Millennium Post

What does nationalism hide?

Right at the outset of Playing the Nation Game, Benjamin Zachariah – historian, musician, playwright and occasional poet – tells us why we do not need the book. He says theories of nationalism and nation as the central paradigm within history-writing have been around for so long, in fact, from the inception of the anti-colonial struggle itself, that unsettling them appears to be not only an unpatriotic act; it’s dubbed downright seditious. But then, a dissenter par excellence, Zachariah has devoted this book, and indeed his scholarship so far, to doing precisely that. In order words, what he has to offer is not as much an anti-history of sort, but an antithesis to what histories and historiographies have churned out so far: an unconditional acceptance of nationalism as the central tenet of describing the past, present and the future.

Unspooling the many tangles and exposing the numerous brooks and streams that have flown in to produce the mighty river that is nationalism, Zachariah shows that the ‘concept’ hides a lot. To the extent that historians, indeed the biggest names in the crowded market of contemporary Indian retellings, have produced and reproduced nationalism as the only benign framework that can and should accommodate every other idea, explanation and paradigm to describe the India story/ies, Zachariah’s happens to be an extremely radical and daring thought. He ‘decentres’ the ‘hegemony’ of the nation idea, says nation cannot be separated from nation-state, and the governmentality thereof; everything said and done to produce the nation is equally in sync with the ‘increasingly isolationist and exceptionalist mood of writing about India that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.’ Essentially, Zachariah’s project is to ‘destabilise the alleged naturalness of the nation.’

For many, in fact, for most, this would sound too extreme a position to be acceptable. But consider this: remember the Nido Tania death, the 16 December gang rape, Muzaffarnagar riots, the charges of sedition against Kashmiri students for clapping for a different cricket team, the hounding of African nationals in Capital’s Khirki Extension, the everyday news-stream that details how minutely divided is our nation into tiniest fragments of narrow domestic worlds, along caste, sect, region, religion, language, dialect, skin colour, class, labour and innumerable other axes of differentiation. At the end of the day, we are told that the only balm to soothe our daily wounds with is that of nationalism, that we subsume and surrender our obvious differences under the bigger banner of nation, come together as citizens and acknowledge India.

Let’s do that. But what is it that we are told to accept as India? Obviously, the state. It is this very state that will instrumentalise our myriad differences and divide us once again when time is right. But nationalism we must serve. Without a question. Why?

Zachariah sets out to answer not exactly the why but the ‘how’ of the matter. How is it that nationalism has occupied centre-stage for so long?  As the late Eric Hobsbawm had once said, ‘No serious student of nationalism could afford to be a nationalist oneself.’ Zachariah follows this line of thought and detangles the many threads that nationalism has got knotted at its core, particularly the ‘inclusive and tolerant’ Nehruvian nationalism that the good Samaritans invoke to denounce the virulent and bad cultural, religious or linguistic nationalisms (the latter they describe as various chauvinisms). Obviously, whether to credit the origin of nationalism in European Enlightenment or as a worldwide development of collectives coalescing around shared pasts, markers, languages or ethinicities remains an open debate still. But Zachariah takes that further to situate the insertion or transcription of nationalism on to the anti-colonial struggle and how, from that moment on, the self-fulfilling prophecy and legitimacy of nationalism has been taken for granted.

Trying to inject some much-needed irreverence into weighty historiographies that have sustained nationalism, fed its knee-jerk responses the broth of sanitised explanations, suitably cleansed of (obviously baseless, irrational and therefore ‘non-teleological’) fear of fascism, Zachariah takes his cue from Judith Butler. Nationalism, he says, is like genitalia: everyone must have them in recognisable forms, yet they have to be in different from one another’s to be acceptable! Evidently, Zachariah, in one riot of humorous intervention, locates the contingencies of sex identities with those of nationalisms, thereby unsettling the given legitimacy of the latter by dint of the shadowiness of the former.

Zachariah tells out how rituals of nationalism and loyalty are practiced and passed on. Nationalism is the default position, overarching and bypassing one’s locus standi as a woman, working-class, academic, artist.

And in a way, in just another ingenuous stroke of invention, the default position becomes Hindu and nationalist. It’s not very difficult to decipher that at this juncture when the most prominent face of neoliberal India, the ‘Manu-disowning, market-owning’ mascot of India Shining (again) will be contesting the general election from Varanasi, a site too encoded with its own ciphers of rituals, mostly Hindu, mostly Brahminical. In other words, the self-evident logic of nationalism has already become the self-evident logic of Hindu nationalism, to be recognised externally, internally and to be reiterated by the act of re/writing histories.

But of course, he is equally aware that ‘nationalisms are not matters of scholarly endorsements or rejection. They are most often tied up with official remembering and official forgetting.’ Even though, it is not possible, and not desirable either, to separate the ‘popular’ from the ‘scholarly’ within the discourse of nationalism, it is also understood that scholarship produces, legitimises and reiterates the nation, the nation-state and ideas of nation-building.

Inasmuch as it is saying a lot that needs to be said but is not being sufficiently talked about, Zachariah’s is an absolutely important book. It’s a pity that intellectual loyalties extracted as pounds of flesh to keep the grants coming and publishing contracts going, have kept others from discussing this seminal and fascinating contribution from a younger historian. Much like Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, an annotated new edition of which has been suitably controversial to be reinserted in the current discourse, Zachariah’s brilliant book needs wider audience and discussions. But are we brave enough to do that?

Next Story
Share it