Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

A tedious argument

Unthinking nationalism is immature because it is bereft of reflection and perilous because it can lead to erosion of liberties

In a country of a billion people, there have to be at least a billion ways in which people express their sense of belonging. To impose a uniform idea of nationhood and patriotism is not only impractical; it is also bound to fail.

But entranced by becoming the first party in three decades to get a parliamentary majority, many supporters, several party members and a few chief ministers of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are busy foisting their idea of nationalism on anyone who disagrees. The madness had begun before the elections, when BJP supporters told the Jnanpith Award-winning Kannada author, the late U.R. Ananthamurthy, to go to Pakistan because he opposed Hindutva. It has only become worse.

Proclaiming four words in Hindi, which hail victory for India as personified by a goddess, is the shortest and surest way to affirm patriotism. Refuse to say that slogan, and a state assembly will suspend you and the Maharashtra chief minister will think poorly of you. And but for the restraining influence of the Indian Constitution, the yoga instructor and businessman called Ramdev would behead the naysayer. What’s chilling is not Ramdev’s insouciance as he declared that, but the loud cheer with which his remarks were greeted.

This isn’t only about the shenanigans over the slogan—more dangerous is the corollary, that if you deviate from that norm, and if you challenge the consensus being imposed, you are anti-national. The government alone is not doing it; the broadcast media is merrily providing accompanying score. A few TV networks went out of the way to castigate student leaders of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), egging on the chorus that called them anti-national. After inviting JNU student Umar Khalid on his television programme, Times Now anchor Arnab Goswami chided him because Khalid attempted to respond to his earlier question, but by then Goswami had moved on to another topic—praising Lance Naik Hanumanthappa, who was then fighting for his life after the Siachen tragedy.

‘Anti-national’ has become the handle to snuff out all criticism. Malini Subramaniam of the website Scroll.in was forced to leave Chhattisgarh because the police disliked her reporting from Bastar. Another journalist, Prabhat Singh, has been arrested for posting “inflammatory" messages on social media, and yet another reporter, Deepak Jaiswal, has been arrested over an old complaint. Other arrested journalists include Somaru Nag and Santosh Yadav. The Editors Guild of India sent an investigative team, which has noted the aura of surveillance and fear under which journalists function in the state. The more the reporters pack up and leave, the less the likelihood there is of anyone finding out that Soni Sori, an Adivasi school teacher and activist, was attacked recently, a doctor arrested, and lawyers offering legal aid to Adivasis compelled to leave.

Now, the deep state within Chhattisgarh has turned its fury on academics-activists Jean Drèze and Bela Bhatia. Drèze is an Indian citizen and a renowned development economist, but the neo-nationalists insist on calling him Belgian because he was born there. Drèze’s work on poverty, health and rural distress is recognized internationally, but he is described in a pamphlet as a Naxalite and a foreign agent. The intemperate, inflammatory pamphlets targeting Drèze and Bhatia have a singular aim—to remove external scrutiny, so that what happens in Chhattisgarh stays within Chhattisgarh, and the simplest way to achieve that is by calling them anti-national.

This is not to minimize the reality of violence in Chhattisgarh. Indeed, there is conflict in Chhattisgarh, between Maoists who claim to represent the people, and the state, which claims to derive its legitimacy from the same people. The Maoists are nihilist and do not believe in democracy; the state is turning sadist and has little interest in being accountable to the people it governs. And when its conduct is scrutinized, challenged or condemned, its cheer-leaders call those critics anti-national. Nationalism is a tedious argument of insidious intent, to borrow from what T.S. Eliot wrote in another context.

Indeed, unthinking nationalism is immature and perilous. It is immature because it is bereft of any reflection; it is perilous because it can lead to further erosion of liberties. And the easiest way tyranny can creep in is by scaring a population into believing that the nation’s stability is at stake. Rabindranath Tagore had warned against “the fierce idolatry of nation-worship". What he wrote about Japan in Nationalism applies just as easily to India today, where a people’s voluntary submission to “the trimming of their minds and clipping of their freedom by their government" leads them through a narrow path towards a uniform mass, where the people “accept this all-pervading mental slavery with cheerfulness and pride because of their nervous desire to turn themselves into a machine of power".

G.K. Chesterton explained the absurdity more pithily in The Defendant: “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober’."

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

Close