The Narrow Domestic Walls of Nationalism

22 08 2007


India, by most accounts, is seen as among the more successful examples of post-colonial nationhood. Former leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, a working democracy which has managed to retain the secular nature of its state, a successful economy which is now an “emergent superpower”, India is being feted globally on completing 60 years of its independent nationhood. Even a look at the colonial period indicates that the moulding of the peoples living under the British rule into a nation called India was a creative exercise in achieving freedom.

But despite all these achievements, the Indian nation remained deeply contested from within. A substantial section of the population of colonial India remained unconvinced about the claims of the Indian nation and demanded a separate nation-state for themselves, based on the uniting factor of religious affiliation. Even within the post-1947 borders of the Indian nation-state, Kashmir and the north eastern region could never be convinced about the claims of the Indian nation-state and even Tamil Nadu witnessed an almost-separatist movement in the 1960s. Autonomy, military repression and co-option of elites have been the strategies used by the Indian nation-state to try and solve these ‘problems’. But often the problem has persisted.

In Pakistan, similarly, religion has failed to provide the unifying factor to the nation. Sindh, Balochistan and NWFP have always had a tenuous relation with the nation-state and nationalist feelings against the allegiance demanded by Pakistan have persisted in these provinces over the past six decades. The ruling classes of both countries have used these examples of nationalism against the nation-state to spite each other’s claims to nationhood. If Pakistan’s leadership has always questioned “Hindu” India’s ability to represent these restive border areas, the Indian leadership has revelled in how language (Bengali) divided the Muslim nation of Pakistan. But beyond scoring brownie points in their respective propaganda wars, these instances actually show the fragility of the nation-state even where it emerged from a strong anti-colonial movement.

The post-colonial nation-state inherited the boundaries left behind by the colonial masters. The people living inside these boundaries were united in their opposition to colonialism and this provided the foundation for forging nationhood. While this foundation was a solid one, the problem arose in the attempt to build the superstructure of the nation-state and national identity. There was no commonality of language, religion or ethnicity. Most often there was not even a shared past outside of a common colonial enemy. In fact, it can also be argued that the experience of colonialism too was different for people in different parts of the colony, based on historical, geographical, caste, gender and class factors. Therefore, the effort to mould a national identity always proved to be a failure. In the case of India, which is perhaps among the better examples for showcasing post-colonial nationhood, the best that can be said is that the experiment with nationhood has been less of a failure.

But the fact of the matter remains that there is still no single (or even primary) Indian national identity that exists within the borders of this nation-state. A calculation of the number of people who have, at one time or the other, rejected and continue to reject the claims of Indian nationhood and national identity, would indicate that while these are a minority, they are a substantial minority and not an insignificant one. The situation seems even less happy when one considers the geographical area which where these deniers of India’s nationhood live. If at all, the failure of the nation is starker in the other post-colonial states of South Asia. In Africa and West Asia too the success rate of post-colonial nationhood has been near zero.

But nationalism is problematic even when it is not ranged against the nation-state. Let us take the example of India again. Linguistic identity, which provided the template for organising the federal structure of the Indian Union with each federating State (province) considered a proto-nation in its own right. The demarcation of the boundaries of the linguistic provinces of India is a clear acknowledgement of their proto-nationhood. This proto-nationalism is also evident in the manner in which the culture, tradition, way of life and economic interests of the language speakers are enmeshed into one identity. Each such State of the Indian Union sees itself as the defender of the “self-interest” of its constitutive nationality and uses the institutions of state at its command to defend and further these interests, just like a proper nation-state would. There have even been instances when the police forces of two such neighbouring provinces have exchanged fire on the ‘border’. Even States of the Indian Union which are not based on a distinct language have developed a distinctly nationalistic consciousness about their identity.

By giving an autonomous space for the development of a national identity within its confines, the Indian nation-state has been reasonably successful in keeping secessionist demands within levels where it could manage them. But this has not solved the problem of the birth and growth on newer nationalistic identities within these proto-nations as is evident from the number of demands which are emerging each year. There is no principle based opposition which can be provided to these newer claims to more compact nationhood. The arguments which have been proferred are purely utilitarian and functional, bureaucratic even. The opposition of the Left to further division of Indian provinces can be classified thus. The other opposition to these newer, smaller nation claims comes from the bigger nation from which it wants to secede. Every emergent national aspiration revels in both such oppositions to its demands since these objections provides the aspirant national identity with both a sense of victimhood as well as a clear ideological and administrative target. Over the past six decades, there is hardly a single province in India which has not faced, or continues to face, challenges from smaller nationalisms or sub-nationalisms within its territory which question the right of these larger provinces to represent them.

This challenge to the proto-nation provinces of India is very similar, if not exactly the same, as the challenge of the secessionist movements to the Indian nation-state. That they do not demand independence from the Indian Union is, in my opinion, merely a legalistic matter. In terms of expressing national self-interest, there seems to be little that distinguishes the Kashmiri challenge to a unified Indian nationhood from, say, the challenge of Telangana to a unified Andhra national identity. The former is demanding legal separation from India while the latter is demanding legal separation from Andhra Pradesh.

This points to two things.

One, that the post-colonial nation-state lost much of its “liberatory” potential in the very act of achieving independence from colonialism. While it provided the historical form for freedom movements all over the world, in its relations with the people who lived within its boundaries, this nation-state could never live up to the lofty claims of freedom and autonomy that it wrung from its colonial masters. To a greater or lesser extent, the post-colonial nation-state has been repressive of its ‘own’ people and a tool for the furtherance of the material interests of those propertied classes which control and dominate over it.

Two, the nation and its “ism” has provided the form, the political-ideological shell, to give concrete shape to the politics of those who feel oppressed, discriminated and marginalised by the larger nation-state. The struggle against the oppression of the nation-state more often than not, takes the form of a demand for nationhood by the oppressed themselves.

Left wing movements, inspired by Marxism, should have provided a template for political mobilisations outside the ideological domain of nationalism. Unfortunately, nationalism now holds the left to ransom. The alien “ism” of the nation has sneaked into the political practice of communists globally thanks to two distinct but related processes. One reason for the entry of nationalism into communist politics is the national form taken by anti-colonial movements, as well as the utility of the nation as the site for fighting against imperialism even in the early years of formal independence. This led to a lowering of the ideological guard within the left against nationalism and gave strength to the second reason for nationalism having penetrated deep inside communist practice. The Soviet Union, and later China, failed to keep the distinction between defence of the Revolution within their State’s territory and defence of the nation. Both countries, specially China, displayed some of the worst forms of national chauvinism and narrow-mindedness.

I would argue that given the experience of the past century the nation form of the struggle against oppression and discrimination is self-defeating. The new nation, in the very act of its formation against the oppression of the larger entity, divides people into smaller and tighter ‘national’ identities and lays the conditions for further oppression, discrimination and marginalisation of the people contained within its boundaries. It is a regressive spiral who’s extreme examples are Rawanda, the former Yugoslavia, etc.

And all this while global capital is increasingly centralising itself, erasing national boundaries in the regions of its core and concentrating immense power to itself. By providing the chimera of freedom to the oppressed of the world, the nation and nationalism divides global labour and thus provides a world-historic service to capital, which is no more national but truly global.

In the immediate aftermath of the mass movement of 1905 to revoke the partition of Bengal province of the British Indian Empire, Rabindranath Tagore wrote the following lines;

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action —
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

It was published in Geetanjali, his collection of verse translated into English, and was cited by the committee which awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

Even at the moment when the Indian national movement for independence from colonialism was emerging on the stage of history, Tagore noticed the dangerous seeds of division, intolerance, irrationality and fear contained within the ‘national’ form of asking for independence from colonialism. He clearly saw the danger of Hindu-Muslim enmity, of class exploitation and intolerance, of patriarchy and hegemonic aspirations contained within nationalism which was emerging before his eyes. He, therefore, remained critical of Indian nationalism throughout and used his poems, novels and public lectures to warn his compatriots about the danger inherent in their political path of building nationalism to fight colonialism. Unfortunately, Tagore was but a poet. He was not a political analyst or a mass leader to lay out a political programme for an anti-colonialism which steered clear of nationalism. Moreover, he was writing at the moment of inception of the anti-colonial nation and could not observe the actualisation of the politics of nationhood in the post-colonial era.

Today, more than a century after him, we are much better placed to understand the dangers of nationhood and nationalism and strive for a freedom “where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls”. Are we living up to our potential and our promise?

~ ~ ~

A shorter version of article was published in my weekly column in The Post, on 22 August, 2007.



3 responses

23 08 2007

I believe fragmentation of interests leading to fragmentation of moral fabric has been the root cause of proto – nationalism to emerge. As we are neither a China nor a US and it makes us end up divided as we were for centuries pre the nationhood state squabbling on petty factional issues. Sadly Tagore is only read and not imbibed.

23 08 2007
Saibal Bishnu

The above piece, when seen with respect to the present situation in India on the civil nuclear deal, does not present a very pleasant scenario.

4 09 2007

The transformation of some of the finest revolutionary movements along chauvinistic lines is something worth doing a research. And your observations are very significant in this regard. It would be great if you can write in detail, (I would request a book itself!) on this, since there are numerous factors which contributed to this. Some of them are

1.The vacuum left by the dissolution of Comintern:

Dissolution of Comintern was a correct decision if we analyze only one side of this, the unilateral and sectarian way of decision making done by Comintern and the impact it had on few of the Communist parties. But till its dissolution Communists were perceived as a monolithic force, and the vacuum left by Comintern let that belief to fade ,in the course of time.

Not to dictate the path chosen by the member parties, but to join hands to fight for the common cause, at a time when the international division of labor had put obstacles for workers of various nations to unite, we need a Communist international.

2.Role of petti-bourgeois

In African national liberation struggle the class which played the leading role was petti-bourgeois. Most of the colonized nations industrial proletariat was a weak force to stand up on its own and fight imperialism. It didn’t see the peasantry as its natural ally and once the immediate political task of national liberation was achieved, it began to show ambivalence. In fact the seeds of chauvinism were sown much before independence, and the absence of a revolutionary industrial proletariat made things worse, later.

Guniea Bissau is a classical instance of this phenomenon. The glorious PAIGC whose heroism sent tremors to the distant land of Portugal, had undergone a chauvinistic deviation and Luis Cabral had to flee, after the formation of Cape Verde. Despite the avowed allegiance to socialism the class composition of PAIGC remained something alien to a Marxist-Leninist force, and finally it began to show symptoms of decay.

The triumphant nationalism in post colonial world had this draw back from the beginning. It used to revolve around the dominant class which engineered the victory against colonialism, and “nationalism” was always the nationalism of peasantry ,petti -bourgeois or bourgeois, but never that of working class-peasantry alliance. There is no wonder in the deformations that we now a days in the “nationalist” trends, which is nothing but a manifestation of the changing class interests of the forces which constitutes nationalism…….

Please do think about writing more on this.


Lukacs on Tagore.

Though I have great respect for Tagore ,I fully agree with Lukacs’ observations, which is so sharp and realistic.

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