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Reimagining nationalism

YOU are such a sensible person.

Reimagining nationalism

Feeling not free: The JNU debate threw up many questions, not enough answers.

Yogendra Yadav

YOU are such a sensible person. You appear honest and dedicated to the nation. How can you then support these anti-national elements?” I recalled this phone call on the first anniversary of February 9. An unknown person had called me from Indore. He had watched me on television and was very upset with what he thought was my support to JNU-wallahs. I explained to him the facts of the case. But he was unmoved: “All that may be right. But tell me, how can we allow anyone to insult India like this? Doesn’t your blood boil when you hear about this incident?” I could not convince him.

 Now that I look back, I can see why people like me failed to convince him. Millions of ordinary, newspaper reading and television watching Indians like him felt that a sacrilege took place in JNU. No matter what the facts of the case, they felt offended that “intellectuals” did not acknowledge and respond to their hurt. The debate around a small incident in JNU may have been contrived. The dispute generated more heat than light. Yet, it forced us to confront a question we had conveniently tucked aside: how do we deal with nationalism in independent India?

The first anniversary of the JNU incident is a good occasion to answer this question honestly. And the honest answer is that we did not get a good answer last year. We were caught between two false answers: energetic jingoism on the one hand, and a deracinated cosmopolitanism on the other. We must go beyond these two misguided and misleading ways of thinking about nationalism.

 The heart of the dispute is about our attachment to the entity called “nation”. First of all, there is the question of how to define India. The jingoists prefer a cultural, historic definition of India. They want to go back to pure Bharatvarsha, unsullied by one thousand years of Muslim and colonial history. The cosmopolitans wish to define India in modern, political and constitutional terms. For them, the political boundaries of India are an accident of history. There is no cultural essence of India.

This difference spills over to the next question: what kind of loyalty should the nation command? For the jingoists, the nation deserves our primary and principal loyalty, unlimited and unquestioning. For the cosmopolitans, the nation is just one of the many entities that demand our affection. From our familty to our universe, there are so many levels that we identify with. Hence one of these cannot demand absolute loyalty. The nation can only make secondary and limited claims on us.

The third question, about why should we be loyal to the nation, invites even sharper differences. For the jingoist, this is no question at all. We are loyal to our nation, because we are born here. This is our motherland. Of course, it is superior to any other country. How can we even debate this? The cosmopolitans demand good reasons for such an assertion. They insist that being born somewhere is not good enough a reason to find it good and superior. We should be doubly careful in judging our country and ourselves. And when we do so, we find that our country has been full of inequality, injustice and exploitation. How can we take pride in that?

This fundamental difference results in two opposite attitudes that took the shape of two camps last year. On the one hand, we have those who take pride in whatever India stands for. This my-country-always-right attitude brooks no questioning, either from outside or from inside. The nation-comes-first view demands complete loyalty that trumps any other smaller or larger unit. Such a belief looks for enemies within and outside. Thus we had an onslaught on “anti-national” elements within and surgical strikes on the enemy beyond our borders. This camp calls itself nationalist. It is proactive, aggressive and triumphant. Yet, it is deeply pathological: it is narrow, vacuous and divisive. In the eyes of ordinary citizens, like that caller from Indore, this jingoism appears rashtrabhakti.

On the other hand, we have cosmopolitanism represented by JNU. It is passionate about lots of things, but when it comes to the nation, it is detached and indifferent, if not awkward. Their view of the nation is liberal, substantive and inclusive. In the debate last year, they were defensive, if not defeated. To ordinary people like my interlocutor, they come across as deracinated intellectuals, as modern, westernised, English-speaking class that does not understand the ethos of this country, let alone take pride in it. It becomes easy to dub this class rashtradrohi.

 The tragedy of the debate on nationalism was not just that narrow and aggressive posturing won the first round. The tragedy was not just that more inclusive and tolerant visions were pushed out. The real tragedy was that India was debating its nationalism in entirely borrowed terms. Both these pathologies — jingoism and cosmopolitanism — are European in origin. Proponents of Hindutva nationalism are as European in their mindset as the deracinated westernised intellectuals. The real tragedy of the debate last year was that it was entirely imported, that the mainstream of Indian freedom struggle was absent from this debate.

 It is easy to see how the cosmopolitan response is European in its sensibility. In Europe today, “nationalism” is a bad word. It connotes chauvinism, intolerance to migrants and outsiders and aggressive policy vis-à-vis one’s neighbours. Suspicious of this narrow creed, liberal, cosmopolitan intellectuals tend to be uneasy with nationalism. Indian cosmopolitanism tends to borrow this attitude from its European counterpart. Unfamiliar with Indian traditions of universalism, they equate universalism with the West.

But we often miss out on how the narrow, aggressive, Hindutva version of nationalism is equally a European import. The idea of “one nation, one culture, one race, one language, one religion” is not an Indian idea. This is rooted in the European inability to deal with diversity and their pathological quest for uniformity. This quest, expressed in Bismark’s Germany or Mazzini’s Italy, is very much the ideal for proponents of Hindutva nationalism. The name of the country is changed, but the model of what nationalism means is very European. This European pathology is at the roots of the jingoism that dominates India today.

 What, then, is the way out? The ideal of nationalism that was evolved during Indian freedom struggle offers us a way out. Tagore’s reflections on India’s unity, Gandhi’s defence of nationalism and Bhagat Singh’s vision of a future India provide us with a richer understanding of nationalism. This nationalism invites us to think of India as a civilisational and cultural entity whose unity does not lie in European-style uniformity. It does not see India’s diversity as a national weakness, rather it celebrates the unity in this diversity. This nationalism is not divisive but unifying. Its principal focus is on bringing together Indians of different caste, community, region and religion. While opposing British rule, this nationalism was not anti-white. It did not lead to hatred for outsiders. Instead it opened India to solidarity with the world outside, with other oppressed people in colonies outside India. Unlike European nationalism, Indian nationalism encouraged debates on what it meant to be a nation.

The real tragedy of today’s India is that there is no political force that can defend this mainstream of Indian nationalism. The first anniversary of the JNU debate reminds us of this tragedy.

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