Nationalism and its discontents

Nationalism and its discontents

By Aejaz Ahmad

Nationalism, save its positive aspects, is one of the most well known forms of ‘group madness’ that the world has seen in modern times. It is referred to as group madness because it is rarely ordered and clear in terms of what it essentially is. But what is more peculiar about it is that it is at once both inclusive and exclusive. In other words, inclusion and exclusion both lie in the continuum of nationalism. It includes a certain category of people due to markers like religion, language, and ethnicity and so on, but this inclusion can only make sense if it excludes what it presumes as its ‘other’. Contestations over nationalism in India at the moment are essentially over that inclusion and exclusion.
However, this is only one way of understanding nationalism in practice, there is another perspective called secular nationalism, which disregards religious, ethnic and linguistic edifices and, rather, hinges on political citizenship as its basis. Yet it is marked by inclusion and exclusion albeit of the territorial type. In India, the right wing forces are intent on setting the terms and conditions of what they identify as ‘their sort of nationalism’. Whether it be the case of cultural programmes, science, cartoons, movies, and other free avenues of thinking, as well as some of the most recent events like JNU row, FTII, or UOH; everything is put through the ‘anti-national’ lens. Is this forceful refinement a part of nationalism or is it just an aberration of some sort? How do we make sense of this ultra-nationalist discourse being pumped into the minds of youths, institutions, the education system and media?
The rise of ultra-nationalism/jingoism in India is not an aberration at all; rather it is a ‘systematic’ and deliberate attempt of ‘some’ to define the terms of inclusion and exclusion for the ‘other’. But the larger question is: why this sudden surge in nationalist discourse in India and why don’t we find a similar degree of nationalistic fervor in the West, where the idea of nationalism essentially emanated from? What explains this disparity in nationalism in the West and India or in other countries of South Asia?
First, the idea of nation states replaced the earlier multi-ethnic empires in the West formalised by the Westphalian Treaty and nationalism emerged as an overarching ideology to legitimise the political and territorial uniformity within these nation-states, thereby shifting the allegiance of people from religions, ethnicity and cultures to national identity. Nationalism succeeded in establishing stable nation states over the time, save some occasional disruptions like the world wars. It has been more than six decades now after India’s independence, why is India’s nationalistic discourse still unsettled? There are numerous answers to that question, but most of these explanations have largely focused on the diversity of India, holding this diversity responsible for such forms of contestations on Indian nationalism. It must be pointed out, however, that the West too was quite diverse before the emergence of nationalism.
Second, the idea of nationalism didn’t emerge in isolation from other ideas such as equality, liberty, secularism. In fact, what motivated people over time to give up their particularistic allegiances and adopt an overarching political identity is the fact that the state ensured liberty, equality and secularism to the people in these nation states. Simply, it is primarily the ideals of liberty, equality and secularity that make nationalism acceptable; or there is no other justification for its existence.
In India there is a persistent construction of nationalism as ‘an end in itself’. This helps us understand the question we just asked. While the West maintained the balance between and among liberty, secularism and nationalism, in India, nationalism became a pre-eminent value that came before liberty and secularity, therefore, according ‘secondary importance’ of the latter, entirely contrary to the western experience from where it replicated the very ideals. This is precisely the reason why every act is being mindlessly labeled anti-national.
Let me use Ashish Nandy’s famous phrase “Intimate Enemy” to explain this disparity. In his book ‘The Intimate Enemy’, Nandy argues that colonialism didn’t end with the departure of the British, rather it continued even in post-colonial times, it colonised not just bodies but minds too. India outdid the British in a number of things in the sense that “what others can do to us, we too can do it to ourselves”. India, including other former colonies, learned to play by the rules of the game set by the hegemon, the British. Thereafter, India had to be more ‘nationalistic’, more ‘developmental’, more ‘repressive’, with more ‘policing’, more ‘vigilant’ than those from whom it adopted all of these. In the West, the focus shifted from nation building to liberty, equality and secularism, but here the focus froze on nationalism and the ideals of liberty and secularism took a back seat. It is demonstrably true that nationalism is being given a priority over the people in India. The utility of nationalism in its original sense was turned upside down and instead of people as an end, it became an ideology as an end per se. This leads to a situation where nationalism is mythologised into a ‘sacred value’, eternal and infallible and, meanwhile, the other essential concomitants of nationalism such as liberty and freedom of religion are provided mere lip-service.
Third, one may ask how this exclusionary politics of ‘dominant nationalism’ plays itself out. When one section, the dominant one, starts a discourse that excludes the ‘other’ in its nationalist imagination, removes their symbols from popular culture, textbooks and educational institutions, the ‘other’ fails to imagine its ‘self’ in that discourse. Instead of filling this abyss, those who initiate this exclusion instead blame those excluded for their ‘lessened nationalistic sentiments’. This is indeed a paradoxical situation that is existent in contemporary India.
Finally, this is the right time for all of us to reclaim the integrated potential of nationalism, liberty, and secularism. There are unrelenting attempts today to separate nationalism from those ideals and to present nationalism as something desirable in itself. This separation is marked by the exclusion of what is perceived as the ‘other’. The ‘other’, then, has both the right and obligation to challenge it.

—The write is an independent researcher

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