I am an Indian nationalist. Both the Indian nation as the inheritor of the Indian civilisational heritage, and the Indian nation-state as the guarantor of our freedom and well-being strike me as among the great collective achievements of human history. However, we cannot take the nation to be a fact of nature, like mountains and oceans. The nation is a dynamic entity that requires continuous re-imagining in order for it to win and hold our trust.
The India of 2010 is not the imagined nation of the pre-independence era, characterised by self-sacrifice and hope for the future. With any luck, we are also not the nation of 1984, 1992 and 2001. However, there are deepening trends toward viral capitalism, militarisation and emergent superpower xenophobia that now dominate public spaces. The widespread use of jingoistic images and technocratic development discourse worries me as much as communalism worried me ten years ago.
Nationalism is now the preserve of three types of people: security types like policemen, soldiers and their political masters; developmentalists, who want to make India into an economic superpower, independent of the consequences; and chauvinists who want India only for one community or religion. Sometimes two of these nationalisms combine to form a deadly combination. It happened in Gujarat in 2001, it has been happening in Kashmir for the past twenty years and is happening in the current battle over the future of our forests and rivers.
The definition of Indian nationalism cannot be left to netas, babus and self-proclaimed patriots; we need citizen-centric expressions of nationalism as well. In this series of articles, I want to address several questions about the future of Indian nationalism, including the most controversial one of all: is it all possible to be an Indian nationalist without losing sight of our common humanity? Can nationalism ever be an emancipatory principle in a globalised world?
In a famous exchange between Tagore and Gandhi, the former raised the possibility that all nationalisms are suspect; he felt that any exclusionary principle leads to further divisions. Gandhi, while agreeing with the negative possibilities inherent in nationalism, felt that it was a prerequisite for a free and secure life. My sensibilities lie with Gandhi; I believe that we all need a home in this world. I can imagine a future where we can do away with nations altogether, but we are not there yet. That said, Tagore's criticism of nationalism is an important one, we have to open to the possibility that nationalism isn't sustainable without intolerable violence.
Certainly, the Indian state has often acted as if nationalism requires violence. Kashmiris, for example, might be forgiven for feeling that way. I want to explore possibilities for nationalism that do not go through the usual route of militarisation, resource extraction and superpower dreams. The first question I want to pose myself and to the reader is: "is it possible to be nationalistic without being militaristic?"
Many years ago, I was sitting with a friend in a small Delhi park in our neighbourhood. A young policeman came up to us and told us that we have to leave the park. I asked him why. He said that there was no reason except his asking us to do so, and if we didn't he would beat us with his lathi. Those were days when Delhi was still full of police check posts, and policemen weren't to be trifled with, especially not by high school students. I still remember the humiliation that I felt on that occasion, of being unable to resist someone who was using raw power to order me around.
Then, slightly more than a decade later, I went to west Africa, to Guinea. While driving from the capital city to a smaller town in a bus, we were stopped by soldiers at least three or four times. There were check points every few kilometres. The soldiers would peer into the bus, ask for money from the driver and let us go. It was clear that they were completely unaccountable.
When I read in the newspaper about a Kashmiri boy asking the home minister why soldiers were shooting at innocent civilians or when I read about entire tribal villages being razed to the ground in Chattisgarh, I am reminded of the two incidents in my past and I can easily see why such atrocities are hard to forgive (not that I am comparing my treatment at the hands of the Delhi policeman with the Kashmiri boys; their situation is incomparably worse). Militarisation is a base human instinct. If this is what Indian nationalism and the Indian union is about, I want nothing to do with it.
Militarisation starts with the feeling, present in all of us, and especially heightened in those who run cabinets and bureaucracies, that problems can be solved at the point of a gun. The magical power of the bullet is a superstition that binds the revolutionary to the policeman. When the revolutionaries win, as they did in the Soviet Union and China, they quickly become more brutal than the previous oppressor. Similarly, military governments throughout the world - in Chile, in Argentina and in our neighbouring Pakistan - come to power with the promise of ending chaos and corruption, but are as corrupt as their civilian predecessors. During the emergency we had one nationwide experiment with militarism, but fortunately for all of us, that experiment failed.
Nationalism is now the preserve of three types of people: security types like policemen, soldiers and their political masters; developmentalists, who want to make India into an economic superpower, independent of the consequences; and chauvinists who want India only for one community or religion.
The nation as a person
Indian mercantilist empire
An august dispute
India's Kashmir policy is in a shambles. We have about half a million uniformed men in the state, cross border terrorism is down and our adversary across the border is deluged in its own troubles. Yet, street protests are booming and over seventy people have been killed. Young men carrying sticks and stones have been killed by other young men carrying guns. Surely, the situation should strike any sensitive observer as being awfully similar to a more intractable problem a few thousand miles to the west. Where else have we seen the following combination:
A population that was colonised for a long time, a time in which the religious beliefs of the community were threatened by a politically and militarily superior adversary.
A country that was colonised by the British and became a functioning democracy after independence.
A country surrounded by (perceived if not actual) enemies that are accused of aiding terrorist strikes.
A country that has fought numerous wars with these enemies, defeating them and even dividing their land.
The country's military is occupying the only lands within its boundary whose population is majority Muslim.
A land whose youth are participating in mass street protests, throwing stones and sticks at the occupying troops and getting shot in return.
A country which has squandered enormous international goodwill and is now seen as a brutal occupier.
Everyone will recognise Israel in each one of these seven points, and we should also recognise India in the first six. Until the early seventies, Israel was also threatened by its neighbours and terrorist action from abroad was one of its main problems. After the first intifada, the protests against the Israeli occupation of Palestine took a distinctly home-grown tinge. Hamas is not Al-Qaeda, it is an organization run by Palestinians and with distinctly Palestinian aims, despite all attempts to club it with other Islamic outfits that espouse violence. Israel's position in the world is unenviable - while it is favoured by the superpower, it has lost all its moral legitimacy, which is an amazing achievement for a country whose dominant ethnicity was almost wiped out by the Nazis.
Does India want to become an Israel? Is India ready to deal with a Kashmiri Hamas? If the answer to these questions is in the negative, and I believe that any reasonable person would think so, we should change our Kashmir policy. India's Kashmir policy is counter to the very idea of India, and perhaps equally importantly, it is leading to the complete disbelief in the idea of India amongst the people of Kashmir. The state, like any other entity constructed via a social contract, is built upon the trust of its citizens. Once that trust is lost, no amount of force short of genocide can compel the inhabitants of an area into changing their minds.
I believe the Indian state's engagement with Kashmir is wrong in both senses of the word, i.e., wrong as in unethical and wrong as in stupid. It is unethical because the use of force on your own citizens, to label all of them as potential terrorists and to answer stones with bullets is to repudiate the very contract that these citizens have signed. It is stupid because the use of force on your own citizens, to label all of them as potential terrorists and to answer stones with bullets is likely to make your own worst nightmares come true. In my opinion, the current crisis in Kashmir stems from a lack of understanding of what I believe to an important socio-cognitive change in world politics, changes that have transformed nationalistic politics into identity politics and then into aspirational politics.
A new Indian nationalism will have to accommodate aspirational politics if it is to succeed in winning hearts and minds. Militarisation is not a positive aspiration, unless you are a thug or megalomaniac. Even the bureaucrats who want to use the Indian air force against Maoists recognise that militarisation isn't anyone's idea of the good life. If, by negative aspiration we mean the desire for an aspect of the current state of affairs to vanish, a demilitarised Indian nation is a negative aspiration shared by all reasonable people. In order to regain legitimacy in the Kashmir valley and the North East, India should demilitarise those areas as quickly as possible.
It goes without saying that demilitarisation is far from being the only aspiration worth having; in subsequent articles I want to explore the varieties
of (negative and positive) aspirational nationalism and ask how - if at all that is possible - aspirational nationalism can help us re-imagine the idea