The crisis of nationalism

Image Courtesy: Newslaundry

The last sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red colours of the West
and the whirlwind of hatred.
The naked passion of self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed
is dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance.

Rabindranath Tagore ( “The Sunset of the Century” , tr. poet from Naivedya, The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Vol. II, Delhi, 1996, p. 466)

The forebodings voiced more than a century ago by the composer of our national anthem are being realised today. Nationalism in our country increasingly reflects the insular, exclusivist, oligarchic, pro-corporate, upper caste, masculinist and jingoist character of our right-wing government. It is a nationalism of rapacious greed, of chauvinistic hatred of minorities and vulnerable sections of society. Its culture of violence and suppression of human freedom and basic rights throttles the very idea of India propounded by our Constitution — as a sovereign, secular, socialist and democratic republic. This nationalism has eviscerated, one by one, all the three estates of democratic polity, legislative, executive and judicial; as also the media, reckoned to be the fourth estate with its key role in creating and controlling public opinion. We move ever closer to the old Nazi ideal with its exclusivist definition of the nation, the creation of an “other” held responsible for all national ills, the worship of an artificially constructed tradition. This idea treats people as a monolith, denying them diversity of perspective as well as agency of any kind. It claims to represent “the people” but promotes rank discrimination, articulating it violently with a distorted history, the glorification of death as martyrdom and the simultaneous legitimation of killing those who do not subscribe to such views. This is a nationalism suspicious of artists and intellectuals, which suppresses all opposition, and faults democracy as an inconvenience in the path of “development”. What it styles as development reflects the interests of a miniscule minority of the affluent and the powerful. Together, these concepts of nationalism and development prompt violence against labour and the environment, the dilution of existing laws and protections, the surveillance of every citizen using all available technologies, the equation of peace, negotiation and compromise with surrender. Myths and archetypes are harnessed for propaganda, legends and epics presented as objective history. The ruling class assumes the part of a self-evidently superior people and claims descent from the earliest inhabitants of the country. Its fear of difference and diversity and its contempt for all sorts of cultural and intellectual pluralism are legitimated at every turn. Everything appears as black and white, leaving no area to subtleties, nuances and alternative readings. What’s more, the rulers portray themselves as victims while being in power, so that all dissent gets cast as the work of conspirators and seditionists. This way, it becomes possible for the government to strike populist and anti-elite poses even as the State is colonised in pursuit of upper class objectives. These are precisely the symptoms of what Umberto Eco calls “ur-Fascism” (universal Fascism) in his Five Moral Pieces, and they also bear a close resemblance to the definitions and explanations of authoritarian populism by modern political thinkers and social psychologists like Wilhelm Reich, Jan-Werner Muller, Hannah Arendt, Talcott Parsons, Timothy Snyder and others.

When Rabindranath Tagore was writing his essays on Nationalism — first put together in the second decade of the twentieth century (Nationalism, New York, 1917) — he might not have imagined that by the end of the twentieth century several thinkers across the world were going to echo his critique of the nationalist ideology, mostly without having read him. Though one may find the rudiments of such a critique in thinkers and conscientious objectors like Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley or Jean-Paul Sartre, Nationalism entered modern theoretical discourse in a major way only with Benedict Anderson’s acknowledged classic Imagined Communities (1983), that was soon followed by a series of treatises on the subject by Ernest Gellner (Nations and Nationalism, 1983), Miroslav Hroch (Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe, 1985), Anthony Smith ( The Ethnic Origins of Nations, 1986 ), Partha Chatterjee (Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World, 1986) and Eric Hobsbawm (Nations and Nationalism since 1788, 1990 ), not to mention innumerable articles in journals and writings in languages other than English.

Benedict Anderson’s book had defined the nation as an imagined community, one that belonged more with concepts like “kinship” and “religion” than with “liberalism” or “fascism”. It is “imagined” because its members can, even without knowing most of their fellow-members, conjure up the image of their communion. In Ernest Gellner’s words, “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness; it invents nations where they do not exist”. (Thought and Change, London, 1964, p.169). To him, as in Tagore, the nation is a more rigid fabrication than something simply imagined into being. The nation, Anderson would say, is limited as it has finite boundaries demarcating it from other nations; it is sovereign as nations like to imagine themselves to be free, the sovereign state being the gage and emblem of this freedom; and it is a community as it glosses over its inequalities and is conceived as a deep and horizontal comradeship for which you can kill or die. The roots of the nation are cultural and the idea of the nation is close to the religious community and the dynastic realm as most nations have their own epics/sacred texts and “national” literatures, constitutions, hierarchised bureaucracies, anonymous linkages, national anthems that substitute prayers, national censuses, celebrations, parades and charades, martyrs, genealogies and selective chronicles that prescribe what to remember and what to forget. Alongside this exist national newspapers and a whole print-capitalist system and corporate media that helps propagate ideas across the nation. Then, there are defined borders, maps considered sacred with any deviation treated as treason — calendars, memorials, museums and a whole paraphernalia of national emblems like flags, birds and animals, why, even national zoos, parks and gardens. Add to this a law against “sedition” that can be used at will to label anyone a terrorist or a traitor — and their control over the populace is complete.

In “Nationalism in the West”, the first in a series of lectures Tagore delivered in Japan in 1916, he states his position without much ambiguity: “Neither the colourless vagueness of cosmopolitanism, nor the fierce self-idolatry of nation-worship is the goal of human history.” He also defines the nation in clear terms: “A nation, in the sense of the political and economic union of the people, is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organised for a mechanical purpose.” Tagore recognises the problem of races as the most menacing of the issues faced by India, making our history a continual social adjustment, where the problems of most other countries concerned the organisation of power for defence or aggression, or the rise and fall of dynasties. Social regulation of differences with a spiritual recognition of unity has been the twin-strategy for her to cope with her ethnic multiplicity. Tagore is sharply critical of the rigidity of social stratification in India and the crippling minds that results from insular world views and the perpetuation of hierarchies.

One metaphor that Tagore employs in his delineation of nationalism seems especially relevant to the Indian situation today: the nation as a monster full of watching eyes. No one can escape the suffocation of its tightening grip. Here we are reminded of Bentham’s idea of the panopticon, elaborated by Michel Foucault in his Discipline and Punish: the observing eye from the watch-tower (José Saramgo’s novel Blindness too has it), ever hidden from the observed and hence supposed to be present even when it is not there. People live in a perpetual distrust. Today the state does not need prisons as it can turn the whole country into a prison. “The digitalised networked subject is a panopticon of itself” as Byung-Chul Han notes in Psychopolitcs (2017). From the Aadhar card to keeping a watch over social media, the authoritarian nationalism in practice today exempts no area of the citizen’s life from its knowledge and oversight. It follows you everywhere, knows everything you do, from what you eat to what you say, read, view or even think. A useful concept here is Antonio Gramsci’s articulation ofconsent”, whereby the ideological machinery of the State manufactures a voluntary-seeming agreement to its schemes, using education, the State-run press, and the whole Goebbelsian State propaganda machine. To quote Tagore, people are “hypnotised into believing that they are free” and they begin to think that bartering the higher aspirations of life for profit and power has been their free choice; the State perfects their instincts of self-aggrandisement and makes them believe this is good. Look at the way the poor people queued up obediently to exchange their currency when the old currency was declared invalid one midnight, recharging the national coffers in the interests of crony capitalism and a ruling party that serves the corporates rather than the common people. Or the way they did so to get Aadhar cards made, so that the authorities might gain fuller control over their lives and movements. Or the way they listen raptly, at times under compulsion, to the hollow rhetoric of the “tea-seller” full of promises he never means to keep. Or the way people devour the fake news churned out every moment by the “news-breakers” (now proved “news-brokers”) who are paid to make and unmake people and events. Or the way manufactured WhatsApp messages circulate and “go viral”, justifying every atrocity perpetrated by gaurakshaks against the minorities who are dubbed “haramzade” and “beef-eaters”, or by the “sanatanis” against rationalists, Gandhians, journalists, questioners and true spiritualists — from Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar to Gauri Lankesh and MM Kalburgi — or by the upper castes against slaving dalits who are lynched regularly, and the starving adivasis from Uttar Pradesh to Kerala; or the frequent threats to drive to Pakistan or silence independent artists, journalists and writers from Girish Karnad and Perumal Murugan to Nandita Das, Mallika Sarabhai, Anand Patwardhan, Ravish Kumar, Naseeruddin Shah, Aamir Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Kamal, MT Vasudevan Nair, to name just a few. Or the way concocted stories are willingly swallowed, whether about incidents like the inhuman rape and murder in Kathua or the killing of Junaid or the disappearance of Najeeb. Or the meek acceptance of changes of leadership and objectives in institutions from FTII, ICHR, ICPR, ICSSR, NBT and Teen Murti to IITs and universities like JNU, DU, BHU and HCU; or the discriminatory attitude to refugees including the homeless Rohingya Muslims. These unprecedented assaults fail to generate any proportionate reaction or resistance from the affected sections, or from watchdog bodies, or society at large. Every step to murder democracy is praised by appointed trolls as a progressive measure for the country’s “development”. And the reach of the free-thinking intellectuals and of the few oppositional and truth-speaking journals, mostly online, is extremely limited. This is neither to deny agency to the common people nor ignore the fast-growing pockets of resistance but only to demonstrate how the mechanism to generate “consent” and shape “common sense” far outsmarts the counter-machinery representing the interests of the people and attempting to speak truth to power.

Tagore points to the need to fight insular and hate-mongering organisations, resisting the markets and cannons with the ideal of ethical freedom, the sacredness of law, the liberty of conscience, thought, expression and action, the higher obligations of public good above narrower considerations, values that had helped create civilisation but which now face the crisis of commercialism, careerism and competition. The main problem in India, he says in his talk in the US (“Nationalism in India”) in 1917, is the hierarchisation of her society on the basis of race/caste and a blind faith in the authority of traditions. In an attempt to provide an order to society, India denied many the opportunity of movement and expansion. We are also trained to think this system of discrimination is eternal. Tagore points out that Indians cannot build a political miracle of freedom upon the quicksand of social slavery: a truth that BR Ambedkar, who advocated the annihilation of caste, realised more than any other Indian leader, while leaders like Jignesh Mewani are now linking it to the issue of class. In a response to the letters carried by The Modern Review of Calcutta in May, 1921, Tagore points to the need to liberate man from the organisations of “national egoism” which he later in the article qualifies as “racial egoism”. He considers true India an ideal and not “a mere geographical map”. “The idea of India is against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others, and which inevitably leads to ceaseless conflicts.” (“Tagore’s Reflections on Non-cooperation and Cooperation”, The Mahatma and the Poet, ed. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Delhi, 1997.)

Let us recall what Eric Hobsbawm said: nations do not exist before nationalism. They are an invention of the nationalist imagination, something constructed through “rememoration” to recall a term used by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Nationalism and the Imagination, 2010). The colligation of nationalism with the abstract structure of the state, as Hannah Arendt perceptively states, was a happening with a limited history and a limited future; sadly this twinning has worked against the principle of redistributive justice. So we need, quoting Gayatri Spivak again, to “de-transcendalise” nationalism, train our imagination to take the nation out of nation-state. Mere nationalism that ignores redistributive justice can lead us astray “Theatrical or philanthropic wholesale counter- or alter-globalism, whatever that might be — the demonstrations at Seattle or Genoa, are — not guarantees of redistributive justice either” (Nationalism and Imagination, p 51). Edward Said rejected the two-state solution in Palestine precisely because seamless identities are thrust upon nationalism — even on the liberatory party — by opponents who could be colonisers or anti-socialist forces. Patriotism is an affect that the abstract structure of a functioning state harnesses chiefly for defence. This is very clear from the way patriotism is being interpreted by the Hindu right-wing today: anyone who disagrees with their understanding of the nation is made out to be unpatriotic.

One may recall, as Hannah Arendt says, that European fascism was an attempt to build a compensatory pseudo-community in place of ruined communities, cultures and world views. Modern nations also take up this mission and, in fact, Anderson’s “imagined community” is often a substitute for real community based on natural bonding. Here, Tagore’s refusal — as was true of Tolstoy, Thoreau and Gandhi — to use rigid intellectual frames and theoretical jargon may be seen as a form of revolt against the violence often implied by adherence to technicalities. Tagore’s writings clearly indicate that he would not have accepted the jingoist, insular and violent Hindu nationalism, whose growth began with the colonial orientalist idea of a unified Hinduism proposed by Madan Mohan Malaviya, Lala Lajpat Rai and others who established the Hindu Mahasabha in 1914, the extremist turn it then took under VD Savarkar and with the establishment of the RSS in 1925 by KB Hedgevar. The RSS branched and developed this phenomenon like a national cancer, with the founding of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh by Syama Prasad Mukherjee in 1951, and of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980. The rise of this politics in the post-independence period has been stridently accompanied by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (founded 1964) that openly raises the slogan, Rajneeti ka Hindookaran, Hindustan ka saineekaran (The Hinduisation of politics and the militarisation of Hindustan). Its gradual ascendancy to power in the following years came about through its divisive strategies, aggressive propaganda and violent methods. Gandhi too had declared in his newspaper Young India: “Patriotism for me is the same as humanity” (1921), “it is the narrowness, selfishness and exclusiveness which is the bane of modern nations, which is evil” (1925) and again, “through the realisation of freedom of India, I hope to realise and carry on the mission of brotherhood of men” (1929). It can also be inferred from Tagore’s novels like Gora and Ghaire-Baire that he foresaw the rise of Hindu Nationalism as a violent middle class phenomenon, declaring Muslims as its other.

One may well distinguish secular mainstream nationalism from the identitarianism of Hindutva, for they are not coterminous. But it would be dangerous to ignore the continuities between them, especially on the question of national identity, which also spills over to a Hindu diaspora desperately in search of a lost identity. Today, as shown by William Mazzarella (Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalisation in Contemporary India, Delhi, 2004) this “Indian” identity has become a trademark and an advertising strategy in the global corporate market where it denotes a distinctive ensemble of characteristics that hark back to the Western orientalist construct. Whereas colonialism and race theory had incited the zero-sum game of conflicting identities earlier, today it is neo-liberal strategies that have normalised competition as the very structuring principle of existence. Anyone following the media can affirm this: success, not happiness, is the keyword and money seems to have become the central quest in life for the already rich as well as the aspiring middle classes in general. The paradox of our times is that nations have lost their sovereignty not to burgeoning international collaboration but to what Antonio Negri calls “the empire” that is globalised capitalism. It has brought every nation to heel, subservient to its interests of profit through exploitation. This is the real theatre of action, but its instigators make believe that the conflict lies elsewhere, between communities vying for scarce resources, opportunities, and power.

The only way to confront this unholy alliance between corporate capitalism and aggressive majoritarian communalism is to develop a genuine democratic counter-nationalism based on the principles of equity and justice. This will involve an objective study of history, faith in genuine democracy, the defence of all independent public institutions, and ceaseless criticism of authoritarian tendencies whatever their source. It will mean setting a premium on professional ethics by all, from doctors, scientists and historians to legislators and jurors, developing a democratic critique of the media and of oppressive social institutions like caste and patriarchy, as well as caution against paramilitary organisations that become the breeding ground of fascism. The emphasis must be on facts rather than empty rhetoric, on getting out of comfort-zones and addressing the unfamiliar, upholding religious amity, supporting civil society and human rights organisations, and utilising democratic institutions, platforms and legal rights from the right to vote to the right to information. Intrinsic to this is resistance to any form of suppression of rights or the misuse of constitutional provisions, such as in an unjustified declaration of national emergency. A democratic counter-nationalism must defend the principle of federalism by opposing any attempt at over-centralisation. Being genuinely patriotic must be understood as opposition to all that is negative in our heritage, everything that impedes speaking and working for the underprivileged. Doing all this while steering clear of an exclusivist and insular nationalist ideology is paramount.