Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2016 > Nation and the Psychopathology of Nationalism

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 18, New Delhi, April 23, 2016

Nation and the Psychopathology of Nationalism

Monday 25 April 2016

by Chetan Sinha

Belongingness to the nation is a thinking and, in fact, a collaborative thinking. We as humans have the power to think and act on the environment and we do it by bringing visible changes. Now the questions are: ‘Why we bring change?’, ‘Who has given us the right to bring change?’, and the most important: ‘What is change and why it becomes important?’ These questions will be discussed under the context of a nation being nationalist and the claim of nationality.

The politics of nationality and its claim is most of the time dependent upon the ascribed definition of the nation as given by the society that gets constructed and reconstructed. The nation is an idea concretised through the establishments of various institutions which, as observation shows, have various roles and functions. The discourses attached to these institutions and organisations also vary with the context of the institutions. However, some penchant discourses derived from the idea of the nation embarked upon the history of the nation, boundaries, past cultures and other comfortable and traumatic memories. For example, when India got the freedom to rule its people, many memories of the freedom struggle, revived through the mediums like the cinema, songs, wearing khadi dress and caps, showed the pride of ownership of being nationalist. But these memories don’t flash in one way always, it has a tendency to get modified, and this modification doesn’t happen in a universally similar way.
It is also not automatic and reflexive in the Kantian sense but has deep-rooted structure shaped by the socio-political context and its procedural history. Memories that gave pride to the people of free India also gave the ambivalent state of pride and humiliations to the different political factions. One of the factions that immensely faced these ambivalent emotions was deprived of political power. They also used the method of protest with more assertiveness about their legitimacy as true natives and true Hindus. There are observations that the urge to establish the Hindutva regime resulted in narcissism and despair in the history of modern India. (See Nandy, 2013) The aspiration for power as a tool to set up and reconstruct the meaning of Hindu nationality didn’t come out as a valid ambition in post-independence India. The power to assert one’s ideology became faint under the garb of other social identities and the method of assertion got shifted towards the history of the oppressed. Scientifically, this was more observable in the victims’ experiences than the unscientific assertion of the ideology of Hindutva. Thus, the insult of being deprived of the power in post-independence India together with the pride of doing justice to one’s ideology through the politically driven but impulsive assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in the name of respect to mother India, show its ambivalent nature which drives the actions of the pro-conservative groups.

The nation as a social category is not based on one ideology but it has diversified meaning and claiming nationality on the basis of one ethnic ideology might be categorised as ethno-centrism. The imagination of being a more authentic native in space and time creates an invisible space which gets visualised through different modes. The exclusion of diverse groups and their viewpoints gets eroded in the politics of acculturalisation. The rhetoric of blame was found as one of the methods used by the self-acclaiming cultural group to make the diverse voice invisible. For example, the voice of Dr B.R. Ambedkar for the cause of Dalit emancipation provided an exemplary leadership but its meaning got altered in the illusive claims for the power by the progenitors of religious identity. The collective struggle for social justice has an important role in the construction of the meaning of nationalism apart from Hindu revivalism in terms of assertion of the Hindutva identity, but that diverse experience is more theorised from the dominant power holder’s perspective. On the contrary, the meaning-making processes are naturally available to everyone who links their emotion to the nation and thus a common meaning builds up without losing its ground in one’s memory. However, the tendency to overestimate the authenticity of one’s emotional connection with the nation at the cost of others led to the confirmation biases and outgroups’ derogation.

The dominant thinking of the powerful inflates one’s self-esteem which depends upon the revival of the old gone past transferred in the generations and limits one’s uncertainty to the levels of simplicity. Thus, the idea of a nation was an idea of empty glorification of the invisible or framed past based on the purity, dominance, and consciousness of being benevolent and ritualistic. To be simple, the idea of nations was an idea only, which has concretised the mind in the present and thus the past. But the past had problems which were institutionally neglected under the garb of nationalistic ideas and political freedom.

THE discourses of the nation created a sense of identity among the people through the presence of various movements in the history of making India into a nation. The basic query about the idea of India is the area of historians where the definitions of the nation are transformed depending upon the social context. But the question about ‘what is nationalism?’ was answered very abruptly, rather than explored deeply. The answers about the meaning of nation (see Renan, 1882; Brubaker, 2004) and nationalism attained through the research process got fainted under the garb of dominant definitions of nation and nationalism. Nations have much to do with being native, locale, the true residents within the geographical boundaries who are emotionally linked to space and memories associated with that space. But the question regarding the true causal factors behind the proposed analogy of being native always remained unanswered. The meaning of native changes for the ex-migrants and past slaves also, as it changes for the native perpetrators. However, the psychological comfort of the people who were belonging to the privileged section of the society perpetuated the notions of ingroups and outgroups. The socioeconomically powerful groups announced their nativism more forcefully than the people from the lower caste and lower socioeconomic background or both.

The true understanding of belongingness is a matter of sharing of reality and this depends upon the political emotions derived out of a sense of thrust of one’s past identity. The discourse underlying the movements of being nationalistic doesn’t fixate on the same features but is transformed naturally. The feeling of citizenship creates discourses that nurture identification. So, the nation, nationality, citizenship, nationalism and patriotism are connecting words and have been transformed in varieties of situations and contexts. The origination of the concept of a nation is not a singular entity and talking about its origin doesn’t imply its authenticity and so the claim of it as one’s property. It is a myth that the origination and cause of those discourses is representative of diversity but it portrays one viewpoint and its legitimacy.

Now coming back to the questions about change, that is, ‘why we bring change?’, ‘who has given us the right to bring change?’, and ‘what is change and why it becomes important?’ have complicated answers. One thing becomes clear from the earlier discussion that change is imperative and it happens. There were many claims of nations in the name of nationality which led us back to our memories confiscated by the traditions. Brubaker (2004) hypothesised that nationhood is not an ethnodemographic or ethnocultural fact but it is a political claim (p. 116), which nurtures the idea of nationality. The mass level erosion of identity in the name of the Hindutva identity is similar to the eugenic drive that happened in the Nazi period. The problem is the genetic cleaning in the Nazi times was based on genetic inferiority but here it is on the basis of religion which is leading to a new kind of change that is described as communalism. Do we strive for this kind of change? Why do we think that the change we plan to bring is a legitimate one? It was observed that humans operate on their environment and construct their beings through signs and symbols laden in the discourses.

The role of environment and social context do have an impact upon the human subjective belief and which says that there were two methods of bringing change and that depends upon the validity of the reason why we bring the change. The politics of change is far better than the politics of stagnancy, as it was observed in the forced compliance in the name of nationality. John Dunn (1979, p. 55) viewed nationalism as the ‘the starkest political shame of the 20th-century’, which Brubaker (2004) extended further in the ‘invocation of nationhood’. (p. 118)

There were instances where it was found that modernity was taken as an ugly word in the context of traditionality. For example, the freedom struggle movement was limited to the struggle for freedom from Britishers and to become the cultural representative of the people who had the history of being part of the territory representing the common culture. The commonality of culture was limited to the recognition of identities which was embedded in the past memories of adjustment with the scriptures. The coming of the Britishers was the cultural mismatch which eroded the self and identity of the people who were presupposing their presence as authentic and as true natives. The social structure and systems already in the process of one’s socialisation, such as caste and gender, were the essential norms of the society which had created inequality invisible. It is not that the English removed the caste system or removed the patriarchy but somehow it gave some unknown space for awareness to the people who were oppressed by caste and gender. The past comfortable zone, such as ruling the members of the disadvantaged group, was derided with the advent of modernism with English education as the people somehow got the opportunity to interact across the culture and read. The fear of disintegration of the cultural space generated because of the new and critical ideas practised.

The idea if nationalism and forcing it on the people has created a new psychopathology where identities of the perpetrators maul the other viewpoint under the garb of political power. The major cause which seems to be conjuring the rise of nationalism is the rolling over of identity which was driven by the religious polarisation resulting in fundamentalist swings. The narcissism of belongingness and nativism based on the unscientific assertion of history framed by the legitimising myths of religion, dominant castes and patriarchy had destroyed the true spirit of the nation. The design of the nation is not completely moved by the societal culture because there are elements of debates and dialogues which refine the meaning-making and lead to the new paradigms. In the context of India, under the colonial rule, the change was offered at the cost of active discussion and dialogues. The method to materialise the social change was embedded in the protests, writings, social movements for social justice and emancipation of the historically oppressed people. These methods to understand the meaning of any entity like nationalism brings the new picture of nationalism. These pictures re-emerge through the discourses and experiences creating new space for the meaning-making of nationalism.

The present power dynamics, in order to claim the nation ignoring the diversity, is the absurd psychopathology of nationalism. True nationalism is the active mental space which allows the ideas and critiques to merge together. The idea of nationalism is the idea of togetherness of diverse minds and not the empty factions rooted in the politics of hate.


Brubaker, R. (2004), ‘In the Name of the Nation: Reflections on Nationalism and Patriotism’, Citizenship studies, 8 (2), 115-127.
Dunn, J. (1979), Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nandy, A. (2013), Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Renan, E. (1996 [1882]), ‘What is a nation?’ in G. Eley and R.G. Suny (eds.), Becoming National: A Reader, New York: Oxford University Press.

The author is an Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Christ University.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62 Privacy Policy Notice Addressed to Online Readers of Mainstream Weekly in view of European data privacy regulations (GDPR)