In the wake of JNU-Afzal Guru row and the subsequent events like Waris Pathan’s suspension from the Maharashtra Assembly, it makes sense to properly scrutinize the very concept of nationalism.
To begin with, nationalism should be distinguished from patriotism. While patriotism is simply love for one’s country, nationalism—being love for one’s nation—is quite complex. First, the term ‘nation’ is never without ambiguity. What defines a nation—race, ethnicity, creed, language, culture (but then what is culture?), or a permutation or combination of all these? There is no clarity or consensus among scholars. Patriotism, on the other hand, is much simpler, being firmly rooted in land—even literally, as it is derived from the Latin ‘patris’ or father. Hence the term ‘fatherland.’ Patriotism precedes nationalism. Patriotism is spontaneous, often inarticulate; nationalism is well-thought out and passionately reasoned. Patriotism is; nationalism argues.
Patriotism versus nationalism
I will give an illustration. If there is a calamity—earthquake, flood, etc.—the patriotic response is simple and unambiguous: ‘Do whatever to save lives.’ That would include help from other countries. The nationalist response, however, would be complicated and cautious; there would diffidence, even reluctance, to seek help from other countries. This happened in the wake of the Gujarat earthquake of 2002: the Indian Government got but did not seek foreign help from others—at least, that was the official position. How would this reflect on us; can’t a great nation like ours solve our own problems—this is how the nationalist mind works. National glory is more important than human life, for the nation is much more than the sum total of nationals. At any rate, the individual is just an insignificant speck of the great whole called nation. Hum bulbule hain iske…
Before nationalism reared its ugly head in the last decades of the nineteenth century in India, patriotism was livened by the great Enlightenment ideas and ideals—liberty, reason, fairness—that British imperialists had brought to the Indian shores with them. But, unfortunately, before the Enlightenment project could mature fully in our country, before the Indians could fully imbibe these noble ideals, before liberty could be harmonized with order, before the concept of limited government could be properly comprehended, the nationalism enterprise found a firm footing. This happened primarily because of the haughtiness of the imperialists. It is important to note that the assertion of national self-esteem was the product and function of spitefulness. Born of spitefulness, it is nurtured by vainglory.
This brings us to another characteristic of nationalism; it pertains to defining and building a nation. In this process, valorization—that is, attaching fictitious attributes to, or embellishing and amplifying the attributes of, economic classes, social groups, occupations, communities, etc.—plays the most substantive role. Imaginary qualities are attributed to theoretical constructs. Mythologies are conjured up to suit the political and ideological objectives; history is molded or distorted to suit the interests of the political class; fairy tales fashion folklore with national leitmotifs; truths, half-truths, and untruths blend to prepare a concoction to the liking of the collective psyche of a people. This is what valorization does.
In the eyes of educated Indians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the British were far ahead of us in all aspects but one—the spiritual. Now, it was only in the realm of metaphysical speculation that India could boast of some depth. It was this aspect which was concentrated upon and magnified by nationalists. In an address in 1897, Swami Vivekanand said, “Let others talk of politics, of the glory of acquisition of immense wealth poured in by trade, of the power and spread of commercialism, of the glorious fountain of physical liberty; but these the Hindu mind does not understand and does not want to understand. Touch him on spirituality, on religion, on God, on the soul, on the Infinite, on spiritual freedom, and I assure you, the lowest peasant in India is better informed on these subjects than many a so-called philosopher in other lands. I have said, gentlemen, that we have yet something to teach to the world. This is the very reason, the raison d’etre, that this nation has lived on, in spite of hundreds of years of persecution, in spite of foreign rule and foreign oppression. This nation still lives; the raison d’etre is it still holds to God, to the treasure-house of religion and spirituality.”
Notice the stupendous valorization: the great saint endows the Hindu mind with all the glories of spirituality, almost completely overlooking the corruptions in Hindu society. When he spoke these words, millions of Hindus, the untouchables, lived a subhuman existence; many of them were bound by tradition to carry human excreta. A mere touch of these unfortunate people was considered polluting for caste Hindus. There was scarcely any education for women; most of them were married at an early age, child marriage being the norm; the mores of “the treasure-house of religion and spirituality” granted them few legal rights.
Yet, the Swami sang of the eternal splendors of Hinduism: “In this land are, still, religion and spirituality, the fountains which will have to overflow and flood the world to bring in new life and new vitality to the Western and other nations, which are now almost borne down, half-killed, and degraded by political ambitions and social scheming.”
Such discourses gave rise to the Indian spiritualism-Western materialism dichotomy. The dichotomy went on to shape Indian nationalism. Collective conceit played a major role in the shaping up of nationalism. It always plays an important role in fashioning any nationalism; sometimes, the consequences are apocalyptic, e.g., in Germany. In India, the result was not jingoistic aggression, but a closing up of the mind.
Nationalist pride acquired mythological proportions. Many Indians started claiming—many still do—that several of the modern wonders like airplanes and missiles were known to our ancestors. What else was Pushpak Vimaan (a flying machine mentioned in Hindu scriptures)? What were the devastating firearms mentioned in the Mahabharata?—they ask. Even in this day and age, such fascination for pseudo-science is all-around. “We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a gathering of doctors and other professionals at a hospital in Mumbai in October 2014. “We all read about Karna in the Mahabharata. If we think a little more, we realize that the Mahabharata says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb.”
Plastic surgery and organ transplantation was also there: “We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”
The Indian Prime Minister also discussed the contributions of “people like Aryabhata (476-550),” the mathematician-astronomer whose achievements are universally accepted. That is a big problem: pseudo-science piggybacks science. As Nirad C. Chaudhuri wrote in The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, “Towards the end of the [nineteenth] century the Hindu counter-reformation swung to the opposite pole of grotesqueness. From late Sanskrit scholasticism it passed to scientific claptrap. Every Hindu custom and every Hindu taboo found its justification in some theory of electricity and magnetism. At times even the science of bacteriology, new at the time, was invoked. It was proclaimed that if a Hindu kept a pigtail it was only as an electromagnetic coil; if he bathed in the Ganges it was because an unspecified European (for preference, German) scientist had demonstrated that Ganges water killed bacteria instantaneously; if he fasted at full and new moon it was only to counteract the gravitational forces of the sun and the moon; the Diwali illumination was supposed to be collective lighting of fire for burning up the poisonous gases given off by the earth on that evening.”
So, science did not triumph over superstition; rather, it bolstered the latter in many cases. Against this backdrop, the weakening of the social reform spirit and the concomitant resurrection of rot in Hindu society were not surprising developments. The desire to look inwards—to detect the shortcomings in society, its moorings, and values—weakened. One of the results, therefore, was a false sense of self-sufficiency: yes, there are problems in our society, but we are capable of tackling them. Long before Jawaharlal Nehru led the nation on the path of self-sufficiency and self-reliance in the sphere of economy, resulting in entropy, nationalists started viewing social evils in the national perspective: only we can take care of our society; the British should steer clear of it.
In any case, the biggest problem, in the eyes of nationalists, was not social but political: indeed British rule was the problem. Important people of India had stopped looking inwards; they were not scrutinizing, debating, or critiquing their own society, culture, mores, and values; they had found an enemy to fight with—and to criticize endlessly for every affliction that affected us. Tagore was an honorable exception, though. He said, “Our real problem in India is not political. It is social.”
Criticisms by others were also dismissed with remarkable cantankerousness by nationalists. For example, when Katherine Mayo wrote a scathing book, Mother India, the Indians were enraged. No less a person than Mahatma Gandhi called it a “drain inspector’s report.” It was a typical response: we were unwilling to take criticism in the right spirit, especially from an outsider. This was true nationalism—my country, right or wrong.
When the BJP came to power in May 2014, many, including this writer, hoped that the nationalist rhetoric had served its purpose, that it would now be used occasionally, that it would remain just… well, rhetoric. Alas, how wrong all of us were! Its virulence keeps growing by the day.