What it means to be ‘national’

Nationalism that developed in India during the anti-colonial struggle was sui generis, an altogether new phenomenon the like of which the world had not seen earlier. It was essentially a democratic and egalitarian nationalism, as opposed to the aggrandising European form.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:03 pm IST

Published - February 27, 2016 03:43 am IST

When students of my university are being accused of being “anti-national”, it is time to ask the question: what does “national” mean? And the answer is not as simple as many imagine. The terms “national”, “nationalism” and “nation-state” came into vogue in Europe after the Westphalian Peace Treaties in the 17th century. But European “nationalism” had three major characteristics. First, it was never inclusive of the entire population even within the territory of the “nation”. It always invoked an “enemy within” (example, the Jews). Second, it was necessarily imperialistic. Within months of the Westphalian Treaties, Oliver Cromwell had attacked Ireland (the first ever colony of conquest) and acquired for England the possession over its entire land area.

In the subsequent decades, European powers, even while “peacefully co-existing” within Europe, were engaged in bitter wars in far-off places like India, with each trying to carve out an empire for itself. Third, the “nation” was apotheosised for its own sake ; the idea invariably was to make the “nation” strong. This was not just a notion of mercantilism to which it has been obviously ascribed; it underlay even classical political economy. Adam Smith’s magnum opus was titled “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations ” (emphasis added). Smith differed from the mercantilists on what exactly constituted the wealth of nations; but on the need to augment this wealth per se, no matter what it meant for the people, he had no differences with the mercantilists. European “nationalism” in short was an aggrandising nationalism.

Also read: >Why our universities are in ferment

Apogee under fascism It is for this reason that a “nation” like Germany that got formed rather late in the day and therefore came late to the scene of aggrandisement, was even more virulent in its assertion of nationalism to further its aggrandising aims; and this entire process reached its apogee under fascism.

It is also for this reason that the progressive and democratic tradition in Europe, in more recent years, has sought to transcend “nationalism”, after the bitter experience of the two world wars, by setting up the European Union (though that too, not unexpectedly, has not shaken off this aggrandising nationalism which has become associated in modern times with the interests of finance capital and is promoted by it).

It is very important, however, to recognise that the concept of “nationalism” that developed in countries like India during their anti-colonial struggle was of an altogether different kind. Precisely because the struggle was against an immensely powerful adversary, the colonial rulers, it had to be inclusive, to mobilise every possible segment of the population for the cause. Likewise it had to develop solidarity with other such struggles, and for that reason had to have a fraternal rather than an aggrandising relation with other Third World countries. And finally, it had to put the welfare of the “people”, as distinct from the greatness of the “nation” per se, as its central focus, a fact poignantly expressed by Gandhi when he said that the objective of freedom was to “wipe away the tears from the eyes of every Indian”.

Also read: >‘Gandhi was uncompromisingly secular’

An egalitarian nationalism This was a nationalism which was sui generis , an altogether new phenomenon the like of which the world had not seen earlier. It was essentially a democratic and egalitarian nationalism as opposed to the aggrandising European nationalism, differing from the latter in all the three aspects mentioned earlier.

To say this is not to paint it in rosy colours as a wonderful creature that emerged fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. There was indeed an admixture of aggrandisement even within it, but every transgression on its part into aggrandising nationalism has the potential effect, as I argue below, of damaging the project of “nation-building”. It has to be an inclusive democratic nationalism if it is to succeed at all, a proposition whose validity is not altered one iota even though colonialism as such is long over.

When Gandhi in his last days insisted, against the horrendous backdrop of Partition and in opposition to demurring Congress leaders, that India must make full payment of the amount that was due to Pakistan, he was not being “anti-national”; he was merely taking a position in conformity with the democratic “nationalism” underlying the anti-colonial struggle. Central to this nationalism is tolerance, accommodation and negotiation in the event of differences, not the use of brute force to enforce silence and assert hegemony. This nationalism demands that if people from some particular part of the country raise anti-India slogans, then, as long as no terrorism or violence or incitement to violence is involved, that should become an occasion for introspection and analysis, with a view to overcoming the contradiction, rather than for repression by invoking the infamous sedition laws inherited from the colonial era.

Also read: >Sedition and the government

BJP’s substitution What is disturbing today is that the BJP is substituting the first kind of nationalism for the second, an aggrandising nationalism for the democratic nationalism that ideally informed the anti-colonial struggle and that constitutes the conceptual basis of the Indian state. What is worse, the very existence of the second kind of nationalism is being denied, with the terms “national” and “anti-national” being used entirely with reference to the first kind of nationalism.

No doubt, the democratic nationalism of the anti-colonial struggle is not easy to realise. For a start, untrammelled capitalism with its immanently inequalising, even impoverishing, tendencies, cannot possibly constitute the appropriate economic framework for its realisation, a fact recognised by the major leaders of that time, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar (though each of them had a different perception of the requisite framework). But capitalism, albeit restricted by state regulations and surrounded by a public sector, is what came to be instituted; and in due course even these restrictions were removed as the hegemony of globalised finance capital asserted itself and neo-liberal policies were adopted.

The shift to an aggrandising nationalism is clearly linked to the emergence of neo-liberal capitalism in the country; and the BJP which promotes the former is a votary of the latter. But no matter what the circumstances that have conspired to put in office a party committed to an aggrandising nationalism, such a nationalism is fundamentally inimical to the project of building an Indian nation.

Also read: >State overreach on the campus

Destroying India’s finest institutions Consider first an obvious point. Here is a government that has sought to browbeat the students at the Pune Film Institute, the Hyderabad Central University, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the Department of Fine Arts of the M.S. University of Baroda. These are among the finest institutions in India, and their destruction only makes the country parasitical on institutions located in metropolitan countries. In short, in the name of “nationalism”, we are, paradoxically, making our nation parasitical on advanced nations. But this inevitably follows the promotion of an aggrandising nationalism in a Third World country that prioritises repression over tolerance.

An aggrandising nationalism does not just constrict democracy and freedom of expression, with, as we have seen, lynch mobs taking law into their own hands, sedition laws being applied even to young idealistic and sensitive students, and lies and misinformation being liberally used to tarnish the innocent and discredit them in the public eye. It inevitably generates reactions that are equally extreme. Such an aggrandising nationalism, in short, sets up a disastrous dialectic, of repression generating extreme reaction, which in turn brings forth greater repression, causing even more extreme reaction, and so on.

To believe that the “nation-building” project in a Third World country can survive this disastrous dialectic is a chimera. The Third World in fact is full of so-called “failed states”. Behind these “failed states”, no doubt, one can often see the hand of metropolitan powers; but the modus operandi is invariably through the generation of internal conflicts. This is precisely what an aggrandising nationalism generates.

There is a major difference between the aggrandising nationalism of Europe and its incarnation being invoked in our context: the “enemy within” that the aggrandising nationalism of Europe had identified had consisted typically of a minuscule minority (this is true even of Nazi Germany where the Jews were only about 0.7 per cent of the population); the “enemy within” that an aggrandising nationalism will have to take on in India is far larger. The threat of social disintegration that such “nationalism” brings is correspondingly larger. If India is to avoid the fate of a “failed state” such “nationalism” must be stopped in its tracks.

(Prabhat Patnaik is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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