Millennium Post

The substance of nationalism

The substance of nationalism
Not everything is quite right in the way India’s politicians seem to look at India. Admittedly, everyone has his own perception of citizenship and nation, and these things tend to change not only due to big events, like Europe after the Second World War, but even in an individual’s life, at a level of self-realisation. But there is very little existence of a ‘sense of India’ nowadays, except, perhaps, in Bollywood films, which too are hardly Indian, being generally pirated from one Hollywood success or the other. Of course cricket is still pan-Indian, but the growing use of such panegyrics as 
dada
or maharaj to denote a certain player from Bengal, or the pressure exerted by a region’s politicians to put its star cricketer into the Upper House for no rhyme or reason, suggests that the sub-nationalism that has afflicted life in every sphere has also been the blight of the game that was once a symbol of national pride. In today’s India, among common men, there is very little interest in the other states and cities. Except tycoons, people rarely invest in property outside their states. While Delhites hardly speak any Tamil or Bengali, the Hindi spoken in Chennai or Kolkota is atrocious. In short, nobody in India would give a damn if other parts of the country were nuked, or gassed, as long as the fallout fumes didn’t move their way.

The indications of this isolationism – I don’t know why such pompous terms as federalism are used in this context—are now tell-tale. O P Chautala of Haryana is planning to mobilise the jat votes to trump arch rival Congress in the next election. So he is pandering to the medievalist instincts of the community that’d prefer the women to be put in the zenana and not see much fault in a crime like rape [‘boys are boys’]. Chautala is a second-generation leader and son of Chaudhury Devi Lal, a former Deputy Prime Minister. But, when he rather sagely advocates lowering of women’s marriage age to 16 from 18, and adds, in an aside, that that’d transfer the ‘risk’ from the father to the in-laws, one understands that here is a hick town fellow who has never quite thought of himself as an Indian, let alone a responsible Indian. It is pretty much the same in Punjab, once a front-ranking state, which is now a victim of demography and agricultural stagnation. The shadow of secessionism of the 1980’s is now returning to it. Pictures of the killers of a former Indian Army chief, under whose overall charge was the Operation Bluestar carried out, are now being hung on the walls of the Golden Temple under the benign eyes of the SGPC which, in its turn, is dominated by the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal. The Dal is in frenzied denial because it suits them electorally to have a separatist discontent simmering in its backyard. But, for India, it may soon escalate into violence of an unmanageable proportion. For the DMK, bewailing the plight of fellow Tamils in Sri Lanka is more important than having the island republic firmly on India’s side, both in the interest of the sub-continent’s power dynamic and for using diplomatic channels to persuade it to sort out its ethnic conflicts. For India, DMK boss K Karunanidhi could not care less: it is the Tamil voter for whom he is penning his emotional script.

The Indian scenario is quite different from Europe where EU enforces a certain norm of economic and social behavior. If Greece refuses to follow the full austerity packages ordered by the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank, with deep cuts in pension and other spending, money from the ‘troika’ will dry up instantly. So despite the ongoing screw up over the Euro, it is the continental currency that has bound 17 countries together in a network of mutual responsibilities, not to speak of such major economies like the UK that do not share the currency yet are very much in the club. If for a moment one thinks of the Rupee like Euro, and expects its users – the states – to observe similar rules, the conclusions can be quite disturbing. It will show a bewildering variation in fiscal performances, tempting one to think what could be the exchange rate between, say, a Gujarati rupee and its Bengali counterpart.

While submitting India’s Draft Constitution, the Chairman of the Drafting Committee, Ambedkar, said he had kept the word ‘union in Art 1 because of two advantages: one, that it’d highlight that the Indian federation hadn’t resulted from an agreement among the federating states, and, finally, that the component units would have no freedom to secede. Such permanency of association might have boosted the patriotic ego of a generation, but it is neither consistent with the region’s cultural history nor eventually beneficial to its constituents. I shall first talk about India’s cultural makeup.

It was al-Biruni, the Uzbek scholar accompanying Mahmud of Ghazni to India at the turn of the first millennium, who first noticed the interesting Indian quality of absolutely lacking in neighborly spirit. ‘The people of one village would show you the best route to attack the next village’. It is this incapacity to think in collective terms that made the British too wonder, after nearly a millennium. In 1831, in his submission before a British parliamentary committee on the Reform Bill, historian and philosopher James Mill was asked whether Indians would think it a stigma if the British alone were employed to the highest levels of government service. Mill replied: ‘I consider that the feeling of degradation, from being governed by foreigners, is a feeling altogether European. I believe it has little or no existence in any part of Asia.’ Mill had no knowledge of the Chinese or the Japanese. He spent most of his life as a paid employee of the East India Company where his world was limited to India and Indians. But about Indians, he was spot on. The typical Indian disregard for a problem next door, not to speak of public life, is best seen in Satyajit Ray’s
Shatranj-ki-Khiladi
in which the avid chess players merely switch the rules of their game from the Indian to the Western while the British march into the capital of their native Avadh.

India, as delineated in the Constitution, has no fraternity and no citizenship. The right to secede, if it were there, would have acted like the divorce law showing a way out of bad marriages. It would have made the resultant societies homogenous. And Chautala would have discovered that if he wanted to rule his ‘republic of Haryana’ by khap his Haryanvi rupee would have become junk, with his children abandoning their SUV to plough the fields again.
Sumit Mitra

Sumit Mitra

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