The first Ava Maiti Memorial Lecture delivered at the Asiatic Society by Professor Amartya Sen on 20 March, 1995 was so rich and penetrating a text that it
immediately aroused considerable intellectual interest, and the Society felt that it should be published as an independent title at the earliest opportunity. Professor
Sen liked the idea, and sent us a revised version of the paper which now appears as an Asiatic Society publication. Professor Sen however is still afraid that it may
appear to be 'slight' to some readers at least as an independent volume, and proposes to contribute it to a collection of relevant papers. But we at the Society are
convinced that it will make a significant contribution to the ongoing lively debate 'on interpreting India's past'.
Professor Sen handed the revised typescript over to us on 28 December, 1995 when he received the Indira Gandhi Memorial Plaque awarded by the Society. Our
production team produced a print-out in record time, and Professor Sen took time off from his busy schedule to correct the proofs in Boston, and sent them back
to us, enabling us to keep to the schedule of releasing the book at the Calcutta Book Fair, 1996.
Ms Ava Maiti (1923-94) was an important activist in the country's struggle for independence, and a leading Parliamentarian in independent India, serving as a
Cabinet Minister at the Centre for a spell. The Endowment provided by the Bharat Margarine Company Limited in her memory will support a series of annual
lectures to be delivered by outstanding academics. The Society is proud to have had Professor Sen as the first speaker in the series.
We live in the present, but that is a tiny bit of time - it passes as we talk. The current moment, vivid as it is, does not tell us much about who we are, how we can
reasonably see ourselves, and where we would place our loyalties if and when we face divisions. Our identities are strongly influenced by the past. The self-
perceptions that characterize a group are associated with, and to a great extent defined by, the shared memories and recollections of the past, and by the agreed
priorities and implicit allegiances that draw on those evocations.
While this applies generally to all societies, the past becomes a particularly sharp battleground when contemporary debates invoke the past to redefine a
collectivity and to allege the centrality of some particular features and the unimportance of others. This is very much the situation in India today. The tentative
understandings that had become intellectually dominant during the national movement (and which had provided what was claimed to be a workable basis for the
polity of the newly independent and freshly separated India) are now being subjected to severe questioning. The nationalist interpretations of 'Indianness', perhaps
the most influential version of which is reflected in Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India, have been bruised fairly extensively by a variety of challenges.
To dismiss these challenges as arising out of political motivations and contingencies (such as the priorities of the newly empowered Hindu politics, or the
demands of communitarian confrontation) is to minimize the force, of the intellectual questioning involved in these confrontations, and to overlook the political
motivation that underlies also the classical nationalist interpretation itself. In so far as some of the redefinitions that are being advanced are arbitrary and ad hoc
(and governed by the immediacy of the political agenda of particular movements), these proposals might well be seen as foundationally weak. But even when this
is the case, this fact would not, by itself, re-establish the intellectual standing of the classical nationalist interpretation. There is no escape from reexamining the
theoretical underpinning and the cogency of the nationalist approaches, along with investigating their practical relevance and import.
The substantive purpose of this essay is to examine the nationalist interpretation of India's past and some of the challenges that have been presented to it, and to
relate them to the contemporary preoccupations that are active today. I shall argue that some parts of the established nationalist conceptions survive better than
others, and the vulnerabilities are not quite the ones that seem to receive the most attention. It is important to distinguish between the different aspects of the
classical nationalist interpretation and to see their respective roles and congruity.
As a background to this substantive exercise, it is necessary to sort out some methodological issues involved in these interpretative programmes, and this too I
shall have to attempt. The methodological issues are taken up in the next section. But before that I should make a clarificatory remark.
The limits of national identity can be compared with the identities associated respectively with (1) the more restricted boundaries of communities and groups
within a nation, and (2) the more inclusive coverage of broader categories, such as the identity of being an 'Asian,' or even that of belonging to the human race.
Critiques of 'nationalism' from the former - more restricted -perspective would tend to take quite different lines from those presented in the latter- more
inclusive - contexts. Recent demands for reexamination of the classical conceptions of Indian national identity have mostly come from the former viewpoints
(for example, emphasizing the 'fragments,' as they are sometimes called, over the 'nation'). This essay is concerned entirely with those lines of critique, and does
not consider the important challenges to nationalism coming from broader identities. It is, however, worth noting that classical Indian formulations of
nationalism often did emphasize the importance of broader concerns that go beyond national limits. In one form or another, references to such constraints can be
very clearly seen in the writings of Gandhi, Tagore, Nehru and others. The anticolonial nationalists often had strong global commitments, while invoking the
unity of the nation in pursuit of demands for 'self-determination.'
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