Nationalism in Nirad C. Chaudhuri's "The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian"

Updated on December 2, 2017
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Nationalism: Contexts and Conditions

Nationalism, as a politico-literary term, is etymologically connected to the word “nation”, which the Oxford Literary Dictionary defines as a homogenous space, culture, or religion. However, in Nirad C. Chaudhuri, such a definition appears to be expanded, modified, and transformed into something entirely different. Nationalism, for him, becomes not a constraint to bind human impulses from interacting beyond regional, cultural, and political boundaries, but a confirmation of identity with respect to the “other”.

In “The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian”, Chaudhuri shows a gradual chronological development of his idea of nationalism. In the very first book, he gives an account of his roots and suburban origin and shows the process of acquiring a steady notion of nationalism.

Background and Progression

It is interesting to note that the socio-political background of emerging national consciousness had dual effects on Chaudhuri's adolescent mind. The reaction was not always that of acceptance but of interrogation and doubts.

However, it is in the chapter entitled “Torch Race of the Indian Renaissance” that there is a direct assertion of the author’s ideas:

All our ideas were the ideas propagated by the new cultural movement, mainly based on a formula of ‘synthesis’

He concludes the sentence by calling this the “Indian Renaissance”. Such a formula of “synthesis” is significant since it is the root premise from which he derives almost all of his religious and political notions. Evidently, it shapes his idea of nationalism as well.

As far as religion is concerned, the narrator and his family took the path of “Brahmoism” which was a cult of Hinduism heavily influenced by Christian monotheism. He saw a similar synthesis in case of Sikhism, which had clear Islamic influences on Hindu mainstream religion. In context of such rigorous upsurges, it is expected that the concept of nationalism underwent considerable modifications.

Nationalisms: Categories and Differences

This is seen best as a process of self-fashioning, resulting in the bicultural man with regard to morality and religion, love and relationships, family, appearance and finally, the concept of nationality and nationalism. N.C. Chaudhuri clearly explains the last factor under three distinct categories:

The older Hindu nationalism

The reformed nationalism

The Gandhian mode of Nationalism (founded on non-cooperation movement)

 Map of the British Indian Empire from Imperial Gazetteer of India
Map of the British Indian Empire from Imperial Gazetteer of India | Source

The Categories of Nationalism

In fact, neither of these different categories, as they were practised, was complete in itself. The xenophobic traits of the older Hindu Nationalism consciously rejected the principle of exchange. This was reflected in the rigid stratification of society according to “Varna”, showing the inherent fear of disintegration. Such an exclusivist notion, based on hatred, is obviously not approved by Chaudhuri, who himself grew up in a freer environment of cultural interactions.

The second category, the one of reformed nationalism is found to be a better alternative to the rigid Hindu nationalism. Such an idea focused on the “equality” and not supremacy of the English over the Indians. In being equals, the colonizers become not merely tyrannical conquerors but contributors as well. This corresponds directly to the idea of synthesis. However, at the same time, placed within the colonial framework, it was hard for even reformed nationalism to eradicate every trace of hatred and suspicion. Resultantly, the feeling of antagonism took shape of aggressive Hinduism, as seen in Bankimchandra. About Gandhian non-cooperation, as a category of nationalism, Chaudhuri openly declares his disapproval as it implied a complete denial of interaction and assimilation. He gives an interesting anecdote in Book III. On questioning his mother, whether the Indians could keep the freedom that they were striving to attain, his mother answered that once they were strong enough to win it, they can keep it. However, the irony he talks about is seen when, long before India could attain any level of perfection economically, they were freed which led to terrible economic disasters.

Gandhi's spinning wheel became a metaphor of self-reliance, rejecting foreign production, thereby establishing claim for independence. However, such exclusivist tendency had its natural loopholes.
Gandhi's spinning wheel became a metaphor of self-reliance, rejecting foreign production, thereby establishing claim for independence. However, such exclusivist tendency had its natural loopholes. | Source

Practical Implications of Nationalism

So far as the practical implementation of nationalism was concerned, the narrator openly admits his disgust for the chaotic aspects of the same. Evidently, it reminds one of N.C.Chaudhuri’s words in “Culture in a Vanity Bag”: “Long live the British rule, the British rule is long dead”. Indeed, nationalism which rejects continuous evolution is always chaotic in its aggressiveness. The narrator’s initial contempt for moderation undergoes metamorphosis as he notices the complete chaos of nationalist upsurges. Last lines of “The Problem of Political Action” goes like this:

“I have been compelled to look on spectacles of simian gesticulation and chatter by ragged and wild mobs and read or hear them glorified as rebellion or revolution. Even when my heart was wholly in the nationalist movement I could never endure that sight, nor tolerate that misrepresentation.”

Nirad C.Chaudhuri aptly points out in “Enter Nationalism” that “Nationalism cannot flourish in the abstract; Indian nationalism had to be correlated to the facts of the political history of India”. Creating such a correlation showed the failure of the concept as a guiding force in discipline and order. The adolescent craving for personal freedom, with its emphasis on haughty demonstrations was not enough to create a constructive and procreative force. The emotions he talks about is “an intense, almost religious hopefulness”. Yet it was not adequate as it did not imply perfection of order or discipline.

About Nirad C. Chaudhuri

Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri (1897 –1999) was an Indian English writer and man of letters.

Chaudhuri authored numerous works in English and Bengali, especially in the context of British colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Chaudhuri is best known for The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, published in 1951 The controversial dedication to the memory of the British Empire caused a furore at the time but the book is now considered a classic work of Indian literature.

Over the course of his literary career, he received numerous accolades for his writing. In 1966, The Continent of Circe was awarded the Duff Cooper Memorial Award, making Chaudhuri the first and only Indian to date to be given the prize. The “Sahitya Akademi”, India's national Academy of Letters, awarded Chaudhuri the Sahitya Akademi Award for his biography on Max Müller, “Scholar Extraordinary”

He was awarded the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize for The Continent of Circe (1965), and received the Hon.D.Litt from the University of Oxford; the University of Viswa Bharati also awarded him Deshikottama, its highest honorary degree.

In 1990, Oxford University awarded Chaudhuri, by then a long-time resident of the city of Oxford, an Honorary Degree in Letters. In 1992, he was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire .

Nirad C. Chaudhuri's interview aired on Doordarshan:

Do you consider nationalism a hindrance to progress?

See results

© 2017 Monami


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