Why the new identity politics of nationalism hates the outsider

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanAug 11, 2018 | 09:43

Why the new identity politics of nationalism hates the outsider

Democratic India has survived on the myths of non-violence, plurality and hospitality for too long. The old stories anchored in civilisation and folklore have worn thin. Hospitality might still work, but it is more a privatised ritual restricted to domestic spaces, whittled down to a face-to-face encounter.


As the scale changes and we encounter the stranger in public, a new kind of violence and perception comes in. First, the myth of temporariness disappears. Sociologist George Simmel described the stranger as one who is here today and gone tomorrow. The outsider, however, becomes a stranger who is here to stay. He becomes an object of suspicion and fuel to the paranoid world of electoral politics. Today, India faces not the challenges of citizenship and nation-building, but the crisis of the outsider and the corrosion of our society.

At one time, India had the folklore, the myths, of coping with the outsider. Our culture was open and plural and there was always a place for the migrant, the nomad, the wandering peddler. The arrival of the Afghan Kabuliwallah was an event often anticipated with great glee. They come not only with wonderful goods, but news from elsewhere. Modernity has dulled the magic of the outsider.

He is now not an exotic creature, a peddler of wares, but a dismal victim of war, displacement and politics. He is the marginal and migrant that development and war have displaced. Vulnerable in his own society, he is seen as a threat to the society he seeks refuge in. In fact, democracy which at one point celebrated the plurality of margins, minorities, nomads and dissenters, now wants a more uniform citizenship. Whether it is Germany and the Turks, Trump seeking to create the great wall against Mexico, or Rajnath Singh and Amit Shah celebrating the National Register, the outsider is treated as dirt, as matter out of place, and such human dirt becomes the subject of ethnic cleansing.

The concept of the outsider as infiltrator, alien, invader, is also a convenient one. It helps populist narratives to create an easy and invidious pathology, a negative folklore against people it does not want. The displacement is not just physical but conceptual. Society wants the outsider located not only outside the geographic map but outside the conceptual one. Using the narrow network of citizenship, we place migrants, visitors, refugees in the new classificatory world called the outsider. Using the narrow notion of patriotism, we place ethics, dissenters outside our mental map. Our jingoists argue that those who do not fit with our thought pattern should be forced to leave. Politician Giriraj Kishore’s demand that all dissenters, being anti-nationals, should be on the train to Pakistan; this is an example of this mindset.

rohingya-copy_081118092532.jpg(Photo: Reuters)


In fact, the outsider creates a sense of irony and paradox. The Constitution, with its valourisation of human rights, celebrates the idea of citizenship, but the raw material for electoral and majoritarian politics is the outsider. He becomes the immediate repository of hate, suspicion, turning our paranoid feelings into a legitimate vehicle of action. Any time there is a protest or a law and order problem, the immediate knee-jerk reaction of the state is to blame it on the outsider, as the anti-social. Protest and even violence against the outsider is seen as rational, legitimate. In fact, it is tagged with the prior approval of society. Whether it is the Shiv Sena threatening Biharis and Tamils, the Assamese youth organisation fighting the threat of the Bengali, or nukkad bullies in Delhi harassing the Kashmiri, the Nigerian or the Muslim, one understands that pogroms have become the stuff of everyday electoral politics.


Beating up the outsider as intruder, minority or migrant is today almost the ritual start of electoral politics. Violence against the alleged outsider is rarely condemned. Even a large-scale scandal like the Nellie massacre of 1983, where 2,000 people died, is a complete source of indifference or celebration. The perpetrator is sure, in fact confident, that he will get away. There is a political Trump being created in local politics almost every day.

Targeting the outsider becomes the established initiation rite of electoral politics. Beating up the Bihari, the Muslim, as a threat, “teaching them a lesson as murder, is dubbed pedagogic as an everyday rite. Suspicion, rather than trust, oils the wheels of our paranoid societies. In fact, our sense of patriotism today is more jingoist parochialism scaled up as a simulacrum of nationalism. The new identity politics of nationalism comes not from loving a nation but hating the outsider. Hate, suspicion, the sense of being “victimised” provides the raw material of politics.

Contemporary media or even social science has not quite the poignancy, the pathos of such a politics built on the mob and the outsider. It is the cartoon as captive that has caught the drab realism of this world.

The politics of citizenship has given way globally to the invidious politics of the outsider. Democracy has to face the fact that time is a Trump and a Nellie in all of us.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)


Last updated: August 13, 2018 | 12:14
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