A heinous act followed by “national outrage” lamenting the “failure of the nation” has become quite a trope in India. The “failure of the nation” sentiment presumes, quite conveniently, that the barbarity of the violence, whether it be rape or slaughter, is a momentary transgression of an ultimately benign, benevolent, and authentic “national spirit.” I do not wish to examine the validity of this sentiment, but I want to posit that the articulation of this sentiment obscures a perception of the true dynamics of so-called ethno-religious nationalism.
Violence motivated by ethno-religious nationalist fervour have become quite common: Gau Rakshaks committing acts of violence to protect the holy cow; Muslim “love jihadists” being hacked and burnt; members of the Sangh Parivar seeking misguided retribution; and most recently, a politician and temple custodian maniacally raping an 8-year-old girl. The response to such acts have become somewhat predictable. They spark a kind of “national outrage” which decry the violence as possibly “anti-national nationalism.” But this response is too uncritical for it does not actually grasp the operating logic in such violent eruptions of patriotism. It seeks to only dismiss the violence.
What does it mean that advocates of nationalism, whom progressives can conveniently dismiss as fanatics, use brutal forms of violence to assert their patriotism? The “real instinct lurking behind the Kathua horror,” as Aprovanand points out, is “communal or ethnic cleansing . . . . of the Muslim Bakarwal community.” The religious-nationalist motivation here is quite important to consider. The standard logic of today’s nationalism is to propose that the “nation” — signified by a Hindu national identity or a vague notion of indigeneity — is under threat and ought to be protected and defended from the corrupting “other” and alien influences.
In the modern secular society, the “Muslim,” the “Dalit,” and the “woman” congeal to become a constellation which represents a threat to the Hindu Brahmanical patriarchal order. This logic is transparently operational in the Kathua rape case where one finds the “Hindu Ekta Manch” standing in solidarity with the accused. I am not so much interested in who is nationalist and who is not. My concern is the logic of this nationalism; contemporary forms of Hindu nationalism are resonant with Nazi antisemitism in this regard. As Sartre pointed out in Anti-Semite and the Jew (1946), the “Jew” as the “other” is a kind of invented object of hate for the anti-Semite. The imagined threat of the “other,” and the tormented and fragile nationalist’s hatred directed at this “other” is the starting point.
But why violence, and that too of the brutal, barbaric kind? Slavoj Zizek provides a useful explanation in Looking Awry (1991), where he says that nationalism “is the privileged domain of the eruption of enjoyment” (p. 165). The violence is precisely an act of obscene enjoyment. Zizek, borrowing from Freud, thinks of this as a momentary suspension of the Über-ich (Super ego). In Freudian psychoanalysis, the Super ego is the internalisation of the cultural and social norms and rules which repress and restrain the impulses and drives of a subject. For ethnoreligious nationalism, the passionate ethnic identification is on the surface aimed at restoring a firm set of beliefs in a confusing and threatening modern secular society.
The Hindu patriarch must protect his daughter from falling in love with a Muslim man: the vile and dangerous allure of “love jihad” is everywhere and if only we could take refuge in patriarchal customs and stable values, we would maintain our purity and our essence. The protection of the Cow, the witch hunting of “Romeos” etc., all superficially embody this desire for refuge and maintenance of purity. But superficial nationalist appearance is precisely the garb that obscures the momentary suspension or permissiveness of the Super ego.
Ethno-religious nationalism is a secret allowance: under the guise of upholding values and purity, one is allowed to kill the “love jihadist,” terrorise the “Dalit” who eats beef and rape the “woman” who is mere property. This perverse permissiveness of obscene enjoyment is at the heart of violent nationalism. Instead of an easy dismissal of violence and a simultaneous re-articulation of what the true national spirit is, to which the heinous violence appears outrageous, we ought to really try to read, as Zizek insists, the use of violence motivated by ethno-religious nationalism in this particular way — a kind of bribery which says, let us fight for our values and purity, with the subtext, and we can commit sadistic and pleasurable acts of violence.