The extraordinary protectionist start to Donald Trump’s presidency has brought nationalism to centre stage again — not that it has ever gone off stage in India since the troubles in the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar on a charge of sedition. Both Trump and the sedition charge have given nationalism a bad name. It comes with a pretty bad name anyhow because of its past association with Hitler’s National Socialism. But does that mean we should automatically condemn nationalism?
We should not because, we need nationalism. As long as we accept that the world is divided into nation states, should we not have some word that expresses affection for one’s nation, even perhaps national pride? Wasn’t the independence movement known as the Nationalist Movement? Wasn’t the party that led the movement the Indian National Congress?
On Sunday I took part in a discussion at the Gymkhana Club Literary Festival during which the moderator, the former captain of industry turned prolific and thought-provoking writer Gurcharan Das, suggested this need to express affection for one’s nation, and pride in it too, could be met by differentiating between nationalism and patriotism — to oversimplify what he said the one bad, the other good. In reply I quoted Samuel Johnson’s dictum, “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. When I got home, I looked up nationalism in my Oxford Dictionary and found it defined nationalism as patriotic feeling.
There is an answer to this problem which some will regard as simplistic but works for me — realise that there is positive and negative nationalism. There is the nationalism of Trump, of the Brexiteers in Britain, of the extreme right-wing politicians whose influence is growing elsewhere in Europe. It’s a nationalism which claims to instill the positive emotion of pride but is based on the negative emotion of fear. For this nationalism there has to be an enemy to fear. For both Trump and the Brexiteers, foreigners allegedly taking away jobs provide the enemy. In the case of the Brexiteers Europe was the enemy too. This form of nationalism is inevitably tinged with hostility to foreigners in general.
In addition to the need for an enemy, nationalists have a negative, pessimistic, view of the present condition of their nations, and an unreal, glorified version of their past history. Hence, Trump’s claim that he will make America great again and the Brexiteers’ version of the history of World War II ascribing victory to Britain alone.
This negative nationalism creates anger by encouraging the feeling that the nation has been taken away from those it rightfully belongs to. “Give us back our government,” chanted the Brexiteers. This sense of grievance is at the heart of Hindu nationalism — the belief that Muslims have prevented India from becoming a Hindu nation. The nationalists’ interpretation of the Vedas and their history of those times provide a glorious past. There is a general sense of hostility to foreigners in their interpretation of swadeshi.
There is a potential for a positive Indian nationalism. It’s a nationalism which perceives India as a pluralist nation and takes pride in that pluralism. Thus, it’s a nationalism which unites rather than divides the nation providing space for the diversity which is characteristic of India. It’s the nationalism of Gandhi and Nehru, not the secularism of today’s Congress, which is negative, merely in opposition to the BJP. In an article in The Economic and Political Weekly, philosopher Akeel Bilgrami has written of Nehru acknowledging that there was “great disunity” in India but still stressing “a kind of unselfconscious pluralism in India’s history that he along with Gandhi wished to tap as the basis for an inclusive anti-imperialist nationalism”.
There are historical arguments against, as well as in favour of, reading history in this way. There are also political scientists who argue that pluralism is a modern concept and therefore cannot be applied to India’s past. Bilgrami says it was to overcome these arguments that Nehru’s pluralism was unselfconscious. In other words, he didn’t what to push the idea too hard. To adopt this nationalism now the challenge of making it conscious would have to be taken up.
But Nehru was not alone in believing that the history of India does provide a convincing narrative for this pluralism. I believe that India today sustains that narrative because it is a pluralist nation. Of course there have been riots and there still are from time to time, but it’s widely agreed that they are instigated for political or economic purposes. Riots are the exception, pluralism is the rule.
Last week there were striking demonstrations of the difference between India’s two nationalisms. The release of the BJP’s manifesto for the UP election left no doubt that the party intended to mount a Hindu nationalist campaign. Also, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the January 30 prayer meeting commemorating the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in the garden of Birla House where he was shot.
During the meeting, representatives of all the major religions practised in India read from their scriptures or recited prayers — a moving reminder of India’s pluralism. While at the prayer meeting, did Modi think about the contradiction between the two nationalisms?