The Nationalism Conundrum of India

The liberal elite of India, especially after the JNU imbroglio, have elucidated a point that there is nothing sacred about India’s borders and that the concept of nationhood does not hold water; that there should be no qualms about supporting Kashmir’s call for Azadi.

Most of us have no idea of the philosophical debates being undertaken by the arts and humanities luminaries in their search of intellectual pursuit. I consider myself a dummy on this one. For dummies like me, India as a nation has been a perquisite to being an Indian; for us, patriotism has only positive connotations and nationalism means a way to project our patriotism. Religious or Ethnic definitions of nations do not exist for us dummies.

On the other hand for intellectuals, nationality is a fluid word. Nationality may encompass ethnic, religious, linguistic or regional identities. It is traditional, therefore, to distinguish nations from states — whereas a nation often consists of an ethnic or cultural community, a state is a political entity with a high degree of sovereignty. While many states are nations in some sense, there are many nations which are not fully sovereign states.

A country thus is distinct from a nation, it is more of a state, or a nation-state at its best. The whole point of their argument in short is that Nationalism as a Nation-State (or a country) is a relatively new phonomenon, which emerged during the French Revolution, consolidated during the American War of Independence and progressed the most after the two world wars.

If we look back into history, we realise that the idea is indeed a new one and the progress of nationalism in Asia and Africa is reflected in the histories of the League of Nations after World War I and of the United Nations after World War II. Among the League’s original members, there were only 5 Asian countries (China, India, Japan, Thailand, and Iran) and 2 African countries (Liberia and South Africa), and it added only 3 Asian countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Turkey) and 2 African countries (Egypt and Ethiopia) before it was dissolved in 1946. In the case of UNO, of its original 51 members in 1945, 8 were Asian (China, India, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey) and 4 were African (the same as in the League). By 1980, 35 years after its founding, the United Nations had added more than 100 member nations, most of them Asian and African. 

So, nations are a recent concept. India thus as per the prevailing premise of social scientists and historians is a recent ‘nation’; and by that argument so are most of the other countries that we see on the map today.

Nationalism has its pitfalls:

In recent times, Nationalism in India has come to be identified with a rigid saffron vision of India as a Hindu-Rashtra, an idea that hits at the secular foundations of India as a nation-state. This idea of a monolithic India as a homogenous entity of high caste Savarna Hindus is an idea that seeks to exclude other cultural and ethno-religious nationalities from the idea of India.

The oft-quoted Einstein statement

This ‘ethno-religious nationalism’ calling for a Hindu Rashtra can be termed as ultra-nationalism, or jingoism and is a movement that needs to be decried very strongly by all Indians. Jingoism or Ultra-Nationalism can lead to the rise of extreme Nationalistic movements, such as Zionism and Nazism. Both of these nationalistic groups believed that the ethnic- supremacy was the master race and the chosen people. Both groups practice ethnic cleansing, as illustrated by the killing of Jews by Nazis, and the killing of Palestinians by Jews.

Nationalism has its benefits:

Countries that have stable boundaries have stable economies and are able to provide their citizens with a better standard of life. Maps however will continue to change as they have always changed for centuries, but in their stability they do provide citizens with the opportunity for a better life, especially if the nation has a benevolent government system.

Indian Nationalism was one of the bulwarks supporting the freedom movement of India. In fact, it was the prime driving force behind India’s freedom and in the emergence of India as a force to reckon with in the world community. The stability that the nation-state of India has provided to its masses has resulted in economic upliftment of billions. The task is incomplete but the path seems to be well etched.

The leftist argument in reaction to the Hindu Rashtra type jingoism is that nationalism as a concept is a useless concept; that being a recent concept, it is a rogue philosophy and it must be ignored while considering the freedom calls of various communities. Ironically, as displayed by JNU students recently, the leftists support the Kashmiri Muslim’s call for a Kashmiri nation based on the same flawed philosophy of ‘ethno-religious nationalism’. That they fail to understand the irony is a matter of anguish. Moreover, they fail to acknowledge that the Jehadi ideologue’s clarion call for Azadi is not ethnic nationalism, but communal nationalism based on Nizam-E-Mustafa (Shariat rule); which goes against the prevailing secular traditions of India.

Any person living in a country can be a part of several nationalities, he/she can be the citizen of a nation-state, yet be a member of his ethnic nation, his religious nation-hood and a codundrum of all those. I can be an Indian, be a part of the large Sikh nation as well as of a cross-border Punjabi nation. Problems arise when the various nations that make my identity tend to conflict with each other. When such conflicts occur within each of us, we need to make our choices and go with one of those ideas. I would surmise that the idea of a stable nation-state over-rides other ideas provided that the nation-state gives me the security of belonging to it without legal discrimination. 

The fact is that even though nation-hood as understood by intellectuals is a new concept, India as a nation-state is as old or as new as other Asian nations like China, Korea, Indonesia, Iraq, or any other nation for that matter; barring a few that have existed as political entities for a few centuries longer. For the first time in a thousand centuries, due to this evolving concept of ‘nationalism’, country boundaries across the world have started acquiring some level of permanence. United Nations has been a blessing in that sense for setting in place a system that strives to penalise violation of national boundaries; it has’nt always succeeded though but it does try. The pace of change in political maps has decreased for the first time in history.

India is a new nation-state, a new country; but we all separate nations making Indian State might as well thrive and strive within it rather than without; especially since the Indian State tends to be secular and even-handed in the larger scheme of things. However, we need to safe-guard against the RSS type nationalism that tends to exclude all minorities from their idea of India, also excluding communal ‘religious nationalism’ of Khalistani Sikhs or Jehadi Muslims masquerading as ethnic nationalism. Also, we need to analyse how the benevolance of the Indian state can be extended to the indigenous tribals of India fighting for their rights within India.

It might be in the interests of all ethnic, religious or linguistic nations within the nation-state of India that they protect the map of India and strive for its permanence for some time to come rather than seeking to destroy it and seek their seperation into distinct nation-states.