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Practice Question:  Discuss the Social background of Indian Nationalism. (20 Marks) (UPSC 2014)

Approach: Introduction; Bring in discussion on social structures and ideologies during colonial period, List factors helped in emergence of nationalism in India, Quote dominant schools of thought on Indian Nationalism; Conclusion.



The concept of a nation was a 19th century phenomenon, which emerged in the West and later spread to other colonies of Europe i.e. Asia, Africa etc. A nation  can be defined as a group of people who share common territory, history, language, psychological make-up, etc. The most important elements of a nation is that it is always sovereign/ independent/ autonomous. The most accepted classical definition of nation was given by Stalin who defined nation as a “historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in community of culture”.

‘Modern idea of nationalism emerged from the early 19th century Western Europe out of a combination of three strands which composed it:
1) Enlightenment as a liberal conception of political self determination (Rousseau, JS Mills and others) 2) The French revolutionary idea of the community of equal citizens, and 3) The German conception of a people formed by history, tradition and culture. As a final process-product, nationalism was thus found tied to principles of freedom, equality and collective sharing of history and culture.’



1) The British brought those various segments under a singular administrative purview as well as introduced various modern institutions such as bureaucracy, western education, law, court, modes of communication, printing press etc. (Such establishments though brought changes to Indian society but conversely it helped the colonial power to exploit the Indian
people as well as other natural resources).
2) The rise of anti-colonial movement under the then leadership left no stone unturned to establish India as a nation. After the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, it accelerated the movement and mobilised people of various regions to bring unity.
3) They created some symbols to bind those diversities such as common language (Hindi), common flag, national song/anthem, etc. Thus despite the diversities a common sentiment was created among the diverse sections. These are widely known as unity in diversity. However, later different freedom fighters like Gandhi, Nehru and others added new narratives in nationalist movement of India such as non-violence, non-cooperation, civil disobedience movement etc. to accelerate the movement.
4) In the context of Indian nationalism as opposed to European model of nationalism, anti-colonial movement also played a big role. Many scholars argue that the freedom struggle of India was more anti-colonial than national. The struggle could bring all the sections of society on a single platform against the British.




The Cambridge School had its precursor in the writings of John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson who, in their various works such as ‘Imperialism of Free Trade’ (1953), Africa and the Victorians (1961) and ‘Non-European Foundations of European Imperialism’ (1972), argued that colonialism was the result of internal political weakness of the Asian and African regimes which then collaborated with the Europeans for setting up the colonial rules. They, thus, emphasized on the continuity from pre-colonial to colonial periods and stressed the collaborative role of the natives.

Gallagher’s student Anil Seal, in his early work on India titled The Emergence of Indian Nationalism (1968), argued that it was the English education which created a new middle class which clamoured for political representation. The British obliged them by offering posts in various institutions, such as universities, and seats in municipal councils and later in provincial assemblies. However, the claimants were many while the posts were few. This led to intense rivalry among the elite, particularly at regional levels because that is where the new avenues were open. Seal asserted that there was no conflict between the British and the Indians or between imperialist rule and the Indian people. Instead, the main contradiction was among the Indians, particularly among the educated elite, on the basis of caste, community and religion.


It was declared to be a radical departure in modern Indian historiography which claimed to dissociate from all earlier views on Indian national movement. In what can be called the manifesto of the project, Ranajit Guha, in the very first volume of the Subaltern Studies, declared that ‘The historiography of Indian nationalism has for a long time been dominated by elitism – colonialist elitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism.’ According to Guha, all types of elitist histories have one thing in common and that is the absence of the politics of the people from their accounts. He criticised the three main trends in Indian historiography – i) colonialist, which saw the colonial rule as the fulfillment of a mission to enlighten the ignorant people; ii) nationalist, which visualised all the protest activities as parts of the making of the nation-state; and iii) Marxist, which subsumed the people’s struggles under the progression towards revolution and a socialist state. According to him, there are no attempts in these works to understand and write about the way in which the subaltern groups view the world and practice their politics.

The Subaltern historians, disenchanted with the Congress nationalism and its embodiment in the Indian state, rejected the thesis that popular mobilisation was the result of either economic conditions or initiatives from the top. They claimed to have discovered a popular autonomous domain which was opposed to the elite domain of politics. This domain of the subaltern was defined by perpetual resistance and rebellion against the elite. The subaltern historians also attributed a general unity to this domain clubbing together a variety of heterogeneous groups such as tribes, peasantry, proletariat and, occasionally, the middle classes as well.


A. R Desai was one of the leading sociologists of India. He represents the Marxist school of thought in understanding Indian society and analysed the social background of Indian nationalism through analysing the material conditions. His book Social Background of Indian Nationalism (1946) was one of the pathbreaking works to understand social conditions of colonial India. Recent Trends in Indian Nationalism (1960) another important work of Desai. Desai in Social Background of Indian Nationalism Nationalist Discourse (1946) has analysed the comprehensive understanding of the structural transformations in Indian society during colonial period. He investigated into the production relations during feudalism, its transformations, and the rise of capitalist forces and finally how nationalism emerged in such social conditions.

Investigating into the history of Indian nationalism, Desai finds its root in colonialism. He holds that the actions and inter-actions of several subjective and objective factors and forces developed in Indian society, helped in formation of Indian nationalism. But, he argues that the process of development of Indian nationalism was too complex due to its economic as well as other factors. The social structure of Indian society was quite unique. Unlike the medieval European societies and countries the economic base of Indian society was different.
Moreover, the geographical, linguistics, cultural differences make the region unique and complex. But British rule in India despite such differences provided the space for rise and development of Indian nationalism.



 Nationalism is a process a product of historical conjuncture of social forces through which the linkages are not only established or expanded but also qualitatively strengthened. Nationalism is therefore not a finished product nor a formal structure or normative model but an organic historical process through which civilized societies strengthen themselves by qualitative differentiation from within and their superior integration organically within a territorial boundary. According to Louis Dumont nationalism refers to the nation as a tendency inspired by its existence or as the aspiration to build up a nation.