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.

The fallacy of Situationalism and Cultural Relativism

Situationalism says that morality is determined by situations, and situations are relative; therefore, morality is relative. It says, even killing cannot be called wrong if done in self defense. Even stealing can be good if you are stealing a weapon from a terrorist. And since situations are so diverse and complex, it is unreasonable to hold universal moral absolutes. And thus, the situationalist concludes against moral absolutes because he finds all morality related to situations.

The premise of situationalism does have some truth in it. Situations do influence moral judgments. But when one says that situations influence moral judgments it does not automatically follow that all morality is relative and there are no moral absolutes. Situationalism begins on the right track but reaches the wrong conclusion. How? Let’s delve deeper.

Let’s consider the two examples stated earlier. Killing, which is generally viewed as wrong, cannot be called wrong if done in self defense. Stealing, which is generally viewed as wrong, can actually be called good if you’re stealing a weapon from a terrorist. You must note here that in each of these situations, there are actually not one but two moral actions. In the first case, it is killing and self defense. In the second case, it is stealing and preventing a genocide. In the first case, judgment is reserved because killing happened in the heat of the moment. Probably by an accident without any premeditation. In the second case, the evil of stealing is trumped by a much greater good of preventing a genocide. Thus, we must observe here that killing or stealing hasn’t become essentially good, but only balanced or trumped by greater good or evil.

If stealing is good in the above situation, it does not follow that killing and stealing does not have intrinsic moral value. And suppose if stealing has an intrinsic moral value of -10, then preventing a genocide might have an intrinsic moral value of +1000. (Note here that moral actions cannot have any empirically verifiable value due to the intangibility of moral actions. Here I’m just assigning an approximate value based on common sense.) The statement, “Stealing can actually be good if you’re stealing a weapon from terrorist” does not only talk about the moral value of stealing but it is also talking about the moral value of preventing a genocide.

And if, what I’ve stated above is the thought process of the situationalist, then he has already presupposed a moral framework. He already assigns more positive moral value to preventing a genocide than the negative value he assigns to the act of stealing. And this moral framework is not part of the situation. Rather, it is judging the situation by itself. And if there’s an external moral framework outside of the situation that is judging the situation, then, the situationalist has already presupposed a moral framework that he is trying to determine through situations. You cannot have a cake before baking it. And since situationalism is trying to smuggle a cake in the recipe of making a cake, its logic is faulty at best and its intentions questionable. Situationalism simply can not be true.

As a side note, situationalist’s own thinking pattern is not at all different than that of a moral absolutist. Moral absolutist do hold to a rigid moral framework that is universally true, but this moral framework is not rigid in it’s application. It can be applied flexibly in different situations. In Christianity, when there are conflicting morals, we are to oblige the greater good. The above thought process of weighing good and evil where conflicting morals exist in the same situation is called graded absolutism in christian ethics. The situationalist not only presupposes a moral framework but he believes this framework is true absolutely because it is used to judge different situations. And situations can be infinitely complex. If a moral framework is to be applied to situations that are infinitely complex, then it must be absolutely, universally true.

So, the situationalist actually believes exactly what moral absolutist believes and behaves exactly like a moral absolutist. But it leaves us with a question. If the situationalist already presupposes a moral framework, then where does this moral framework come from? I know the answer that the situationalist can provide. In fact it is the only answer that he can provide without explicitly invoking any moral absolutes. From cultures. People learn their moral framework from their own cultures. And cultural values can be relative.

This is basically cultural relativism. The claim is that anthropologists and sociologists have discovered moral relativism to be not a theory but an empirical fact. Different cultures and societies, like different individuals, simply do, in fact, have very different moral values. In Eskimo culture, and in Holland, killing old people is right. In America, east of Oregon, it’s wrong. In contemporary culture, fornication is right; in Christian cultures, it’s wrong, and so forth. And if different cultures can have different moral values, then moral absolutes do not exist.

But the fact that different cultures behave differently in the matter of ethics doesn’t automatically follow that there are no moral absolutes. Different cultures do behave differently in the matter of ethics, but that doesn’t mean that all of them are right. Only if we presuppose that all of different moral frameworks created by different cultures are right, then only we can say different cultures hold different moral values. But the statement that different moral frameworks created by different cultures are right is an absolute statement. It applies universally to every culture in every time. It is presupposing the very moral cultural relativism that it is trying to prove. This is basically circular reasoning. And even that with the help of an moral absolute.

The conclusion is, that complete situational or cultural relativism by itself simply can not be true. It has to presuppose a moral absolute. But moral absolutes is exactly what it is trying to disprove. And thus, any type of moral relativism simply can not be true.

But leaving aside what is philosophically true or false, we do live in a society where I can choose to subscribe to a worldview even if I do not believe it is true. I am perfectly capable and free to do that if I wish to. But we must tread with caution in the matter of moral relativism. Because if we do away with moral absolutes as relativism is trying to do, then eventually we will lose the ability to distinguish between not only right and wrong, but also right and left. That’s the only logical progression relativism offers. Everything else requires positing absolutes. There is no way of escaping from absolutes. We can have morality only through some set of moral absolutes.

In Defense of Naivety

“Naive” is generally a description we do not hold proudly. It is either used for children or for people who we see as immature or gullible. People who are not seasoned in the the ways of the world. Who are unsophisticated. Simpletons. It is not a word that majority of people would want to make to the shortlist of their character traits. It is perceived as a flaw. As something that needs to be corrected. Something to grow out of.

But before we go further, let’s look at what the dictionary says about the word. The dictionary gives 2 definitions.

  1. lacking experience of life, knowledge or good judgment and willing to believe that people always tell you the truth:
  2. (approving) (of people and their behavior) innocent and simple:

It is a quite narrow definition. But if we look at the root of the word, it is not so narrowly categorized. The word “naive” is derived from the Latin word for “natural”. A word that we are much more familiar with. A word that is much more favored than the word “naive”. Taking this new information in account, true naivety can thus be defined as absence of artificiality. As unaffected simplicity of nature. And with this definition, it becomes much less an insult and more a quality to which we might actually aspire.

But if the word naive is in fact a good quality, why then is it seen with so much negativity? Let us, once again, go back to the dictionary and look at the first definition of the word. It says, a naive person is “lacking experience of life”. I want to ask what kind of experience is this? Is it experience of people keeping their promises? No! Is it experience of never being wronged? No! Is it experience of never having to regret a decision to trust? No! To the contrary, the lack of experience that is being talked about here is actually the experience of being wronged. Of being manipulated, violated and broken. Never the experience of laughter or joy, never of trusty friends keeping their promises. The experience referred to here is only the experience of the dark variety.

Further, the definition speaks about “Lacking knowledge or good judgment”. These certainly do sound like a disadvantage. Knowledge and good judgment are really qualities worth having. But when I look into my own mind I realize that there are things that I know that I wish I had never known. I have knowledge that I regret having. It is a burden I wish I never had to bear. Everyone knows what I mean, and if you don’t just open today’s newspaper and you’ll come across an event that will permanently modify your outlook of the world for the worse. Just like in the earlier case of experience, the lack of knowledge that is being talked about here is the knowledge of how depraved and perverse the world has become.

So, the reason that naivety is perceived as a flaw in the world is not because it is essentially a flaw, but because of the state in which the world is! In a better world, in a perfect world, naivety would be all that we required!

But let us go one step further and think about what it means not to be naive. Or rather, what it means to know the world. If a person is not naive, does it not mean that he will bend the rules even just a little to his advantage? Does it not mean that he will take advantage of people who are gullible for his own advantage? That he will take shortcuts whether it is right or wrong? Does it not mean to have a permanent courtroom in your head where everyone is on trial? It seems to me that to such a worldly person, right and wrong or good and bad matter much less than advantageous and disadvantageous. For people who leave their naivety, morality stops being the driving principle and selfishness takes over the driver’s seat. It matters very little what others might suffer because of one person’s selfishness. And what about those who become victims of this selfishness? “They are naive. They must learn to live with it. It will make them strong. If they don’t, it’s their loss.” That’s how the world justifies itself. Simply put, the message is, “This is a dog eat dog world. It’s no place for children. The only way to live here is to leave off your naivety & innocence and play by the rules I dictate.” And these are the rules: anything you do is fine as long as you’re not caught.

But this type of thinking is flawed. Not only flawed, it’s quite simply wrong. And it makes men, less than what they used to be. The experiences that lead to one leaving one’s naivety behind also hardens the heart and grim the outlook of the world. It makes the person vary of every kind act and suspicious of grace. The proposal of someone doing a good deed for the sake of goodness start to look otherworldly. And if we go to the logical conclusion of this kind of thinking, in the end, the person himself will become incapable of doing good. Unless he leaves off the principles of the world.

And that is exactly what I propose to do. I propose that we look back in time and remember a time when we were still children. When the world was full of wonders. A time where in our youthful innocence, being a “Good boy” still meant something. Before a time when being “cool” or being a “bad boy” became fashionable. I ask that can we look at that child from our past and learn something from him? Can we learn to be like him again?

I propose to be naive again. But how can anyone decide to be naive? Is not naivety just a quality strongest when we are children but ebbs away as we grow up and experience perversity and horrors of the world? Yes, it is certainly that. But having lost that, I also think that we can still go back if we choose to.

Let me be frank. This essay has been more than 2 years in the making. And it is as much an argument as it is autobiographical. About 4 years ago, I had a sudden epiphany. I looked at where the world was going and what I was becoming. At the same time I looked at the childhood I was leaving behind. And I realized that the philosophy that I was leaving behind was much more complete than the the one that I was expected to accept. I decided there to stay naive since there’s no better alternative.

The decision to be naive is not an easy decision to make and certainly not an easy decision to live. To tell the truth, the first naivety of childhood has long been forgotten and I cannot go back even if I wanted to. I’ve seen enough, read enough to know that the pit of human depravity is bottomless. But still, in my dictionary being naive means to be generous. It means to trust people. To put away the spectacles of prejudices & discrimination based on caste, creed, race, color, status, sex etc & take people at their face value. To give them a chance, a second chance, a third chance and then, as many as they require. To put faith in them when no one else will. It means to be prepared to be hurt in order to heal. To sow so that others may reap. To do all this and still keep a smiling face and a joyful heart.

It sounds very hard to do, but then again, it is the easiest thing to do. Because it’s in our very nature. We are wired to trust what people say. We are not wired to deceive each other. If we do, we feel guilty. And those who don’t feel guilty are called sociopaths. A medically recognized mental condition. But being naive is still more than going back to our original nature. Living like this is like a breath of fresh air. For you and for the whole world. When one begins to live naively, he begins restoring the world back to its original innocence. First, through his own perspective he sees not the worst but the best in people. Not the ugliness but the beauty of the world. Then, through his actions, he begins to diffuse the artificiality of people who come in contact with him. Because slowly they begin to realize, for that one person, yes means yes and no means no. It’s as simple as that. And this simplicity is contagious. Slowly but surely, this simplicity, this going back to innocence can change the world.

It might sound like very foolish advice, but I believe in this foolishness with all my heart! Because I’m not the first person to walk this path of foolishness. There have been many before me, but before all of them goes the creator of the world! What shall I tell you about his naivety? Shall I tell you about his choice of Jewish people about which William Norman says, “How odd of God to choose the Jews”? Or shall I tell you about his choice in disciples? Or maybe I can tell you about all the disqualifications of the people who he chose to deliver nations!

I can go on, but I will speak on none of these. Instead I’d like to tell you about how he, after watching over humanity for thousands of years, after seeing every despicable act being committed against innocents, chose to be born as a baby, helpless and fragile, in that very world. How he gave himself over in the hands of his creation. But that’s not all! He came not to conquer, but to submit. Not to be served, but to serve. Not to condemn evil men, but to save them. Not to be glorified, but to be despised. Not to live as king, but to die among criminals. And in doing all these he changed the world. So much so that he is regarded as the central figure in history who divided history in two. He is regarded as the most humane teacher although he would refuse such a title. His teachings run contrary to everything that world promotes. He calls us to be “as innocent as doves” and teaches us to go “one extra mile”. When all that the world knew was “an eye for an eye” he taught us to “turn the other cheek”. A philosophy, that played a pivotal role in freedom struggle of India. The last two thousand years stand witness to the truth of his teachings. And perhaps, the last two thousand years also stand in defense of naivety.