Given the extent of plurality and the apparent incongruousness of various kinds of distinctness across the length and breadth of India, articulating a notion of oneness and, thereby, seeking unity is a gargantuan task of marketing an ideology with the noblest intentions. Even though the spirit of this noble idea is relegated to intellectual discourses, the practice of this is commonly explained as 'nationalism'. For India, nationalism was always more than an idea; it is the display of this idea on the solid grounds of territory.
The makers of our nation, since ancient times, sought to bring together this assortment of cultures and ethnicities under a unitary administration and managed to consolidate most of the Subcontinent for significant lengths of time. The British were the last to chalk out borders for India before leaving. But internally, the quest for ideological territories continues. The founding fathers of this modern nation, in their distinctness, sought to seal its land with the notion of 'Indian' above everything else and enshrined national values in the Constitution. Hence, every Indian, regardless of their territorial origin, is brought to a common pedestal and equally granted some basic rights and liberties.
Eventually, from here extends nationalism as a sentiment. And without a doubt, the armed forces (particularly the Army) commands utmost respect in terms of nationalistic sentiment. Coming next, with mitigated fervour and more rationalisation, is politics. But there is a fundamental difference between the two. The Army-inspired nationalism is one of awe and tolerance, marked by humility, and expressed exclusively. Politics, on the other hand, is a steadier ground that makes room for detailed deliberations, and thus, criticism. Both function for national interest but the purview of politics is far more expansive than that of the military.
Lately, the Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University voiced his desire to install an Army tank on campus to instill a 'love for the Army' among students. While this proposal does not deserve very harsh criticism (as there are tanks for display at army schools and fighter air craft displayed at various other places), it must be borne in mind that symbolism does not guarantee substance. A university is a place to facilitate development of critical thinking; it should not seek to mould the minds of youth to the liking of the authority figures. Installing a tank for display is a good idea only when such a tank is available. But readiness to divert resources to procure ornaments of nationalism only displays misplaced priorities.
The obsession with popular nationalism hit a milestone recently when Madras High Court made it mandatory that the national song (Vande Mataram) be sung at educational institutions in Tamil Nadu at least once a week, and laid down guidelines for workplaces with respect to singing this song. The interesting thing here is not that this Court's decision contests the Supreme Court's clarification that the Constitution does not mention the national song so it refrained from making any comments about it. The interesting thing about this episode is that the petition had nothing to do with singing the song! (The petitioner, in a recruitment exam, was not awarded a mark despite correctly answering that 'Vande Mataram' was originally written in Bengali.)
Another condemnable proposition came about 'sanitising' NCERT's Class 1-12 Hindi textbooks by removing Urdu and Persian words from them. How is this design of saffronisation not anti-national? It is also ridiculously counter-productive. How can one learn of the struggle for Independence and how can a sense of nationalism be possibly instilled without any mention of 'Inqalab Zindabad' and 'Azad Hind Fauj'? The startling thing is the conviction that a certain brand of nationalism is the nationalism that must be enforced and adhered to.
Federalism in India is integral and indispensable to its democratic functioning. It serves as a method to counter-balance powers between the Centre and the states. Indian states are distinct and empowered to function for their best interest as long as their interest does not come in conflict with the functioning of any other state or the Centre. This is the extent of their autonomy. When communities are free to represent their ideologies as they please, why can't a state represent its identity?
Karnataka enjoys no special status, unlike Jammu and Kashmir. What the two states have in common is a flag to assert their respective statehoods. But only J&K state flag finds acceptance among the political class. The special status of J&K is not one to be celebrated because it only leaves it in limbo, without belonging anywhere and without being on its own. Apparently, it is okay to alienate Kashmir in every real sense and be very concerned about the territory that will cushion India against any external aggression; but it is not okay to do a similar thing with Karnataka if it wants to display its identity.
Somewhere, between such dichotomy, our nationalism starts thinning. Because, evidently, nationalism is a matter of relatability. It may be outlined by an objective affinity to the nation but it is driven by subjective ideals and appeals. What opened as an umbrella to subsume all diversity under it must be free from any claims and colours. All of India's plurality ought to converge into the idea of nationalism, not forced into a certain brand of nationalism.
Like the story of Narcissus, the desirability of a notion starts losing its force if its focus turns into fixation. Upholding ideals of nationalism is an important gesture for its symbolism but having that as a criterion for making decisions is potentially self-destructive as it oversteps one for the many - who may not even be concerned with the issue at hand.
(The writer is Editorial Consultant and Senior Copy Editor with Millennium Post. The views are strictly personal.)