The Paranoid Art of Nationalism

    A great scholar once claimed that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. If he had lived another hundred years, he could have added that the nation state is the first home of the insecurely authoritarian. Today, the nation state has become a police operation, censoring categories, modes of thought that do not march in uniform with its official definitions of citizenship.

    Hall of sedition: (From left) Arundhati Roy, Hardik Patel, Kanhaiya Kumar, Binayak Sen and Aseem Trivedi.
    Hall of sedition: (From left) Arundhati Roy, Hardik Patel, Kanhaiya Kumar, Binayak Sen and Aseem Trivedi.

    Oddly, this process of the nation state as a panopticon, an institution for policing thought, has to be seen today as a part of an electoral democratic phenomenon. Majoritarianism in India has combined with a jingoist nationalism to carry out two separate sets of policing operations. At a local level, vigilante forces like the Bajrang Dal police the body and guard against any threat of sexuality either in terms of dress or in terms of the creativity of art and cinema. The policing of sexuality at the local level goes with policing of thought at the national level. If America had a Ku Klux Klan on race, India is creating a network of vigilantes on the nation.

    Citizenship and thought policing

    This vigilantism of patriotic and chauvinist groups has the seal of official approval. A good citizen is not only someone who is corseted in dress but one who wears a corseted mind. Majoritarian nationalism creates a new kind of thought policing where the deviant, the dissenting, the marginal and the minoritarian find it different to fit into the chorus of the nation state. Parties like the BJP realize that anxiety about jobs, security, the body creates a vulnerability which the nation state can exploit. Anyone who differs from you becomes anti-national. The transition from nationalism of the independence movement, which was a costume ball of ideas, to the uniformity of the nation state is complete. Citizenship becomes a proactive idea of thought policing. Any sign of difference confronts the mob and the lynch squad. Thanks to this arid mentality of nationalism, democracy becomes a threat to a democratic way of life. The irony is virtually complete.

    While Narendra Modi pretends to play statesman immersed in the problems of governance, his electoral double, Amit Shah, plays impresario to this knee-jerk nationalism, adding a surreal gravitas to what is both farcical and lethal. Mr. Shah is a menacing figure whose pronouncements become virtual diktats to party workers. He creates a fetish around nationalism which even threatens free speech blatantly. He is clear that nationalism is too sacred to be even questioned through free speech. He transforms it both into a theology and an official state ideology such that reasons of the nation state become even more sacrosanct than democracy. He is clear that what he labels as propaganda against the nation should not be considered as part of free speech. Such ‘free speech’, he claims, insults the martyrs of the freedom movement. In a fell swoop, past and present move under majoritarian control. He cites Bhagat Singh without realizing he was a more open ended mind than Amit Shah is. Bhagat Singh would never endorse the Gujarat riots of 2002. This appropriation of the freedom movement by the RSS is a card-sharping act worthy of examination. Since character building seems to be beyond the BJP, this fiction of being the custodian of ‘nationalist character’ lets it beat back dissent or difference of any kind.

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    Rajnath Singh as Home Minister plays second fiddle to Mr. Shah contending that Pakistan has been deliberating misleading Indian youth. At one sweep, he exonerates Delhi, the police, the local government from any kind of error, locating the source of mischief in an external enemy. Blaming Pakistan is easy, while realizing your own mistakes takes courage. Not be left behind, Manohar Parrikar, the Defense Minister, recently claimed going to Pakistan is like going to “hell”.

    Ramya, the former actress and Congress member who visited Pakistan as part of a delegation, was quick to retort, “Pakistan is not hell.” In a sane civil way, she observed, “People are just like us. They treated us well.” This was enough to spark an accusation of sedition, and a complaint against her was filed by a Kannada advocate. The lawyer, Vittal Gowda, alleged that Ramya had insulted Indian patriots by praising Pakistan. Updating themselves, BJP activists who earlier advocated the train to Pakistan to any dissenter now insisted that anyone who thought Pakistan was heaven should take the next flight. Sedition now becomes the easiest label to tar your opponent with. All one needs is a simple difference of opinion.

    Fortunately, Ramya is a sensible person, who, in an article, matter of factly said, “we need to build enduring bridges with our neighbors.” The BJP’s attempt to create its storm in a teacup was quietly foiled by the film star. In fact, Bollywood known for its melodrama seems sane, allowing the BJP to monopolies all the hysterical roles. Ramya’s sanity is a perfect antidote to the ruling regime’s hysteria.

    Uses of a nervy nationalism

    The question one has to ask is, why are the BJP and its cohorts adopting this knee-jerk jingoism? Part of it is because as a party it has sought a theory of uniformity as unity without any real faith in inclusion. The backstage and the front stage of its politics just do not hold together. A nervy nationalism becomes its real claim to solidarity. The BJP’s attitude to Dalits has undermined any hope of inclusion. As election time approaches, this nervy nationalism nitpicking at every source of dissent becomes its one electoral plank. It is as if its majoritarianism by habit has nothing else to resonate with. Its inability to resolve issues in Kashmir, its illiteracy about the agony of Kashmir weaken its sense of problem solving. Besides, student revolts at JNU and Hyderabad have dented its claim to be the party of the youth. At a time when its claims to justice and competence are beginning to sound hollow, the drumbeat of nationalism seems to be its only calling card. By fusing majoritarianism and this spectacle of nationalism, it makes dissent to be against the nation. It is only this false fusion that gives it a sense of unity.

    The strategy is shortsighted and creates two casualties at the level of ideas. It aborts the power of nationalism as a process, disguising the many doubts about nationalism which stalwarts like Tagore or Gandhi had. It attempts to remove their voices from history to create its own meaner version of it. It demolishes the creativity of civil society by turning every act of dissent and difference into a canned idea of sedition.

    Protest and differences which sustained both nationalism and democracy are now emptied out. As this new nationalism unfolds, one realizes its lack of organic embeddedness. As it has no sense of communities beyond a conscripted uniformity, it is forced to rely on a false sense of leadership by inflating the reputation of one person and his alleged charisma or becomes an excuse for technocratism seeking a modernism around its uncritical acceptance of technology. Such empty bullying by nationalism eventually degenerates to a fascism that flies on democracy. Dialogue becomes impossible, and difference and debate unrealistic. Whatever the short-term popularity, it is becoming clear that this is not the world Nehru, Gandhi and Patel dreamt of. Nationalism rather than becoming a way of life becomes a symptom of an inferiority complex where the regime eventually lacks the cultural imagination to challenge the West or China. The regime has made the singing of the National Anthem compulsory. Here nationalism is converted into a form of church attendance. What could have been a way of life becomes a ritual for scrutiny. Such a perspective is illiterate about history and unprepared for any cosmopolitan future. It substitutes the unity of the flag with uniformity, the mob mentality of vigilantism. It fails to understand that both cadre and mob lack the nuance, the subtlety or mentality of a plural nation.

    The BJP’s current view of history and the nation is inaugurating not an epic of nationalism but a jingoistic tragedy that threatens democracy both as plural imagination and a way of life. The BJP’s nationalism is like a nervous tic which agitates itself every time the party runs out of ideas.

    The author is the Director of Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems and Professor Jindal Global Law School

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