Nationalism: When an inclusive version is supplanted by a narrow definition

Einstein had called nationalism “an infantile disease, the measles of mankind”. Many contemporary cosmopolitan liberals are similarly sceptical, contemptuous or dismissive, as its current epidemic rages all around the world particularly in the form of right-wing extremist or populist movements. While I understand the liberal attitude, I think it’ll be irresponsible of us to let the illiberals meanwhile, hijack the idea of nationalism for their nefarious purpose. Nationalism is too passionate and historically explosive an issue to be left to their tender mercies. It is important to fight the virulent forms of the disease with an appropriate antidote and try to vaccinate as many as possible particularly in the younger generations.

Populists advocate a culturally narrow, narcissistic, nostalgic, xenophobic form of ethnic nationalism — from the Christian nationalism of evangelicals in the United States or the Catholics in Poland or the Slavic Orthodox-church followers in Russia to the Islamic nationalism in Turkey or Indonesia to the Hindu nationalism in India. The alternative, more inclusive, form of nationalism often counterposed to this is some variant of what is called “civic” nationalism.

But first a brief historical note. As a form of community bonding on the basis of some tribal or ethnic-territorial roots proto-nationalisms of different kinds have been quite old and durable in different societies. But as Ernest Gellner, one of the foremost theorists of nationalism, pointed out, nationalism in the form as we know it is of relatively recent origin. Of course, historical memories and myths (mythology is often blurred into historical facts and legends), symbols and traditions are constantly invoked in the name of ethnic nationalism, even though, as the distinguished historian, Eric Hobsbawm famously pointed out, many of the so-called traditions are actually of recent “invention”. The influential 19th-century French scholar, Ernest Renan had pointed out how “historical error” is used in the creation of a nation. Gellner even points to cases of nationalism based on not a great deal of history: “The Estonians created nationalism out of thin air in the course of the 19th century”.

But it is often overlooked that there is a clear distinction between nationalism based on some social bonding principle and the nation-state that became a predominant political unit, at least in Europe since the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). The former refers to a sociological community based on some homogeneous binding element like religion, language, ethnicity or culture, whereas the latter is a political community that need not contain a singular sociological nationality.

Yet the European idea of the nation-state where the sociological and the political communities are congruent has become the basis of the predominant idea on nationalism, and both Gellner and Hobsbawm essentially adhere to this idea. But what about multi-national societies? Even in western Europe, Switzerland, Spain or Belgium are examples of nation-states with diverse linguistic-sociological communities, where the singular principle of national binding does not work.

Let us now take possibly the largest such multi-national society in the world, India. Here Indian social thinkers had made contributions more than a hundred years back that have been under-appreciated in the western theories of nationalism. I have particularly in mind the thoughts of Gandhi and Tagore on nationalism expressed in various forms (essays and lectures by both, and in the case of Tagore, also in literature with several poems and at least three novels — one of which later was the basis of a widely-known Satyajit Ray movie, The Home and the World) in the first three decades of the 20th century. They were, of course, both anti-imperialists, thus sharing in the popular movements of nationalism against colonial rulers, but they wanted to go beyond this to think about a more positive basis of nationalism when the colonial rulers were to leave. Both of them found the nation-state of European history, with a singular social homogenising principle and militarised borders and jingoistic mobilisation against supposed enemy states, unacceptable and unsuitable for India’s diverse heterogeneous society. Instead they both drew upon the long folk-syncretic tradition of Indian society (which grew out of the layers of sediments formed by the successive waves of social reform and rebellion, called the Bhakti movements, against the dominance of the rigid Hindu Brahminical system, over many centuries in different parts of India, as well as the Sufi sects of Islam) extolling inter-faith tolerance and pluralism, and wanted to make that the constructive basis of Indian nationalism.

Illustration by Binay Sinha
Gandhi, who had described himself as an “enlightened anarchist” was not favourably disposed to the modern state. Tagore was less averse to modernity, but he was trenchant in his criticism of the western idea of the nation-state, “with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns… its mock thunders of patriotic bragging”, and of how it stokes a national conceit that makes society lose its moral balance. Nehru, who was personally close to Gandhi but ideologically closer to Tagore, saw that the modern state is essential, for providing a unifying structure in a divided society and for unleashing the forces of planned economic development, in a world of economic and military competition.

By the time the Indian constitution was framed both Gandhi and Tagore were dead. Nehru (along with Ambedkar) in leading the way drew upon the society-centric pluralistic idea of nationalism of Gandhi and Tagore and gave it legal-juridical form in the Indian constitution. The Nehru-Ambedkar idea of nationalism, forged and refined through the elaborate deliberations of the Constituent Assembly, gave India the basis of its civic nationalism that prevailed for many decades. It is this inclusive idea of civic nationalism that is now being attempted to be dismantled by the Hindu nationalists. Even at the time of the framing of the constitution RSS, their main ideological base organisation, had opposed the constitution as “Western”, even though in their earlier history many of their leaders used to admire the ethnic basis of nationalism in Germany (their revered leaders like Savarkar and Golwalkar had expressed open admiration for the efficient Nazi system of mobilising and organising the German nation). Earlier the Japanese nation-state had also been inspired by German history. It is not surprising that Tagore’s lectures in Japan as early as 1916 against the aggrandising nation-state did not make him popular with the Japanese.

(The second part will appear on Friday)

The article was first published on 3 Quarks Daily. The writer is professor of Graduate School at University of California, Berkeley

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