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If Everyone Is ‘Anti-National’, Are There Any Real ‘Patriots’ Left In India?

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By Titash Sen:

bharat mata
Image Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri.

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.

You must be to comment.
  1. Parth Mehta

    And what is so wrong in perpetuating these structures and hierarchies?

    Look….Whether you like it or not, India has enemies. No one can deny this fact. I don’t like it (obviously), we did not create this scenario we only inherited this reality. This nation’s enemies (and yes this includes Pakistan) would, I’m sure, love to see India and its people in a perpetual state of destitution and deprevation to further it’s own agendas. Also, need I remind you what happed some 250 odd years ago when the people of the subcontinent were divided?

    Together we have a collective interest and the power to protect and project these interests effectively. It is not ideal but it is the way it is. India and its people have finally started to do reasonably well and are projected to do so in the coming decades. Without our unity, without our nation, I don’t think it’s possible. Please give this a thought the next time you speak in favor of those who seek to retard our progress.

    Please do not take these words lightly, I would kill and be killed to protect this nation, the only one we have. It is not prefect, far from it but it is improving

    I fully support the crackdown on anti India protesters, whether it be this Kanhaiya fellow or anyone else.

  2. Titash Sen

    Thank you for explaining our opinion. I am deeply grateful that you have argued your case in a logical thread and raised questions. I shall address these questions and hope that you take the time to think about my response.

    The problem with perpetuating these hierarchies and structures is that only a handful of people are the beneficiaries of this kind of progress, and in India, it is mostly the urban and affluent class. This comes at a cost of many others, and it is a social cost that many of us willingly pay, by turning a blind eye to those problems that make us uncomfortable.
    When you talk about progress, you must first ask, what ‘progress’ means. Is ‘progress’ reflected in a bunch of numbers and statistics? Aggregates that show how well the country is doing, do not reflect the inequalities, especially the economic ones, that are getting wider by the day.
    So, we as a nation, need to decide what kind of progress we want. Will we continue to pay the price of our progress by ignoring the plight of marginalized farmers, adivasis, minorities, and the impoverished? Shouldn’t development be more inclusive, and more equitable, where opportunity isn’t the monopoly of the privileged?
    So I will ask you, if the existent hierarchies perpetuate their structures, they are infact perpetuating this mode of unequal development, the social cost of which is very high. And this is not just the NDA, but the UPA too. Shouldn’t these hierarchies be questioned then?
    You only need to look at the current situation of farmer suicides to see how desperately wide the chasm between our ‘developed’ cities and our countryside is.

  3. Jitender Kohli

    it all revolves around the lenin & other communists ideologies which resulted in Russia to break, tanks running over the agitating students in china who believe in no nation, no religion, no symbol, no other word to be respected or considered as nation. If so why they make Dalit an identity to curse others, why symbols of their party and leaders are kept close to chest? This philosophy is not for the human serving nor for equality nor for caste-less society nor for the no boundary global living. Had it been so then why leftists provide equality, equal justice, development in their ruled states in India? Fake ideology which makes the intellectuals having vast bookish knowledge treating themselves as the only scholar to chalk-out best society without understanding what Nation and national flag means. Leave political edge of communist ideology but think it on humanity level to know it.

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