Nationalism that’s progressive

Far from giving up on nationalism, the disaffected and the underprivileged need to raise their voice against the anomalies of the Indian state now under the control of cultural nationalists

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:34 pm IST

Published - February 25, 2016 02:02 am IST

Merely a week after Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) came into the national limelight with the arrest of its students’ union president > Kanhaiya Kumar for “sedition” and an attempt to brand fellow students as “anti-national”, the university responded to this ‘siege’ in atypical fashion.

Also read: >Sedition and the government

As government and ruling party officials — ministers, members of Parliament, spokespersons — and right-wing sympathisers tried to force-fit the events in JNU into their ideological agenda, the students’ union and teachers’ association organised an open classroom which included a session, among others, on “nation and nationalism” by Professor Gopal Guru.

The professor spoke of the rational and saner understanding of “nation”, of an imagining of India which brought people together in such a way that “eliminated the asymmetries” between “the puraskrit (privileged) and the bahishkrit (excluded)”, of going beyond an understanding of the nation as a territorial/narrow cultural idea, and instead looking at it as a means to achieve egalitarian goals. And for the “state” and its institutions — the bureaucracy, the administration, the ministries, etc — to play that “nation-building” role.

The professor’s 30-minute talk, available on YouTube, brought forth the idea of nation and nationalism for the progressive Indian as opposed to the “cultural nationalist” or the “territorial nationalist” and an optimistic, normative alternative to the radical sceptic, which is how I shall define some of the sloganeers who shouted “anti-national” slogans on February 9.

Myriad hues of nationalism

Slogans that Kanhaiya Kumar raised — “freedom from hunger, casteism, hierarchy, poverty and communalism” — encapsulate his progressive nationalism.

It has now become too easy to brand anyone articulating differences with a homogenous construct of nationalism. Dalits who reject Brahminical Hinduism, leftists and secular intellectuals who reject Hindutva, beef-eaters, inter-religious couples and even dissidents who argue for “ azadi ” (freedom) from hunger, patriarchy and caste oppression, as Mr. Kumar did, are branded as “anti-national”. This is because cultural nationalism — an idea that has been associated with those in power today — basically seeks to subsume the “other” within a limiting construct of the self and the nation. It is deeply problematic, and anathema to the concept of India that emerged after the freedom struggle. This also explains why cultural nationalists played a peripheral and even regressive role in the freedom struggle.

Territorial nationalism imagines India as a geographical entity, promotes an idea of the country that is united in its diversities, envisages a state that is secular and a political unity of federal units (distinguished linguistically) in a constitutional republic. This concept of territorial nationalism evolved over time, as part of India’s freedom struggle and its anti-colonial legacy. It was realised that an inclusive nation that strives for secular, progressive and federal goals is the only way out to build a successful national struggle and India’s independence enshrined these values in the Indian Constitution. This concept of territorial nationalism was promoted and most prominently associated with the Indian National Congress, which was without doubt the lynchpin of India’s nationalist struggle, apart from the presence and yeoman work of other political forces such as the Left as well.

Yet, progressivism and normativity entail values that go beyond limited “territorial nationalism”. For example, it is a matter of pride for “territorial nationalists” to build a powerful Indian nation-state with nuclear weapons and to see it at the high table featuring other such countries. But is it rational to possess these destructive weapons or to privilege an abstract ideal of becoming a “world power” instead of addressing inequities, poverty and socio-economic disparities in the country?

Besides, unity in diversity has only meant the accommodation of differences rather than the need for express elimination of disparity which is what is needed in an India where casteism is entrenched and legitimate disaffections persist in several parts of the country. The limits of this territorial nationalism beg the question whether nationalism itself is a limiting concept for the progressive, as Rabindranath Tagore argued, or if universalist goals could be accommodated within the framework of the nation-state. Put another way, has “nationalism” become passé in the universalist understanding of progressivism?

Also read: >Redefining Indian nationhood

Why progressive nationalism matters I would argue otherwise, taking my cue from Prof. Guru, that there is a large agency for the Indian state within Indian nationhood to act upon the disparities and the disaffections within the country. The Constitution provides the leeway for such actions in this regard, and it is incumbent upon progressive nationalists to realise its vision and improve upon it for contemporary times. Far from giving up on “nationalism”, the disaffected and the underprivileged need to raise their voice against the anomalies of the Indian state which is now under the control of “cultural nationalists”. The alternative progressive nationalism would entail a different understanding of India, with the focal point being the unprivileged (the bahishkrit ), and would advocate going beyond the confines of territorial nationalism.

The > JNU issue , after all, became a national story because a public meeting was organised by a few students who protested against Afzal Guru’s hanging. There are several tropes surrounding Guru’s hanging, but the most important one pertains to his Kashmiri Muslim identity and how his hanging by the Indian state is seen in the Kashmir Valley, and how it is related to the “Kashmir question”. It is therefore imperative to evaluate positions from the viewpoints of the territorial and cultural nationalists apropos that of the “progressive nationalists”.

Territorial and cultural nationalists take offence to any suggestion for revisiting the draconian laws that govern security in Jammu and Kashmir. At the same time, unlike the radical sceptic who rejects the framework of the Indian nation, the progressive nationalist can envisage a Kashmir solution within the confines of Indian nationhood but by exploring the questions of autonomy (that is promised by the Constitution), soft borders and so on. The progressive nationalist can offer a bouquet of options within the large middle ground of an inclusive Indian nationhood which could address the indignation and angst today among Kashmiris in the Valley as well as the Kashmiri migrants.

Besides, progressive nationalism will not just pay lip service to the valour of those (mostly poor recruits) killed in the hostile climes of Siachen in Kashmir, but will seek to resolve this issue by arguing for Indian and Pakistani troops to withdraw from the area and to end the irrational presence on the glacier.

Progressive nationalism will not just affirm its commitment to the Indian nation abstractly by installing towering flag poles, but by staying true to Gandhi’s talisman: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry…?”

Progressive nationalism, in this way, will entail a humane imagining of nationhood, where the self is committed to the betterment of the other, and in particular that of other underprivileged citizens. It is the rank opposite of cultural nationalism, which is inward-looking, narrow and demonises the other. And it is an advance over territorial nationalism, which accommodates differences and disparity but does not do enough to overcome them.

It is heartening to see the students and teachers of JNU reiterating this message of progressive nationalism and a truer democracy that accommodates free speech — even radical scepticism. Slogans that Mr. Kumar raised as a counter to the radical sceptics and the cultural nationalists’ slogans — “freedom from hunger, casteism, hierarchy, poverty and communalism” — encapsulate his progressive nationalism. It is a sad reflection of the state of affairs in this country that he is being tried for sedition.


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