Nation, Religion and Violence in The Shadow Lines


In Taza Khudaon Mein Bara Sub Se Watan Hai

Jo Pairhan Iss Ka Hai, Woh Mazhab Ka Kafan Hai

[Country, is the biggest among these new gods!

/ What is its shirt is the shroud of Religion.] (Iqbal)

Nationalism is the grandest of all essentializing grand narratives originating out of the Enlightenment Project. Reconciling it with reason must’ve been very tricky, to say the least. Reason, applied ruthlessly and to its logical conclusion, has the power to lay bare any designs to counter or hide truth. It’s not a faculty, but a method, in which mind has to be trained and then kept on guard and in constant practice so that its use is ingrained in habit. Liberty, equality and fraternity – the progeny of the Enlightenment thought – were more of romantic inventions than pure hard reason. Equality isn’t natural at all. Neither is it desirable evolutionarily, or else, there’d be no natural variations. Nature produces things inherently unequal, yet essentially integral parts of the overall system for which even a microscopic unicellular amoeba is vitally important. Human beings imposed themselves on nature while creating their civilizations and their anthropocentric values. So, they “reasoned” that “all are born equal and should remain equal” or some such formulaic slogan. Repeated chantings and printings of the slogan fixed it in the collective consciousness in such a manner that the creation and establishment of the myth of its naturalness was the very next naturally logical step in the process. Left to its own resources, history proves that human beings have a natural tendency to form mutually exclusive groups and indulge in cruelty and violence against those who make “them”. Greed and violence being evolutionarily ingrained in human nature, it becomes imperative that fraternity be invented and invested with naturalness. It was done.

Democracies all over the world pride themselves for providing “liberty” to their citizens. Liberty: of and for what? What does a dispossessed gond tribal, relocated because of inhabiting the inundation zone of a huge hydroelectricity dam that’ll produce electricity to run air conditioners of those who have money and voice, do with liberty? What kind of liberty does he have? Liberty to end his miserable life? Even that has been snatched by the society that has made it unlawful and sinful. So, the overrated triad of liberty, equality and fraternity were wrong fundamentally, and unnatural too. On that weak foundation was erected the whole social edifice of the modern age. It had to lead to crises that we are facing today, not to mention the two world wars only. The very identity of the modern man is associated with nationalism. Any jolt to this foundational identity bolstering idea may cause irreparable damage, as the narrator of The Shadow Lines (henceforth TSL) points out about Tha’mma, a “modern middle class woman… [who] would thrive believing in the unity of nationhood and territory… that history had denied her in its fullness” (TSL 48). The imagined nature of nationhood makes it entirely artificial. Moreover, this invention of the Enlightenment Europe had always been challenged in many ways by events that go against its basic tenets. The already existing groups based on language, religion,culture etc. are all man made and they have to be subsumed into one large body built on a strong sense of belonging to the nation. All the bases for group identity and solidarity formation mentioned above are artificial, but the chronology of their introduction according to the need of humanity, individual or group, makes one more important than the other, e.g. language is the means through which we understand religion, culture and nation. So, it is more fundamentally required than others, and so on. Their artificiality remains hidden and to the common sense they appear innate. Yet, in the novel it is Tha’mma who ironically exposes the charade called nation by equating the effectiveness of its establishment with bloodshed all around.

She tells the narrator: “They know they’re a nation because they’ve drawn their borders with blood… War is their religion. That’s what it takes to make a country. Once that happens people forget they were born this or that … That is what you have to achieve for India” (TSL 47-8). how much blood will be enough to draw the borders? Will that of nearly six million people do? Did the English give more? War as a form of rationalized or fetishized violence may be their religion but they do not seem to take so much of pleasure, pride and interest in bloodshed as to specialize in it. India and Pakistan have done so with gusto with wars that were declared and have dates, and the undeclared and more dangerous warfare being carried out even today. Moreover, they have institutionalized another form of bloodshed – just to counter Tha’mma’s homogenizing powers of wars. They have drawn communal riots as a line that runs parallel to wars in the same colour: red. At least the secular pretensions of India aren’t maintained by Pakistan – it was created on religious grounds. Yet, as far as communal violence is concerned, India that’s secular by its constitution lags behind in no way. So, what has all the bloodshed achieved for the subcontinent: just the convenient rallying cries of religious fanaticism used to distract the eyes of people from the internal problems? Huge chasms based on region, language, caste, class and religion are discernible in the intranational conflicts in the whole subcontinent. What has war, or violence taken to the doorsteps of the common man achieved for them? Tha’mma’s theorization sounds good and may have appeal for the irrational part of mind, but once it is seen through the lenses of reason, its weakness becomes obvious. Europe and Enlightenment gave the idol of nation to us, but we have been worshiping our various gods parallely to the newly born god. The emotional appeal of nationalism that saw the creation of the whole modern Europe may be said to have failed to produce similar effect in the Indian subcontinent. The fundamental reason behind the failure of the European brand of nationalism may be because the European brand of secularism, the son of Enlightenment that’s given sustenance by reason, had no place here.

Interestingly, religion itself, as a coherent construct, as against the secular sphere, is a European infusion. Its Sanskrit equivalent dharma is just as much oriented towards one’s conduct in the world as it is oriented towards one’s position secured in heaven after death. Secularism, as understood in Europe, could never survive in the nation that took every area of life as belonging to different circles of a Venn diagram intersecting to from a complete central section that must, by definition, have religion in it. Of course, Hinduism may not have been the taxonomic category provided to that “religion”, yet the very heterogeneous sect based body of thoughts and practices later designated as Hinduism could easily be discerned from other religions of the subcontinent. Islam was the very first firmly monotheistic religion of the book reached the soil of India as early as the eighth century. Recorded instances of differences with Islam posit something like a religion (Hinduism) contrapuntally. India was inhabited by a very diverse set of peoples, as history reports. Even those who could be categorized as Hindus were by no means a homogeneous category. Yet, when it came to the creation of essence based on differences, they did see themselves as belonging to a stream that was not the same as that of Islam.

Therefore, the constructionists’ clam of the modern/ colonial construction of Hinduism does not hold water. The idea that took centuries to develop and solidify, even though it hadn’t its modern name,could never be denied the acknowledgment of its existence. The huge body of Hindu literature – both religious and secular in the European’s eyes – that didn’t make a part of the Buddhist, Islamic etc. heritage, as a set of difference, did make a concrete and coherent body. The existence of the body isn’t questioned or questionable. It’s there for all to see. Various un- Islamic/ Buddhist etc. religious practices fell in the category of Hindu practices that that the Christian missionaries were so fond of attacking e.g. sahmaran (later named suttee). Such practices were never confused with any other religion’s arena by those who belonged to Christianity or to any other popular Indian religion. Instead of being a religion of book with definite and solidified codes, Hindu dharma was fluid till its interaction with the modern world, especially with Christianity that necessitated its taking a definite form. That there was a need for it to claim its fixed centre is proven by the fact that all varieties of socio-religious reformers of Hinduism either accepted the Vedas/ Upanishadas as its fixed centre or synthesized such a centre by reinterpreting older forms in more modern ways e. g. Satyarth Prakash. As a reaction to the monolithic religions of the books, Hinduism (as the reformers saw it) was projected in its essence as monotheistic, revealed and of a book. The English interaction with Indians in the capacity of colonizers/ proselytizers/ civilizers did become the root cause of this change by providing a platform for interaction between Christianity and Hinduism. Thus they acted as catalysts, if not as reacting substances.

Even after getting the fixed centre and working definition, the points at the periphery of Hinduism could never be fixed or defined. Even today, unlike Islam or Christianity, it is very difficult for a Hindu to lay hands on a book that’d teach him the basic tenets of his religion. At least for an average Hindu, there isn’t any such guide. Moreover, an atheist Christian is a self-contradictory term, so is an atheist Muslim. An atheist Hindu is quite logical, possible and acceptable. I am one. There are so many totally contradictory flows of currents in what is known as Hinduism today that even a Hindu will find it difficult to distinctly define himself. A Muslim has no such difficulty or uncertainty because he a strong footing. India undermined the strength of that footing. It saw a fusion of religious practices to such and extent that the Hindu-Muslim-Sikh division was blurred. Of course, a Hindu did not praise Allah or a Muslim Wahe Guru, but in their daily life and social practices, there emerged a hybridization, e. g. the Meos of Alwar remained nearly undefined till 1947 they had converted to Islam yet had retained the traditions and practices of their Hindu past (Pandey 39). The tribals of India, a site contested by the newly formed proselytizing spirit of Hinduism pitted against the religions of the book, still remain a highly sensitive topic. The tombs of Sufi saints had strong following from among the followers of all religions. The Christian missionaries had seen it themselves that Roman Catholicism in India had to adapt itself by assimilating local customs etc.

Despite all the heterogeneity and a history of assimilation, the twentieth century witnessed the construction of monolithically projected religious affiliations and ideologies that held the sway over one quarter of the world’s population i.e. South Asia. It was the Indian subcontinent on which the seeds of communal hatred were sown and naturally, the harvest of the communal riots was rich. A communal riot is both a force of nature and (un)civilization. It is very much a force of nature that, ironically, is artificial in origin. Its naturalness lies in the collectivisation of the raw, evolutionarily ingrained animal instincts of survival and self-propagation at all costs, even at the cost of blood- own or others’. It is a force originating in one’s social programming that engraves the us-them divide very deeply in human minds. Therefore, it belongs to the human (un)civilizations too. As a mark of indictment, (un) must be placed before anything that originates a riot. This natural (un)civilized force raises its Hydra like heads only when it’s a time of a clearly perceived and widely recognized and accepted threat that leads to crisis. Hence, it may be termed as a kind of whiplash generated due to a collective paranoia that is pre-designed in the individual human being’s psychological hardware, as it’s human nature to be gregarious and to strive for continuation of life: that of the individual and that of those in the sphere of “us”. Thus, a collective paranoia, based on a collective memory of the communal history – as shaped by the political and media powers of the time – results into a communal riot. The land that gives sustenance to such a phenomenon can never claim its being civilized.Thus was negated South Asia’s centuries old claim of its inherent and essential spirituality, humanity and its ancient and great civilization.


Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Web. n.d. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [TSL in the text.]

Iqbal, Muhammad. “Bang e Dra”. Web. n.d. 12 November 2012.

Pandey, Gyanendra. Remembering Partition. Cambridge: CUP, 2001. Print.




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