Returning A Nation To Its Country

The word was Aufklärung that this writer learnt from his father many years ago. It denoted the Age of Enlightenment that had come upon Europe over the 18th century. An age which encouraged the use of reason to question conventional beliefs and accepted norms, including the overriding presence of the church and the state. Over the last month, the twin incidents of Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the arrest of the JNU students on sedition charges exploded through the strata of the country’s political thought, splitting asunder an already polarising conscience into two unbridgeable lands. Yet, one could sense a definite resurgence in collective intellect of an argumentative section with a resolve to appeal all deep-set notions to reason, especially on the question of nationalism and anti-nationals. While the yardstick of nationalism in India has for long been defined by some hackneyed stereotypes, their utility had not surpassed the polemical level. The stereotypes primarily centred around singing of Bande Mataram, respect to the National Flag and national symbols, respect shown to Army and the like. However, never before had secessionist slogans by fringe elements and the applicability of sedition laws become so central to the narrative. A reality check on other countries on permissibility of such sloganeering throws up some interesting facts. In most mature democracies, not only are secessionist slogans permitted, but separatist parties have also been allowed significant electoral space.

In Spain, for example, Catalonia’s pro-secession parties have been a strong political force, and captured a majority in the regional parliament in December last year. Inspired by the Catalans, pro-independence groups in another province, Basque, submitted a bill to its regional parliament that facilitates consultations on independence. Similarly, in France, the left-wing Corsica Libera party advocates complete independence. In Germany, the Bavaria Party has been fighting for Bavaria’s independence since the end of Second World War. Parti Québécois, a party in Canada’s Quebec, demands complete sovereignty for the province. In Belgium, the New Flemish Alliance, an advocate of a gradual secession of the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, is now a major constituent of the government. In South America, Brazil is beset with a number of secessionist movements in its provinces, for instance, Rio Grande de Sul and Sao Paulo in the south. And then it is common knowledge how the UK allowed referendum on Scotland’s separation last year. All these countries, while certainly not brooking any armed insurrection, deal with such tendencies with the respect or the nonchalance, as they deserve. Consequently, they do not have to fall back upon draconian sedition laws. On the other hand, there are countries like China and Russia, where secessionist slogans are penalised as sedition. Serbia’s crackdown in Kosovo is well-known. Indonesia also used sedition laws to complement military action hold on to East Timor for long before UN referendum led the latter to sovereignty. Which of the above options would India wish to follow is something it must decide.

At the very foundation of any debate on nationalism is ‘nation’, an ambiguous concept which could mean different things to different people. Broadly, it refers to a collection of people with shared linguistic, ethnic, cultural or religious origins. Or, it could be just a shared state of mind or a grand, historically propelled idea that is shared amongst a large population, and which it gets drawn to. ‘Nation’ is different from ‘country’, which is primarily a certain land, its topography, its climate, its vegetation, its peoples and their diverse cultures. Country has definite contours, nation is abstract. In its abstractness, ‘nation’ has lent itself to numerous interpretations, and consequently has elicited obsessive interest over centuries. Country, on the other hand, has had no such luck – it does not even have an adjective and contra-adjective like ‘national’ and ‘anti-national’. Patriotism comes closer to ‘love for the country’, but it too is concerned primarily with territorial integrity and respect to national symbols, and hence not much far removed from nationalism. Unlike a country, nation must clearly define ‘the other’ – which sometimes becomes ‘the despicable other’ – to establish its identity. Nations bomb, but countries are ravaged. Nationalism, in its typical form, is like the fragrance of a perfume that must be worn with the eternal purpose of differentiating oneself in a crowd; whereas what the country exudes is the fragrance of a flower-field that has no raison d’être; it is happy just to have happened to the earth. Extending the metaphor, sustenance of a nation and a nationalist agenda would require manufacturing the perfume endlessly, even if through synthetic means. Sustenance of the country, on the other hand, would require tending the flower-field with care, and ensuring adequate nourishment to each flower-stalk.

However, India’s case has been different. Through millennia, India remained a distinct country, geographically demarcated by the mountain ranges on the north and north-west and seas on its three sides down below. Within this separate geopolitical unit covering a vast expanse, nationhood was crystallised in kingdoms and empires that waxed and waned through centuries, and in diverse languages and cultures that patched up the whole country. It was under the British rule that undivided India – including the princely states – emerged as one nation, primarily because of its institutions e.g. countrywide application of English as the official language, English education and railways, and thereafter, the independence movement, which itself was an indirect consequence of the administrative unification by the British.

Modern Indian nationalism is thus a recent phenomenon, flag-bearers of which were the thought leaders and participants in the freedom movement. However, they were themselves the English-educated middle class intelligentsia whose ideas on social equality and individual liberty were drawn from reading the thinkers of the European Enlightenment. Besides, the nationalist leaders were remarkably explicit in defining the ambit of their cherished freedom, being not just liberation from the yoke of foreign rule, but also from social ills like caste system, religious bigotry and obscurantism and, of course, the pervasive poverty.

No thinker epitomises India’s natural incompatibility with conventional nationalism than Rabindranath Tagore. An internationalist to the core, his diatribe against nationalism mainly concerned its being founded on ‘us-versus-them’ theory, manifested violently during his lifetime in frenzied nation-states waging two wars that engulfed the entire world. He saw imperialism as a spillover of excessive nationalism. Tagore even denounced Gandhi’s home-grown nationalist movements of Swadeshi and Satyagraha, because of the hostility being generated amongst Indians against the British. The spiritual roots of his position lay in the principle of advaita (non-duality) in the Upanishads which saw removal of the duality between the self and the world as essential to being part of the whole. His idea of the Indian nation was synonymous with the real country he saw around him, a product of a syncretic confluence of myriad races, religions and human thought flowing in through centuries that he heralded in his poem Bharatteertha.

Tagore did not live to see India’s Independence. But, more importantly, he was spared of witnessing its Partition – a gruesome event based on an unreasonable two-nation theory that was the exact antithesis of his vision, and which altered the destinies of the subcontinent and its people forever. However, it is to the credit of the founding fathers of our independent India that they managed to recast the nation’s conscience largely in a secular mould, keeping at bay the unsavoury shadows of the religion-based Partition. The nation was synonymous with the country, since there was not much space left for abstract nationalism, either inward-looking or for the outside world.

The pre-Independence nationalist energy was sought to be channelised anew in the reconstruction of the country and its economy. The socialist idealism did create its blacklisted categories – profiteers, black marketers and, rather unfairly, general private enterprise with a profit motive. However, these were largely outside any national/anti-national narrative. The subsequent decades saw momentous changes in the Indian political space with emergence of new regional parties, with stated casteist and communal positions, and in the economic space, with economic reforms. Yet, through the decades, even with the locus of power shifting among different political parties and coalitions, there were no noteworthy attempts at segregation on nationalistic lines. There were, however, those stereotypes primarily concerning national symbols.

It is in this historical context that the current regime stands out, with regard to its active encouragement or at least permissiveness in defining or resetting parameters of nationalism on lines which satisfy the majoritarian, Hindutva school of thought and applying them as de-nuanced binaries to identify anti-nationals. From people ruing the rising intolerance in the country to the alleged students shouting secessionist slogans to worshippers of Mahishasura, new classes of ‘anti-nationals’ are being created through direct reference or insinuations. It is high time that such abstract definitions of anti-nationals are called to reason, considering that these threaten to destroy the key tenets of India’s nationhood that have been defined historically by India’s identity as a country proud of its diversity. Besides, where these ‘anti-nationals’ fit in on an ordinal scale of personalities and interests causing harm to the country has also to be queried. Is a secessionist sloganeer more anti-national than a corrupt politician who has taken out several crores from some allotted funds for his personal welfare? Is s/he more anti-national than the promoter of a large corporate who has been milking the banks and has now turned a wilful defaulter? For a nation which calls an apostle of non-violence its Father, are a group of non-violent protestors more anti-national than a group of lawyers who take advantage of their security within a mob and reassuring police inaction to hit out at journalists? Is an Indian citizen waving a Pakistani flag at an India-Pakistan cricket match an anti-national, even if s/he may be contributing adequately in his/her own way to India’s growth? If so, do we apply the same yardsticks for an Indian-born British citizen who waves an Indian flag at an India-England match? Why should worshippers of Durga or Mahishasura or Ravana have anything to do with nationalism, and if so, would they be accorded differential political rights in Constitutional revisions?

For many, the recent spate of controversies over the issue of nationalism has made for depressing times. However, it also promises to be the beginning of an interesting period when unworthy parameters of nationalism would be thoroughly questioned in social media, and jingoistic and ‘more national than thou’ stances debated against more sober positions. At the larger level, India’s nationalism must arguably derive out of tangible and definitive requirements of the vast and diverse country, rather than abstract notions of a nation.

Turning around Dickens’ oft-used line, one could remark: it is the worst of times, it is the best of times.