Wherefore Pro Patria Mori?

The seductions and snares of nationalism are working at many frontiers in India. Last year’s charged, open-air lectures on it at JNU are a compelling read.
Wherefore Pro Patria Mori?
Photograph by Sanjay Rawat
What The Nation Really Needs To Know: The JNU Nationalism Lectures

Edited By Rohit Azad, Janaki Nair, Mohinder Singh, Mallarika Sinha Roy on behalf of JNUTA
HarperCollins | Pages: 339 | Rs. 299

Amidst all that happened at JNU in February last year, what stands out is the exceptional support the teaching fraternity lent to scholars who were arre­sted, suspended and fed as fodder to the media. That they turned the tables around and had a word or two to say on the subject was there for all to see. This book is a collective voice in support of what Lawrence Liang calls “a gadfly jurisprudence of dissent”. Del­ivered in both Hindi and English, nat­ionalism is discussed as lucidly as possible, since the book is more or less a transcript of the 24 lectures delivered at Freedom Square in JNU last year.

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What the diverse speakers attempt in the context of their different areas of speciality is that the words nation, national and nationalism cannot be taken in the rationalist sense, that is, as universal concepts. “Do nations exist?” asks Jairus Banaji. “Who on earth would want to argue that a nation has the same ontology as a class, that a nation exists in the same sense that classes exist?” He summarises the two dominant interpretations as put forward by Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson, before proceeding to discuss fascism and the myth of the nation. Romila Thapar points out that the very concept of the nation is a very modern one. She connects the practice of regarding national identity as consolidated, monolithic and religious to the colonial past and warns of the dangers of the exc­lusive nationalism of the sort that was prevalent in ’30s Germany. Similarly, Harbans Mukhia speaks of the essentialisation of religion that colonial historiographers such as James Mill engaged in. Nationalism for him is an evolving concept and to merely question it cannot make you an anti-national. He gives the example of historian Fernand Braudel, who is seen as questioning whether France is one nation, one society, one country as late as the 20th century.

The term ‘nationalism’ in itself is not a homogeneous category. There is the nationalism of Hitler and then that of Gandhi. Following the rise of the nation, the nation-state and nationalism in Europe since the 17th century, Prabhat Patnaik identifies three characteristic features one needs to be wary of and the dominance of which one can espy in contemporary politics. These are, the need for the construction of ‘an enemy within’, imperialist aggression and the apotheosis of the nation above the people. “It was not the people’s living standards, the people’s conditions of life which were important, but the power, prestige and wealth of the nation.” It is this aggrandising nationalism that he states is a key feature of European nationalism, with fascism as its apogee. The nationalism envisioned for India in opposition to colonialism, as laid out in the Karachi Congress in 1931, is quite different, he says. Unlike European nationalism, what one sees taking place is a people coming into nationhood as opposed to inheriting a pre-conceived nationalism.

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The problem of seeing nationalism as an inheritance, writes Achin Vinaik, is that there will always be a dispute about the nature of the inheritance and who the inheritors are. Citing Hans Kohn, he states that “nationalism or the nation is a ‘cultural entity lodged above all in consciousness, striving to become a political fact’.” There is another nationalism, he suggests, that belongs not to the past but to the present and to the future and it’s this inclusive nationalism one must make inroads to. Nationalism, as is repeated in most of the essays, is barely over two centuries old, still a relatively new concept, but one must not underestimate its powers. It can easily be manipulated.

There is one nationalism, suggests Achin Vinaik, that belongs not to the past but to the present and the future. It’s this inclusive nationalism one must make inroads into.

What one can surmise is the dynamism involved in the struggle between the nation as a composite entity, and a collectivistic nationalism, the type  Banaji describes TV anchors as professing. The lectures seem to be in a dialogue with each other and the con­­­versational style adds to the feeling that one is participating in an ongoing debate about who is an anti-national. Jayati Ghosh denies the possibility of an individual being anti-national and says the term can only be attached to processes and policies that work against the interests of the citizens of a nation.

This dynamism that resists an ideological collapsing of nation, government, state and country and attempts to manufacture and regulate affection for the nation is radically envisioned by Gopal Guru, who sees in the Ashoka Chakra a transformative principle—the very principle of the rotating wheel where every spoke that goes up must in turn come down, he states, is to vacate the top for those who have never had their place there.

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