Love thy nation, watch thy government

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At the heart of the debate between right-wingers and liberals in India is the fundamental disagreement on how to define Nationalism.

During the course of debates on whether or not there is growing intolerance in the country — on social networks, television shows and even coffee table conversations among friends — things reach a deadlock with this question: do you or do you not love your nation?

To answer this question, it becomes necessary to revisit and understand once again certain seemingly related terms — nation, state, and government.

When it comes to India, do we need to go by the social-science textbook definition of nationalism, which could essentially have been propagated by Western powers? Were there attempts made in the past to define ‘Indian nationalism’ differently?

Should we be worried when people start speaking against the government? And is criticising the government being anti-national?

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The Nation

 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines nation as “a large body of people united by common descent, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory”.

Nationalism is the method that drives the coming together of a nation.

In his book > Imagined communities, published in 1982, political scientist Benedict Anderson >argues that nations are socially-constructed communities, as imagined by people who perceive themselves to be a part of that group. The identity by which people imagine themselves to be a part of a nation can come from various themes: common language, culture, religion, geography, or shared historic experience.

Thus, 'the nation’ is constituted by an imagined shared identity. In today’s widely networked society (thanks to the Internet), it is possible for the formation of more nations comprised by a commonly felt identity.

Especially so in a nation like India, which can be a collection of many sub-nations. For instance, a person named Panneerselvan from the sub-nation of Tamilians might not have heard of a person named Popinder from the sub-nation of Punjabis. Yet, if they (and others like them) feel that they have a common identity that unites them together in a way that their sub-national identities comply with and reinforce a larger identity, they constitute a nation.

From this perspective, India’s sense of nationality can be understood as being derived from the common struggle against colonialism (a shared historical experience) and, as such, includes people of different religions and languages.

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Hindu nation

This view is directly opposed by the Hindutva brigade, which believes that the Indian identity is essentially the Hindu identity. They hold the view that the Hindu Rashtra is centuries old and, what’s more, divinely ordained. Sitaram Goel in >his book Hindu society under Siege says: “Hindu society is the only significant society in the world today which presents a continuity of cultural existence and functioning since time immemorial.”

The dilemma latent in defining the nation applies in basis to the idea of Nationalism too.

Is nationalism bad?

Historian Elie Kedourie says that “Nationalism is the doctrine which holds that humanity is naturally divided into nations, that nations are known by certain characteristics which can be ascertained, and that the only legitimate type of government is national self-government. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation.”

 

Because self-determination is central to the definition of nationalism, it may be implied is that modern nations contain many more nations wriggling in a chrysalis, waiting to be born. It is precisely because of this implied propensity for secessionism that many Western political scientists have described nationalism negatively. Moreover, Nationalism was also the cause of several wars in 20th-century Europe.

However, this negativity may not apply to Indian Nationalism, depending on how we understand the Indian nation. If we were to accept that the Indian nation is not divinely ordained, but a product of an anti-colonial shared experience running across regions, languages and religions, Indian nationalism can be seen as being guided by tolerance and pluralism, which also happen to be quintessential Hindu values.

On the other hand, the negative perception of nationalism would hold true in the Indian case as well if we were to believe the Hindutva argument, which is: the Hindu Rashtra is an identity that has been with people for thousands of years. This is bound to have generated a feeling of Nationalism, which forms a the basis for the doctrine of restoring that lost Hindu glory.

Century-old debate

In setting the tone for discussions about ‘Indian nationalism’ in >his book Nationalism published in 1918, Rabindranath Tagore writes: "India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that idolatry of the Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity."

 

He also points out the problems peculiar to India: “When our nationalists talk about ideals they forget that the basis of nationalism is wanting. The very people who are upholding these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice. Nationalists say, for example, look at Switzerland, where, in spite of race differences, the peoples have solidified into a nation. Yet, remember that in Switzerland the races can mingle, they can intermarry, because they are of the same blood. In India there is no common birthright. And when we talk of Western Nationality we forget that the nations there do not have that physical repulsion, one for the other, that we have between different castes. Have we an instance in the whole world where a people who are not allowed to mingle their blood shed their blood for one another except by coercion or >for mercenary purposes? And can we ever hope that these moral barriers against our race amalgamation will not stand in the way of our political unity?”

Those who are crying foul of growing intolerance in India — be it the murder of rationalist writers or the stark violence over beef — are trying to remind everyone of the core values on which the Indian nation was founded. There is a growing worry that we are moving away from tolerance and pluralism, dominant features of the anti-colonial Indian nationalism.

Who is anti-national?

To answer this question, we need to unpack the terms anti-state, anti-government and anti-national.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a state as “a nation or territory considered as an organised political community under one government”.

The government has a simple definition. “It is the governing body of a state”.

The state is thus a semi-permanent political institution while a government is a temporary (in most cases) body of people that administers according to the powers vested in it by the state’s Constitution.

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So, when it comes to anti-government protests, the question to ask is: can we protest against the government and yet be a nationalist?

The answer is a resounding yes. Several whistleblowers who rally against corruption take an anti-government stand but are still nationalists. The artists who registered a symbolic protest by returning their awards recently also fall under this category. In railing against the state of affairs in the country, they have captured the imagination of many and benefited from the new-age networking architecture, but they have still not done anything against the nation.

Terming those who question the government as anti-national shows an inability (intended or otherwise) to differentiate between the state, government and nation. After all, the survival and security of the state, often termed “the national interest”, is directly connected to the ability of citizens to enjoy their freedom.

Fair discourse

Instead of raising questions over past occurrences over which we have no control, it is better that one respect anti-government sentiments and keep the government true to its Constitutional mandate.

The expectation that the Prime Minister must speedily condemn acts that challenge the freedom of the citizens is a fair demand. The lack of a fast and direct condemnation of such incidents, and the efforts of the ruling party to shield the Prime Minister against any sort of criticism, and the tactics thereof, have jarred recent conversations.

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It is the Indian Republic that upholds and guarantees our freedoms. We shouldn’t be worried if citizens question the government on account of abrogation of individual freedoms. Holding the government to the principles of the Indian Constitution is the only way to strengthen the Indian state, government and nation.

(This post was a collaboration with Pranay Kotasthane, research fellow at the Takshashila Institution. He can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pranaykotas)

This article has been corrected for an editing error in the caption for the image depicting the painting of the French Revolution.

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