The debate over ‘nationalism’ has been going on in recent times for various reasons. It is again being debated, as the Supreme Court has questioned its own interim order pronounced last year making it compulsory for cinema halls to play the national anthem before the start of the movie and requiring people to stand up. In the course of hearing, Justice D Y Chandrachud made a pithy observation, “Should patriotism be worn on our sleeves?” The interim order was subjected to swingeing criticism and ultimately, the court had to issue a clarification that it was not compulsory.
However, there is a growing trend to make it compulsory. Jaipur and Guwahati municipal corporations have made the singing of the national anthem and the national song mandatory at the start of the workday and before dispersal. In July last, the Madras High Court made the singing of Vande Mataram in schools, government offices, private entities and industries in Tamil Nadu compulsory. A single-judge bench ordered that while schools must sing it at least once a week, the national song must be crooned in offices once a month. However, the court clarified that if any person or organisation has any issue with its singing or playing, they would not be forced to sing it, provided there are valid reasons for not doing so.
‘Nationalism’ is a contentious word which does not only divide the world but divides the nation also from within. In India, the debate is going on in the context of gau rakshaks, Kashmir, and the requirement to play the national anthem or the national song and to stand up when it is played. Gau rakshaks have added militancy to the cultural nationalism based on exclusivism, but it is heartening that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken strongly against them several times. Kashmir stirs up strong emotion and war hysteria with people preferring a permanent resolution of the issue by pulling all the stops out including war with Pakistan though a small minority also supports secessionists and raises the slogan of ‘aazadi’ in the name of the freedom of expression.
The very concept of nationalism stokes controversies. In fact, nationalism is not a narrow term. In May 1916, Rabindranath Tagore paid a visit to Japan and he was requested to indite a verse of commemoration for two popular heroes who died fighting in pursuance of a private feud. He heard it in silent distress and composed: “They hated and killed, and men praised them;/ But God in shame hastened to hide its memory under the green grass.” He was taunted as being “the poet of a defeated nation” for his candid criticism of a narrow nationalism. Later in September that year, he went to Seattle in the USA and was subject to virulent attack by the American press for his full-scale animadversion of nationalism. Smelling a rat, the Detroit Journal warned the people against “such sickly saccharine mental poison with which Tagore would corrupt the minds of the youth of our great United States”.
His own countrymen there, the activists of the revolutionary Gadar Party, excoriated him for betraying the Indian nationalist aspirations. They thought that since Tagore had been Knighted by the British government a year before, he had been sent there as a British agent to besmirch his own nation. Surprisingly, the British government too, uncomfortable with his unequivocal denunciation of war, covertly supported the rumour that the Nobel laureate was being used as a tool of German propaganda to antagonize America against the British and the Allied war effort. Deeply hurt, Tagore cancelled his lecture tour and sailed for Japan in January 2017.
When Gandhi launched his swadeshi movement by organising a bonfire of foreign cloth, C F Andrews remonstrated with him, “I know that your burning of foreign cloth is with the idea of helping the poor, but I feel that you have gone wrong. There is a subtle appeal to racial feeling in that word foreign, which day by day appears to need checking and not fomenting. The picture of your lighting that great pile of beautiful and delicate fabrics shocked my intensity. We seem to be losing sight of the outside world to which we belong and concentrating selfishly on India; and this must, I fear, lead back to the old, bad, selfish nationalism…Do you know I almost fear now to wear the khaddar that you have given me, lest I should appear to be judging other people, as a Pharisee would, saying, “I am holier than thou.” I never felt like this before.”
The bonfire coincided with a famine in the Khulna district of Bengal and the picture of shivering naked villagers appeared revolting to him. Mohan replied to dear Charlie (Gandhi and Andrews were Mohan and Charlie to each other) affectionately: “To me it seems utterly degrading to throw foreign cloth in the face of the poor because we have no longer any use for it…If the emphasis were on all foreign things, it would be racial, parochial and wicked. The emphasis is on all foreign cloth. India is racial today; the people are filled with ill-will. I am transferring the ill-will from men to things.”
This is the Indian tradition which always allows latitude for different viewpoints. Andrews was not suspected to be a spy; in England, even D H Lawrence was under surveillance during the World War I, as his wife Freida was a German. However, the latitude does not mean freedom to raise anti-India slogans and questioning every move of the security forces and raising the human rights issue at the drop of a hat.
Karl Marx was opposed to nationalism, as he visualised industrial workers as an international class, who according to him, would be in the vanguard of revolution. His prophecy did not come true as workers never revolted. In Russia and China, it was the peasants’ revolution, not workers, and the two countries split because of their national interests. Now, most countries are practising militant nationalism – the USA pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans pacific partnership, the UK exited from the European Union, Russia withdrew from the International Criminal Court and China has refused to obey the ruling of the International Court of Justice on South China Sea.
We have seen the worst phase of nationalism during the World War II. Six million Jews were killed in the holocaust in Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Many scientists and philosophers like Albert Einstein, Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, Karl Popper and many others fled away from Germany. However, killing and spreading hatred were the sole domain of Nazis. There were many who spread animus against Germans as well and pleaded for their extirpation. India never spread hatred against any nationality or race despite suffering the worst of exploitations, tortures and killings at the hands of firangis. India is known for its magnanimity.