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Thursday, October 01, 2020

How to Make a Nation New

Step One: Don’t think of it as your mother.

Written by Tabish Khair | Updated: December 30, 2018 12:58:37 pm
Mother India, Denmark, new nation, nation, nationhood, fatherland, mother, father, daughter, Africa, Berlin, indian express, indian express news Ask: Is the law being framed justly and fairly implemented? Do all vote freely, get fair opportunities and equal access to human rights? (Source: File Photo)

Can one renew a country as one can renew a relationship? It should be possible if popular discourse is to be credited. After all, we talk of the nation as a relation. Mother India, we say. Other countries, too, talk of the motherland or the fatherland. The country that gives birth to you (and nurtures you) is a mother. The country that makes social space for you is a father, given, unfortunately, the association of power and place with men. It seems to make sense, doesn’t it, to think of your country as your motherland or your fatherland?

And yet, it is a misleading association. Apart from some unfortunate children, your mother and your father — biological or adoptive — are people you know very well. Perhaps, you will never know anyone better. But this is not the case with the nation. The most obvious way in which a nation differs from a family or a primitive tribe is that one never gets to know the nation — or all other nationals. By definition, no national will ever meet and get to know every other national — not even in a small country like Denmark, with a population of under six million!

The nation is constructed on the myth of sharing and knowing — and hence of being one family — but this is a misleading notion. Renewing the nation needs other mechanisms. To say this is not to cultivate despair but to acknowledge the real nature of the nation. This is not biological or metaphysical. It is political. Nationhood is a political construct, and so is the nation. Nothing more, nothing less.

A political construct does not mean that the nation is something dreamt out of thin air. No, for a nation to be effective, it has to take into account not just the materiality of its existence (its territories and geographical features, its natural and human resources, etc.) but also its immaterial inheritances, in the shape of history, cultures, aspirations, etc. We know that failure to do so — which in the developing world was partly the consequence of colonial greed, high-handedness or haste — creates dysfunctional nations. As the horribly straight national borders on the map of Africa indicate, you cannot create nations simply on the basis of lines drawn on paper in Berlin.

One needs to take into account both the “physicality” and the “metaphysics” of the country that becomes an effective modern nation. Hence, nations cannot be renewed by falling back upon biological or metaphysical myths. In this sense, they differ from family relations: To renew a family relationship, you need, first of all, to reach out to the person. To get beyond death in the family, you need, above all, to return to the life that has departed — in your reimagination.

But one can never do that with a nation, which remains unknowable and unreachable in its entirety…and even its parts. The only way one can renew a nation is by restoring its political processes, or by ensuring that these processes are not denuded. The nation comes into being only through political processes that enable you, as someone unknown to most other nationals, to have a say in the nation. And you can have your say only when others, unknown and unknowable to you, are assured of having an equivalent say too.

The nation is not a mother or a father whose heart naturally wells with the milk of human kindness for you. You can meet your parents; you can recall them as wearing a certain dress or uttering a certain phrase. But no number of public meetings or impressive national monuments will ever be the nation. If the nation is to work for you, you need to ensure those democratic political processes that make it work for all those you do not know and will never know.

But it is more than that. You never meet the nation as you would meet your father, mother or any other relative. At the most, you have symbols and representatives: the flag, the president, the Parliament, etc. The nation is scattered into many things: law, constitution, voting practices, court, administration, rights, etc.

Hence, in order to renew the nation one needs to look at all these elements and renew them if necessary. It does not do to claim that your nation is great, you need to look at how these different things that make up your nation are working: Is the law being framed justly and fairly implemented? Is access to the same human rights available to all in the nation? Are other citizens free of fear? Can they vote freely? Do they get fair opportunities to succeed in life?

Very often, when people start drumming the greatness of a nation in a bid to “renew” it, these are exactly the questions they do not want you to ask. Instead, they want you to believe that thinking of the nation as your mother or father is sufficient.

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist, poet, and scholar based in Denmark.

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