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Nationalism and Nation-State as Discourse in India Author(s): Anirudh Deshpande Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.

32, No. 25 (Jun. 21-27, 1997), pp. 1442-1443 Published by: Economic and Political Weekly Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4405531 Accessed: 15/07/2010 04:19
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COMMENTARY

Nationalism and Nation-State as Discourse in India


Anirudh Deshpande

The current heated exchanges between the votaties of anti-terrorist state action in Punjab and the upholders of human rights often boil down to a veritable redefinition of nationalism and nation-state in India. However, the interpretationof Mughal and British India has proven earlier and will continue to do so in future thatfirstly, defining Indian nationalism is problemnatic secondly, an and imbalanced definition of patriotism carries with it the dangers of the over-centralising discourse unsuited to our federal times.
F1ROM viewpointofamaturecivilsociety, the conscious of the democratic rights of its citizens, an unhealthyfeeling has grown in thepoliticallyarticulateclassesoflndiasince the previous Punjab elections. This hyper nationalist sensibility which borders on fascism is palpablein the heatedexchanges which take place between the votaries of anti-terrorist state action in Punjaband the upholdersof humanrightsthese days. While the former defend certain officers of the Punjabpolice who seemed to have violated the IndianConstitutionin the discharge of theirduties againstterrorism the province in the latterjustifiably opine thatthe police, or for thatmatterany stateagency, is not above the rule of law even in the most extenuating circumstances. The debateoften boils down to a veritableredefinitionof nationalismand the nation-statein India. However, the fact thattheAkalis,andcertainlynottheCongress which ruled the centre while terrorismwas being crushed in Punjab, have been voted to power in Punjab inveighs against the votaries of the Punjab police who are proclaiming that human rights groups in Punjab,and Indiain general, have gone too far in their attempt to safeguardthe rights and lives of innocent Indian citizens. Perverse noises are being made in the clubs and talking shops of Delhi and elsewhereagainstthe humanrightswallahswho, we are told, don't value patriotism,national defence and integrity. But fortunately the canons of democracy,political sagacity and history militate against such allegations. Hence first consider the pseudo intellectual of practice cloakingtheexcesses of thePunjab police in the language of ultra nationalism, and then flak drawn by the human rights groups in the press these days, and then decide the morality of war crimes. And if war crimes exist, should war criminals be punished as they were at Nuremburgafter the second world war. Also, for instance, ponder over events like the anti-Rowlatt uprising in Punjab, the subsequent Jallianwallah Bagh massacrein 1919 andthe role of the police and army in them before decidingthe amountof state violence which 1442 can be exoneratedin history. But above all, and to highlightthe inhumanityof the state in India by comparison, look at the long drawnBritishwaragainstthe IRA andcount the numberof times the humanrightsof the innocent Irish have been violated by the British army in recent years. And after all this decide whether the growing polemic against the 'rationalists' who emphasise economic prosperity,food and shelter in our poor countryis justified. Specially since some commentators have gone far enough to assert that rationalism, presumably includingatheisticMarxism,"is the stuff that traitorsare made of' (Varsha Bhosle in The Sunday Observer,June 1-7, 1997). This is a severe indictment from someone who honoursShivaji,RanaPratap, GuruGobindSingh, NetajiSubhasChandra Bose, Savarkar,BhagatSingh, Manekshaw and Vaidya together conveniently missing outSiraj-ud-Daulah, Tipoo Sultan,A K Azad and Ashfaqullah. But the judgment is overruled by a balanced historical perspective. In fact it is this unreasonableness of the sectarian intellectuals, that partly reinforcedby caused and was unfortunately events like the OperationBluestar and the destruction of the Babri masjid, which necessitates a revaluationof concepts like the nation-stateand nationalismin the 50th Nowadaysthese yearof Indian independence. concepts are increasingly being debated with reference to Punjab, Kashmirand the north-eastin the context of growing federal pressures in India. The concept of the nation-stateis partof a greatmodem ideological discourse which began in the 18thcentury.This discourse is legitimised by a collection of myths and national symbolsassociatedwitha presumed unityandits theoreticallysharedpast.In due course all nations,dominatedby the culture of their establishmentsand ruling classes, develop discourses predicated upon a selective interpretation their written and of lived history.ThusFrance,theidealrepublic, nourishesits nationalmythby an ampledose of the revolution and heroic anti-German images of the resistance.In Britain,at least

up to 1939, the empiresustainedthenational myths.TheUS, anotherrepublic, consumed is by a beliefin a so-calledfreeworlddominated actually by a hegemonic capitalism committed to anti-communism. For many the story of the Americandream has restedfor long upon a hypothetical struggle against tyrannydespite the horrorsof Vietnamand Latin America known to the world. In the USSR the patriotic superstructureswere supported by a combination of vulgar Marxism and Stalinist history and in China the mixture of ancient imperial prestige, communism and growing economic and militarypower reinforcesthe Han tradition. In less sovereign formercolonies like India the politically idealised nation-state,shaped by anti-colonialism, is buttressed by the glorified icons of the freedom movement. Thereforethe emphasislies clearlyon 'unity in diversity' instead of much needed, and officially neglected, transformation the of social relationsof productionand exchange throughoutthe country. However,thediscourseof thenation-state, which underscores much of the armchair classless patriotism espoused by the petty bourgeoisie, is rich in contrarietyand some social scientists exploit this to demystify fake history. In the cradle of the 'nationstate', i e, the advancedwest, studiesof class, gender and race have made the practiceof socially promotingthe nationas a superidea unpopular. In the east the Korean 'tiger' myth has been shattered by a rejuvenated working class. Shocking corruptionundermines modernJapanandRussianhistoryhas due progressedinadvertently to Gorbachev's actions. At home the discursive contradictions of the nation-statesurfaceregularly in everyday life but appear most poignant on days Indianscelebratetheirindependence andrepublicdays becausesignificantaspects of the presumednational past are recreated on these holidays. Other days specially dedicatedto the largepatrioticsentimentare October 2, November 14, January23. On these days cinema, academia and media resurrect a valiant national history which cannot really be compressed in single ideological frame and, as the following shows, is inherently contradictory. Since cinema is a powerful medium of nationalismlet us begin by analysingManoj Kumar's popular film 'Shaheed' which visually narratesthe story of Bhagat Singh and his associates. The scenes of the filnli are dotted with icons symbolising 'Bharat of Mata' as she appears in representations Hindu petty bourgeois nationalism. This semi-religious iconography is further reinforced by other signs of theism which the film carriesand the historycontainedin some of its songs. Witness the equationof the Marathastruggle against the Mughals andtheMutinyof 1857withtherevolutionary movement of the 1920s in the following verse: 'Jis chole kopahan Shivajikheleapni June 21, 1997

Economic and Political Weekly

jaan par, Jise pahan Jansi ki rani mit gai apni aanipar, Aaj usi ko pahan ke niklaa ye mastoInka tolaa.' Was this BhagatSingh's conception history? of Obviouslynotbecause as a socialist he could not have entertained such historiology. But popular renderings like 'Shaheed' constitute and promote a selected interpretationof Bhagat Singh's placein Indianhistorybecausehe was, above all, an atheist and materialist.Many of his friendswere idealists andtheists but Bhagat Singh cannot be mixed with them despite contemporary ideological compulsions.The revolutionaries were divided over questions of theism, atheism and socialism but from the viewpoint of a Bombay film producer it is senseless to depict these differences. Very few would buy Bhagat Singh if his materialistconvictions are portrayedtruthfullyin a theisticsociety.Henceit is profitable anddiscursivetohideBhagat Singh'satheism behindthe veneerof icon worship.Thus the national myth becomes homogenised metamorphosinga socialist into a theistic caricatureplaced beside 'inspiringheroes' like Shivaji, Bose and Savarkar. If Shaheedexemplifiesthetheismof Indian patriotism the legend of Bose poses an importantquestion. On January23 Bose's birthday is celebrated.The traditiondates from early 1946 when the INA, which also inspiredthe Naval Mutinyof February 1946, was at the height of its popularity.Netaji is still respectedby a largernumberof Indians.

Amongst Bengalis. classified non-martial by the British, his myth evokes a barely hiddenmilitarypride. But his appropriation by Indiannationalismappearsproblematic. On January the INA veteransareparaded 23, on stage, heroic tales recountedand blood donationcamps,inspiredby Netaji's famous slogan, organised.In contradistinction three days laterwe salute the Indianarmyand its traditions created by the British raj. The INA comprised around 20,OOOdeserters from the IndianArmy. And yet within four days both the INA and the Indian army against which it fought are glorified by a discourse which refuses to eschew the popularityof Bose in certainpartsof India.In the process are uncomfortablequestions leftunanswered. We don't know what we celebrate with referenceto thesecondworldwar.The Allies or Axis? Bose or Cariappa,Thimayya and Thorat?The Naval Mutiny and INA or the Indian Army? The issue is confounded becauseournationalist carriage overloaded is with contradictorymyths. This ambiguity of discoursejumbles up Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar,Bhagat Singh, Bose, the Indian army and a neo-colonial civil service in an unconvincing picture of Indiannationalismandnation-state. And the of story does not end with the interpretation nationalismas it existed duringthe freedom movement.The contradictions on in the live discourse of contemporarynation-stateof whichstrident hindutva becameanimportant

constituentduringthe 1980sand1990s.Otherwisethemiddleclasswouldn'tunhesitatingly admit Advani and Thackeray into the syncretic discourse of Indian nation-state. Butquestionswhichunderninethisdiscourse are addressed by critical research with referenceto the recentandnot so recentpast. Hence the socio-political role of hindutva in colonial India, forgotten by the younger generation,suggests that pretenderscannot inheritthe legacy of even a limited modem Indiannationalismleave alone the pantheon including warriorslike Shivaji. An investigation of Ambedkar'spolitics, for example, displays the patchiness of a casteless and classless nationalismspoutedby thecentrists and rightists both. Critical analyses of hindutva confirm its majoritarian ideology and debunk the business sponsored media hype associatedwith saffron.Questionscan be raisedwith referenceto the interpretation of otherheroes of Indianhistory,selectively chosen by writers to suit their ideological proclivities, and the answers to these questions, like those being provided in Punjab today, will certainly displease the modern Indianfascists.The interpretation Mughal of andBritishIndiahas provenearlier,andwill continue to do so -in future, that firstly, defining Indian nationalism is problematic and secondly, an imbalanced definition of patriotismcarries with it the dangers of an over-centralisingdiscourse unsuited to our federal times.

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June 21, 1997

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