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Review: An Insightful Book That Asks Uncomfortable But Important Questions On Nationalism

Posted on July 26, 2016 in Books

By Shambhavi Saxena:

It has been four months since right-wing factions dragged Jawaharlal Nehru University through the proverbial mud. Accused of everything from being a terrorist cell to depleting the country’s stock of condoms, the varsity became the object of India’s ire, after ‘anti-national’ slogans were supposedly uttered on campus in February. What ensued was the most vigorous debate about Indian nationalism since the actual nationalist movement 70 years ago. And out of it all comes “On Nationalism.”

Composed of three essays by noted historian and JNU professor Emerita Romila Thapar, arts editor Sadanand Menon, and former Supreme Court advocate A. G. Noorani, the book tackles the separate but interlinked issues of sedition, nationalism and religious conflict in India.

It opens with Thapar’s reflections on what nationalism is, and what India’s experience of it has been. We all know the part about getting the British out, but it’s the part that followed which is of most interest. Thapar establishes that a ‘bad nationalism’ has been thriving in India, courtesy of the Hindu right wing. She also does a brilliant take-down of the fallacies of Hindutva ideologies. If they insist that Sanskrit was the dominant language in Ancient India, Thapar talks about how Prakrit was most-used. If they insist that Muslim rulers victimised Hindus, she talks about the lovely cultural exchange during the Mughal era. And she has a couple of interesting things to say about the very origins of Hinduism in the subcontinent.

Reading through her essay, you realize how important it is to keep revisiting the history of your nation, and pick apart the versions you’ve always been told are sacrosanct. So too is it with the history of our laws.

The essay that follows is Noorani’s case study of Sedition in India, from the days of British rule till now. Section 124A (sedition) has a lot in common with Section 377 – which criminalises homosexuality – both residue of a foreign power, both informed by European standards of morality. When the state slaps sedition charges on individuals like Kedar Nath Singh, Binayak Sen, Aseem Trivedi, Umar Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar or Anirban Bhattacharya, it essentially demands an unthinking obedience of its citizens. Noorani reminds us that this is not unlike the conditions set by our colonisers back in 1870. The original wording of Section 124A actually targets those who insitgate ‘disaffection’ of the state! “[N]o democratic government with any self-respect would demand the affection of its citizens,” he writes, “ruling monarchs do.”

It’s an interesting comparison – between the ruling class then (the British) and the ruling class now (a right-wing government). It is also an ironic comparison, because the Hindu right continues its tirade against the Muslim monarchs in India’s past.

If Thapar’s essay all but decimates this idea, then Menon’s explains how much of the historic Hindu-Muslim enmity is manufactured – initially by the British, and then later by militant religious groups. Menon calls this process ‘cultural nationalism,’ which aims “to keep civil society in a state of constant agitation by subjecting it to constant attack.” He goes to explain how control over the nation’s historical, cultural and even moral narrative lies with upper-caste Hindu males. This deliberately excludes the perspective of all other communities, but especially of Dalits, Muslims and women. “In history, nothing stays ‘pure,'” writes Menon, an important reminder considering that conflicts over ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ informs so much of India’s culture and history.

The question then raised is what kind of nationalism is founded on communal hatred, caste-based violence and varying levels of misogyny? Quite obviously a bad, myopic and self-servicing one that has no place in a 21st century democracy.

The book steers you towards several other questions that are uncomfortable, but necessary. The very validity of nationalism and nationhood was tested by the events in JNU. Was this the nation we owed our allegiance to, a nation where students, journalists, and free-thinkers of all sorts are gagged and even killed? You have to ask if you too were bound by an ideology that had gone mostly unquestioned in the last seven decades. Even as the discussion on ‘anti-nationals’ rose to mammoth proportions a few months ago, you have to ask if all of this wasn’t just a smokescreen for something else. You have to ask if, irony of ironies, ‘nationalism’ was the new ‘divide-and-rule’ policy for India.