What’s your nationalism today?

One seems to get lessons in nationalism in the unlikeliest of places. Classrooms being the first spaces where the ideal of nationhood and patriotism are drilled into our heads each day through repetition and rote. If you live in Maharashtra, even an evening out at the movies isn’t bereft of a sufficient dose of the nationalist mantra, proclaimed openly in the form of a singing of the national anthem before the film’s screening.

As with most other things, the city street carries its own codes and messages of political ideas, which are exchanged over cups of hot tea, at bus stops or as I noticed last week, on the road, while waiting in an auto for the light to turn green.

In the auto right next to mine, a woman was engaged in a rather loud and passionate discussion with her auto driver about politics and all around a 10 metre radius, everyone stuck in the jam was keenly listening in to what the two were saying, or rather shouting at each other. As my auto pulled slightly closer in, I became privy to, by far, the most vehement defence of nationalism I have ever heard.

In Congressiyon ne loot loot ke desh ko khokhla kar diya hai! Kuch nahi hai humaare paas. Na paisa aur na hathiyaar,” the woman said to the driver. When he tried to argue against this, saying that India was at par with China and Pakistan in both departments, she went on to bark out this gem, “Tumhe kya lagta hai, Pakistan hamaara dost hai? Jung hui toh woh hum pe bomb pe bomb giraate rahenge aur hum bas baithe reh jaayenge!”

As entertaining as this discussion was for me and everyone else around, it also made me wonder what it was about nationalism that inspires such vehement defence of it. The fact that a ruling party, one most thoroughly associated with Indian nationalism and Independence didn’t think twice before consistently robbing the country while it was in power should have unmasked the hollowness of said nationalism. Instead, we find that a national political crisis has given birth to a kind of popular ultra-nationalism that despises dialogue and discussion and expects uniform and universal bhakti for Bharat Mata.

How does one explain this fervent commitment to a concept as imaginary as nationalism? Two things emerge from what the woman said. One, as Benedict Anderson put it, “a fear and loathing of the other” and second, a “profoundly self sacrificing love” for the nation. It is amusing that the woman here seemed so confident about her ‘knowledge’ on India’s monetary status and weapons stock. But even in her total faith in the right wing agenda of ‘saving’ the nation from moral and financial bankruptcy, there is a sense of ‘naturalness’ to the idea of India. It is but natural that India must defend itself from Pakistan. Equally natural, as Preity Zinta demonstrated, that each person stand in respect for the national anthem.

But in fact, there is nothing natural about nationalism. A concept as invented and imagined as unicorns, it is eventually a construct, a collective daydream that we invest so much in so as to sustain the illusion of belonging and togetherness. Of course, India’s specific experience of colonialism and an independence struggle that fashioned India as one and sharing a common history makes it particularly interesting to see how the idea of nationalism, one that clearly did not emerge ‘naturally’ takes shape today. While there are those who will insist on nationhood, patriotism and that absurd catchphrase used so often in NCERT textbooks- ‘unity in diversity’- there are also signs that all is (and has never been) not well in the nationalism dream. The language debates and anti Hindi agitations in post Independence Tamil Nadu are one such example. MSS Pandian argues that “within the framework of nationalistic narratives this “linguistic insubordination” of Tamil Nadu gets written as ‘chauvinistic’, ‘fissiparous’, and ‘divisive’.”

These words are repeated every time someone or a group tries to imagine change outside the nationalistic framework. A convenient tool for mass mobilization, it is not surprising then that no political party in North India has been able to define itself independent of a patriotic agenda. The Aam Aadmi Party for instance, routinely points out that “desh ko bachaana hai” and urges people to make change, not for any other reason other than to reclaim the nation in all its glory, just as its forefathers had imagined.

The question then remains, is there space within this ‘great nation of ours’ for those who don’t stand up when the national anthem plays in movie halls? Or those who reject parliamentary democracy completely? Or those who resist Indian nationalism and the brutality it brings with it in several states?

The article was first published on Newsyaps inOctober 2014. The website has since shut down.

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