February 23, 2016The Hinduliberal democracy

In support of a liberal nationalism

Nationalism without liberalism is a monster. The way to manage tensions is not to give up one for the other, as the left and the right wing demand of us, but to insist on both.

The Hindu This is from my column in The Hindu (2015-2016).

The recent events in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Patiala House courts have deepened the state of tension, suspicion and discord that has afflicted the country over the past several years. At one level, the events bring to sharp focus the mindset of the Narendra Modi government, the partisanship of university and law enforcement authorities, the brazenness of lawbreakers, the nature of student politics, and the inflammatory role of some television channels. Every one of these aspects demands serious debate, review and a new broad consensus if we are to retain our hard-won and hard-preserved freedoms.

At another level, the events call upon us as citizens to reflect on our relationship with the entity that we call India; to reflect on the nature of the feeling we have for India, and indeed, what is the India” that we have feelings for. The mindless frenzy which a lot of us have got ourselves into over the alleged chanting of anti-India slogans at JNU is partly a symptom of the lack of a clear personal understanding of our own feelings of love, patriotism, nationalism, civic responsibility and devotion. Having not reflected on this, we fall for the seductive tunes of entrepreneurs of emotion, who often use our feelings to promote their own political ambition. Take a look at where the visible and invisible champions of the famous anti-corruption movement of 2011-12 currently are.

Liberalism vs. nationalism

It is in the nature of democratic politics for ambitious politicians to use emotions to climb up the ladder of power. The problem is not manipulativeness or political ambition; it is the willingness with which otherwise sensible citizens allow themselves to follow the Piper. These are times when outrage broadcasts from television studios merge with the echo chambers of social media and break into violence on our streets. If we are not to make grievous mistakes in the name of such good things as fighting corruption or countering anti-nationals, we, the people, must reflect.

If you go by much of the public debate playing out in the media, we are asked to choose between liberalism and nationalism, conveniently represented by the Left and the Sangh Parivar respectively. If you support the right of the JNU students to shout anti-India slogans until they are blue in the face, as long as there is no violence, you are automatically seen as supporting their slogans. Similarly, if you support the Indian nation state, you are perforce deemed a right-wing nationalist. Further, ideologues will tell you that nationalists cannot be liberal, and liberals cannot be nationalist. You have to choose one side. If you don’t, you’ll be disparaged as a fence-sitter.

Here’s the point though: from its earliest origins, Indian nationalism has been liberal in nature. The signature of the freedom movement was to expel the British, without hatred. The setting up of a secular state with a liberal constitution, in the face of a violent demand for and reaction to the creation of a Muslim Pakistan, is a remarkable monument to that national sentiment. This is consistent with India’s civilisational ethos and daily practice as well. We are liberal to varying degrees. We are nationalistic and patriotic to varying degrees. Some may be more liberal, others might be more nationalistic, but most of us are both.

Like the bumblebee that insists on flying despite scientists’ view that a creature of its shape and weight is incapable of flight, we live our liberal nationalist lives regardless of what political philosophy says. This is not to say all is hunky dory — there are regular tensions over what the limits of one’s rights ought to be — but we manage our affairs reasonably well, given our immense diversity and divisions.

The way to manage these tensions is not to give up one for the other, as the left and the right wing demand of us, but to insist on both. Individual liberty is mere theory unless the state protects it and makes it real. We saw this at the Patiala House courts where journalists were beaten up as the police refused to intervene. Nationalism without liberalism is a monster. We saw this when lawyers and a local Delhi politician brazenly resorted to violence in the name of nationalism.

The nation as a project

In fact, Rabindranath Tagore, who became increasingly ambivalent in his opinion of nationalism, wrote, I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the Nation? It is the aspect of a whole people as an organised power. This organisation incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient. But this strenuous effort after strength and efficiency drains man’s energy from his higher nature where he is self-sacrificing and creative. For thereby man’s power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organisation, which is mechanical. Yet in this he feels all the satisfaction of moral exaltation and therefore becomes supremely dangerous to humanity. He feels relieved of the urging of his conscience when he can transfer his responsibility to this machine which is the creation of his intellect and not of his complete moral personality.

By this device people who love freedom perpetuate slavery in a large portion of the world with the comfortable feeling of pride of having done its duty; men who are naturally just can be cruelly unjust both in their act and their thought, accompanied by a feeling that they are helping the world in receiving its deserts; men who are honest can blindly go on robbing others of their human rights for self-aggrandisement, all the while abusing the deprived for not deserving better treatment.”

Here Tagore was being anti-national in the literal sense of the word. Yet it would be absurd to accuse him of being a traitor to India. He is proof that it is possible to be deeply loyal to the country, have immense concern for the well-being of its people, while opposing nationalism.

The rest of my The Hindu columns are here

Tagore also noted the dangers of fetishisation of the nation — where from childhood he had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God”. It is little wonder that people get enraged when anti-India slogans are chanted, because many of us have adopted the concept of blasphemy in Semitic religions and therefore cannot tolerate insults to the object of our worship. This, more than any concern for national security, explains the popular sentiment around the JNU controversy. If we realise that it is our sentiments that were offended, not our security, perhaps we will see the issue with greater equanimity.

We can be patriotic without being nationalists. We can be liberal without being libertarians. We are like this only.

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