When the state becomes the nation

What has not received adequate scrutiny is the present regime’s doctoring of the very idea of a nation

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:57 pm IST

Published - March 24, 2016 01:42 am IST

“At the heart of the brand of nationalism that is currently seeking to establish its hegemony over India’s cultural and political landscape is the idea of the anti-national.” Picture shows posters at JNU, Delhi, in connection with a lecture on nationalism. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

“At the heart of the brand of nationalism that is currently seeking to establish its hegemony over India’s cultural and political landscape is the idea of the anti-national.” Picture shows posters at JNU, Delhi, in connection with a lecture on nationalism. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Sixty-eight years after independence, India has suddenly rediscovered nationalism. At a recent meeting of its National Executive, the >Bharatiya Janata Party affirmed nationalism as its guiding philosophy . Its leaders announced that a refusal to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ signifies disrespect to the Constitution.

In case you were in winter hibernation and have just woken up, no, we are not at war like, say, Syria is. No imperial power has invaded us like, say, in Iraq. But all of a sudden, a country hit hard by a stuttering economy, growing unemployment, agrarian distress, and wracked by malnutrition, illiteracy, and environmental degradation seems to have decided that its topmost national priority is to settle the question of who is an anti-national.

Alphabet soup In this nationalism debate, both within Parliament and without, a variety of terms have been used to describe the brand of nationalism invoked by the NDA government to identify anti-nationals: from ‘pseudo-nationalism’ to ‘aggressive nationalism’ to ‘Hindu nationalism’, ‘cultural nationalism’, ‘chauvinistic nationalism’, ‘hyper-nationalism’, ‘regimented nationalism’, and ‘partisan nationalism’. Only a few commentators have used the word ‘fascism’, which too is a particular kind of nationalism.

But branding a democratically elected government as fascist – even though history tells us that a fascist government can be voted to power – is typically viewed as an exaggeration; as a misguided attempt to revoke the moral legitimacy of the government in power. Besides, in a constitutional democracy, it is never difficult to adduce evidence in support of an administration’s democratic credentials.

Rather, what concerns us here is the nationalism debate. The question is not whether India is on the verge of fascism but whether the particular kind of nationalist ideology espoused by the ruling dispensation has anything in common with the ideology of fascism. To answer this, we can do no better than go back to the father of fascism, Benito Mussolini, and his seminal work, The Doctrine of Fascism , published in 1935.

Mussolini’s five principles In this essay, Mussolini identifies five principles as central to a fascist ideology. The first and most fundamental is the primacy of the state’s interests over an individual’s rights. As he writes, “The fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the state and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State (italics mine).”

The second principle is the primacy of the state over the nation: “It is not the nation which generates the State… rather it is the State which creates the nation.”

The third is the rejection of democracy. “In rejecting democracy, fascism rejects the absurd conventional lie of political equilatarianism,” Mussolini says, dismissing both democracy and equality in one go.

Fourth is the state’s non-secular character: “The Fascist state sees in religion one of the deepest of spiritual manifestations and for this reason it not only respects religion but defends and protects it.” For the Italian fascist, it was “Roman Catholicism, the special, positive religion of the Italians.” One doesn’t need to spell out what the “special, positive religion” of the Indian fascist would be.

Fifth, tying the other four principles together is a conception of the state as the repository of all virtue. For Mussolini, the state is “the conscience of the nation”.

At the heart of the brand of nationalism that is currently seeking to establish its hegemony over India’s cultural and political landscape is the idea of the anti-national. No doubt purely by coincidence, Mussolini’s five principles — primacy of the state over citizen’s rights and the nation, contempt for democracy, investment in a national religion, and a belief in the nation-state as a moral agent — converge neatly in the discourse of the ‘anti-national’. The microphone that amplifies this discourse is the sedition law.

Speaking about the sedition law, Kanhaiya Kumar made a distinction between ‘raaj droh’ and ‘desh droh’. ‘Raaj droh’, according to him, is a betrayal of the state, whereas ‘desh droh’ is a betrayal of the nation. The British needed a sedition law because the natives had every reason to betray a colonial state that was oppressing them. An independent state that is democratic would not need a sedition law for the simple reason that it is, in principle, subordinate to the nation. The nation, in this democratic paradigm, is essentially a cultural construct given currency by groups of people who have agreed to be part of one nation. This agreement is an ongoing conversation, as >Rahul Gandhi observed in Parliament . In Mr. Kumar’s words, “India is not just a nation but a federation of nations.”

Put another way, it is impossible for an Indian to utter anything ‘anti-national’ because anything she says would always already constitute the self-expression of a cell of that body known as the Indian nation. While enough has been written about the present regime’s distortion of the idea of India, what has not received adequate scrutiny is its doctoring of the very idea of a nation. This is taking place at four levels: conflation of the state with the nation; conflation of the nation with the territory; presenting criticism of the state as a crime against the nation; and finally, applying a law meant for those undermining the state, on those acting to strengthen the nation. When such doctoring happens, it is often the case that those who control the state machinery are people seeking to harm the nation. It is perfectly possible to strengthen the state and destroy the nation at the same time – no contradiction here.

Therefore the most effective response to the challenge posed by the >discourse of anti-nationalism is not joining the competition to decide who is the greater or truer nationalist but to delink the nation from both territory and the state. This is also the only way out for the Left that finds in an (anti-)nationalistic bind every time it is subjected to the ‘litmus test’ of Kashmir.

If the Indian nation is not synonymous with Indian territory – a territory that is a contingent product of colonial history – but an idea vested in a covenant among the Indian people, then the Left can take a stand on Kashmir that is in consonance with the principles of democracy without becoming vulnerable to the charge of being ‘anti-national’.

Delinking the nation from the state also prepares the ground for exposing the dangers of a nationalism that fetishes the state at the expense of the people. And once this danger is exposed, fighting it becomes easier, for history and morality are both on the side of the anti-fascist.

The moral repugnance that a fascist ideology evokes is such that no respectable individual, not even those who witch-hunt anti-nationals on prime time every night, can openly endorse fascism. The strategy of Mussolini’s heirs will never be to openly espouse their ideology — as Mussolini did — but to pursue it covertly. This is the significance of the question Kanhaiya Kumar posed to the Prime Minister: “You spoke about Stalin and Khrushchev, but why didn’t you speak of Hitler too?”


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