Nationalists and Anti-Nationals
Posted on 1-January-2017
In the year just gone by, words like nationalism, nationalists, patriotism, patriots and anti-nationals were much used in India. All manner of people were branded nationalists, patriots or anti-national for all kinds of reasons. Any person asking if it was necessary to publicise widely military strikes against some targets across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir was called ant-national; so was a student leader calling for freedom from social discrimination and inequality. Beefeaters were told they had no right to live in India. Speaking against bans on cow slaughter became unpatriotic. Even criticising the ideology of the ruling dispensation risked being described as anti-national. Journalists, pretend-intellectuals, politicians, party propagandists all joined in the chorus. India's higher judiciary also got infected by the nationalistic fever. A High Court judge, dealing with the bail application of a student activist charged with sedition, thought it necessary to include a homily on the virtues of nationalism in her rather curious judgment, citing as she did some lines from a song in a popular film of yesteryears. A Supreme Court judge, saying there must be a limit on individualism, pronounced that the National Anthem must be played at the start of films in cinema houses across the country. He went on to order that people must show due respect to the Anthem while it was being played. All this happened in a country which never tires of announcing urbi et orbi that it is the largest democracy in the world.
A bystander like me who wondered over all these developments was forced to try and understand what words like nationalism, patriotism and anti-national mean. I like to think that I am an Indian nationalist and a patriot. I am not a nationalist because I believe in a transcendental, near divine entity called a nation to sacrifice in whose cause is the highest duty for an individual because I value my right to use my critical faculties and raise questions about the motives of those who ask me to sacrifice myself in the cause of a nation. My nationalism and patriotism are of an earthier kind whose roots lie in daily reality. I live in a country called India among a people called Indians with whom my personal interests are linked by all kinds of ties of kinship, friendship or of ordinary day to to day social intercourse. I would like India and Indians to do well because their doing well has a direct impact on my own life. I would also like India to have the strength to defend itself against the aggressive intent of other nation states, for when all is said, the present international system is composed of nation states engaged in pursuing their own interests, lawfully and peacefully when possible but violently and in disregard of norms of civilised behaviour if necessary. It is also a system in which large, united and determined states have an advantage over small, fragile and confused states. For this reason, I would want India to continue to be the large country it is and therefore I would like it to be united. But I would like to temper my patriotic fervour with three other considerations. Like G.K. Chesterton, I believe that a patriot should both hate and love his country: hate it enough to see its shortcomings and love it enough to wish to improve it. Secondly I would not like India to engage in any military adventure for the simple reason that war is destructive and should be fought only in self-defence. I feel uneasy when people talk in belligerent militaristic terms. Finally, I wish that Indian people were able to give themselves better rulers than they have been able to elect for the last three decades or so. None of India's present political parties and none of their leaders from among whom the Indian voters have to chose offer great hope.
Who then from my point of view is anti-national? I was once asked by someone in I do not remember which country what an Indian was. After some thought, I told this person that any one that came from the territory of India was an Indian. Through the years I have not been able to think of a better definition of an Indian. Seen thus, anyone who encourages one group of people living in this land to hurt another group because it is different in language, religion, food habits or physical features is anti-national. It is necessary to reiterate this again and again because under the present ruling dispensation, there are far too many people who are engaged in such activities. What is worse is that at the present moment there is in power a political leadership unwilling to place restraints on such people. It must also be asserted again and again that the real anti nationals in India are those who are unable to accept all the diverse peoples of India as one people.
In India, there is another, more insidious kind of anti-national. He is the kind that in the name of national pride favours ignorance over pursuit of knowledge--the kind of person who through his zeal inverts the the vedic chant--the path of light not of darkness--which he would cite quite willingly. This needs some explaining. In the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, societies in west and north Europe were not too dissimilar from society in India. In some respects India was richer and more refined than parts of west Europe. Then in precisely those centuries changes started happening in people's outlooks in Europe. Europeans started travelling to other parts of the world, by land and by sea. Their minds started opening up. The authority of the Pope was challenged not only from outside but also from witrhin. The Ptolemaic universe was overthrown in favour of the Copernican. Gallileo propagated the law of falling bodies and discovered the telescope. Harvey's discovery of circulation of blood threw into doubt the older ideas of four humours and their balance. For European educated elites there slowly were fewer and fewer notions that could not be questioned. The feudal order was replaced by centralised absolute monarchies in some of the older states and the new merchant class slowly acquired more power than the older landed aristocracy. In brief along with many important social changes there came about a great opening of the mind leading to an efflorescence of science and technology. Indian society remained mired in antiquated social structures and in relative ignorance. Such science as had prospered in ancient India became eclipsed by around the thirteenth century. So much so that when confronted with the west in the eighteenth century India could not compete and soon passed under colonial rule.
This is an extremely simplified account but the question that should worry Indian nationalists is why India got left behind between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries and why as a result India is still under developed, or developing or emerging. The response of newly educated Indians in the nineteenth century--educated in the sense of being exposed to European ideas as well as being made aware of some of the intellectual achievements of India in the fields of philosophy, metaphysics and literature particularly in its ancient past--was to emphasise what was considered the achievements of a glorious past. One strand of thought was that India needed to purge itself of the negative growths in its society and go back to that golden age. This strand of thought has continued and has been adopted by many modern Hindu chauvinists, the proponents of Hindutva. The trouble is that there are people among them who spend time and energy and paper and ink making untenable claims about the achievements of ancestral Indians (for which read Hindus) in science, medicine, mathematics, architecture and all other branches of knowledge which equal or surpass achievements of modern science. In their view History need not be based on empirical evidence. Their own view of History cannot be questioned. A former BJP President and an Indian minister of education wanted to introduce astrology in university curricula. There are people who would promote Vedic mathematics as a full time subject of study in universities--no one stops to ask how a dozen verses in the Rik samhita known as the shulbha sutras could be the subject of an entire university programme. No one asks how many more complex concepts than those contained in the shulbh sutras are part of modern mathematics. And all these ideas get promoted in the name of Hindu pride and in the name of national honour. But those who spend their energies promoting such a world view do no more than promote ignorance--ignorance that was responsible for India being left behind. Left to themselves they will take India backward in time. Such people are the true anti-nationals.
As this new year begins, it is sad to see that two forces of darkness have been let loose in India by the present ruling dispensation. One will exacerbate divisions in Indian society in the name of Hindu pride and Indian nationalism. It will also promote militarism. The second will promote ignorance in the name of glorifying India's past and kill the spirit of inquiry. In this new year that begins, people who wish well for India should wish that both these forces of darkness are defeated and that India truly and finally purges them out of its body.