The Nationalist Spirit of India


WHAT is the spirit of India to-day? Is it that of nationhood? In view of the present condition of political thought, alike in the East and in the West, the importance of this question can hardly be overestimated. If it be true that the spirit of India is truly national, that she is already a nation grown, it will plainly be impossible to justify her present political position. For about a century and a half, the British have been the paramount power in India; for, roughly, one hundred years, they have ruled nearly two thirds of the sub-continent. What, it has of late been asked more and more pointedly, can be the justification of this rule of one people by another? Even assuming that the domination of brown by white was inevitable at a cruder period of history, is there any excuse for believing that its continuance is anything but unjust and wrongful?

The answer depends primarily upon the reply to the question that we have placed at the head of this article. If India is a nation already, or is even in a late stage of national self-realization, it is plain that the protracted continuance of her present position within the British Commonwealth is impossible. On the other hand, if the workings of the spirit of nationality throughout the great country are still feeble in their operation and imperfect in their results, there would seem no reason to hope that the present conditions of tutelage will find a speedy termination, no matter what changes in the direction of democracy are introduced into the administrative structure.

Does India possess the essential characteristics of nationhood? It will assist us in our investigation if we try to clarify our ideas upon nationality. What do we understand by a nation? If we enumerate the obvious characteristics that are supposed to contribute to the complex of ideas called by that name, we shall find it to consist roughly in the occupation of a specific geographical area ; in homogeneity of race; in unity of language; in community of religion fin identity of economic interests. These are what may be called the superficial elements of nationality, although it is plain that there are peoples, to whom none would deny the epithet of nation, who do not satisfy all these conditions in equal measure. For example, neither the first nor the fifth are characteristic of that great nation we call the Jews. None the less, it is undeniable that ordinarily all five of these characteristics must be present in greater or less degree if nationhood is to be full and complete.

But can we not go one step further? Are these five conditions really the essence of nationality ? Is there not something, less tangible perhaps, but not less real, which, deep underlying these superficial conditions, vivifies and transfuses them into the national conception? Professor Ramsay Muir, in a brilliant essay, lays stress upon the elements of common tradition and common culture as nation-building factors. He says: — It is probable that the most important of all nation-moulding factors, the one indispensable factor which must be present whatever else be lacking, is the possession of a common tradition, a memory of sufferings endured, and victories won in common, expressed in song and legends; in the dear names of great personalities that seem to embody in themselves the character and ideals of the nation; in the names also of sacred places wherein the national memory is enshrined.1 Again, amongst these numerous communities may be found at one and the same moment all the various stages of civilization through which mankind has passed from the prehistoric ages to the present day. At one end of the scale we have the naked, savage hill-man, with his stone weapons, his headhunting, his polyandrous habits, and his childish superstitions; and at the other the Europeanized native gentleman, with his English costume, his advanced democratic ideas, his Western philosophy, and his literary culture; while between the two lie, layer upon layer, or in close juxtaposition, wandering communities with their flocks of goats and moving tents; collections of undisciplined warriors, with their blood-feuds, their clan organization, and loose tribal government; feudal chiefs and barons, with their retainers, their seignorial jurisdiction, and their mediæval notions; and modernized country gentlemen, and enterprising merchants and manufacturers, with their well-managed estates and prosperous enterprises.

We have then to allow for something more fundamental than the five superficial conditions we have enumerated, if we desire to understand what lies at the root of nationality. Nor is it sufficient merely to look at the past and at the present; we must look also to the future. With Professor Hearnshaw,2 we may perhaps sum up in a single generalization the underlying ideas of nationality by defining it as that principle, compounded of past traditions, present interests, and future aspirations, which gives to a people a sense of organic unity and separates them from the rest of mankind.

When we seek to apply these requisites of nationality to the conditions obtaining in modern India, we are at once struck by a curious contrast. On the one hand, it is perfectly obvious that, not merely in broad community of culture, but also in harmony of outlook and in geographical conditions, India possesses the main characteristics of nationhood. Naturally, in view of these facts, there exists a strong sentiment which proclaims with the utmost vehemence that India is already a nation. On the other hand, we are confronted by the spectacle, apparently inconsistent with true nationhood, of diverse races, multifarious languages, and antithetical interests. Thirty years ago, a very distinguished Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, drew the following picture of India: —

The population of India is composed of a large number of distinct nationalities, professing various religions, practising diverse rites, speaking different languages, while many of them are still further separated from one another by discordant prejudices, by conflicting sources of usages, and even antagonistic material interests. But perhaps the most patent characteristic of our Indian cosmos is its division into two mighty political communities, as distant from each other as the poles, asunder in their religious faith, their historical antecedents, their social organization, and their natural aptitudes: on the one hand the Hindus, numbering 190 [now probably 250] millions, with their polytheistic beliefs, their temples adorned with images and idols, their veneration for the sacred cow; their elaborate caste distinctions, their habit of submission to successive conquerors. . . . On the other hand, the Mohammedans, a nation of 50 [now probably 70] millions, with their monotheism, their iconoclastic fanaticism, their animal sacrifices, their social equality, and their remembrance of the days when, enthroned at Delhi, they reigned supreme from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin. To these must be added a host of minor nationalities, — most of them numbering millions, — almost as widely differentiated from one another by ethnological or political distinctions as are the Hindus from the Mohammedans: such as the Sikhs, with their warlike habits and traditions and their enthusiastic religious beliefs; the Rohillas, the Pathans, the Assamese, the Baluchis, and other wild and martial tribes on our frontiers; the hill-men dwelling in the folds of the Himalayas; our subjects in Burma, Mongol in race and Buddhist in religion; the Khonds, Mhairs, and Bheels, and other non-Aryan peoples in the centre and south of India; and the enterprising Parsees, with their rapidly developing manufactures and commercial interests.

The accuracy of this picture was not questioned at the time, and to the superficial observer of the present day, it seems still true in outline, although the colors have toned down. And yet more careful analysis shows that, since it was painted, a change of no mean order has come over India. In the year 1916, a very shrewd English critic, Mr. William Archer, whose robust conviction of the superiority of Western civilization was not calculated to produce in him a bias in favor of things Oriental, found it possible to write as follows: —

India is one of the most clearly marked geographical units in the -world. Nature could scarcely have individualized her better if, instead of a half-island, she had made her a whole island. There is, indeed, much diversity of race and language within her bounds; but that has not hindered a very marked unity of cult and custom. All Indians have been Indians, and, as such, definitely related to each other and distinguished from the rest of the world, for a much longer time than Englishmen have been English, Frenchmen French, or Germans German. The numerous attempts to translate into terms of political organization the geographical unity of the country have hitherto failed disastrously, for the simple reason that the country was too huge. In the days when there were very few roads and no railways, it was impossible for a central power to hold its lieutenants in control; and an empire

was no sooner formed than it began to disintegrate. But roads, railways, and telegraphs have changed all that. The British rule, bringing these things with it, reduced India to a manageable size. It has made unity a political as well as geographical and spiritual fact, and it has thereby begotten a sentiment of unity which it is folly to ridicule as factitious or denounce as seditious.3

It is plain that, between the time when Lord Dufferin wrote and the time when Mr. Archer wrote, a profound change must have taken place in India. That this change is not necessarily of the obvious variety is proved by the fact, already mentioned, that Lord Dufferin’s description can still be taken as superficially true by those who have neither the ability nor the inclination to look below the surface. But, in brief, what has happened is this: there has grown up throughout India an educated middle class, largely the creation of British rule and Western education, which has imbibed the sentiments of nationality from the West, and has proceeded to apply them to the conditions of India in a manner that modern communication facilities have for the first time rendered possible.

It is no truism to say that the Indian sentiment of nationality is a direct result of the British connection. The improvement of means of communication; the emergence of English as a Lingua Franca, for the exchange of political ideas; the realization of Indian solidarity as against the European foreigner, have conjointly assisted the educated classes, whether in Calcutta, Bombay, or Madras, to achieve among themselves the sentiment of national unity. It is this feeling of nationality among those classes, at first a mere pious aspiration, but latterly a real and living gospel, which is behind all the changes that have come over India during the last generation.


But, although the prerequisites of nationality are now fully present in India, it is useless to shirk the difficulties that still attend the percolation of the nationalist ideal from the classes to the masses. British India alone has two and a half times the population of the United States. It may be pointed out that the United Provinces and Bengal hold, each, as many people as the British Isles; that Bihar and Orissa may be compared in population with France, Bombay with Austria, and the Punjab with Spain and Portugal combined. But quite apart from the immense difficulty of securing, throughout a population of this size, any speedy appreciation of the ideal put forward by the Intelligentsia, it should be remembered that the sentiment of nationality is still urban, although the vast majority of the population of British India is non-urban. Out of the 240,000,000 Indians under direct British rule, nearly 230,000,000 live a rural life. The proportion of those who ever give a thought to matters outside the horizon of their villages is very small. Agriculture is the greatest occupation of the country — an occupation from which seventy-one peopleoutof every hundred gain their livelihood. The things that concern seven Indians out of every ten are the rain-fall, or the irrigation-supply from wells or canals; the price of grain and cloth; the payment of rent to the landlord, or revenue to the state; the repayment of advances to the village banker; the education of their sons; the marriages of their daughters; their health, and that of their cattle. They are not concerned with the institutions of local self-government; they hardly know of the existence of executive authority above their district officer; they have hardly heard of legislative councils. It is even stated that in one province 93 per cent of the people live and die in the place where they were born.

Now let us contrast with these masses of the population the educated classes, constituting the Intelligentsia of India. These, in India as elsewhere, are mainly town-dwellers. Western education has made headway among them; municipal institutions have been at work. Intellectually, they are the children of British rule; they have imbibed ideas that Western education has set before them. In consequence of this, they have, throughout a generation, advocated and demanded political progress.

To a very large extent, the educated classes follow one of two or three pursuits, such as the law, journalism, or school-teaching; and it has sometimes been said of them, by way of reproach, that these callings make them inclined to overestimate the importance of words and phrases. To some extent, there is truth in this indictment. But it must be remembered that the educated classes are a product of the form of education that has obtained for so long in British India. The educational policy of government has in the past aimed at satisfying the few who sought English education, without sufficient thought to the consequences that might ensue from not taking care to extend instruction to the many. In its inception, this mistake was due almost entirely to an unfortunate combination of limited resources and popular apathy. There being only a fixed amount of money for education after the sine qua non of defense abroad and order at home had been satisfied, it was natural to expend this money upon those who desired education rather than upon those who did not. The result has been to create a limited Intelligentsia, claiming an immediate political advance generations ahead of what the bulk of the population understands or requires.

It is, of course, impossible to stay the progress of the classes until education has been extended to the masses, if only because the ferment of political ideas is already beginning to spread from the one to the other. In these days of national rights and self-determination, it is no longer practical politics, even if it were the wish of the British democracy, to delay in granting to India the utmost measure of self-government that can be given without involving the country in administrative chaos.


It must not be supposed that, during the century throughout which the British have been supreme in India, there has been no advance whatever in the direction of popularizing the government. It would be out of place to recount in detail the various reforms of administrative machinery that have from time to time steadily extended the share of Indians in the rule of their own country, and have increased the influence exerted by the educated classes upon that country’s destiny. It may, however, be doubted whether the intellectual unrest now so prominent a characteristic of India would have attained its present pitch, had it not been for the long-sustained uncertainty of the British themselves as to the goal of their rule there.

We should not forget that, throughout the period of her connection with Greal Britain, India’s destinies have been predominantly directed by a very able middle-class bureaucracy. This bureaucracy has been sent out from England to administer India justly, uprightly, and efficiently. Its members did their job. But it never occurred to them to ask what was the end and purpose of this work. Nor, it must be admitted, did the people at home take any longer view. Not until educated India, by sheer self-assertion, succeeded in forcing the issue upon the English people, was there any official clear-cut declaration as to what the purpose of British rule in India was to be. As late as 1909, so stout a democrat as John Morley emphatically repudiated the idea that the reforms for which he was responsible, the effect of which was to associate the educated classes with government in the decision of public questions, were in any sense a step toward the parliamentary system. Yet between 1909 and 1917 the question was faced and decided. On August 20, 1917, Mr. Secretary Montagu made the following announcement: —

The policy of His Majesty’s Government, with which the Government of India are in full accord, is that of the increasing association of Indians in every branch of administration and the gradual development of selfgoverning institutions, with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire. They have decided that substantial steps in this direction should be taken as soon as possible.

It was in pursuit of the policy outlined in this epoch-making announcement that the project of constitutional reform which goes by the name of the ‘Montagu-Chelmsford scheme ’ was prepared, examined, liberalized, and submitted to Parliament, and was finally to be brought into operation as from the first of January, 1921. Briefly, this reform scheme concedes provincial autonomy to the Indian provinces; hands over to Indian control those nation-building departments— Education, Industries, Sanitation, and the like — upon which the future of India depends; gives to Indians, provided only that they use it rightly, the power to carry on, almost unfettered, the everyday government of their own country, merely retaining in the hands of the present administration such reserve authority as will enable it to interfere with effect should the peace, order, and security of India be seriously threatened, whether by malice or by incompetence.

The magnitude of the change that has come over the attitude of the British people between 1908 and 1917 is comparable only to that change of spirit in India itself which we noticed at an earlier stage of this article. It seems, to those who have spent some years in India, but a little time since nationalist aspirations were looked upon as ‘sedition.’ At the present moment they are regarded as the rightful and proper thing. It is true that, in the intervening period, Western civilization itself has passed through a profound change; and yet this alone could hardly have been expected to induce an intellectual revolution so peaceful and so far-reaching in a country largely cut off from direct relations with Western thought.


Probably chief among the factors that have wrought this miracle — for miracle it is — in the quickening alike of Indian aspirations and of the British determination to satisfy them to the largest possible degree, must be reckoned the world-war.

The war has affected India in many ways, economic and social. But for its real and lasting effects upon her destiny, we must look deeper than the superficial manifestations of industrial prosperity and increasing enlightenment. In the first place, the war has given to India a new sense of self-esteem. In the words of Lord Sinha, himself an Indian, and the first Indian governor of an Indian province, ‘India has a feeling of profound pride that she has not fallen behind other portions of the British Empire, but has stood shoulder to shoulder with them in the hour of their sorest trial.’

It was probably in consequence of the growth of the imperialistic spirit in the British Commonwealth, during the period between 1890 and 1904, that educated Indians had been demanding, for some time prior to the war, that their country should be placed upon a footing within that Commonwealth equal to that of the self-governing dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. The war gave an opportunity for the satisfaction of this feeling. From the very beginning of the struggle Indian troops went forth gladly to light for justice and right, side by side with the British army. This has appealed intensely to India’s imagination. She feels that thereby her status has been raised, and that this change must be recognized by Great Britain and the world at large. It is not perhaps always appreciated how real was the advance when, in 1917, a ruling prince of India, a lieutenant-governor of an Indian province, and an Indian ex-member of Council, attended the Imperial War Conference, and shared in the innermost deliberations of the British Commonwealth.

But there is another consequence, in addition to this partial satisfaction of legitimate aspiration, which has accrued to India from the war. As the years of deadly conflict rolled on, the war came to be regarded in India, as elsewhere, as a struggle between liberty and despotism. The speeches of English and American statesmen, proclaiming the necessity of destroying German militarism and of conceding the right of self-determination to the peoples of the world, have had much effect upon political opinion in India, and have contributed new vitality to the demand for self-government that was making itself ever more widely heard among the progressive section of the people.

The influence of the war upon the spirit of India has thus been to strengthen the demand for the satisfaction of national aspirations that was already growing up in the hearts of the educated middle classes. Now that the strain of the war is over, this demand has been voiced with increasing stridency.

Largely as a consequence of the lack of practical experience and administrative work that distinguishes the Indian politician, — a lack of experience for which the bureaucratic system of government has been largely responsible, — there has been a general failure to realize the magnitude of the changes involved in transforming a government by bureaucracy into one responsible to the people. In India, to an even greater extent than elsewhere, people were inclined to believe that, with the cessation of hostilities, the millennium would arrive as by the snap of an electric switch. While the struggle was at its height, criticism of the administration was silent, and nothing that could possibly add to the difficulties of the Allies was permitted to make its appearance. But when the war was won, and when it became apparent that long-cherished hopes, Utopian and unpractical as they often were, were not immediately to be realized, a deep-seated feeling of impatience swept over the educated classes in India. There was a genuine, if baseless, fear lest the British government, which in the heat of the struggle had manifested an attitude so friendly toward Indian aspirations, should, now that the victory was won, find itself in a position conveniently to ignore them.

That there is no justification for this attitude is apparent from the speed with which the liberalized scheme of reforms is being put into operation. But it is unreasonable to expect that this should be appreciated at the moment. Economic difficulties, due to a rise in prices; administrative delays, due to the magnitude of the change that was being put through, have contributed to infuse the Indian political atmosphere with a surcharge of electricity. It is surely no matter for wonder that, in a war-weary and restless world, there should have been disturbances and outbreaks in India. The wonder is that, considering the magnitude of India and the diverse character of her populations, she has not been, since the declaration of peace, one of the most disturbed instead of one of the most peaceful countries in the universe. But the joint effect of these disturbances and the feeling of impatience already mentioned has been to raise, in the India of to-day, a barrier of bitterness between educated Indians and Englishmen, which presents for the moment a somewhat formidable obstacle to the success of the new reforms.

Nor is this the only lion that the student of human institutions perceives in the path of India in her advance toward nationhood. We must remind ourselves of the contrast between the educated Intelligentsia, with its desire for constitutional progress, and the masses, with their poverty, their limited interests, and their lack of political aspirations. The poignancy of this contrast has struck many people besides the British administrator. It has been responsible for a despairing feeling, among a limited section of the Indian Intelligentsia, that progress along the path of constitutional endeavor is well-nigh hopeless, in that it must necessarily be so slow and so tedious. To this feeling of despondency, combined with the great though unobtrusive wave of Eastern reaction against Western culture that followed the success of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War, must be ascribed the growth of a small but none the less formidable party, which has displayed definite hostility to constitutional progress on Western lines, and indeed to the whole connection of India with the British Commonwealth. So long as this party was sufficiently foolish to base its hopes upon anarchical crime and outrage, its efforts could achieve but little. But the effect of the new constitutional reforms, placing, as they do, in Indian hands so large a control over vital administrative departments, will be to increase enormously the sphere in which this spirit of extremism may operate for India’s harm. It will certainly be in the power of educated Indians, should they fall victims to the feeling animating this small party of anti-Western reactionaries, to ensure, not merely the failure of the reforms, but the ruin of that system of peace, order, and good government from which has sprung the entire nationalist sentiment of India.

This prospect is rendered the more dangerous by the fact that the ethos, or innermost genius, of the Indian people does not seem primarily to be such as to facilitate the working of the institutions of self-government with the same smoothness that obtains among the Anglo-Saxon races. It has often struck shrewd observers that the leading feature of India — not merely uneducated, but also educated India — is what may be called, in the true sense of the term, social backwardness. There is a distinct lack of that subordination of the interests of the individual and of the small group to the higher interests of society as a whole which has been noted as the prerequisite of any lengthy advance along the path of democratic progress. ’The social heredity’—as Benjamin Kidd would call it — of India is perhaps less civic than ethical. Service of the State finds little place in that community of transmitted ideas and hereditary custom which constitutes the principal claim of India to the dignity of nationhood. Throughout educated and uneducated India alike we seem to notice that all-pervading mastery of religion and of the ecclesiastic, that confusion of the things of God and the things of Cæsar, which was characteristic of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Further, it cannot be denied that the ideas now dominant in the remarkable system of philosophy and religion that goes by the name of Hinduism are not such as to favor the active and civic virtues so much as the ascetic and contemplative. Western observers have often noticed what may be termed ‘the weak hold of life’ of the Indian people. Hindu popular philosophy and Hindu esoteric religion are alike agreed that worldly existence is of itself but a very mixed blessing. The exaltation in popular estimation of the ascetic life is shown by nothing so plainly as by the willing support by the poverty-stricken masses of India of some six million devotees, mostly able-bodied, who live a life of civic uselessness and, in some cases, of only nominal asceticism.

India is, in fact, the one country in the world where the complete predominance of religious over temporal considerations, when the two come in conflict, is still assured. The religious teacher, whether he be Hindu or Mohammedan, is not merely a guide to heaven, but an autocrat on earth. Religion in India, whatsoever its immediate shape, is less a code of rules of conduct than a directing influence upon the whole intellectual processes of the individual. ‘ It is the nature of social heredity,’as Benjamin Kidd says, ‘which creates a ruling people.’ And it is impossible sometimes not to feel a passing wave of uneasiness when we consider the weight which, within the next few years, will be placed upon India’s still imperfectly developed sense of civic responsibility. The difficulty does not lie simply in the fact that the uneducated classes have a horizon limited so strictly to the interests of their village and of their caste: it goes much deeper. Many of the educated classes, some even of the leaders of that Western-trained Intelligentsia upon whose ability to sustain the burden of responsibility the future of India more than ever depends, seem to display in marked degree a reluctance to subordinate their individual and group interests to the higher interests of nationhood and of civilization. We can only hope that the growth of civic virtues will follow upon the exercise of civic responsibilities.

Obviously there is much in India to change. Only Indians themselves can change it. Capacity and self-reliance have to emerge, in place of helplessness; nationality in the place of caste or communal feeling. The great hope of success in the development of Indian nationhood lies in the intense desire of the educated classes to prove that their long period of tutelage is over; that they are capable of taking their place in the world’s estimation as a self-governing part of the British Commonwealth.

It may perhaps be instructive to consider, as a last thought, the spirit in which the British people are approaching the problem of Indian advance to nationhood. In the Montagu-Chelmsford Report, the following paragraph is characteristic: —

We do not suppose that any words of ours are needed to express our sense of the gravity of the task which we have attempted. The welfare and happiness of millions of people are in issue. We have been called upon to revise a system of government which has been constructed by builders who, like ourselves, had no models before them, during a century and a half of steadfast purpose and honorable aim; a system which has won the admiration of critical observers from many lands, and to which other nations that found themselves called upon to undertake a similar task of restoring order and good government in disturbed countries, have always turned for inspiration and guidance.

England may be proud of her record in India. She should have even greater reason for pride in it in future. Because the work already done has called forth in India a new life, we must found her Government on the coöperation of her people, and make such changes in the existing order as will meet the needs of the more spacious days to come; not ignoring the difficulties or underestimating the risks, but going forward with good courage, in the faith that, because our purpose is right, it will be furthered by all that is best in the people of all races in India.

  1. Nationalism and Internationalism.
  2. Main Currents of European History.
  3. India and the Future.