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Introduction

“India is my country and all Indians are my brothers and sisters.

I love my country and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage.

I shall always strive to be worthy of it.

I shall give respect to my parents, teachers and all elders and treat everyone with courtesy.

To my country and my people, I pledge my devotion. In their well-being and prosperity alone lies my happiness.”

The words from the Indian National Pledge have been made familiar to us from a very young age. In 1964, the Central Advisory Board on Education suggested that the Pledge be read aloud in schools and that the practice to be introduced by 26th January 1965. The Pledge continues to be recited during the Independence Day and Republic Day celebrations in schools to commemorate the history of India and inculcate the youth with the spirit of nationalism. The mandatory singing of the national anthem, flag hoisting ceremonies and other events further help develop our nationalistic zeal. But when the details are put in perspective, there always seems to be more to the story than meets the eye: though the Pledge was eventually translated into English and many other regional languages, it was penned by author PydimarriVenkataSubba Rao in 1962 originally in the Telugu language. The language was employed to the compose message of inclusion and devotion to the nation at a time when many people speaking Telegu were also deeply wrecked by separatist sentiments. The Telangana Movement that culminated in breaking away of Telangana from the state of Andhra Pradesh in 2014 had its very beginnings in social tensions that may be traced back to the late 1960s. The inherent dichotomy here brings us to question the message of inclusion that nationalism claims to carry and the underlying separatism and idea of exclusion.

The Oxford dictionary defines nationalism as ‘Identification with one's own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.' This definition itself implies that our identification with our own nation and our sense of belonging must necessarily rest, to some extent, on the feeling of not-belonging to what we perceive as the 'other'. This leaves room for fear and xenophobia to develop for the perceived 'other', often resulting in violence and loss of innocent lives. This binary of identity and identification is often applied in contexts of religion to set off a chain of events that may often culminate in bloodshed.

The Indian struggle for independence was a long and valiant one, but it will serve us well to re-examine the exact circumstances under which the nation was born. The partition of India and Pakistan brought into existence two separate nations with overpowering religious connotations, and this idea of not-belonging to one but to the other gave birth to animosity towards the other side. This is an inherent flaw which has the potential to turn against the very spirit of patriotism, resorting to the political power of nationalism and rendering an inescapable philosophical poverty to the sentiment itself.

Nationalism today

Since 2014 there has been a surge in the expression of the nationalistic spirit on a much grander scale than before. The extreme rhetoric and hyperbolic action that could be ascribed to Yogi Adityanath may be cited as a fairly recent example. His political position as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has a self-avowed religious bias. From the blanket ban of cow slaughter to the alteration of names like 'Humayunpur' to 'Hanumanpur', 'Allahabad' to 'Pragyaraj' clearly exemplifies his Hindu nationalist ideas. This principle of exclusion of Muslims disregards the secular status of India as stated in the Constitution. The extreme nature of his ideas seems to be synonymous with the nationalistic rhetoric of today.

The cultural significance of monuments like war memorials and statues often help nurture the spirit of nationalism. The Status of Unity inauguration on the 31st October 2018 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi commemorates the contribution of Vallabhai Patel to the Indian struggle. As the tallest statue in the world, the Prime Minister has described the statue as an “engineering feat” which it definitely is. The spirit of nationalism has encouraged art and creativity in human beings for a long time. The massive structure is also expected to bring in revenues by boosting the tourism industry in Gujarat. While all these sentiments are noble in conception, the building of the statue cost the nation about 2989 crores of rupees. In a country like India (second in the list of countries with the largest percentage of people living in extreme poverty, as of 2018), the money could have been more fruitfully invested. As a developing nation with more than 70.5 million people living in extreme poverty, it is important that our leaders strike a balance so that our nationalistic zeal may be more practically expressed.

The present government has taken measures to make sure that the nationalistic spirit of citizens is properly exercised and expressed. The mandatory playing of the national anthem before movie screenings was one such step. Though the Indian Supreme Court in January 2018 ruled that the playing of the anthem is to be optional, it was moved forward by recurring instances of violence. The incident involving Salil Chaturvedi, a wheelchair-bound author in Goa in October 2016 was assaulted in a multiplex when he was unable to stand. This kind of blind nationalism that renders people incapable of perceiving the issues of their fellow citizens, and carry out acts of violence on the basis of their presumptions is against the essence of communion that nationalism is built on. In a similar incident on October 2, 2017, in Guwahati, Mr Arman Ali a disabled man suffering from cerebral palsy and a disabled rights activist was called a 'Pakistani' when he was unable to stand up when the national anthem came on. The idea that the identity of one nation could act as a nationalistic slur to insult someone unable to fulfil imposed conditions of nationalism deeply hurts the spirit of patriotism.

Nation, nationality and nationalism

The dictionary definition of 'nation' is a basic one: 'a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory.’ In this commonality lies the communion of nationalism. Boundaries of neighbouring nations may be made along rivers or mountain ranges, but nations exist on a solely manmade set of rules and norms. This is why Hugh Seton-Watson, the author of Nations and States, remarks “I am driven to the conclusion that no ‘scientific definition’ of the nation can be devised, yet the phenomenon has existed and exists…. All I can find to say is that a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one.”

Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism has remarked on the formal universality of nationality as a socio-cultural concept. He says, “In our world, everyone can, should and will have a nationality as he or she has gender.” Our nationality may deeply resonate with us, but it is an unavoidable detail in the paperwork we need to prove our identity. From our birth certificate to our passports, all documents of identification need to be necessarily issued by a nation. The movie The Terminal (2004) starring Tom Hanks presents this dilemma in a comedic manner. Inspired by true events, the movie centres around the protagonist Victor Navorski from the Eastern European nation Krakozhia who is stranded in the airport after he is denied entry into the USA. He is not allowed to return to his nation due to war and political turmoil and ends up spending nine months at the airport. A tragic spin may be given to the same story when one wants to cite an example from a real life-a Syrian man named Hassan al Kontarhad been stranded in Kuala Lumpur Airport International for more than 7 months. He was detained in March and remained at the airport until October 2018, when he was finally granted asylum in Canada.

Nationalism today has outgrown its status as a mere sentiment and has become linked to the bureaucracy that runs nations. The current status of nationalism is one that polarizes diverse communities living within the same country, driving scholars such as Tom Nairn, a student of the discipline to describe nationalism as : “the pathology of modern developmental history, as inescapable as ‘neurosis’ in the individual, with much the same essential ambiguity attaching to it, a similar built-in capacity for descent into dementia, rooted in the dilemmas of helplessness thrust upon most of the world (the equivalent of infantilism for societies) and largely incurable.” That is a strong statement. Anderson more neutrally remarks, “My point of departure is that nationality… as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts of a particular kind. To understand them properly we need to consider carefully how they have come into historical being, in what ways their meanings have changed over time, and why, today, they command such profound emotional legitimacy.”

The origin of the national consciousness

The objective modernity of a nation to the eye of the historian may be juxtaposed with their subjective antiquity in the eye of nationalists. India as a nation was created in 1947 and it is not even 100 years old, yet the nationalists seem to draw from aeons of history when referring to the rich culture and prosperity of the country. The rhetoric that draws on the ancient era of glory and prosperity may well be used in nurturing the patriotic spirit. While using the parallels to generate pride in a specific community, staunch nationalists fail to acknowledge that the nation they hold so dear had not come into being at the time. Ernest Gellner in Thought and Change remarks, “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.” The nationalistic spirit of every country has its origins in specific circumstances and yet they have similar stories. The origin of India as a nation is coterminous to the division as the beginnings are indispensably linked to the origin of Pakistan as a separate nation, with the division occurring on a religious basis. While India remained secular in her doctrine, the idea that Pakistan was a nation created for Muslims resulted in a mass exodus and displacement of people, resulting in unimaginable violence and trauma across the border.

This invention and imagination of the nation has driven Anderson to describe the nation as an “imagined political community- and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” It is an imagined community as the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, hear about them or even interact with them and yet, in the minds of each member lives the image of their communion. Theoretically speaking this should extend to all human beings across caste or creed, but that has clearly not been the case. That is why nations are also 'limited' as Benedict Anderson claims, as even the largest of countries with billions of people have boundaries beyond which lie other countries. No nation sees itself as coterminous to mankind. It is imagined as ‘sovereign’ with regard to the pluralism of other nations and ideologies and “ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”

Nationalism and antinationalism

Nationalism and the deep spirit of community that it claims to stand for is to be distinguished not by their falsity or genuineness but by the style in which they are imagined. And when the style is one of exclusion it alters the tag of 'secular' that the Constitution grants to India. Historically speaking, nationalism is one of the most emphasized concepts in totalitarian regimes where the right to question is taken away from the subjects, and those who question are suppressed and shamed. People are afraid to question or even participate in the politics of such regimes as charges of sedition are rampant, and every statement made is judged as being for or against the nation as a whole. Even though some mainstream media channels in India may present it in the fashion, the answer to every question does not necessarily have to deal with a pro-nation or an antinational motivation. In fact, thinking in this manner can only feed dissent, deepening the cracks of division that already exist.

A recent report published by the BBC on November 12, 2018, has revealed that nationalism makes up the bulk of fake news in the country in the form of WhatsApp forwards and the like, which later go on to create chaos in different parts of the nation. The report itself as a part of the 'Beyond Fake News’ series, was intent on locating the sources and motivating factors behind the surge of fake news in the country that has lead to violent incidents. It establishes the fact that Indians tend to forward messages to assert their national identity, but the authenticity of these messages are not brought into question. The study has found that fake news motivated by nationalism has its sources in people or organizations with a political bias, citing Viral in India, The Indian Eye, Shanknaad, Republic and Phir Ek Bar Modi Sarkar as a few of many examples.

Mainstream media and leading organizations today tend to use nationalism as a divisive rather than an inclusive force, fostering hostility where it exists and resulting in unnecessary violence and bloodshed. When the top news of the day is made up of instances of violence, of people provoked against others and engaging in violence with one another, it distracts from the actual economic and social policies that people should be focusing on. This may be regarded as self-destructive to the nation as a whole, as we are caught on these internal struggles that not only result in loss of lives but also stand against opportunities to make real progress. In a country like India where diversity is the norm, peace and harmony are necessary not only on an emotional level but also as practical paving stones to progress. It is high time that we rethink our ideas and remove the political taint that the essence of patriotism has acquired. Indian nationalism can live up to the true ideal only if it adopts a slogan of inclusion extending to all citizens living within the country and the spirit of patriotism can shine only when the multiplicity of all people in India are accepted, acknowledged and respected. This is how our nation deserves to be reimagined, and this is the idea that we should all be aspiring for.

References:

Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.

Newslaundry Team. (2018, November 13). BBC research says nationalism is the 'driving force' behind fake news in India, suggests Right-wing networks are more organised in pushing these stories. Retrieved from https://www.newslaundry.com/shorts/bbc-research-says-nationalism-is-the-driving-force-behind-fake-news-in-india-suggests-right-wing-networks-are-more-organised-in-pushing-these-stories

Image source: pragyata

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Written By Ishita Sen

A student of English literature with confused clarity.

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