the right authoritarians were the fascists and the left totalitarians were communists and in a way, both are highly avoidable. The experience of Europe has shown us that. So, you have Stalinist totalitarian regime.  In the east, you have Maoist and North Korea and other varieties of these. These  regimes don’t respect freedom, individual rights, liberties, and due process. Freedom is not very important for them. That is one extreme. In the other extreme are so called fascists, the Mussolinis and others who enjoyed power for sometime. Then, Nazis  were actually  nationalist socialists, that’s what the Nazi party called itself.  So, these are varieties of, you might say, the bad guys but after that the rest of the spectrum is broadly democratic in at least western democracies. In the Soviet sphere of influence again, individual rights and liberties were curtailed, there was no economic freedom or competition. That was the left. The right was capitalist. Now, most of the greater Indian intellectuals or thinkers have been telling us that none of this is suitable for us. They are saying that we should find another path and hence, for some time we tried a mixed economy model, then we tried for sometime other more dharmic economic model which may be they are still trying.  Long and short of this is the same thing –  we can’t be out and out capitalists, when making money becomes be all and end all. Capitalism without humanity or on the other hand, command and control of economy completely under the state can’t be our way. That’s why I am saying left and right in that sense have hardly any meaning. But the political configuration has become this – you are  pro current ruling regime or you are not, that is a very big divide. I think, not just social media but India I feel and I would say Hindu society is going through a huge civil war and some of the other communities are watering from the sidelines but they’re going through their own civil war and so the problem in India is not left and right at all. The problem is something different. It’s about two competing narratives. Which one is to capture the national imagination and through that capture and enjoy power, enjoy dominance, enjoy economic benefits is the question today. And that is why the battle is so vicious because so much is at stake and a particular elite which enjoyed  earned and as well as unearned privileges and benefits is now being pushed aside and when you get pushed aside you will fight, you will fight for your turf.

…I were a Muslim, would be a completely idiotic appeal. I would look what are you doing for education.



In your poem, Tipu’s Fall, have you referred to Tipu Sultan as the first Indian nationalist?


I didn’t say that. That’s not actually what I have said. Tipu Sultan has a divided legacy and his own historical record is deeply divided. He fought against the British and that makes him from a modern standpoint,  anti imperialism but he did not see himself necessarily as an anti imperialism person. He wanted to protect his kingdom, a kingdom which his father had  usurped. So, the thing that we don’t want to understand about Islamic conquerors is that they are basically people who go and invade  areas and through the power, through the weapons, and the armies, they control and then  they rule. Then, they also use Islam as a  legitimating device. They present an ideological justification and the ulema is harnessed to  support them. This is the template and this is followed, we are talking 1790s and this is still followed, look at Bhopal, look at some of the recent examples, a few hundred thousand horsemen come in and invade and then they establish the Darul Islam, whether the population is 100 percent Hindu or 80 percent Hindu or 70 percent Hindu. And certain things are followed. Certain temples will be taken over, Khutpa will be read from there and all such things happen. So, this has happened for hundred times and hence, you can’t deny this either.  So, when the Indian nationalists were looking for some role models against the British, they went back to 1857. It was Savarkar whom the leftists don’t like who called it the first war of Indian independence. It was called the sepoy mutiny otherwise. He said that the British were the enemy, let’s make a common cause against them. This is something very interesting that we don’t know about Savarkar which is that he did not start off as an advocate of Hindutva. His book on 1857 was published in the same year as Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj in 1909. Hindutva comes much later  in the twenties because his thinking had changed and he found that the composite nationalism was not going to work.Finally Gandhi realized this same thing in 1947.  He is conceding that we tried and tried and tried.  So, what I wanted to say is that certain narratives were created to make a common cause against the British and in that process Tipu becomes an anti-imperialist force, that’s how he is taught  in history and elsewhere. The Sword of Tipu came, all this is done because of the state sponsored media. They are funded by the state and they don’t tell you that how many  people were converted, how many temples did he destroy, or what his policies were. Also, like all rulers, he also had to make compromises. He had to make a compromise with the Sringeri Mutt. That is also a fact.  So, there was some arrangements there but at the same time, little south of Sringeri in the Malabar, north of Kerala,  he was  totally vicious because those people went against him. In other words, we have to see these figures in the context of their own times and their own compulsions. We can’t superimpose upon them or project upon them or own problems. Right here in Karnataka, the problem is partly because they want to use Tipu to get the minority votes. So, every year they want to celebrate some Tipu Jayanti which is actually a way of dividing  the  voters into vote banks,  saying look we are doing Tipu Jayanti so the muslims who are at 10% , 12%, or 20% of the constituency, they should vote for us. Why? Because we will do a Tipu Jayanti which to me if I were a muslim, would be a completely idiotic appeal. I would look what are you doing for education. There’s no Muslim  road and Hindu road, no Hindu electricity and Muslim electricity, but yes they will say Hindu schools and Muslim schools. What I am trying to say is that to divert  from the real issues they do this.  So, the moment you have a celebration, the other guys will say but he was a tyrant, he was a murderer, they are also using the same figure divide and not just divide but to appeal to another bunch of people. This is what’s going on.

Should there be no resistance?

My point is these fights are not at all about Tipu. Similarly, left and right is not at all about left and right. These are power struggles between competing claimants to both national and regional power. So, when we think it’s about Tipu we are so misled. And I think this is true of much of the debate that is happening in India today because we are not able to read them symptomatically. They are symptoms of something else. But we get fixated on these issues and then we started debating them.

If I  add to the same vein, a major portion of the history that is probably inconvenient to some people, has not been taught to students or scholars. What I see is that the entire Mughal tyranny has been whitewashed.  I also see that the partition pain has been whitewashed. It’s not there in history textbooks. All they mention is that India and Pakistan were divided in 1947. Do you think such sections of history should make an entry into the text?

Absolutely. We should have many many histories but I’ll tell you what I worry about and why this is again a problem which we don’t properly understand. The debate is not just over with what happened. I wish it was. The debate is what is the official history to be taught. So, again, it’s about mind control. They want to substitute one narrative by another but I am interested in finding the truth. Now why are they doing it once again? Seeing the potential to indoctrinate young people, from school you will be raised on a particular ideology, like they have already done in Pakistan, or like they did in India, everyone was raised on some kind of secular diet. Though I am in favour of corrective history, I am more interested in seeing that the power of indoctrination in schools and colleges is reduced through the plurality of sources. This requires deep thought which is that there are no simple truths in such subjects. However, these subjects are being taught in such a way that only one answer can be right. Because of this, you are going to force people. In other words,  what I am really so concerned about is the attempt by our political establishment to use the coercive powers of the state to influence our populace. Here, they are doing it now by making Kannada compulsory. I don’t think states should make things compulsory or not compulsory, it’s not their business.  And it has become their business because they are taking your money and my money, and deciding how to spend it. And because they are controlling the budgets, they are enforcing their own political ideology on the passive populace.

Imagine what would happen if governments let people decide, let communities decide, and this again this whole issue of one certification, SSLC,  so you’re controlling thousands of people. Why do we do this? Everyone knows this that SSLC doesn’t work, everyone knows this, but well CBSE is marginally better, but if you work for Infosys they will train you because they don’t trust your degree. So, the kind of reform that we need in India and the kind of transformation I am interested in Abhishek is not at this level, at the superficial level at which many of our debates are conducted. I am interested in deep change and for that you need a lot of smart people who really want to go into this and examine. You see the US, there is no central board of certification. Every High School gives its own high school leaving certificate and its own grades, there’s no one centralised system but people figure it out eventually, centralization comes during SAT,  that means if you score, that’s it. So, we should do that and forget these boards what are these boards anyway? That’s one way but they have at least got out of forcing everybody across US to study one textbook. Why not let every school decide?  So, I am all for decentralisation. You can’t  indoctrinate, but here both sides again, both sides want to use the power of state to control others. So, for us, unfortunately power is seen in how you can inconvenience somebody, how you can force your will on someone, not on how you can enable things. Even though so called assertion of the Hindu Right is often seen in terms of bullying or enforcing some notion of theirs on others, in not making many different narratives possible, I don’t blame them entirely  because because they have also been forced into this binary and I think it’s the purpose of intellectuals to  not succumb. I always tell people to resist, you may be drawn into either camp, it’s so much easier to be a camp follower  but at least intellectual shouldn’t function like that. We are not the sheep. I don’t know about the Dharma of the troll because I am not a troll or dharma of a party worker because I am not a party worker but I know a little bit about the dharma  of an intellectual, of an academic, of a writer, and of a citizen. All these dharmas require you to be critically aware, be well informed, be responsible, and to make decisions based on good evidence and not just on the basis of either populist measures or misinformation. Speaking of populism, it’s completely wrong to think that only one side is populist. All sides  are populists. Whenever you appeal to the sentiments of the people, often making them do things that are not there in their self interest including possibly Brexit, that is populism. So, how can you say only right is populist?  No, left is totally populist. Quotas, sops for women, all that is populism. It’s a way to hand out favours from the state. What I have been saying to people is , let’s create a system where you don’t need a quota because there are so many opportunities, hundreds of colleges; anybody can be a doctor. That is something the polity doesn’t want. They want to have a small set of goodies which they will control. You take 5, you take 3, I will take 10. Then, they distribute it. So, they just want to hoard and control the resources. But if you really want to see the potential of a country, let every society decide they need so many doctors and that’s the number they will support and the rest will fall by the wayside. Right now, it is the opposite and in the places you need doctors, you won’t find them. Where are the barefoot doctors? They are all in Bengaluru. Why? Because you make money here.  We have created the worst kind of combination of feudalism and heartless ultra capitalism. No person can get good medical treatment, no poor person can get their rights  and here we are, always speaking in the name of the poor. ‘Oh you are deprived, we are going to give you this!  O you’re underprivileged, take this!’  This is hogwash. So, what I am trying to say is for India to be, forget about India being a great country, I hope we are and we will be, but even to just live up to our potential, there is so much that needs to be done. One of the major changes needed is to get governments to stop interfering in all kinds of stuff.  You look after law and order. You are not here to tell people what to wear, what to eat, how to live their lives, or how to worship! That’s not your business. Your business is to make systems work,  maintain law and order, and develop infrastructure. You and I can’t build roads because they are big projects, but even that we should be able to build. In an ideal society, suppose we are a neighborhood, 20 neighborhoods can come together and make a road going through them. You don’t need some agency. These are deep changes and they can’t be sorted out immediately but here I think, the good news is we are in the process of a  huge churn and in this  churn, the creative energies of our people will be unleashed.

Coming to the question of intellectuals taking sides, intellectual’s being on the payroll of the king, it is a system that was there even in ancient periods of our country but I’ve also heard about examples where such advisors guided kings in the right direction in spite of the the payroll factor. Coming to later years during emergency, Advani made a statement, “..when the journalists were told to bend, they crawled”.  do you think anything has changed in the last few decades?

Things have changed in last 1000 years. You see, these things that we talk about belong to another era. Many of them are only in story books, legends and myths.  We don’t have very good historical records but yes, even if you in more contemporary times, we have seen the role advisor (Madhava Rao) to Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad played. Even in those times, there were a benign set of advisors who were very competent. Sir Visvesvaraya is an example from Karnataka. Sir Mirza Ismail is another example. So, the point is that obviously throughout the ages, the priests and the Kings were always the collaborators. That’s how power was maintained but the domains were well demarcated. However, that should not really worry us. The real point is this – every person needs to understand what their job is,  like today, we had a lovely session here on the Governor of The Reserve Bank. It’s an office which is obviously subordinate to the finance ministry. It’s a government office but it has its dignity. That is the point. How is democracy destroyed? It is destroyed when all these institutions are destroyed and that’s exactly what has happened in the last 60 years. Emergency is the classic case, but the gradual erosion of these institutions was already in place. Now when we come to the intellectuals, intellectuals traditionally and even today in the western world, they are not statists, they should not be statists. They should be independent. Statist intellectuals should be directly hired by the state and they should work on Niti Ayog or other government think-tanks but otherwise, intellectual should be independent. Sad thing is, in post-independence India, intellectual as a class was so degraded that they became either aligned to some foreign mission or foreign network of patronage or they got aligned to the state. They were patronized by the ruling party and very seldom were truly independent. That is true for regional ones as well.

Now, we have to recreate an ecosystem where intellectual competence is recognised, is rewarded, and independence of intellectuals, writers, journalists, thinkers is safeguarded and encouraged. We don’t want an ecosystem where everything is politicised and everybody has to fall in some political camp or the other. This is what happened even in Bangalore Literature Festival. It went through a huge churn because people said it was hijacked and used as a forum for Award Wapasi. So, what I’m trying to say there should be space for not just debate but to some extent dissent and the plurality of views that is supposed to emerge from these spaces.  We have seen that there is a systematic attempt to capture, control, and  infiltrate these spaces through well networked ideologically committed groups. And they work together because in solidarity there is strength. Everything is like match fixing,  everything is like an echo chamber and this we have to change and that is why we are coming back to to the Civil War. It’s very important to participate in this ‘uncivil’ war in a very civil way and take issue based positions and instead of blanket positions. This is for good intellectuals, there will be party intellectuals also, it’s important to maintain that autonomy because it is the autonomy of certain group of people who are sincere that is really Satyagraha. Satyagraha is the insistence on truth. It is not the ‘belonging to a particular political ideology’ at all.

You spoke about the Civil War in the Hindu community itself.

Just to clarify, it’s an uncivil war. In a civil war, people kill each other, so I’m just playing on the word here.


hindu-2628776_1920I see three kinds of Hindus right now. One is all for the strengthening and flaunting of muscles, there is another set which says no this is not my Hinduism, my Hinduism is more spiritual,  it is about my soul and introspection,  reflecting and knowing myself,  and then there is one more which is unaffected by this entire debate, they are immersed in their own lives carrying on their daily worship and rituals. Where do you see harmony between these?

This is very interesting. There have been different ways to try and define this. Some people say that there are secret Hindus, for them Hinduism is a private affair. In public sphere, they may be completely secular or non religious but they may also be marxists or scientists, nothing to do with their faith, that’s living like schizophrenics. You live in two worlds. That’s one Hindu. There is another kind of Hindu which is Hindu inside but is afraid to be Hindu outside. They say, ‘No, I am not a Hindu. I am secular’ or ‘I am just spiritual but not Hindu’. Then, there is a third kind of Hindu that says I am Hindu inside and from outside too, I want to be recognised as a Hindu. The third kind of Hindu has become a huge threat to certain other kinds of Hindus. Why? Because this third kind of Hindu, by flagging his identity in the public sphere, has also created the possibility of capture of power which is very threatening. So, this political Hindu is the biggest threat. All the other kinds of Hindus are not an issue. It’s only the political Hindu which everybody is criticising from left, right, and centre for the fear that this this political Hinduism will capture power, will displace all other people. That fear is expressed in the terms of fear of one religion, one language, one god, or one deity. This is what I would call a ‘spoiler’s mentality’. It’s not like look we ruled, let’s give them a chance, they have won. It’s like this, these are different from us. These are like the Nazis, once they takeover, that’s the end of democracy.  This is the kind of argument that was made even for Trump. The losing side never accepted him as the President. Here it’s not as bad. In a sense, Narendra Modi enjoys a widespread support . It’s only the intellectuals who don’t like him. That is partly because nobody cares for them anymore. So, it’s much more complicated than it seems and you’re right, I don’t know how this civil war will be sorted out but I suspect that it may be sorted out if this political party can continue to rule for a certain number of years. Then they are going to, I would like to think, bring in some lasting changes. But it will not end the basic issues which are endemic to Indian democracy – issues of pluralism and  freedom. I think they will just find out another way of saying yes we accept your views but don’t denigrate Hindus or we accept everything but Hindus will be a little bit superior because we are the majority.  So, they will come up with some kind of package which some people may not like. You ask many muslims, under the Congress as well, they did already feel as if they were second class citizens. To be the first class citizens, you had to be secular or you had to go to right colleges, speak good English but then they say they are not muslims at all. So, the problem that we’re going to face is definitely the dominance of certain classes or communities over others. In other words, if you consider a state to be something you want to enjoy, then certain sections seem to have a prior claim on the state and the other communities are already marginalised, and they are used only as vote banks. So, now you’re going to say well there is huge difference between official marginalisation and not so official marginalization, then you can make those arguments, if you like. But you know in any democracy the Demos which means the mob or the numbers will matter. How can you just evaporate the numbers? You evaporate them by saying no no, they are hindus only in name, but they are Lingayats, they are somebody else. That worked for a while, okay, but after a while for the sake of voting they will also come together. Now, they are caught with the same twist that they were trying to catch the other guys with. You create a Sikh vote bank, you create a Dalit vote bank, now, by the same logic, you have got a Hindu vote bank which is majoritarian and if you don’t like it, too bad for you. You’ve got to suffer the consequences, because it’s a logical corollary of exactly what you did for so long.




After the Kanhaiya Kumar episode, and even before that, people have a certain kind of perception of JNU. Are you a minority at JNU?

Yes, of course I am a minority at JNU.

The book that came out from the JNU, ‘What the nation needs to know’, you look at all the talks there. You will see that I am certainly an exception. There may be two or three talks that are saying slightly different things but mine is in a way most different. So, definitely in that sense, I am in minority there. But JNU is also changing. The administration is now more aligned to the present government and the student unions, of course the left unions have won, but the right students are gradually gaining and who knows, things at JNU may change drastically, and then, the narrative that’s going around about JNU might also change once that conversion takes place. But I think the demonisation is also a little excessive because it’s based on a misrepresentation. Only those things are highlighted which are bad. The good is not highlighted and when the change happens, I do hope that all the good things are not lost.