It is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way round.
— Ernest Gellner
After living many years in North America, the first question that Indians, both at home and outside, ask me is if I have acquired foreign citizenship. An answer in the negative produces bafflement as to why one would choose to hold on to an Indian passport when “better options” are available.
As India celebrates 69 years of independence, it is marked by a peculiar paradox. On the one hand, despite India’s status as a “rising power,” substantial sections of its middle and affluent classes abandon India and take up citizenship of a developed country. On the other hand, there is a virulent eruption of a chauvinistic nationalism driven, ironically, by the same classes.
The dark underside of this nationalism was on gory display this year, ranging from Rohith Vemula to Una in Gujarat, where Dalit men were flogged in public for skinning a dead cow. It was also on display in the heartless response to the killing of nearly 50 civilians, including children, in Kashmir by security forces. The mainstream argument that the Kashmiris are themselves to be blamed, or that the problem is entirely due to the machinations of the neighbour, is a catastrophic refusal to look in the mirror.
The largest democracy in the world has also, ironically, the largest militarised zone in the world. There is one soldier for every 15 Kashmiris, a staggering figure by any count. (For India as a whole, it is one policeman for 761 people!) Yet, Indians continue to believe that Kashmiris can be made to love fellow Indians at gunpoint and through barbed wires and picket fences. And despite the colossal lessons of history from Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Indians brazenly continue to believe that the solution to a political problem lies with the military.
The irony of the 69th year of freedom is that freedom is still a mythical concept for a majority of Indians who are forced to slave under the restrictions imposed by caste, class and patriarchy. The ideal Indian is still an upper-class, upper-caste male. While we sing paeans to freedom, we leave the tasks of cleaning human waste, disposing of cow carcasses and burning the dead to the Dalits. And they are condemned for the very occupations that make our freedoms possible.
The paradox of wanting to leave India for the greener pastures of the developed world and simultaneously hold on to jingoistic forms of nationalism is, on closer examination, not really a paradox. The nation does not exist from time immemorial, but is a modern community, produced by forces of capitalist industrialisation, technology and urbanisation, and the breakdown of smaller, face-to-face communities. It is an imagined and invented community, as scholars tell us, and various people have imagined it in various ways.
Yet, all nationalisms, even benign ones, are ultimately limited, for humanity cannot be realised only within the confines of the nation. Bigoted nationalism is the most extreme manifestation of a stunted imagination. That is why a chauvinistic nationalism cannot be anything but hollow, empty rhetoric. Hence the excessive love for Kashmir, but a callous disregard for the everyday incarceration and lived life of the Kashmiri; excessive love for the nation, but disdain for the actual members of the nation, the religious minorities and the oppressed castes; and excessive love for the cow, but nary a thought for the millions of cattle that survive on plastic in urban jungles.
Being an Indian at 69, in this imagination, does not mean fighting for the principles that laid the foundation of the nation: democracy, equality and secularism. These ideals are untethered from the idea of the nation. Once this untethering is done, one can define and imagine the nation in any which way, as it is happening now. Being an Indian does not involve any material contribution to, or sacrifices for, the elimination of the still-substantial scale of poverty and deprivation. It merely involves exaggerated symbolisms of various kinds, from hoisting national flags in educational institutes to chanting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, or labelling those who do not conform to this jingoistic vision as anti-nationals and traitors.
It is this hollowness that has also now placed affluent NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) and Persons of Indian Origin with foreign citizenship, themselves purveyors of such a nationalism, at the centre of Indian politics. In many ways, this is a curious phenomenon. On the one hand, there is an expansion of the idea of being an Indian. An Indian at 69 is not merely one living in India but one who is part of its global diaspora. The Prime Minister has assiduously cultivated this idea. On the other hand, there is the simultaneous contraction of what it means to be an Indian, for even the diasporic Indian is sought to be yoked to a majoritarian chauvinist nationalism. And anybody who does not conform is termed as “mentally not fully Indian”.
Thus, actors who have lived and worked in India all their lives are termed anti-national by Indians abroad with foreign citizenship. Thus, I too, an Indian citizen abroad, become an anti-national if I criticise the government. Here, again, the idea of the nation is untethered from any higher principles of justice or democracy, and merely conflated with the government and the state.
To overcome this, the nation has to be re-imagined. The fundamental question that should animate an Indian: is it merely territory that he should be fighting for, or is it something more ennobling that will define the territory and go beyond it? If it is the latter, there is no option for the nation but to draw from the most radical currents of Indian thought and practice that have questioned hierarchies of power, and from personalities ranging from the Buddha to Irom Sharmila. It cannot but reinstall in the national imagination obliterated figures like the Dalit revolutionary Ayyankali, one of the most extraordinary men the country has seen.
At 69, India does not show the wisdom and maturity that comes with age. India’s place in history, despite its gargantuan failure in ensuring equality and well-being comes from an experiment that no nation before has undertaken: to have the largest population in the world under a democracy. Instead of realising completely this magnificent idea, by eliminating its gross subversions, it threatens to contract itself.
Yet, the seeds of a new imagination are seen in recent acts of unprecedented resistance, such as the magnificent one of Dalits dumping cow carcasses in front of government buildings. If the nation has to go beyond symbolism, it has to be an imagination ploughed by the liberatory impulses of different oppressions. The shackles on freedom are self-imposed. As Kabir mused, “If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive do you think ghosts will do it after?”
This article was first published here in The Hindu.