Review of The Nation and its Citizens: Tales of Bondage and Belonging: A lived experience

Sukumar Muralidharan’s book places India’s present in a historical and geographical context, with competing dynamics of identity, equality and nationalism

May 12, 2023 09:03 am | Updated 09:03 am IST

The unnerving turmoil of the times often impel political observers to characterise it as a definitive rupture from a more desirable form of social order and notion of a collective self. Explanations for the majoritarianism that has gripped India largely tend to understand it in isolation from the development model and the global interaction of capital, labour, technology and extraction of natural resources. Those who do correlate these strands often misdiagnose the malaise, and even propose a liberal market economy as a remedy for xenophobia and nativism. The singular success of Sukumar Muralidharan’s The Nation and its Citizens is locating India’s present in a larger historical and geographical context. He does not make a central argument, but as the book’s subtitle suggests, he writes about ‘tales of bondage and belonging,’ as part of the same fabric.

Nationalism of the Hindutva variety is strident, focused on the internal enemy and often devoid of the rousing humanitarian promises of secularism that preceded it, but there is continuity between both. Nationalism and capitalism were taking shape simultaneously in Europe, and the sustenance of the nation was predicated on its relations with the outside world. It was legitimate to have exploitative relations with those outside the nation. Anti-imperialist nationalism that developed in colonies including India took idioms and notions from European sources, and constructed ties purportedly based on shared bondage. But scepticism of nationalism also emerged, most remarkably in the thoughts of Tagore.

Ties that bind

How Indians bond with one another has remained an unresolved question for centuries now — through two partitions of the subcontinent, integration and reorganisation of its political units which continues till date, the latest being the stripping of Jammu&Kashmir’s special status. If anything, the lesson that must be drawn from all these struggles is the futility of rigid collectives. On the other hand, the suggestion of a borderless world of humanity as one entity appears laughable even as a fantasy in today’s fractious world.

Citizens are often accidental to the nation, but they are promised certain guarantees. The state has failed to live up to those promises through means of capitalist models of development — profits, wages and rents — at various points in history, particularly after globalisation which pitched the nation in conflict with its corporations. Welfare measures sought to smoothen the frayed edges of the social compact, even as capitalist nationalism was delegitimised and ridiculed in the neoliberal era. The war on welfare, and the global mobility of capital and labour undermined the social compact. All this unsettled relations between the citizen and the nation.

Questioning the past

By locating the current turbulence in a broader historical and analytical frame, the author questions the assumption of a pristine past. The disturbing strength of this volume is the depth and sweep it employs to convey that our present has been in the making for a while. All nationalisms are imperialism for some, the “euthanasia of many cultures” is a critical strategy of nation-building. From Voltaire to Habermas, Arendt to Ambedkar, Savarkar, Gandhi and Tagore, the author dips into a wide range of intellectual strands; and from the French Revolution to the Industrial Revolution to the Trump Revolution, he traverses many historical landscapes to make sense of two words — belonging and bondage. Muralidharan’s writing is a wonderful combination of reportage, political theory and historical trends.

One particular point is noteworthy in the current Indian context: what used to be labelled as secularism, the form of nationalism that dominated India immediately after the founding of the Republic, was also deeply sourced from culture. From Ambedkar to Savarkar to Gandhi, the notion of a cultural affinity that holds the nation was a shared thought, though their interpretations and plans of action varied. The idea of citizenship as an individual attribute remained weak.

The Nation and its Citizens: Tales of Bondage and Belonging; Sukumar Muralidharan, Rupa, ₹395.

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