Notes on nationalism

The attack against India by the Jaish-e-Mohammed has unleashed a wave of strong feeling among us. We should examine its various facets. The way it has manifested itself is first through anger against Kashmiris. Here, our violence and potential violence identifies them as the enemy based on their identity and their background. Being Kashmiri is a sufficient condition for someone to be attacked, because some other Kashmiri did something abhorrent. Of course, this is of a piece with the historical nature of communitarian violence in India. It runs against the grain of our claim that we are one nation and, in fact, damages our position in ways that, at this point, we seem to be beyond caring.

We conflate group identity with the criminal activity of individuals. This ability of ours to reject individuals and think of people mainly through the lens of religion and languages is worrying and it will need to be addressed specifically if we are to make progress as a nation. Unfortunately, we are going through a period in our history when such markers are being emphasised. Because of the distant nature of the Kashmir conflict, and because it has been going on for so long, we have become inured to the damage it has caused our society, including to our armed forces. After a period when the levels of violence in that state were coming down, they have begun going up again.

The number of fatalities has gone from 189 in 2014 to 267 (2016), 357 (2017) and 451 (2018). And today, Kashmir is again under direct Central rule with its local leaders marginalised. Who benefits from this violence? Are we on the right path? The focus on resolving these questions is absent while we turn our attention to revenge.

The second way in which we have reacted is through the encouragement of war. The fact of the modern world is that things like strategic affairs have become the domain of a few experts who study them deeply. But in times of national outrage, such as 9/11 or the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008, strategic affairs come into the domain of popular opinion and politics.

In India, the word for nationalism is rashtrawad and it is a warm word, with desirable qualities. It does not radiate menace for us as ‘nationalism’ does for Europeans

In such instances, a nation can do something that in the short term satisfies public opinion, but in the medium and longer term becomes detrimental. The American and British attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan have damaged all the parties involved and not produced the results once promised.

Our leaders, whether those in this government or the ones before, have failed to explain to the nation what our strategic constraints are. It is these constraints that have stopped us from going to war before now and not a lack of will. But in the bombast of our politicians from the top down, this explanation is absent.

We refer to the sentiment being expressed in such times as patriotism or nationalism. Patriotism is defined as a love and devotion and a sense of attachment towards one’s homeland. 

The word patriot comes from the Latin word for father. It has always been a powerful force binding men (usually men) across the world. 

The Roman poet Horace writing in the century before Christ said, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s fatherland).” This is the overwhelming feeling that non-soldiering Indians feel in our time, as can be observed. 

Wilfred Owen, who fought and died in World War I, wrote a poem describing a fellow soldier suffering on the front from the effects of poison gas. His poem ends:

“If in some smothering dreams you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est 
Pro patria mori.”

The word nationalism also has a Latin root, meaning tribe or race of people. In Europe, an outburst of nationalism was produced through the French Revolution. This culminated in the two World Wars whose lessons were learned and expressed in a reduction of nationalism and a focus on shared values beyond national boundaries through the European Union. Today, the words nationalism and nationalist are negative words in Europe’s languages. Nationalist groups and political parties like the UK Independence Party in Britain are at the periphery and seen as dangerous.

In India, the word for nationalism is rashtrawad and it is a warm word, with desirable qualities. It does not radiate menace for us as “nationalism” does for Europeans. Parties use the word rashtrawadi, including those we see as inclusive, like the Rashtriya Lok Dal and the Nationalist Congress Party. For us, nationalism or rashtrawad is a good thing. 

It is not easy in India to caution against the darker side of this sentiment and the fact that it is double-edged. It will take a great deal of wisdom to be able to lead us out of the hole we are in. Unfortunately, those figures who stressed our Indian group identity over parochialism, like Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, are thoroughly out of fashion. We are marching to the tune of drummers who are today leading us in the opposite direction.

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