//The tenable patriot

The tenable patriot

Dec 03, 2006, The Hindu Magazine

As we approach the 60th anniversary of our independence, it appears that some Indians can claim to be born citizens by virtue of belonging to the Hindu majority, while others must remain citizens-on-probation all their lives. Despite legal equality, members of minority communities are repeatedly subjected to a cricket-match or a national-song test of loyalty. Is the idea of India to be reduced to such a war of backward-looking symbolisms? What is the true measure of patriotism?



Patriotism for the oppressed


Photo: Vivek Bendre

Politics of language: A predominantly dalit slum in Mumbai.


OUR balding nation-state, a majority of whose persons-in-communities are on the right side of 40, will soon turn 60. The consensual anxieties of inculcating a proper patriotism have begun already to yield sarkari fruit: a mixed bag of apples and oranges, to be sure. As the new year dawns, a long list of accredited past patriots will no doubt be drawn up, with a careful sprinkling of dalits, Muslims, women, Kashmiris, North-easterners and such like, i.e. those less empowered than their `naturally so' mainstream countrymen. Directives will flow down New Delhi's Raisina Hill; like-minded scholars will strive to ensure that a capacious yet stringent view from the Centre holds.

Deifying English

Could 19th-century peasants, whose vision, it is said, was no wider than the backside of their plough-bullocks, have been patriotic? Were Indian patriots the same as Indian nationalists? How are we to recognise patriotism before nationalism began to be talked about by our English-educated forbearers? The first President of the Republic was a Bihari democrat, but could Bahadur Shah, `the king of Delhi', to use the proper Company diminutive, conceivably have been India's first and last Mughal patriot? Or to shift focus: Is Chandrabhan Prasad, who recently launched a campaign for deifying English as a goddess, to be propitiated quite literally by the dalits of Hindustan, being simply gimmicky and provocative? Or is his proposal for a globalised English, personified as the kuladevi of all dalit households, announced on the 206th birth anniversary of Lord Macaulay, at bottom an unpatriotic act; a reneging from our common civilisational past; a deliberate turning away of dalits from things Hindi and Indian?

The tenor of a recent televised debate between Prasad and two Delhi-based bilingual intellectuals, conducted by one of our foremost current affairs anchors, suggests that, when faced with a transgressive idea to move radically beyond the horizon of possibility, most of us reach instinctively for our copybook notion of India. And very often this means throwing aside the opportunity of thinking with and through adversarial positions that emanate as challenges from the margins to our very sense of Indianness. Prasad's utopia is for future dalit babies to arrive into this world to the sound of the English alphabet: mantras or azaan being ruled out, of necessity. This is an idea stunning in its novelty. I am sure that, had it been expressed in a 19th-century document about a tribal revolt in Jharkhand, it would have elicited our attention as illustrative of the hegemonic apotheosis of colonial English. Wasn't one of the leaders of the great Santhal Rebellion of 1855 apprehended with an English book of a technical nature, `an old book on locomotive[s]', as the official record has it!

But as the debate with Chandrabhan Prasad unfolded over half-an-hour of late-night TV, no one engaged this dalit thinker on his own terms: how would poor, uneducated dalit parents in the villages of the north Indian cowbelt ensure that a Sesame Street version of fun alphabet-learning is beamed to the Sagri subdivision of Azamgarh District, where Chandrabhan grew up? Would it make sense for dalits to insist that the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad, now fashion audio-visual materials for what he would no doubt wish to be christened the `Universal English Education Mission'? Would there be any place for a less Sanskritic Hindi in dalit households, or would it involve an even more subversive and utopian demand for the valorisation of only particular north Indian dialects as a second language of home, a new diglossia comprising globalised corporate English and, say, Bhojpuri?

Instead, the discussion veered around such pan-Indian and patriotic concerns as: How would dalits then distinguish between maternal and paternal uncles, for English terms are so limited in their kin and affinal reach? What would happen to religions of and in India, if all of us (Prasad was concerned solely with dalits) spouted only English? Would not the resulting deracination harbinger fundamentalisms, as in Silicon Valley? Can English acquisition really put an end to deep-seated and long-enduring structures of caste oppression? But that was not, one felt like screaming though the picture tube, what the subversive proposal was about. For, except for the Pandits and Maulvis, no one lives by language alone. The dalit-English proposal is an unexpected challenge to the mainstream view of patriotism-in-an-Indian language, preferably a north-Indian language. And now that an American accent is de rigeur for luxury-item adverts on our TVs, whither linguistic patriotism?





Many nations, many religions

IN 1959, Barbara Ward identified nationalism as one of the `Five Ideas That Changed the World', among the most powerful ideologies used to mobilise people in the modern world, uniting diverse groups and collective interests. However, as Gramsci showed, such an ideology can become a hegemonic imposition by dominant classes on subaltern ones. Dominant religious groups also use nationalism to suppress or assimilate other groups. Such religious nationalisms are inevitably resisted, the confrontation often spinning out of control.

When religion is politicised into an `ideology', religious tradition evolves easily into a transnational political movement, with the attendant ambiguities of extraterritorial loyalties and the dangers of extremist religious fundamentalism. Conversely, an ideology that is sacralised into a `religion'
becomes a basis on which to construct an exclusive collective destiny, with all the anomalies of an ethnocentric political chauvinism that divides and even fragments the very society it means to strengthen.

Describing religion

In The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), the anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes religion as a symbolic system that gives meaning and value to our world. In Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics (1983), Raimundo Panikkar spells out an understanding of ideology as a conceptual construct that positions us in, and helps us cope with, our social world. Religion belongs to the metaphoric and multivalent, is intuitive and mythic; ideology concerns ideas and reason, including critique and logic. We need both to interpret our everyday lives and motivate them with value; a mismatch between the two can be acutely disorienting and threatening.

Nationalism is premised on the sense of a people's collective identity and destiny, a `nation' that seeks political expression in a `state'. Benedict Anderson has convincingly argued that nations are "imagined communities". When there are many imagined communities in a single polity, we have a multi-nation state, very different and far more problematic than the original European nation-state. Hence a pluri-religious, multi-cultural society demands a correspondingly adequate ideological construct.

The last century witnessed horrendous clashes of nationalisms in Europe, engulfing the world in two great wars. Now the European Union seeks to transform particular nationalisms into a larger identity and common destiny. However, postcolonial nations still strive to mobilise their masses with a nationalist ideology while rushing to catch up with the West. Nationalism, as the projection of a people's right to self-rule, has become the legitimising creed of the modern state's claims to authority. In consequence, the compulsions to create a national identity and pursue a collective destiny have been murderously homogenising.

Crucial role

Religion has often played a crucial, violent role in these compulsions. Once religion becomes a critical identity marker, the entanglement of religious traditions in other social and political institutions becomes explosive. The long, brutal religious wars after the Protestant Reformation have left an aftermath, which has discredited religion in a secularised post-Christian West. Islam too has its history of violence, with religion and politics getting entangled. Buddhism too has its chauvinist expressions. Hinduism has arrived late, but surely, at these aberrations. No religious tradition has escaped political manipulation.

Ironically, modernisation — which was expected to marginalise religion, secularise society and moderate nationalism — has created discontents that have brought religion back into the mainstream of our disenchanted world, as extremist fundamentalisms. These fundamentalisms align themselves with chauvinist ethnocentrisms to become non-negotiable commitments. Yet there is space for a more open, less fundamentalist religion; for a more inclusive, less fanatical nationalism. We need a faith tempered by reason, not blind belief and uncritical commitment; we need a patriotism dedicated to swadesh and purna swaraj, in Gandhi's sense. We must distinguish devotees from fanatics, religion from ideology, patriots from nationalists, and statesmen from politicians.

Ultimately, reconciling the magisterial claims of religion and state in a multi-cultural society is viable, not within a western secularism, but with a civil religion and a civil state. A civil religion demands a religious humanism, not as the least common denominator of various religious beliefs, but as premised on the core ethic found in all faith traditions — something that is certainly more compatible with a Gandhian sarva-dharma-samabhava than with a Nehruvian dharma-nirapekshata. A civil state demands a nationalism premised, not on a nation-state, but on a patriotism restrained by the ideal of a larger, inclusive Indic civilisational order.



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The Hindu Rashtra and its exclusions


Rejecting secularism: Celebrating Golwalkar's birth centenary in Bhopal. Photo: A.M. Faruqui


MADHAV SADASHIV GOLWALKAR, the chief mentor and ideologue of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for 33 years, believed that freedom in 1947 had left two significant issues unresolved. The first was the question of the relations between various communities. The resolution of this problem, Golwalkar felt, was closely linked to a second question, namely, that of defining the idea of `pure' nationalism. For him, the idea of nationalism and nationhood had not even been born in this country.

Title of `ownership'

In sharp contrast to what Golwalkar and the RSS regarded as the prevailing misguided notions of the nation, the Sangh's founder, Dr. K.B. Hedgewar, had come to the conclusion that an ancient country like India with a unified past ought to be a nation. He realised, says Golwalkar, that from the very beginning this land was a Hindu nation, not the `patchwork quilt' that the Congress had envisioned. The nation had to be founded on the basis of reviving Hindu culture and forging unity on the basis of culture.

Having rejected the secular foundations of free India and ridiculed the substance of the freedom won in 1947, Golwalkar proceeds to establishing a clear title of `ownership' of the nation for the Hindus. He exhorted the Hindus to emphatically claim that they represented the very roots of this land, that they constituted its primary and only component. The very existence of this nation, he adds, is the responsibility of Hindu society.

Establishing the primacy of the Hindus was relatively simple. Golwalkar's story begins a thousand years ago, when, according to him, there was no one in this country other than Hindus. Of course, there were many sects, denominations, languages, castes and kingdoms, but all of these were Hindu. The Shakas, the Huns and the Greeks came, but they had to become Hindus. They failed to contaminate and corrupt Hindu society. Rather, Hindu society managed to absorb them completely. The situation was very different now. Hindus have had to share their land with other religions and communities.

Defining a `Hindu' was a far more complex task. A Hindu is one, Golwalkar explains, w
ho believes in `our' historical tradition, who reveres `our' great men, and who has faith in `our' principles of life. Here, the possessive adjective `our' stands for Golwalkar's idea of a historically eternal, though momentarily fractured, Hindu society.

Acutely aware that confining the Hindu Rashtra to Hindus alone would invite charges of narrowness and communalism, Golwalkar rejects such charges as a sign of lack of clarity and residual slavishness. For him, there was one truth and this truth had to be announced to the world loudly and clearly: Hindus represent the idea of the national in this country. Whether other communities remained in the country or not was neither his concern nor that of the Sangh.

Clear exposition

In recent years, the Sangh and its affiliates have argued that the term `Hindu' indicates a civilisational sense rather than a religious one. This contradicts Golwalkar's clear exposition of Hindu Rashtra and its composition. He was emphatic that the word `Hindu' was not a generic term.

Savarkar had defined Hindutva in terms of fidelity to Pitrabhu (Fatherland), Matribhu (Motherland) and Punyabhu (Holy Land). Golwalkar incorporates the classification offered by Savarkar, and adds three more elements to it. For him, the Hindu Rashtra was punyabhoomi, matribhoomi, pitrubhoomi, dharmabhoomi or the land of one's pieties, karmabhoomi or the land of one's actions, and mokshabhoomi or the land of one's salvation. The Motherland was Bharatmata, and she was the mother of the Hindus. Anyone who forcibly enters her `house' cannot be a `son' of the Motherland. As such, Golwalkar insisted, it was important for Hindu society to understand that Muslims and Christians were enemies.

No friendship

Golwalkar's ire was usually directed towards the Muslims, but he often included Christians in his construction of a rogues' gallery. The question of treating them as friends did not arise. Only the Hindus, who were the progeny of this land, could be masters of this nation. Muslims and Christians could never be either children or masters of the nation because they were attackers. Those who have converted to Islam and Christianity, he asserts, have not merely altered their form of worship. They had also forsaken their religion, society and national life. The Muslims had even encroached on the territories of Hindustan and had cut the Motherland into pieces. For this reason alone, they could not even be considered `national'.

What if the Muslims and Christians were to reject Golwalkar's vision of the Hindu Rashtra and not call themselves Hindu? Golwalkar was categorical that all those Muslims and Christians, whose ancestors were Hindu, must abandon their newly acquired faiths and return to the Hindu fold. If they failed to comply, Hindus ought to follow the example of Vikramaditya. He avenged his father's murder by organising a formidable strength and drove the aliens out of this land. There were other inspirations to follow in the matter of dealing with desecration of the Motherland. Parashuram avenged his father's humiliation by offering him libations of blood of those who had insulted him. Likewise, the only way to worship the Motherland after she had been defiled, warns Golwalkar, would be to wash it with the blood of those who dared commit such an act.



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Spectres of nationalism


Conception of the nation : One symbol is the national flag.


THE frequency and enthusiasm with which we change our place-names is an index of our love of empty symbolism, and our corresponding reluctance to redress situations that cry out for resolution. Bengaluru's traffic congestion is as chronic as Bangalore's. Mumbai's housing crisis is much worse than Bombay's. Kolkata's differentials of wealth are as glaring as Calcutta's. And the same deplorable displays that greeted you in the foremost museum in Madras will greet you in Chennai's most important museum.

No tough questions

And yet, a class of professional symbolism-mongers imagines that it can change reality by abolishing the traces of the colonial past. The cost-benefit ratio favours these champions of the local: among them, cynical politicians hoping to benefit from populist sops that demand no major effort, and frequent-flying litterateurs who balance their international outlook with a healthy dose of nativist rhetoric. It is far easier to destroy the harmless relics of a vanished empire, than to wrestle with the spectres of one's own nationalism, one's own fantasy of the local. Changing place-names allows us the comfort of demolishing a straw man. It also saves us the torment of asking ourselves some tough questions about how postcolonial India has named the local and shaped the national.

The most widely shared conception of the nation is a symbolic one, made available through such manifestations as the national flag, the national anthem, the national song and the iconography of the Nation as Goddess (typically Bharat Mata, pictured with trident held high, astride the tiger of destiny). This symbolic conception of the nation floats, as it were mystically, in a panoramic sky of the nationalist imagination; and any affront to it, real or perceived, is met with widespread outrage by political activists and self-appointed custodians of national pride. Much judicial time is expended, for instance, on the issue of permitting private citizens to fly the national flag. Articulate India is seized by pandemic hysteria when members of a minority decline to sing the national song, diagnosed by them as tainted by association with an aggressive Hindu nationalism. And M.F. Husain — who, it appears, must confine himself to abstraction if he is ever to paint on Indian soil again — is brutally vilified for daring to represent the Motherland in a manner repugnant to the arbiters of cultural correctness on the Right.

A view of the nation that is based on symbols, rather than on values, is entirely in consonance with the landlord theory of nationalism that currently prevails in India. On this account, some Indians are landlords by birth (Hindus, in M S Golwalkar's constipated and ahistorical definition of that category)
; other Indians are guests, tenants or squatters, transients on permanent probation, to be tolerated, made to pay exorbitant rents, or evicted by force if necessary, depending on how well they behave (the minorities).

Coercive citizenship

A model of coercive citizenship follows from this, in which the landlords can periodically test the guests, tenants and squatters to see whether they subscribe to the right symbolism. The test can be applied via India-Pakistan cricket match, proficiency in Sanskritised Hindi, or on the `Vande Mataram' issue. Ironically, the landlords are chronically insecure, afraid of external forces of invasion and contamination, clutching at their symbols as though at talismans.

Consequently, large numbers of people seem willing to die — or, more accurately, to kill — in defence of a panoply of symbols, but not in defence of the foundational goals of equality, freedom, justice and dignity, on which postcolonial India was premised. Blatant violations of these values are rarely met with the emotionalism reserved for the violation of national symbols. When working-class housing is systematically destroyed and villages displaced by dams, articulate India glosses these as harsh, but just and necessary sacrifices for progress. When dalit women are raped with impunity, articulate India views this, tacitly or otherwise, as the problem of a particular constituency. And when dalit opinion erupts, after having explored peaceful avenues of protest with little success, articulate India treats it as an unfortunate breakdown of law and order.

Minorities excluded

A religious minority of significant numbers, the Muslims, are excluded from the structure of entitlement and opportunity; but popular opinion, as reflected in the snap polls of television channels, feels that India's Muslims have only themselves to blame for their predicament. Repeated pogroms have afflicted India, but years and sometimes decades later, the victims of these genocidal outrages still wait for justice. Vast regions suffer draconian military rule; but, as far as mainland India cares, most Kashmiris are Pakistani agents and anyone east of Darjeeling is Chinese.

A nationalism based on an imposed subscription to symbols is banal and perfunctory at best, unresponsive and divisive at worst. Gandhi imagined free India as a work-in-progress, a ceaseless attempt at actualising the values of equality, freedom, justice and dignity for every individual. We can achieve a constructive and inclusive nationalism only if we shift the emphasis from the protection of the nation-state's symbols to the actualisation of the Republic's values.