Nationalism is a powerful doctrine of our times. Despite globalization or its ‘time-space compression’ and ‘blurring of boundaries’, nationalism continues to retain its emotive appeal. Almost like organized religions, nationalism has tremendous hold over people’s psychic energy. Possibly it would not be entirely wrong to say that in modern times nationalism is like a secular religion. First, it comes with a cause, a purpose, a meaning of existence. There is something higher, bigger, nobler than the individual, his/her immediate location—caste, community, religion. It transcends the individual; it transcends localism; to live for the nation is to live for a higher cause; it is ‘sacred’! Second, as a result of this higher cause, nationalism as an emotion begins to enchant the world; it enchants its geographical territory, its rivers and mountains; it sanctifies its history, its mythologies, its epics; it celebrates its icons, heroes, martyrs; and through diverse festivities and symbols (almost like religious rituals and their symbolism) it intensifies the bond, and strengthens the imagination of living together in a nation. And third, nationalism has the power to create a mission for collective welfare because it arouses the urge to believe that to live meaningfully is to live for others—fellow citizens living in the same family called the nation.
(I) The soul of nationalism
Even though nationalism, as it is said, is a product of modernity—its industrial culture, its administrative machinery, its move towards homogenization, standardization and bureaucratization, its print capitalism and its quest for social equality, it has a ‘religious’ character; it has a ‘soul’; and that is why, its appeal is tremendous. Look at our own history—the mighty colonial empire and a wounded nation trying to heal itself, regain its lost glory and freedom. Swami Vivekananda pleaded for the recovery of the ‘soul’ of the nation, its swadharma, its religiosity, its striking difference from French politics and English commerce. In ‘practical Vedanta’ he saw the seeds of faith, courage and ‘man-making ‘religion, his mission for the upliftment of the masses. His journey to the West, his movement towards every part of the country—from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari, his passionate speeches, his organizational skills and altruism gave a new momentum to the making of our nationalism. And with Gandhi we saw an immensely powerful moment of awakening. The field of politics became a ground for sadhana; anti-colonial struggle for liberation intensified the unifying force ; and it sought to generate a new sensibility—national freedom should not mean only the transfer of power: from white rule to brown rule; instead, it ought to cultivate ‘soul force’, promote decentralization (rather than a mighty state), self-reliant enriched communities as models of swaraj, austerity (rather than aggressive consumption) and a delicate balance of human creativity and machinery. In a way, Gandhi gave a refreshingly different meaning to nationalism—not the hyper-masculine/militaristic/ greedy nationalism that colonial modernity brought with it, but a spiritually enriched, ethical, non-violent nationalism. In fact, this enchantment or this ‘soul’ of nationalism did affect even a ‘modernist’ like Nehru. No doubt, Nehru was known for his ‘scientific temper’, his fascination with Marxism and socialism, his plea for techno-economic development and secular culture. Yet, any careful reader of Nehru’s mind would concede that his romance with the ‘discovery’ of India was remarkable; even though he was trying to overcome the ‘dead weight of past’, our epics, philosophic traditions, cultural heritage, rivers and mountains were in his mind, in the spirit of India he sought to cultivate. In a way, through the discourse of nationalism an affinity was established between modernity and an ancient civilization; both were rediscovered and reinvented. Nationalism acquired its soul.
(II) The other side of nationalism
However, it is important to realize that this ‘enchanted’ nationalism can also be seen as a site of conflict and interrogation. It is in this context that we wish to raise four critical issues. First, an important question arises: Does the grand ideal of unifying nationalism hide the cleavages within? Whose nation is it? Is it inclusive? To take a striking example, we were asked—particularly by the likes of Phule and Ambedkar—to be aware of the cleavages within the ‘Hindu social order’: the way it sanctifies caste, hierarchizes society, legitimates violence in the form of social exclusion and degradation of ‘polluted’ work, creates a situation that is even worse than ‘slavery’, and goes against the principles of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. These critical questions, as the history of our freedom struggle suggests, sharpened the debate on the character of our nationalism. And even a man like Gandhi could not escape this interrogation; this possibly enabled a transparent/honest seeker like him to evolve continually till the last moment of his life. Yet, in our times, despite the Constitutional principle of equity and social justice, caste hierarchies and violence continue to prevail. No wonder, the question remains: Is our nationalism sufficiently inclusive? Second, we continue to see the recurrence of doubt and mistrust: Is it possible for our nationalism to bring diverse religious communities—particularly, Hindus and Muslims— together? True, because of a long history of convergence of Hinduism and Islam, the evolution of some sort of syncretic culture, Gandhi’s dialogic religiosity, and a broadly pan Indian character of our freedom struggle there was a powerful move towards ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’ in our nationalist discourse, despite the use of some ‘Hindu’ idioms and symbols. But then, this Gandhian ‘utopia’ was questioned by many. While the likes of Savarkar and Golwalkar pleaded for ‘militarized Hindutva’ and suspected the Muslims as ‘alien intruders’, Mohammad Ali Jinnah did not lag behind; he felt that Hindus and Muslims were two nations because of their irreconcilable differences, they could not live together. We know the consequences of this divisive communalism—partition, its wound and violence, and continual apprehension about the feasibility of the two communities living together even in ‘secular’ India known for its official doctrine of ‘unity in diversity’. At a time when the political landscape of India has changed, the legacy of ‘Gandhi-Nehru’ brand of political ethos tends to be ridiculed because of the assertive ideology of ‘cultural nationalism’, and the fear of ‘Islamic terror’ has become the dominant commonsense in the changed arena of global politics, we feel this fear—hidden or manifest: Can our nationalism hold Hindus and Muslims together? Third, as history shows, the emotive power of the ideology of nationalism can be used by the ruling establishment to curb dissenting voices. The state –or for that matter, the government—begins to equate itself with the nation; any meaningful critique of its policies or actions is seen to be ‘anti-national’, a conspiracy, an attempt to block ‘development’ and ‘progress’. In other words, the state or the government can use its propaganda machinery, its coercive apparatus to generate a negative meaning to dissent itself. In our times how often we have seen the usage of these negative categories—‘environmental fundamentalists’ not allowing ‘development’ to take place, ‘foreign-funded’ civil liberties groups damaging the honor of the country, ‘Maoists’ and ‘terrorists’ joining hands to promote insurgency! It is nobody’s contention to say that foreign-funded, irresponsible, profit-making NGOs do not exist in the country (in fact, these NGOs have done great damage to people’s agency), nor are we saying that immoral/irresponsible/violent acts do not take place in the name of dissent. Yet, it is always important to remember that if the state becomes too powerful and causes fear psychosis through its surveillance machinery and becomes increasingly anti-dialogic and non-reflexive, it weakens the moral fabric of the nation. People lose their hold over the nation. That is the ultimate paradox—powerful bureaucracy, powerful police and army, powerful media; but powerless people! No wonder, we have been reminded by many sensitive minds that there are times when the ideology of nationalism can be used as a hegemonic apparatus for a totalitarian society. Fourth, there is a paradox in any doctrine that sanctifies group solidarity, be it the solidarity of a clan or a nation. While it seeks to unify group members, it often invents its ‘other’—its enemy. Love your nation; hate your enemies! And quite often the ‘fear’ of the enemy—or the urge to ‘protect’ oneself from the ‘conspiracy’ launched by the enemy—becomes the motivating force for unifying the nation. The result is the consolidation of the ego of the nation; and herein lies the potential violence in the ideology of nationalism. To use the Freudian language, the nation-state becomes the cumulative embodiment of the thanatos or aggression of its citizens. As history has shown, it is for the ‘glory’ of the nation that we find ourselves amidst war, hyper-competitive/violent sports carnivals like Olympics and World Cup Soccer, and massive militarization of society. In other words, militant nationalism limits us, restrains the capacity to expand our horizon. Yes, birds fly in the infinite sky, and cross all boundaries; but we humans cannot see beyond territorial disputes, passports and visas. It is for this reason that the nation-state often degenerates into a soulless machine; through its bureaucratic standardization, mass culture, surveillance machinery it manufactures unity, promotes fear about other nations. As we try to feel and experience Rabindranath Tagore’s literary creations and spiritual revelations, we realize why, despite his deep sensitivity to our culture, civilization and love for people, he was critical of the cult of nationalism. There was a time when even a man like Gandhi was reminded by Tagore of the limits to the doctrine of ‘non co-operation’ or ‘swadeshi’ because it could restrain our horizon: the willingness to learn from others. Possibly this graceful conversation between these two finest minds sought to educate us: If the nation becomes a machine, it loses its soul; if the nation becomes hyper-masculine and narcissistic, it kills people’s ethical/moral sensibilities; and the future of human civilization lies in confluence and spiritual unity, not in greed, ego and expansionist urge to defeat and ‘conquer’ others.
(III) When love and resistance merge
We can now ask a critical question: What is the pedagogic role of a creative teacher in this delicate exercise? Possibly this question has added extra significance in our times because of the all-pervading legitimation crisis. We breathe negativity; the air is filled with despair, anger and cynicism. The bankruptcy of the political class, the widespread network of corruption, the retreat of the elite from collective concerns, the cultural decadence, the growing disparity and inequality in society, the absence of grand ideals and inspiring figures—there are many reasons for disillusionment. No wonder, for many—particularly, for the rebels—there is no romance with Indian nationalism anymore; it doesn’t touch; it doesn’t heal. And hence, any reference to our civilizational heritage, for them, looks utterly ‘nostalgic’, or just a romantic construction. There is no enchantment; there is only deconstruction. Moreover, together with this deconstruction (often associated with the radical youth, or left-centric university intellectuals), we see yet another form of degeneration—nationalism gets reduced into its lowest common denominator: the excitement in India-Pakistan cricket match, or the projection of army personnel killed in ‘encounters’ in Nagaland and Kashmir as our finest patriots! But then, a pedagogue should not allow himself/herself to fall into this trap of negative deconstruction and shallow celebration. The challenge is to evolve and practice an alternative pedagogy of love and resistance.
Let us understand the nuances of this pedagogy. To begin with, it is important to realize that to love is to resist what is undesirable; and to resist is to heal, to care, and to generate a new possibility. Love is resistance; resistance is love. Yes, a pedagogue ought to open the eyes of young learners and make them see that nationalism is a double-edged phenomenon. If nationalism, as we have pointed out, is not inclusive, if it misses the ethic of peace and pluralism, if it doesn’t have the spirit of cross-cultural universalism, it can prove to be a monster. But at the same time, if we have no experience of a shared collective, a sense of belonging to a flow of civilization, if there is nothing higher and transcendent to enchant us, the consequences can be equally damaging. Discrete, self-centric, atomized individuals without a sense of history do not create a sane society. A beautiful tree that expands its branches in the sky needs deep roots. Hence to resist violent/militaristic nationalism does not mean that one is against any grand unifying ideal, any higher mission. Localism, narrow identity-based politics (I cannot see beyond my caste, my ethnicity, my language, my religion, my gender); or indifference to one’s own country in the name of ‘better’ fortunes (see the NRI phenomenon—the middle class dream of ‘American prosperity’, or professors known for their ‘subaltern’ historiography leaving India, writing about its ‘fragments’, and teaching in American universities) cannot be seen to be true answers to the crisis confronting us. A creative teacher or an enlightened pedagogue should take young learners to a new possibility. Resist violence; generate love. Resist localism; generate the rhythm of connectedness. And hence a young learner must be told about the extraordinary tales of our civilization. Criticality does not mean that one should not feel the ecstasy in a Vedic hymn or an Upanishadic dialogue; secular reasoning does not mean that one should not hear the whispers of a river undertaking a journey from the grand Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal; Ambedkarism should not mean that one has to remain indifferent to Kabir, Iqbal, Gandhi and Tagore. Studying history and literature, geography and music, or biographies and philosophy should not be reduced into a disenchanted/cold logic of data analysis. Without this sensitivity, this love and romance life becomes dull, bitter, deserted. And for a true pedagogue, this love itself is the fountain of resistance because true resistance is not cynicism; it is a quest for something higher; it is a kind of prayer. He/she inspires young learners to resist what limits and degrades us—perpetual war in the name of ‘national honor’, repression of critical/reflexive voices, crude sensationalism in military/sports carnivals, or cult of narcissism and self-centric individualism nurtured by neo-liberalism and its principle of conspicuous consumption. This is a pedagogue’s gift: the willingness to aspire for abundance. Indeed, when love and resistance are merged, a new citizen is born—a citizen capable of reconciling patriotism and cosmopolitanism, land and people, memory and new quest, being and becoming, heritage and humility.
Cover Image : Daniel Berchaulak/Getty Images
Prof. Avijit Pathak teaches at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.