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A national identity crisis

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 09, 2016
Flag on sleeve: The new nationalist practices impose a demand on citizens to make an ostentatious public display of loyalty in every civic engagement. Photo: Vijay Kumar Bajaj

Flag on sleeve: The new nationalist practices impose a demand on citizens to make an ostentatious public display of loyalty in every civic engagement. Photo: Vijay Kumar Bajaj

On Nationalism; Romila Thapar, AG Noorani and Sadanand Menon; Non-fiction; Aleph; ₹399

On Nationalism; Romila Thapar, AG Noorani and Sadanand Menon; Non-fiction; Aleph; ₹399

A historian, a constitutional expert and a cultural theorist explain Indian nationalism elegantly, but fall just short of explaining its historical mutability

Nationality answers two basic questions that every individual, at some point, would have asked herself. Who am I? Where do I belong? In a preface to this pocket-sized book, a writer identified only by his initials argues that nationalism may be threaded into the human DNA, a form of association that is perhaps an innate species characteristic.

That may seem rather difficult to reconcile with the reality today of nations collapsing as wars of territory and identity rage across a vast swathe. There is agreement over the proposition that the human being is a zoon politikon in the old Aristotelian sense — a social being who finds his identity within a community. The nation is precisely that kind of a human community constructed in contingent historical circumstances, often identified as originating in Europe’s Westphalian peace in 1648, but more accurately dated to the French Revolution. Nationalism instituted the principles of citizen sovereignty, of liberty and equality. It also invented colonialism and warfare on an industrial scale.

For Romila Thapar, who “grew up on the cusp of Independence”, nationalism was the breath of life itself. From the vantage point of her historian’s discipline, she later saw the nuances and recognised the element of artifice in nationalist ideology. In 1983, Benedict Anderson came up with his formulation of the nation as an “imagined community”. Later that decade, Eric Hobsbawm wrote about traditions as “inventions” that were, with little demur, accepted into the nationalist canon as immutable existential truths.

Having come this far, Thapar proves reluctant to explore the historical conditions in which nationalism can turn from a doctrine of liberation into its opposite. She is worried though, by the contentious spirit with which nationalist claims are now advanced.

The new practices impose a demand on citizens to make an ostentatious public display of loyalty in every civic engagement. Basic entitlements are contingent on loud proclamations of fealty to what is portrayed as the singular faith of the land. Thapar observes these abuses, but puts them down as deviations, turning her back on a rich and vibrant tradition of critique going back to Rabindranath Tagore.

Constitutional expert AG Noorani, a prolific media commentator, deals with crimes that involve challenges to national identity. “Sedition” is the crime under issue, a fixture in the Indian statute from colonial times, when the struggle for liberation involved words and deeds that challenged the authority of an oppressive state.

Noorani provides a valuable summation of case law in independent India and deplores the homage paid to the colonial sensibility in repeated iterations of sedition as a circumstance in which exceptions to free speech guarantees can be made. Judicial decisions here betrayed the hope and promise of the Constitutional Assembly, which agreed on a virtually unconditional charter of rights, though the first constitutional amendment did introduce qualifications that recognised the equal treatment of unequals as a denial of equality.

This summation pays only cursory attention to certain counter-instances in India’s judicial history, where a different and infinitely more liberal standard was established.

Noorani also has little time for the broader context, since a major episode in raising the “nation” to a higher pedestal was the sixteenth amendment in 1964, which made territory a higher ideal than citizens’ rights.

Noorani explores the origin of slogans venerating the nation as a nourishing mother, and cultural theorist Sadanand Menon carries forward these excavations into the construction of a primordial identity claim. Menon distinguishes between two dimensions of nationalism. In its political incarnation, it foregrounds the values of freedom, democracy and equality; while in the cultural dimension it seeks out identities, moral codes and seeks to situate these within a cultural heritage defined in exclusionary fashion. From a multitude of ways of life, certain strands gain the privilege of being elevated as the cultural foundation of the nation.

By identifying its cultural variant as the rogue form, Menon again tiptoes around the historical mutability of nationalism. The French revolution, which, according to an eminent historian, infused the word “nation” with the unique breath of its inspiration, also began with the claim to uphold universal values. Anybody who shared its values of liberty, equality and fraternity could partake of the revolution.

But as the threat of aristocratic reaction mounted and an external threat became manifest, this revolutionary conception was supplanted by a narrower one. The revolution belonged uniquely to those who spoke the French language, since that alone was the idiom in which the new political values could be expressed. This was a seamless transition, from the political claims made on behalf of the nation to its cultural assertion.

Menon provides an account of how claims of ancient provenance and authenticity were attached to the revival of Indian literature and dance forms under the colonial regime. It was a way of demoting or derecognising several cultures and ways of life as a “national mainstream” came to be defined by elite consensus.

Democracy is about these ways of life regaining their rightful place within the “nation”. It may well involve a transcendence of nationalism as an ideology.

Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent researcher based in Gurugram

Published on December 09, 2016
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