The rise of the angry national

Rather than being threatened by currents of world history, India can take any current of thought and make it its own, but in a way that exudes that ineffable sense of being shaped by India.

Updated: February 28, 2016 10:03 am

Let us leave aside the question: who is an anti-national? In this special issue, we explore, instead, what makes up a nation and what it means to love, or not, the country that is India. Pratap Bhanu Mehta on why the current nationalism has worked itself up into a fury

Nationalism is the inescapable passion of the modern world. It is the basis of self-governing communities. It is the only ideology that can compete with religion in consecrating death. Like religion, it is a source of immense idealism and the basis for horrible crimes and exclusions. The persistence and diversity of nationalisms is a big subject. At the moment, the issue that needs diagnosis is the rise of the “angry national”: a vituperative, accusatory and divisive nationalism. For the first time in my life, concerned friends and suspicious strangers are asking: are you a patriot?

Do you love India? In my context, these questions seem more like an affectation than a threat. But these questions are taking a menacing and accusatory form, driven by the language and imagery reminiscent of the Weimar Republic — of a nation infested with anti-nationals that needs cleansing. The real threat is not posed by anti-nationals, it is by the drive to see anti-nationals everywhere.

The current moment makes Indianness into a subject of unnecessary contestation. In The Meaning of India, writer Raja Rao observed that it is not the Indian who makes India, but “India” makes the Indian, and this India is in all: it is the centre of awareness wherein one ’s self dips again and again.” It is for this reason anxieties about the Indian identity have always been misplaced. Rather than being threatened by currents of world history, India can take any current of thought and make it its own, but in a way that exudes that ineffable sense of being shaped by India.

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This is not a triumphal argument for a disfiguring self-congratulation, but it should lay to rest the anxieties about the “foreign.” Every stream of world history — from Islam to Marxism, from enlightenment to nationalism — is Indian in its own way. To think of India as inescapable is liberating. It becomes the ground on which you stand and aim higher, not the ceiling which you are nervously trying to hold up.

There can be no benchmarks for Indian nationalism. India is woven of complex strands. If you pull at one thread too much, the whole tapestry gets distorted. Anti-nationalism in India is almost always produced by a desire to benchmark nationalism; secessionism in India has mostly been a result of state authoritarianism. If you let identities work out as a matter of course, India becomes stronger, not weaker. These were the platitudes of Indian nationalism. They now seem like propositions that we are wilfully bent on forgetting. The India that could seamlessly infuse everything with its distinctive, abundant and colourful hues, is being converted into a dark shadow.

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The real question is not: what does it mean to be a patriot? Those asking that question are often trying to set an insidious trap, getting you to acknowledge the terms of nationhood they want to set. The real question is why are we turning on each other in an orgy of mutual recrimination? The making of a healthy nation requires granting all our fellow citizens presumptive standing as patriots. In the context of discussions on radicalism, it is worth recalling HL Mencken’s words, “The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naïve and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”

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Why have these presumptive courtesies of standing that patriots extend to each other, even in course of disagreeing, broken down? Why is there so much anger? Five conjunctures seem to be at play.

The first is simply the partiality of justice. The weakness of our institutions has made us internalise the view that the only way to secure justice is through shrill advancement of partial claims. This has infected even as basic a right as freedom of expression, where the entire debate is not over the consistent application of principles, but over “You defended X’s rights but not Y’s”.

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Everyone invokes the Constitution. And everyone is immediately reminded that we remember the Constitution only when it affects us. The mutual accusation comes from a loss of faith in the idea that our universal principles are, in fact, universal; their activation almost always requires partisan accusation as a pressure tactic. This partiality can make everyone feel like a victim. But in the premium on exposing hypocrisy, the very principles that bind us get lost. Partial justice will make for a fragmented nation.

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Secondly, a weakly institutionalised rule of law is producing a rage for order. But instead of this rage being harnessed into energy for reform, it is yearning for an expression of toughness: a sign that shows that the state exists, even when it is being hollowed out from inside. What better sign than rounding up a few hapless anti-nationals?


Third, no nation finds it easy to face up to its choreographies of oppression. India’s sacred and cultural geography is superabundant with meaning, to delight, charm and liberate. But the original sin of Indian democracy — caste —is still a riposte to India. It is a source of shame; and shame, by its very nature, looks for a covering cloak. The more abstract the idea of India is, the easier it is to disguise the way in which India has also created its distinctive oppression. And as that order gets unsettled and contested, it is being seen, in some quarters, as a very threat to the idea of Hinduism. It takes immense self-confidence to confront the fact of oppression squarely; but anxiety about facing oppression gives fragility to oneself, and the standing of the nation.

Read | For country, Not king: Controversies around the national anthem 

Fourth, there is no doubt that we are living under a political dispensation that has a deep sense of victimhood. Its abiding thread is that it was victimised by the ideological complex of Congress’s ancien regime. This is a complicated story whose various strands need to be unpacked. But it the essence of this kind of ideology of victimhood is that it will see the world conspiratorially. Political success has not dented the sense of victimhood. It feels entitled to aggression because it sees itself as victim. And self-constructed victims have a need to show they are being constantly attacked.

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The final conjuncture is a loss of faith in the India story itself. This government was elected with high hopes — of economic growth, reform and putting India on the world stage. But the brute fact of the matter is that it has not proved transformative. It is not entirely incompetent. But it is hard to disguise the fact that there is no inexorably rising India, no collective narrative in which we can all exult and share. This is probably a global phenomenon; a sense of economic powerlessness looking for recompense in nationalism. But our current nationalism is angry, inward-looking and divisive, because it is not driven by a sense of beauty, achievement or comradeship. It is driven by a sense of failure looking for someone to blame. We have an angry Indian who is, most of all angry at himself.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is president, Centre for Policy Research