ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Nehru and the Question of National Identity

Nehru makes a conscious effort to fuse India's cultural past and modern democracy. The loosely imagined idea of India's heterogeneous past is also the basis of Nehru's idea of a national identity. Nehru's self-representation as part outsider and part insider makes him the other within Indian society. Also, crucially for Nehru, historical experiences form the only ground through which a national identity can be understood and defi ned.

The Mexican poet–critic Octavio Paz described Nehru as one who “belonged to a double anti-tradition” (Paz 1967: 15–16). Educated at Harrow and Cambridge, Nehru developed close links with European culture and, as Paz points out, “drew inspiration from the rebellious and heterodox thought of the West” (Paz 1967: 15–16). On the other hand, Nehru’s other lineage is traced by Paz back to his ancestors who “had frequented the Mogul court and had absorbed Persian and Arabic heritage,” and to his family tradition from which “he had a vein of heterodoxy vis-à-vis Hindu traditionalism” (Paz 1967: 15–16). Nehru has written in his autobiography how he was “accused by some leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha” of his “ignorance of Hindu sentiments” because of his “defective education and general background of ‘Persian’ culture” (Nehru 1980: 169). To this accusation Nehru had to say: “What culture I possess, or whether I possess any at all, is a little difficult for me to say” (Nehru 1980: 169). Nehru here highlights a kind of identity that Zygmunt Bauman has called: “nomads” of “modernity” (1998: 24).

In his own admission, though India was in Nehru’s “blood,” he “approached her almost as an alien critic,” and “[t]o some extent… came to her via the West” (Nehru 1994: 50, italics mine). This unique predicament of a cultural identity, which is part insider and part outsider, undergoes a partial sense of apology. It is also inflicted upon them by so-called “culturally rooted” people, who force them, in the words of Bauman, “to prove the legality of their presence” (1998: 26). The demand for such legality is cultural in nature, and throws open a debate about the relationship between culture, history and ethics. Colonialism intervenes into this debate in a complicated manner.

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