By Titash Sen:
We understand the world in black and white terms. Something is either this, or it is that. This seems to have extended to our understanding of a nation. You are either with us. Or you are not.
The branding of Jawaharlal Nehru University students as ‘anti-national’ seems to stem from this. We tend to define what we are by first identifying what we are not. The term ‘anti-national’ is defined on these lines: an all-inclusive term for those who are not us. Essentially, therefore, the camps of ‘us’ and ‘them’ get created.
So, what does ‘anti-national’ really mean? Obviously, as the ‘anti’ indicates, it is what ‘national’ or nationalistic is not. Then the real question is: what then, is ‘national’?
So far, the Bharatiya Janata Party/Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad collective hasn’t told us, in clear terms, what nationalism is. Which is strange, because if you are calling someone ‘anti-national’, that means you have a clear idea of what being ‘national’ means. They have, however, left us clues from which we can guess, but not very conclusively.
Rajnath Singh, when accusing JNU students of having ‘possible terror links’ has said to other political parties,
“Never should have something been done which puts a question mark over the country’s sovereignty and integrity. On such occasions, the entire country should be speaking in one voice. I would also appeal to all political parties not to view such episodes through the prism of political gains and losses.”
What this means is, we have judged something as a threat to the ‘national’ (which still remains vague). Because we have declared our judgement in defence of the ‘national’, nationalism is an agreement with our judgement. If you don’t agree, then you are automatically ‘them’ and not ‘us’. The country should be speaking in one voice. Our voice. The voice which knows what nationalism is, and can, therefore, identify those that are ‘anti-our voice’.
Amit Shah has reiterated much the same when he accused Rahul Gandhi of siding with JNU students. Is he suggesting that Rahul Gandhi is ‘anti-national’ too?
Next in line is a BJP MLA, who assaulted a man outside Patiala House for allegedly shouting ‘anti-national’ slogans. CNN-IBN reported that when asked about his actions, his comment was,
“Nothing wrong in beating up or even killing someone shouting slogans in favour of Pakistan.”
Which stands for: the ‘nation’ is above the ‘human’. Also, the nation is that which is not Pakistan. Which means, if you are not the nation, you are Pakistan. There is nothing wrong with killing Pakistan because we are the ‘right’ (pun intended) ones. They are wrong. Wrong is everything we are not. So it is okay to kill wrong.
Then, there was Smriti Irani, who said that the country will not tolerate any insult to Bharat Mata, meaning that ‘nationalism’ is preserving the sanctity of a symbol over all else, regardless of the implications or consequences. To be ‘nationalist’ is to uphold the symbol at all costs, even at the cost of lives and livelihoods. The symbol of the nation is sacred and absolute. It stands for our collective identity, bounding ‘us’ in a monolithic, homogenous whole, and keeping ‘them’ out. It is, as it were, the penultimate identity. Therefore, to question the nation is to question ‘us’. To disrespect the nation implies disrespecting one’s own, and all those who constitute ‘us’.
Because of this unquestionable, penultimate identity that is bestowed on us, the fear of being seen as betraying one’s own is so ingrained, that the media is quick to put out headlines about completely banal things like Ameesha Patel not standing up to respect the national anthem. This is, again, another example of the violation of the symbol of collective identity. What is more, when allegations are made the accused is likely to reiterate defensively, and clarify, rather hurriedly, that their allegiances do indeed lie with the nation.
In this process, the numerous sub-identities that exist within a nation are diluted, and get subsumed in the larger collective of the nation. And it is because of this fear of offending the symbology of the nation, that the scope for making a nuanced articulation of the ‘national’ identity ends, or at best, remains dubiously nebulous.
The concept of a nation, and therefore, nationalism, begins in the good old days of revolution in Europe of the late 1700s and early 1800s. The socio-political unit of a nation comes in a fragmented Europe in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Revolutionaries across Europe form collectives striving to build nations. In 1834, the brotherhood of Young Europe issued a statement that embodies what the act of nation building meant to them:
“Every people has its special mission, which will cooperate towards the fulfilment of the general mission of humanity. That mission constitutes its nationality. Nationality is sacred.”
I bring up this statement because it was made by those who began to see the world in terms of nations, and endeavoured to consciously construct what they thought a nation should be, for the larger benefit of humanity.
You may note, a nation here is its collective mission, and the mission itself is sacred. This leads us to the question: what is our mission, as a nation? The answer to that will determine the ‘anti-national’ as someone opposing the mission. Is our mission agreeing to everything that the representatives of the government tell us in the name of the ‘nation’? Or is it social justice and ethical responsibility? The government may rule the nation, but they do not constitute the nation.
It is very difficult to arrive at a collective mission, because it has to be acceptable to all within the nation, and therefore, is required to be accommodative. There are various, and often contradictory interests that can hinder the process of nation building. This is because, when the nation is created it is the imposition of a larger identity on a number of already existent identities. The Partition, for instance, was telling a Hindu man in Karachi, that he is no longer from Karachi. What has always been his home, and therefore, his regional identity, is something he is forced to dis-identify with. Instead, on the charge of nationalism, he is meant to identify as Hindustani.
That nationalism is not universal and one-dimensional should be apparent from the history of the freedom struggle itself. Gandhian nationalism disagreed vehemently with that of Subhas Chandra Bose, and Nehruvian nationalism was quite another matter. The vision of the nation differed for every one of our freedom fighters. Did they then spend their meetings calling each other ‘anti-national’?
In 2008, Amartya Sen (who, hopefully, everyone sees as a person worthy of ‘national’ pride, and is not known to be a Communist) wrote an article for the Economic and Political Weekly, entitled, ‘Is Nationalism a Boon or a Curse?’ I believe the need of the hour is to consider the following lines very carefully.
“It would be wrong to see nationalism as either an unmitigated evil or a universal virtue. It can be both, a boon and a curse – depending on the circumstances two sides of the same coin…Central to understanding the contingent variability of the role of nationalism is the need to see nationality as one identity among many that we all have.”
Inequality among identities is part of the problem that the JNU students face today. Heroism and glorification of the nation and its symbols gives it (nationality) the top priority in the hierarchy of identities. It is why certain news anchors can cry foul and use the glory of sacrifice to manipulate opinion, because the nation is, after all, unquestionable.
So, to be ‘nationalist’ is to agree to a set of goals or ideas, over and above our various sub-identities. But these goals and ideas may be shared with many people across borders also, depending on what their aspirations as a nation are. So consider this:
“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one”
– John Lennon
This ‘dreamer’ paid with death. Dreamers are boundless minds who do not identify with the consciously created boundaries of the nation but choose instead to identify with humanity. A larger whole where there is no ‘us’, and no ‘them’.
So when Arnab Goswami shouts at students saying he has lost all patience, because “how dare [they] speak over [him] when [he was] speaking about Lance Naik Hanumanthappa” and the heroes who give their lives to protect the nation, the alleged ‘anti-nationals’ smile. Because they know that the only thing armies protect at the cost of their lives (and this applies to all armies everywhere and not just the Indian Army), is the right of those in power to perpetuate their hierarchies.