Most historians of Indian Nationalism have argued that the Indian political nation, in a modern sense of the term did not exist prior to the establishment of British rule. Before the advent of British, there were inter-territorial clashes between different ruling groups within India itself. Even in the Revolt of 1857 which is said to be the “first war of independence” against the British, the Indians made it a mass movement but they all fought for their own cause and not for India as a whole. Historians have debated over whether or not the Indian Nationalism lay unselfishly embeded in its civilisation and then gradually evolved through history. There is, however, little disagreement that Indian nationalism that confronted British imperialism in the 19th century, and celebrated its victory in the formation of the Indian nation state in 1947, was a product of colonial modernity.
India has always been a plural society with various forms of diversity, such as region, language, religion, caste etc. It was from this diversity that a nation was in making. How the Indians actually ‘imagine’ their nation is matter of intense controversy among the historians.
The early nationalist school, as well as some of its later followers, while studying the process of nation building, focused primarily on the supremacy of a nationalist ideology and a national consciousness to which all other forms of consciousness appeared to be subordinate. This awareness of nation was based on the feeling of patriotism and pride for India’s ancient and rich traditions. This school ignored the inner conflicts within Indian society and assumed the existence of nation as a homogeneous entity with same interests. Eg: RC Mazumdar, Ranade.
In opposition to this, a new interpretation-that politicisation of Indian society developed along the lines of traditional social formations,like castes, religion etc rather than the modern categories of class or nation-came forward. This was the “neo-traditionalist” school. One of the important catalyst of change in this context was the establishment of western educational institutions which produced a lot of western educated elites. The backward or the underpreviledged people now remained unattempted to. This continued till the entry of Gandhi in the political scenerio. These neo traditionalists studied Indian politics within the province only while a few others took it to localities. The latter writing have been identified as “Cambridge School”. This school derecognises the role of nationalists ideology and seeks to explain nationalist politics in terms of competition-collaborating syndrome. According to them India was not a nation but a culmination of different groups of interest and later united as they had to operate within a centralised national administrative framework created by the British. Eg:PE Roberts, James Mill.
The Marxist school of thought tried to analyse the class character of nationalist movement and tried to explain it in terms of economic developments particularly the rise of industrial capitalism and development of market society in India. It mentioned that the elite leaders who directed the movement worked to suit their own class interests and neglected the rest of the masses who were mostly poor. They almost betrayed them. These concepts can be seen in the works of RP Dutta, Sumit Sarkar, Bipan Chandra etc. Sumit Sarkar showed the non elite educated Indian class in his works and argued that they acted as “traditional” intellectuals, responding to ideological theories and substituted the powerless masses of India. Bipan Chandra calls the Indian National Movement to be a movement of the masses and not only of the elite section of the society.
Another school of history became popular in the later 20th century- the Subalterm Studies. This came with Ranajit Guha’s edited book “Subaltern Studies”. He mentions that the historiography of Indian Nationalism has for a long time been dominated by elitism. This is because it neglects the contribution made by the people on their own. The new nation-state established the dominance of the elite but it was the “dominance without hegemony”. But this school has been criticized by many. For it went through considerable shifts in recent years from class to community etc. Historiand mentioned that the elite and dominant groups could also have a dominant pasr. Parta Chatterjee called nationalism in India as essentially a “different” but “derivative discourse” from the west.
Outside these particular schools, which have a definable concept,there are a whole range of other writings too that have looked into writing tge historiography of Indian nationalism. India was a plural society and Indian nationalism was bound to have different ideologies. All said and done Shekher Bandopadhaya gives a logical conclusion i.e. to consider Indian nationalism as a site of political contestatiom instead of denying its existance as a whole.