Even After 70 Years Of Independence, Our Sense Of Nationalism Comes From The West

Posted by Simran Keshwani in Society, Staff Picks
August 3, 2017

The Twitter bio of a 14-year-old Indian boy, Aqdas, reads, “Living in fear everyday”. Nearly 70 years of living in a supposedly free country – and our minorities are still reeling with fear.

To produce a simple polarisation of this problem as a majority-minority conflict of feeling outnumbered can create distortions along the social processes that have fuelled this fear. What brings us to this standstill? The answer lies in the pre-1947 era.

Today, any discussion on nationalism brings in the debate surrounding ‘azaadi’. The concepts of nationalism and freedom were not supposed to be yoked together like Siamese twins – and any political scientist would call it a ‘categorical mistake’.

While freedom essentially meant non-interference by the State and other institutions, nationalism was the binding force that brought people with various languages and ethnicities together during the Indian freedom struggle. This marked the beginning of the mingling of the two concepts, which had a trickle down effect in shaping Modern Day India.

To begin talking of the concept of nationalism today, one must invariably point to the country across the border. Aggressively abusing the enemy is how one’s love for the motherland is measured, nearly 70 years post independence.

The more profane your condemnation of a land you know little of, the more intense your commitment to your land. What would we be pointing our guns at, if Pakistan as a nation state did not exist? We’re free but living in two histories – always arguing with one another, the brunt of which always lies on the Indian Muslim’s shoulders.

How did this process materialise? The division of the Indian subcontinent along cultural lines was an off-shoot of British imperialism. What we are left with today is an ugly advancement and chauvinistic expansion of that conflict.

In trying to establish the sanctity of one culture over the other as a benchmark of nationalism, we very consciously adopt the Orientalist gaze – the notion that cultures are heterogeneous and monolithic, while also assuming the unchanging character of the duality that exists between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This is a binary that only expands with time and propaganda. By simply mobilising nationalist ‘murderous-ness’ in the name of preserving culture, the flag-bearers of a normative subject-hood have injected abstract concepts like ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ (which are widely considered to be manufactured and extremely fluid) inside the Indian psyche.

A strange but grave reminder of the same polemic lies in colonial history when the West justified its plunder by alluding to ‘cultural superiority’. The ‘French mission’, which considered some civilisations to have a higher aim in life than others, also rested on the pillars of a discourse based on an imagined higher ideal, which passes off violence as ‘collateral damage’.

Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899) is an ironic – even terrifying – portrayal of redeeming the ‘unselfish’ ideal of colonialism. It can be remarked that colonial powers like Britain, Belgium, Germany and the US relied heavily on a body of pedagogy to fast track their aims of ‘self aggrandisement, power and unrestrained self pride’ (as acutely observed by Conrad and noted by Said in his “Reflections on Exile and Other Essays”).

This aphorism can be extended to the identity politics of the day – by means of which members of one race/cultural group find a moral high ground over members of another differing culture. For instance, for the longest time, chattel slavery was justified citing strong physique as the reason for putting African Americans into manual labour. And today, more than ever, this case extends to Indian minorities where manual scavenging was allegedly defended by Gandhi, and has been considered to be a form of spiritual cleansing (by the PM) – all to keep lower castes in water- tight silos of social immutability.

But, history has said it – the ‘objects’ of cultural stereotyping have resisted by forming groups and political movements to create spaces for an accommodative historiography.

In a post-colonial context, the dangers of an ‘us versus them’ binary can point in two directions-

1. The utopian dream of a just society based on co-operation.

2. A dangerous bile of separatism, followed by separation and extermination.

Examples of the latter have been seen in Bosnia, Hitler’s Germany and Palestine. The social vehicle to carry forth the second option, which may well sound absurd to any rationalist, are an army of believers, which is followed by the crushing of dissent. What does the army do? They compress a concrete history, reduce identities, bring cultures to a standstill and unhealthily exaggerate pride in their perceived superiority.

What these mouthpieces of neo-colonialism forget is that each culture defines its enemies and comes up with a defence mechanism to analyse its shortcomings. This is called counter culture – the unorthodox, dissenting strand that challenges the idea of a static cultural identity. Counter culture allows existing ideals to come under scrutiny and expresses a complete disregard of authoritarian regimes that come veiled as upholders of a ‘biological race’.

The superficiality of the blowing trumpets of ‘our heritage’ completely ignores the unending debate of the shaky terrain on which ‘what is ours and how did we acquire it’ stands.

People who consider the ‘Hindu versus Muslim or Dalit’ conflict to be an ontological fact of political existence obliterate the space for a greater, often silent resistance and dialogue between the two groups. The more we insist on separate lines, the more unsure we are of ourselves – thereby reaffirming the colonial rhetoric and extending it towards a different audience in a different and far more rational time.

Every day, a new assault takes us unawares. Perhaps, a potent question to answer before we seek solutions is: are we really working for the dissolution of cultural barriers, when we have given in to the extreme appeals to sentiment/ religiosity that condones violence ?

The idea that everything different is clashing (echoed by Huntington, Golwalkar, Savarkar and their progeny) is a definitive precondition for war. On the other hand, a conscious preservation and respect of difference, as Edward Said points out (certainly not suggesting that we fall into a uniform culture), is the bedrock of civilisation.

This post is a part of my series #PoliticalIsPersonal on Youth Ki Awaaz that explores how an innocuous act like opening your house gates to someone has immense political echoes across the system. I plan on understanding the link between political thought and personal liberty and how the two almost always are at loggerheads.


Image Source: Raj k Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images