What Does it Take to Build a Nation? A Curated List on Nationalism

This reading list explores the dynamic ideas of the nation and nationalism.

 

We now live in an era where rigid binaries guide political discourse; where one has to wear one’s patriotism on their sleeve; and on occasion, one is expected to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ on demand, as proof of one’s nationalist inclinations. Confining nationalism to such narrow terms, as the ruling dispensation has been doing, is obviously problematic, in that, it erodes several levels of nuance from a rich discourse that has always had a multiplicity of perspectives. 

 

We revisit EPW’s archives to recover some of these diverse perspectives on nationalism.

 

1) In History, Where is the ‘Nation’ Located?

Nationalism as a concept, derives from the idea of a nation. So one must first understand what constitutes a nation. A nation is an idea, that is built by stringing together a series of events that together, can be said to constitute the narrative of the nation. History writing is therefore, crucial to the process of constructing this narrative. Taking this line of thought further, Nira Wickramsinghe argued that in post-modern historiographies, the nation occupies such a privileged position that the notion of historical time is often redefined, centred around the nation. 

The nation and how it had been read, written about, vilified and adored has become the single question of the historian. This included nationalist historians, colonial historians as well as post-colonial subalterns, eager to retrieve the fragments of the nation or deconstruct the nation. 

 

 

2) Whom Does Nationalism Benefit? 

 

Historically, Indian nationalism has been strongly associated with the freedom movement, though even then, there was never a singular definition of nationalism that the struggle was centred around. 

S M Gaikwad, while discussing B R Ambedkar’s brand of nationalism, argues that the concept of nationalism is inherently sectarian. It is an ideology that serves the emergent ruling class, which in the case of Europe was the bourgeoisie. For India, Gaikwad argues, the rhetoric was shaped by a ruling class that was still tied to “medieval socio-cultural roots”.  

 

To conceal its overtly partisan nature the proponents of the nascent Indian 'nationalism' sought to glorify and mystify their political creed by investing it with a number of idealised abstract ideas and values such as the love of motherland, pride in one's cultural heritage and history and above all the sense of being a part of a highly abstract metaphysical category, namely, the concept of 'one people'. 

3) Is There a Difference Between Patriotism and Nationalism?

As an ideology, nationalism has the capacity to attract adherents who do not necessarily understand the complexities within the ideology in an articulate manner. Rather, adherents are drawn owing to a simplified rhetoric of unity that privileges the collective over the individual. To this effect, Ashis Nandy’s analysis of the phenomenon makes an important distinction between nationalism and patriotism.   

Nationalism, thus, is more specific, ideologically tinged, ardent form of “love of one’s own kind” that is essentially ego-defensive and overlies some degree of fearful dislike or positive hostility to “outsiders”.

Patriotism is relatively content-free; it does not clearly benchmark the features of a patriot. It is a fluid form of territoriality, which is more open to the idea that it could be the last resort of a scoundrel.

4) Is Nationalism a Default Identity, or Is it a Choice? 

Our national identity - much like some of our other identities - is a circumstance that we are born in. Therefore, it is often assumed that there is no individual choice exerted in deciding one’s position on nationalism. However, Amartya Sen suggests that this is not true. An individual can, and does, make an active choice about their own identity by prioritising one identity over all the other existing identities that are available to them. 

 

Our national identity is one of the many identities that we have, and nationalism operates mainly through giving special priority to our national identity over other demands on our affiliative attention. Nationalism would tend to be least productive – indeed thoroughly counterproductive – when the main confrontations are along the lines of national divisions themselves (as was the case in Europe during the first world war), since greater nationalism would add fuel to fire.

 

Read More:

Antinomies of Nationalism and Rabindranath Tagore | Sabyasachi Bhattacharya 

Questions of Nationalism and Communalism | Gyanendra Pandey

Beyond the Nation Or Within | Partha Chatterjee

Nationalism and Nation-State as Discourse in India | Anirudh Deshpande

Majoritarian Rationale and Common Goals | Atul Sood

Birth of a Goddess ‘Vande Mataram’, Anandamath, and Hindu Nationhood | Tanika Sarkar

 

 

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