Tuesday, Sep 27, 2022

How India and China are shaped by the idea of national humiliation

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: While China uses it to legitimise authoritarian rule, India’s lack of egalitarianism makes it harder for national humiliation to be owned equally.

Indian political ideologies and cultural practice, while less politically authoritarian, are also far less egalitarian, for national humiliation to be owned equally.

One striking fact about the projection of Chinese nationalism is the centrality of the idea of humiliation. The century of national humiliation, from the First Opium Wars to the Nanjing massacre, is an organising principle of historiography in China. It is central to education policy. Even a casual glance at public monuments shows how the Chinese state goes out of its way to remind people of sites of national humiliation. But the idea of humiliation has a legitimising function. The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 marks the overturning of the century of national humiliation. The Communist Party makes a claim for its fitness to rule, in substantial measure, on its ability to position itself as the agent that overcomes China’s humiliation. President Xi Jinping’s address at the Party centenary begins by a reminder and resolve that China will never be humiliated again. Arguably, a deepening authoritarianism requires the concept even more. A lot of Chinese foreign policy is framed with reference to the idea.

A colleague in China once asked me how the concept of humiliation worked in Indian nationalism. This is an intriguing question. After the Rowlatt Bills, Gandhi declared April 6 1919 as National Humiliation Day, but that was almost a one-off event. China has a continuous history of marking its humiliation. At one level, all post-colonial states feel the trauma of being “Wronged by Empire,” to use the evocative title of Manjari Chatterjee Miller’s book on the subject. India and China, of course, have vastly different histories. Nevertheless, the question of how humiliation works in Indian nationalism is an interesting window on how the national subject might be constituted in China and India.

In India’s post-colonial trauma, the psychological sense of humiliation is present. But it has to be articulated discreetly and sotto voce. There are several reasons for this. The Gandhian imprint on Indian nationalism means that it went out of its way to eschew any tropes of resentment against the West; the pathologies that the West brought were pathologies of modernity. So resistance to the West had to be the creation of an alternative social imagination, not the avenging of humiliation.

But there is a more cynical reason: Modern India’s ruling class and identity was created as much by collaboration with colonialism as resistance to it. Almost all elements of India’s ruling structure come out as being embedded in the colonial project. The great families from the Tagores to the Tatas, the Indian Army, the Indian civil service, the legal profession, and pretty much any part of the ruling establishment displayed more continuity than discontinuity. Even post-Independence, the persistence of English and enculturation of new elites only reinforced this. It was prudent for this establishment to mark India’s subjugation, but not to harp on the theme of humiliation too deeply, without exposing its own complicity in it.

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There are other reasons as well. At an ideological level, the onset of colonialism was also welcomed by many constituencies. For some Hindus, it was an opportunity to come out from under the yoke of the Mughal Empire. For many Dalits, it was an opportunity for shaking up oppressive social structures. The idea of colonialism as liberating has much more of a subterranean presence than we acknowledge.

Indian political ideologies and cultural practice, while less politically authoritarian, are also far less egalitarian, for national humiliation to be owned equally. It also has some bearing on what we take to be signs of national humiliation. It is no secret that the real source of India’s humiliation is still abiding and crushing poverty. But it is still seen, for the most part, as an embarrassment to be negotiated rather than the project that should be an object of our single-minded attention.

The nature of traumas was different. The Chinese construction of humiliation was directly structured around military defeats: First, the opium wars and then the brutal Japanese invasion. Because both the West and Japan were implicated, the theme of humiliation could become an organising frame for foreign policy. The Chinese Communist Party was both a military force and a political party; the fusion of the two in narratives of national resistance, unification and regeneration, perhaps makes possible a singular construction of national humiliation. India’s traumas, at least in terms of the scale of political violence and significance, turned out to be more self-inflicted. No war defines Indian victimhood or trauma. Ironically, it is perhaps 1962 that is marked as a national humiliation. But its suffering and trauma cannot be deployed in the same way in which the Chinese deploy memories of WW II as Rana Mitter has shown in his wonderful book, “China’s Good War”.


VS Naipaul once wrote that “out of the encompassing humiliation of British rule, there will come to India the ideas of country and pride and historical self-analysis.” But what actually came out was not so much a project of deploying humiliation in the service of national unification and regeneration, but a divisive tactic directed against our own citizens. The presence of the Hindu-Muslim question in Indian politics meant that humiliation, rather than being mobilised for common memory, became a source of divisiveness. The trope of humiliation is more easily deployed against pre-British, Mughal and Sultanate rule, than as a unifying ideology. This is the form in which the discourse of humiliation has grown more powerful. Indian nationalism quietly understood that a national self constituted by a narrative of humiliation will immediately become a divided Self, turning on itself.

The practical and moral necessity of playing down national humiliation may not be a bad thing. It makes for a less militarised society, perhaps a less authoritarian society. But India has an unresolved tension: The loud declamations of India being a Vishwaguru and a new aggressive nationalism, are not signs of a new confidence. They are signs of a repressed sense of humiliation that is unable to confront its true sources: India’s relative powerlessness and its inability to give most of its citizens a dignified life. So it engages in a fantasy of overcoming humiliation, in history, in culture, in internal division. China, on the other hand, feeds the humiliation machine so that it can legitimise deeply authoritarian rule, cement the party’s place, and lay the basis for its dealings with the external world. How these countries deal with their own constructs of humiliation may well determine the future.

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 6, 2021 under the title ‘Idea of humiliation’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express

First published on: 06-07-2021 at 03:30:17 am
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