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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 33 New Delhi August 6, 2016

In our country these days, it’s not safe to think This new book makes you think and worry

Wednesday 10 August 2016, by T J S George


How green was my valley when patriotism meant loving my country and nationalism meant identifying with its civilisational essence. We were all patriots and nationalists when we fought for—or read about—our country’s independence. We were patriots and nationalists when we built the great edifice of our Constitution, perhaps the most egalitarian in the world, and gave unto ourselves a polity based on equality for all, justice for all. We had our differences, for we were a rainbow nation with a phantasmagoria of religions, races, languages, cuisines, attires and traditions. But we were a nation. And it was a wonderful feeling.

From those days of enlightenment, how and when and why did we redefine nationalism as a measure of partisanship? Who diluted nationa-lism with religiosity and gave the slogan Bharat Mata ki Jai a theological twist? That was a slogan everyone shouted with pride once upon a time. How and when and why was it reduced to an expression of narrow parochialism? Bharat Mata should have belonged—and did belong—to all her citizens. How was she hijacked by political partisans who manipulate religious emotions for political gain?

These and other disturbing questions are brought up by a handsome new book comprising three outstanding essays. On Nationalism by Romila Thapar, A.G. Noorani and Sadanand Menon (Aleph Book company) is a celebration and a lamentation at the same time—celebration of the India that was and lamentation over the India that is getting fissured by the day.

In a closely argued think-piece, Romila Thapar exposes the shadowlines of ‘subnationalism’ which is based on separate Muslim, Hindu, Sikh assertions, and ‘pseudonationalism’ which "exaggerates the importance of a single history of one religious community as being the pre-eminent history of the nation”. Her historical account of the way the nation concept developed is masterly. She draws attention to British philosopher-historian Eric Hobsbawm’s observation that history is reconstructed in ways that suit the ideology of nationalism—precisely what we have been witnessing in recent years.

Thapar boldly asserts that India had “no single sacred text since Hindu sects were not religions of the book. But today the Bhagvad Gita is being described as the ‘national’ book which... conflates nationalism with religion, despite their being distinct”.

Lawyer-historian-author A.G. Noorani starts by going for the jugular: India is witnessing today, he says, what America went through in the 1950s when Joseph McCarthy unleashed irresponsible attacks on the patriotism and nationalism of its citizens, condemning a great many honourable Americans as “un-American”.

Having set the stage, Noorani launches into an erudite exposition of the law of sedition and how it led to convolutions in Indian democracy. What Romila Thapar explained—that criticising government cannot be considered seditious or anti-national—is elaborated by Noorani who finds the law of sedition “in an unholy mess”. Citing a wide range of texts, from the famous Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar (the Forward Communist Party leader had made an explosive speech in 1953 on “the dogs of the CID" and “Congress goondas”) to Savarkar’s eulogy of Mother India as Pitribhu and Punyabhu (Fatherland and Holy Land), he is emphatic in his final pronouncement: “The only nationalism that deserves our support is Indian nationalism”.

Sadanand Menon says it all in the very title of his eminently readable essay, “From national culture to cultural nationalism”. He reminds us that “ultra-nationalism” had been there from the early days of the national movement. Also that devotion towards an abstract Bharat Mata is in sharp contrast to the violence inflicted on women during rapes, riots and caste retributions which is ”of an order seldom witnessed before in any part of the world”. A grim picture emerges as he observes that “a key component of the politics of cultural nationalism resides in its ability to create an enemy”. Surveying a landscape crawling with enemies, Menon is tactful enough to take shelter behind Jean-Paul Sartre and indirectly imply a scary question: India was the name of a country; will we take care that it does not become the name of a nervous disease?

Questions arising from this book are scary not only because they concern the very survival of India as a modern, constitutional democracy, but also because they are raised by scholars in scholarly, academic tones. The absence of hyperbole somehow adds to the gravity of the dangers they point out. On Nationalism is an invitation to think—at a time when thinking has become risky.

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