"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." - Samuel Johnson.
How should one reply when a bunch of self-proclaimed "nationalists" castigate you as being "anti-nationalist"? JNU being the recipient of this question played a masterstroke by organising a week long lecture series on "nationalism" to decipher the myriad complexities of the term, both at the conceptual as well as practical level. This event along with the larger controversy that is ongoing in the university has forced people to ponder over this basic yet fundamental idea in a more holistic manner.
Words like "nation", "nationalism", "nationality", "patriotism" and "secularism" are some of them which are normally invoked in a vague and abstract way to fulfil one's immediate political agenda. The Sangh Parivar ideology with its characteristic penchant for "calculated ambiguity" in whatever they do, have once again made an emotive appeal to all "nationals" for staying together as a nation and thereby categorically muzzle all those voices who speak against "Mother India".
In this light, it becomes imperative to ask a few questions about Indian nationalism. Who is an anti-national? Is Indian nationalism one large monolith group comprising of socially equal citizens? What is the genealogy of our nationalist movement and how socially inclusive was it in terms of incorporating the demands and aspirations of the marginalised sections? And finally, is India a "nation" or at best, still a "nation-to-be"?
The fact of the matter is that the Sangh Parivar's idea is that of an upper caste, Brahminical nationalism that had no place for lower castes and Muslims throughout history starting from ancient India. Nationalism for the Sangh Parivar gains its legitimacy from the "glorious past" where societal work was neatly divided according to the Varna system.
Moving away from the scholarly arguments of the modern origins of "nation" and "nationalism", the emphasis is on how the subcontinent was always a peaceful nation only to be disturbed by the invasions of the Kushanas and the Hun dynasties in ancient India followed up by the period of slavery under the Mughals in the medieval period.
The principle obfuscation created over here is that there was a constant war between us and them, more so in the colonial period, where a neat binary was drawn between "nationalist" and "imperialist". What the proponents of this vicious style of cultural nationalism don't talk about is the inherent social and economic inequalities of the Indian social structure, stoically maintained by the religio-cultural power of the upper castes.
"Power" over here becomes important as a pervasive asymmetry of the same saw to it that a homogenisation or an equal distribution of power in India's social structure never materialised. To use the conceptual framework of Ernest Gellner, it is the congruence of power and culture that helps a dominant class maintain its version of nationalism, amidst a continuing onslaught of the class of resistance.
In the Indian case, the national viewpoint was thus easily appropriated by the upper castes through their social, religious and economic power which was ably supported by the colonisers for their own political gains. This image was glorified by the Orientalist to begin within the colonial period along with the nationalist historiographers of the time because of whom the reification of the same was possible.
By applying a meta narrative framework to study the Indian society, these schools of thoughts along with the dominant class saw to it that "nation" and "social" remain detached from each other. Nation was elevated to a pedestal of being progressive and modern whereas the social was despised for being a den of backwardness fostering regressive practices like casteism and communalism.
Our sense of nationalism precisely stems from this blinkered idea that has masqueraded as the one that claims to represent the entire Indian community. The title of G Aloysius's book Nationalism Without a Nation could not be more apt in describing this convoluted sociological history of modern India.
So when the Sangh Parivar members ask us to be national and patriotic toward our motherland, they are essentially trying to enforce the divisive doctrine of Vedic Brahminism on the everyday lifestyles of all Indians. The proponents of the deification of the motherland inject the idea of uncritical reverence or bhakti towards the nation, something that can have long term ramifications in the political sphere as was so eloquently propounded by Babasaheb Ambedkar.
Nation and nationalism are far for being static in nature as there is an active dynamism involved which can be discerned through a proper historical contexualisation of the same. There are umpteen examples of self-determination movements across the globe with ethnicity being one of the prime factors for the demand. The polyethnic nature of Indian society in particular has asked poignant questions to the egalitarian, accommodative nature of our liberal democratic system post independence.
An overpowering, aggressive and a hyper masculinist cultural nationalism in question is certainly doing more harm than good in maintaining the democratic fabric of our society. The hierarchical, segmented notion of this cultural nationalism which works on a feudal understanding of superordination and subordination, needs to be curbed at its earliest. It is only then that a nation will emerge in its true sense based on the feeling of commonality of interests, oneness and belonging.