What is nationalism for the Left?
This is a question taken up in a series of books and essays in political science. I harbour considerably leftist views, especially progressive socially and a centrist with respect to the economy. So in a bid to explain this oft-asked question from the ‘right’, I strive to answer this question from my point of view.
I personally tend to view my nationalism through the lens of the Indian National Freedom Movement and its leaders. Even among them, we had different brands of nationalism. The Gandhian brand of nationalism, the Jinnah brand, the Savarkar brand etc. I personally subscribe to the Gandhian brand because his principles seem to agree with mine the most.
Gandhi, despite his libertarian leanings on issues of governance, was, by and large, a classical liberal, who was more patriotic than nationalist in the contemporary sense of the words. He realised that his country, or the idea of a country he helped realise, was not already the best but had the potential to be the best. So he set about bringing a social revolution by taking on the issues of the freedom and equality among individuals (movement against untouchability, for the emancipation of women, against child marriage), freedom of speech and press and the libertarian movement for Gram Swaraj. Like him, I understand that our country has the potential to become the best, but we aren’t there yet. We need to absorb the best from the other systems we come across and take pride in our history, with a view to working towards a desirable future, letting go of the shackles of the past.
So, in a day and age when a progressive leader like Shashi Tharoor gets laughed out of the House for a bill that serves to replace our own laughing stock of a law that is Section 377 of the IPC, the leftist in me stirs up a rage at the public display of anti-nationalism. I question the morality of the legislators and their intentions at keeping a marginalised section of our society away from their constitutional rights.
The leftist in me plays the smallest violin in the world when religious clerics drive up hysteria over communal politics, only to never budge from their stance on Muslim Personal Law to the detriment of the Muslim society and the suppression of women in that community. This is what I consider anti-national.
And besides the Gandhian brand of nationalism, certain alter egos in my leftist persona seem to come alive time and again:
The left has traditionally always been represented by the CPI(M), which has led to an association of all leftist ideology with the party in India. But they are only one part of the political spectrum on the left. To be frank, we haven’t had an openly, truly left of centre party in our political sphere. But whatever be the party that tries to occupy this niche, one must understand that such a party should view nationalism as an effort to better the means and livelihood of the middle-class workers and lower class daily wage earners in India. That is the truest metric for leftists to judge the success of their policy.
The leftist in me seeks to ensure that the cries of the ‘proletariat’ do not go unheard. For in my eyes, it is a disservice to the nation when it’s citizens go hungry and die in the open due to illness and famine when those in power seek to further consolidate it among themselves. That is what I consider anti-national and undemocratic.
On the issue of Freedom of Speech, I am no anarchist. I wish to exercise my freedom of rights under Article 19A of our Constitution because I trust the foresight of our leaders and constitutional experts when they drafted this great piece of work. Under that section, one would assume the line ‘Bharat ki barbaadi tak jung rahegi’ would be banned for protecting the security and integrity of the state. Hence, I opposed this speech in all discussions about the Jawaharlal Nehru University incident.
But the government did little to assuage the concerns of the neutral Indian spectator as it went on to arrest Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNU Students’ Union, who incidentally, was cleared of all charges of ‘anti-national’ sloganeering by the Intelligence Bureau, and let the actual Kashmiri sloganeers go unscathed. That too with the arrest based on a law that was never applicable here in the first place (with the precedent set by the Kedarnath vs The State of Bihar judgement of the Supreme Court, 1962).
Having said that, I myself am a fierce free speech protectionist. Which means I was pissed off when the idiotic mullahs got their way and practically banned Salman Rushdie from India and our HRD minister (one you would expect to be progressive given her station) was offended at some random student’s use of imagery to express his views. I want ‘hate speech’ to be protected under the constitution, which it currently prosecutes under our ‘Blasphemy Laws’, the same law that served as the excuse for putting the girl who put out a Facebook post complaining about the traffic on the death of a leader in Mumbai behind bars. And I am pissed off that people assume that I can’t be nationalist or a patriot, and at the same time be a free speech protectionist.
Yes, I can.
The constitution gives me the right to do so. And the person that denies me my constitutional right should instead be deemed an anti-national and an enemy of the State.
Yet, after deep musings, I have also come to realise it wouldn’t be so pragmatic to have absolute free speech laws after all. A case only strengthened by the abysmal data on education in our country, which makes it all the more easy to misinform people and incite people to act violently. So, the only case where I think Free Speech should be withheld in India is when it poses a threat to the security and integrity of the state in a manner so as to cause physical violence or instigate an armed rebellion against the government. Freedom of Speech can exist only so long as the State that protects it exists. Allegedly hurt religious and jingoistic sentiments, unlike the situation as it stands now, should not serve as the cause for restriction of free speech, ever.
To quote Orwell,
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”