Reflections on Nationalism in India

It was in the month of February last year that anti-national slogans were chanted in the JNU campus and a students union president was arrested on the charges of sedition. Watching Kanhaiya’s videos on youtube, I couldn’t understand why there was such an uproar. We were supposed to be living in a democracy with freedom of speech as a fundamental constitutional right. I also had a very hard time (and still do) understanding the logic behind the involvement of our home minister in the matter of a student speaking his mind. Even if he did say something anti-national, for which there is no evidence, shouldn’t the University administration be allowed to deal with it? Or maybe the local police can handle it. What’s the point of the involvement of home ministry of country as large as India?

But I digress. The year has changed and there is a new controversy in the limelight. This time, there’s a 20 year old student of DU and a daughter of a kargil martyr Gurmehar Kuar at the center of the storm. “I am a student from Delhi University. I am not afraid of ABVP. I am not alone. Every student of India is with me. #StudentsAgainstABVP.” read the signage held by her on a tweet. Soon, a sports star, a Bollywood actor and a politician weighed in. Everyone’s aware of what followed. In typical trollish fashion, she was called a prop, a sickular, a political pawn incapable of forming independent thought and even received rape threats from the multitudes of so called “Nationalists”. All because of a single tweet voicing an opinion against a particular student organization.

I can go on because there’s a lot more to the story and there are a lot more stories. Take for example the Supreme Court order of playing national anthem at Theaters or the movie boycotts or the journalists revoking and dispensing nationalism licenses live on TV news channels! Everything seems to revolve around the word “nationalism”. What does it actually mean and why is there such fierce opposition (to the point of rape threats) to anything that is perceived to be anti-national?

May I suggest that the “nationalism” that is being experienced in India today is rooted in a philosophical void within Hinduism? It seems to me that Hinduism as a ideological framework doesn’t have a unifying cultural identity. In his riddles of Hinduism, Dr. Ambetkar askswho can be called a Hindu? Hinduism is an umbrella term under which multitudes of faiths, philosophies and deities are gathered together and each of them are equally valid philosophically. It means that, speaking strictly philosophically, there’s no correct or incorrect way to be a Hindu.

As I pointed out in an earlier article, identity crisis has become a global phenomena in our times. There’s a strange resurgence of nationalism around the globe. Why this is so is anyone’s guess, and there are many theories, but it seems to me that in the end, it has something to do with people’s want of identity and meaning. People are hungry for what philosophers call ontological security. People want their own story to fit within a metaphysical narrative that stretches beyond their own lives. It is a basic human need. However, the principles of Karma & Reincarnation and even moksha as conceived within the framework of Hinduism are ill equipped to provide this meaning. Hinduism is essentially fragmented because it is a collection of different culture and faiths that are equally valid. These cultures and faiths provide micro narratives to their adherents but these micro narratives are insufficient to provide meaning in our globally connected world. Something bigger than a micro-narrative is required. And here, Hinduism falls short because it fails to provide a unifying meta-narrative to fulfill people’s want of identity and meaning. Hindu nationalism is a response to this fundamental void as it is an attempt to provide this culturally unifying meta-narrative.

However, Hindu nationalism is an idea that is fundamentally at odds with the Indian constitution. India is a secular pluralistic democracy. Remarking upon Nationalism, Nehru said, “I am convinced that nationalism can only come out of the ideological fusion of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and other groups in India. That does not and need not mean the extinction of any real culture of any group, but it does mean a common national outlook, to which other matters are subordinated.” In his vision of a pluralistic democracy, Nehru considers Hindu, Muslims, Sikh and other groups in India as equals. He gives all faiths equal chance to contribute towards the idea of India and restricts each one on the same standard of a common national outlook under which a faith is to be subordinated. Hindu nationalism, to the contrary, is a form of supremacist nationalism and envisions India as a country where only Hindus are first class citizens and all other faiths and cultures subordinated to the Hindu culture and philosophy. If we are to subscribe to the idea of a secular pluralistic democracy in India, Hindu nationalism cannot be adopted as an ideal or official concept of nationalism. India as it exists now, and the idea of Hindu nationalism are fundamentally incompatible with each other. Both cannot co-exist. One of them has to go for the other to survive.

When people subscribe to a specific flavor or narrative of nationalism, they begin to perceive themselves as part of that meta-narrative. In short, the collective identity of the nation becomes a part of their individual identity. As a result, whenever anyone criticizes the nation or the national identity, it is perceived as a personal attack on their identity and honor. In India, honor must be protected. Even by non-honorable means. And thus we see, movie makers being slapped, celebrities being told to leave the country, a man lynched because of a rumor that he had beef in his fridge, college students being charged for sedition and a daughter of a martyr receive rape threats and silenced for her liberal views challenging the status quo.

But let me step down from the high horse of philosophy for a moment and reflect upon one aspect of the culture of India. As far as I can remember, I have always been uncomfortable with our conflated ideas of pride and honor. When I was younger, I learned a story in school. I don’t remember all the details but the central part of the story was: The writer of the story was visiting some far off relative in far off land. The person who he was visiting was an old widow, who had 4-5 sons. This family was very poor. But when the writer of the story visited them, the poor family fed him, even though they themselves went hungry because they had nothing else to eat. Everything that they had, they gave it their guest. This whole affair always seemed a bit ominous to me.

The story bothered me because, I did not like either the guest or the hosts. I didn’t like the guest because he put burden on a poor family. And I didn’t like the hosts because they didn’t tell the guest their condition. They could’ve asked for his help. The could’ve shared the meal among themselves so everyone had something to eat. But nothing of the sort happened. Instead of the poor family suffered alone. Why? It seems to me that all of this was nothing but an exercise in “keeping up appearances”. And I can see around me that everyone is busy “keeping up appearances”. If there’s some social glue that binds the Indian culture, it must be social stigma. And if there’s any question that explains our irrational decisions against our own-well being, it must be the question “What will the people say?”

The whole of Indian civilization seems to be under the tyranny of the question “What will people say?”. Not only Hindus, but pretty much every faith / culture within India is affected by it. Keeping up appearances has been the ruin of many lives. “Protecting the honor” of the household has led to a resurgence in “honor killings” among other things. The question not only terrorizes us individually but also collectively. When Aamir khan remarked upon growing intolerance within India, there was a nationwide public outrage. Of the many things he was accused of, one of the primary accusation was of “degrading the public image of India”. People opined, a public figure of his stature should not criticize India as it will degrade the image of India on the international stage. Very few people asked if there was any truth to what he said.

If we are collectively worried about our national image, (which we are) then the question “what will people say?” has the power to unite us under the umbrella of nationalism. But if Hindu nationalism is the only flavor of nationalism that is politically backed and publicly available, then that’s the only form of nationalism to which unsuspecting men and women will subscribe to. This is our current situation and a very dangerous territory. If protecting the national image has become more important that what India stands for, and allegiance to a flavor of nationalism has become stronger than our allegiance to truth, then truth and reason has lost its place from public discourse. And if truth has become a casualty in our search of a collective identity, I fear what is to come.