The JNU Row Brought Up The Politics Behind Defining Nationalism, And Its (Mis)Use

Posted on March 16, 2016 in Society

By Snehashish Das:

Activists from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), shout slogans during a protest march in New Delhi, India, February 24, 2016. Thousands of ABVP members on Wednesday carried out the march against "anti-national sloganeering" raised at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus earlier this month, protesters said. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi - RTX28BSL
Image credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi.

Ernest Renan’s description implies that ‘Nation is a daily plebiscite’. At the same time, modern political scientists can’t ignore the fact that elections are a democratic device to choose another dictator. Here, by dictatorship, I mean the rule of a particular group (Partiality), and where the right to dissent is not entertained. Let’s consider the case of Jawaharlal Nehru University, where dissent due to discontent against the government got converted into sedition against the nation.

Some students raised their voices against the state, against a verdict of the Supreme Court to be particular, and talked about the rights and liberty of individuals. They allegedly raised some so-called anti-national slogans (a forensic probe gave the report that two out of seven videos of JNU protest were tampered with. Several videos were mixed and voices were added. The anti-national sloganeering didn’t happen in JNU, it happened in an unidentified place). The state declared them as anti-national, seditious and as traitors. At the same time, when some right-wing people celebrate Republic Day as a black day, or commemorate the death of Nathuram Godse, who murdered the ‘father of the nation’ (according to popular belief), as Balidan Diwas, and the state shows no reaction to these activities, it can easily be termed partial rule of the majority.

Max Weber argues that the state and its servants are those agencies within society which possess a monopoly over legitimate violence. Private or sectional violence is illegitimate. When some people from the intelligentsia protest to secure their rights, liberty, and to define pluralism, the state mechanism represents it as a threat to the nation and, therefore, illegitimate. During the rally for Rohith Vemula by JNU students, the cops unnecessarily attacked the protestors and some media presented the rally as a threat to national integrity, and thus, that it was illegitimate.

Police despotism and violence over the student community for centuries can be imagined from this incident. The state’s violence in Jammu & Kashmir and in the north-east region of India due to the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, however, is projected as legitimate. Kashmir University is highly affected by AFSPA. Inside the university, the student’s union is banned, and student activism is not allowed. To put it simply, we can say that the utopian idea of ‘nationalism’ challenges ‘individualism’ all the time.

‘Nation’ is a hypothetical political community. There are some traditions of social thought like anarchism and Marxism that exist in almost every nation. Benedict Anderson explains that nationalism represents the great historical failure of Marxism. Marxism is anathema to nationalism (Marxism in the broader sense is the end of bourgeois rule and the implementation of socialism).

In the beginning, I have explained that state is ruled by a group which gains a majority. The power is vested in the hands of the bourgeoisie who subordinate the minorities. JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar in his speech discussed this issue of inequality. We have all heard his words, “We don’t want freedom from India. We want freedom in India.” During the emergence of nationalism, the minorities or the dissenters lose their rights to exercise their freedom of speech and expression. The state entertains only the voices of the majority and the non-dissenters. I don’t want to convince you by describing the incident of JNU once again.

Those who have a homogeneous idea of nationalism always try to subordinate others. After the Independence of India in 1947, Hindu nationalism got a boost in its demand for a separate Hindu nation due to the emergence of a separate Muslim nation that is Pakistan.

The resignation of the ABVP student leaders of JNU brings out the difference between fascist nationalism and pluralism. An ex-ABVP member commented that he didn’t like to be a part of a nationalist movement which disregards a particular part of the country. Fascist nationalism is the result of ethnocentrism of one community. The issues of beef ban, the Dadri lynching due to a rumour and manipulation of information, Ayodhya riots, Godhra riots, Muzaffarnagar and Saharanpur riots, and the Azad maidan riot etc. are a reflection of the cultural ethnocentrism of a particular community, which can be easily interpreted as fascist nationalism. In India, according to the historian Bipan Chandra, nationalism is the imposition of high culture upon others. Any thoughts or ideologies, if accepted by the larger population, are imposed on others.

When we talk about ‘nationality’, we describe the significance of shared culture. The acceptance of multiple cultures must be the mark of our nationality, not the imposition of one identity or culture upon others. If we talk about India, the existence of pluralism is essential. In contemporary India, people are deliberately fighting against identity crises they face every day. The people of India are segregated by their identities: Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Odia, Bengali, Naga, but not as Indian.

Discrimination against people from the northeast in other parts of India is an example of their cultural ethnocentrism, which is a threat to pluralism. AFSPA shrinks the fundamental rights and liberties of people of some particular domains in India like J&K. Irom Sharmila’s 15-year long hunger strike and some Manipuri women who stripped down to protest injustices by the army are a slap on the face of such pseudo-nationalism.

The hatred towards another nation is used to show the love towards your own nation. It creates a situation where a diverse group of people feel oneness at a particular point in time, and it is popularly called as nationalism. We can easily observe this form of nationalism during cricket matches between Indian and Pakistan.

What I want to prove is that the political idea of nationalism in India stands against JNU. From the above arguments, we found that many political scientists have defined the state as a mechanism which monopolises power, and nationalism as influenced by ethnocentrism and fascism. Nationalism, in a political sense, ignores heterogeneity and pluralism. But the non-conformist JNU students stand for individualism, pluralism, human rights and liberty, and a ‘Marxist’ nationalism. All these ideas appear completely anathema to the current popular and political idea of nationalism.

In India, the confusion about nationalism arises because it is politically defined but, philosophically, its definition is impoverished. Unlike other ‘isms’ there are none, or very few such, great contributors who have described the idea of nationalism philosophically. The conflict between the definition and interpretation of ‘nationalism in the eyes of historians’ and the ‘Modern Nation State in the eyes of liberal democrats’ seems to have no fixed solution. Historians have described nationalism as a political idea evolved to get rid of certain political tensions, and to constitute a nation which is homogenous. Such a way of looking at it suits the pseudo-nationalists. But liberal democrats describe nationalism from a philosophical perspective where liberty, equality, fraternity and justice exist. They describe a nation (specifically India) as a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.”

I will end by giving the definition of non-egoistic nationalism as described by Ernest Gellner. “Non-egoistic Nationalism is the desirability of preserving cultural diversity, of a pluralistic international political system, and of the diminution of internal strains within states.”