Opinion

Saving the Nation From Nationalists

The nationalism we are overdosing ourselves with is not the inclusive one that created India, but the divisive one that created Pakistan. Too much of it will destroy India.

A few years ago, the Centre for Civil Society organised the Liberty Fund Colloquium at Neemrana. Participants were required to go through a number of readings ahead of two days of intense discussion on a number of themes related to liberty in the contemporary context. Among the papers that I had in my folder was a difficult one by the Polish scholar Waldemar Hanasz, which argued “…today the only form of passionate patriotism is nationalism, which is often incompatible with toleration and pluralism.”

Hanasz’s negative view of nationalism was consistent with that of my Swiss graduate school classmate: that nationalism was generally a bad thing, as it was responsible for what happened in Europe between the ends of the two World Wars. Fascism and Nazism were only the most notorious manifestations of grave crimes and violence carried out in the name of the nation on that continent. More recently, ethnic cleansing and genocide in the wake of Yugoslavia’s collapse reminded yet another generation of Europeans of the extreme dangers of nationalism.

For my part, I saw nationalism as a positive—the sentiment that informed India’s struggle for freedom and subsequently, its unprecedented political unity under an equally unprecedented liberal democratic republic. Far from being incompatible with toleration and pluralism, Indian nationalism led millions of people to engage in a non-violent struggle against colonial rule. Mostly bloodless, compared to the mass casualties in Europe and elsewhere in Asia during that period.

Indian nationalism was inherently pluralistic: it prized Hindu-Muslim unity and attacked the deep inequities of the caste system. The Constituent Assembly, dominated by Indian nationalists, created a precocious republic that affirmed liberty and individual rights. Our experience of nationalism was so dramatically different from Europe’s—even considering the communal riots of Partition—that I could not agree with Hanasz’s contention that nationalism is always a bad thing.

As I wrote then:

The political expression of nationalism depends on the values of the nation concerned (the nation being an “imagined community” that has cultural kinship). If nationalism in twentieth-century Europe resulted in intolerance and violence it is because the intolerant and violent values of Europe’s nations were dominant. There is no reason to believe that this will happen everywhere else.

Indian nationalism since the middle of the nineteenth century was informed by the quintessentially Hindu values of tolerance and pluralism. As long as Indian nationalism continues to be driven by these dominant Hindu values, we need not worry too much about the colours with which Western discourse paints it with.

The politics of liberal nationalism is not only possible but presents modern society with a enlightened way to manage its affairs. Actually, this has been the way in India for much of history, with the exceptions being Islamic and European attempts to impose religious intolerance in some parts during some periods. These attempts largely failed except in 1947. Even so, the outcome of Partition showed that systems that reject the values of tolerance and pluralism will come to grief.

These words are from February 2011. Six years later, we are confronted with bigotry, intolerance and violence perpetrated in the name of nationalism. This ‘nationalism’ is a complex admixture of ideas from Hindutva, majoritarianism, caste chauvinism and the knowledge that acts committed under this pretext have social sanction and therefore will enjoy immunity from prosecution. From beating up cinema-goers who don’t stand up for the national anthem, to attacking Muslims for participating in cow-slaughter, to egging on the army to abandon professional norms in countering the insurgency in the Kashmir valley, public opinion increasingly sees no limits to what is permissible in the name of nationalism.

We are getting closer to proving Hanasz right.

“All things are poison,” wrote the 16th century Swiss philosopher Paracelsus, “and nothing is without poison, the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison.” It is “the dose that makes the poison”, and too much of even a good thing can be poisonous. You can die if you drink too much water.

The philosophy of practicing moderation and avoiding extremes is well-recognised in Indian tradition. What is sound advice on how we conduct our personal lives is equally valid for how we conduct our social ones. Pluralism is the only sustainable model for a hyper-diverse nation like ours if we are to retain the political unity that nationalism forged for us. To the extent that pluralism is damaged by an excess of nationalism, unity will suffer.

It is possible to argue that logically nationalism, unity and pluralism form an impossible trinity—that we can at most have only two of the three. That, like China, it is necessary to wipe out pluralism to achieve national unity. That, like the European Union, nationalism must be abandoned to achieve a pluralist state. Or that, like the former Yugoslavia, nationalism and pluralism cannot coexist in the same state.

Yet the Indian republic has survived for seven decades, and has been on a fast-track to prosperity since the early 1990s, without giving up on any of the three. Perhaps alone in the world, the Indian republic shows that the impossible trinity need not be impossible after all. If there is anything India is a “vishwaguru” on, it is this.

Today we are at the risk of upsetting this fine balance. An overdose of nationalism is damaging pluralism and weakening national unity. The nationalism we are overdosing ourselves with is not the inclusive one that created India, but the divisive one that created Pakistan. Too much of it will destroy India. Let it be clear that those who attack pluralism in the name of nationalism are opening cracks and fissures in the carefully constructed edifice of India’s unity.

Indian nationalists must save the nation from nationalism. Only we can.

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About the author

Nitin Pai

Nitin Pai is co-founder & director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. His policy research covers defence economics and the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region. Pai is a graduate of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (National University of Singapore), Nanyang Technological University and National College (Bangalore).