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Nationalism gone berserk

10 Feb 2002

Frontline Column: Beyond the Obvious

Praful Bidwai

Nationalism gone berserk

The growing hubris-driven, illiberal, intolerant, nationalism in India falsifies and glorifies the country's "Hindu" past. It is viscerally hostile to Pakistan, but servile to the United States.

Have we reached such a point of moral degeneration and self-brutalisation that plotting to assassinate Pakistan's leaders becomes the ultimate test of "patriotism" for our youth? A terrible story from Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh, not far from Gwalior, suggests that this may be actually happening. This is the story of two boys, Pinku (10) and Rinku (17), who wanted to become the "heroes of the nation" by avenging the December 13 attack on Parliament House--by assassinating Pervez Musharraf, no less.

Brought up on a daily diet of Bollywood-style "patriotism", and hero-worship of the Knights in Shining Armour who take on the mighty with their macho strength, Pinku and Rinku decided that India must wage war on Pakistan, or else they would become good "patriotic" terrorists, buy arms, smuggle themselves into Pakistan, and go and kill Musharraf.

On January 11, they kidnapped Shanu, the eight-year-old son of a businessman, for ransom, with which to procure the weapons for the Great and Holy Deed of killing Musharraf the Monster. Driven as they were by the role-models offered in films like Gadar and Indian, and Fiza and Mission Kashmir, they hatched a plot to hold the boy, Shanu, hostage and collect the money they needed to execute their plan.

But once they abducted Shanu, they realised they couldn't really hide him anywhere. Nor could they invent credible alibis, nor even ways of collecting the ransom. They panicked and strangled him to death with a shoelace. According to The Telegraph (Jan 21), the boys have confessed to their crime, but the district authorities believe that their motivation was indeed "patriotic".

It is tempting to discount this gory incident as a mere aberration, a rare case of "juvenile delinquency" coupled with "misguided patriotism", as exposure to "too much Bollywood", and so on. But it warrants serious, sober, reflection on the kind of values we are imparting to a whole generation of young people--through textbooks, through extremely competitive merit-ranking at school, through cinema and television, through accepted but aggressive patterns of behaviour in the street, and more generally, through our general social and political discourse.

These values have long glorified maleness, raw power, violence, aggression and war, and normalised" or routinised cruelty. For years, India's "popular" cinema and television have shamelessly promoted negative hate-driven images of heroes as well as vamps and villains. This phenomenon has recently got even more perverse as the hero and the villain have merged, and the vamp has become the quintessential bride-dancer whom wedding parties emulate, especially in the north. The cynical depiction of violence and aggressive behaviour has kept pace with sex and sleaze in the mass media.

Take education. Many of our schools, cast in the post-colonial "nation-building" tradition, valorise military-style discipline and a stressfully competitive view of "achievement" and excellence. The typical child grows up believing that hubris and pride in India's "inherent" greatness and moral-cultural superiority is a "normal" characteristic of the good citizen. The tone and tenor of school and college debates has become increasingly raucous under the influence of the same kind of aggressive nationalism.

This nationalism is self-aggrandising. It pits itself against reason, logic and truth. It constructs indefinitely continuous communities (e.g. "Hindus", from the Vedic period, followed by the rise of Buddhism, through the Brahminical-caste consolidation phase, and the Bhakti movement, to the late medieval period), where none existed. This nationalism validates aggressive and militarist notions of power relations as part of "human nature". Thus, India is "naturally" great. It has always been. Millions of Indians are being drilled and coached into believing 'Mera Bharat Mahan'!

Human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi and his hatchet-men in the National Council for Educational Research and Training, and numerous other institutions, have added a particularly toxic ingredient to this already foul cocktail of values and prejudices by saffronising education and rewriting history. This enterprise, a veritable cultural counter-revolution in itself, has been subjected to so much incisive criticism that it is unnecessary to recall the factual inaccuracies, the lies and half-truths, the indelible ethnic-religious prejudices, and the sophistry and irrationality that suffuse it. (See this Column Mr Jacob: Will send the dates later-- -- --)

The larger, central, overwhelming, purpose of Joshi and Co's project is to "prove" that India is the greatest civilisation and culture in world history, that virtually everything valuable in the "ancient" world was derived from India. This "ancient" periodisation can be arbitrarily stretched to the 10th or even the 13th century, as in the case of the Konark or Lingaraja temples of Orissa or the Nataraja temple of Chidambaram. Joshi claims that it is now "proved" that the river Saraswati actually existed. The other day, he proudly announced the discovery of a 7,500 year-old "civilisation" in the Gulf of Cambay--a strange thing for a minister to do in the absence of an academic paper, and when the "finds" there are still under interpretation and in need of corroboration.

The concept of nationalism involved here is ethnic-religious and cultural. It conceives of India as a quintessentially traditional society. It cannot accommodate modernist notions of universal values, political identity or citizenship. It demands total, blind, loyalty to the woolly concept of an "Eternal India", which is further mystified and deified as "Bharat Mata".

On this view, respect, or rather reverence, for the nation is based on unquestioning devotion to the abstract notion of India's "inherent" greatness and its unique superiority, its spectacular, unmatched achievements in all fields. These are grossly exaggerated and mystified. (For instance, RSS sararsanghachalak Sudarshan in his last Vijayadashami address claimed that an Indian actually built and flown an airplane in Baroda, years before the Wright Brothers did--a fabricated and ludicrous assertion!)

In this scheme, pride is one's nation is premised upon disdain for, or hatred of, other nations or identities. Islam and Muslims have functioned as the Other longest of all within this ethnic-nationalist demonology. Everything that is "Eastern", but other than Indian, is trivialised, minimised, parodied or reviled. This could be Persian or Chinese, or from Sumer or Sri Lankan. These cultures are considered at best derivative (and unimportant) in relation to India. The "true", essential, authentic, subject of the Nation is one particular community. "Others" can be accommodated on its fringes. But that's because 'We' are tolerant, not because India is plural.

In the contemporary context, this hatred of the Other gets focused upon Pakistan, which is demonised as a country, society, state and regime which is inherently inimical to India and with which peaceful co-existence is virtually impossible. Pakistan is credited with virtually mystical powers to subvert and destabilise India and create havoc. As in the classical Savarkar formulation, Pakistan is the external manifestation of the eternal "internal" threat embodied by Muslims--just as Indian Muslims represent Pakistan's Fifth Column.

India's sheer size allows the votaries of this nationalism to look at our other neighbours (barring China) as dwarfs, midgets and non-entities compared to the Indian giant. India is unique, India is exceptional, India is unmatched, India is eternal.

This is precisely the kind of nationalism that Rabindranath Tagore described as a "great menace". As he put it: "It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India's troubles".

This toxic, aggressive, exclusive, competitive, belligerent nationalism is the very opposite of a relaxed, self-confident, inclusive view of the nation and the world. It binds and encloses. It does not liberate. In fact, it lacks a progressive character. It is not anti-imperialist. At least no longer. Not only does it not question the skewed distribution of power in the world. It accepts the dominant-dominated duality as the "natural" order, but wants India to be the cock of the walk.

This nationalism kowtows to the powerful, the dominant, the hegemonic. In its present form, it is servile to "the West", in particular, to the United States, just as it is arrogant towards "the East" (minus India, of course, which being Aryan, "really" belongs to the West). Nothing illustrates this better than the Indian official reception to Pervez Musharraf's landmark address of January 12, and the growing intimacy between the Vajpayee government and Bush, now leading to dangerous liaisons in intelligence-sharing and even ground-level operations.

Musharraf in his speech set out to do something exceptionally bold: undermine a major part of the foundation of his own state (viz extremist political Islam). This is the sharpest and most comprehensive criticism of ethnic-religious fundamentalism voiced by the head of any South Asian state in the past half-century. Musharraf minced no words in laying out Pakistan's pathology, marked by its mix of Islam and politics, the military and the mullahs, the Taliban and terrorism. He posed the choice for Pakistan clearly: between a "theocratic state" and a modern, moderate, liberal, tolerant society.

Musharraf also told jehadi militants not to mess around with other countries, whatever the offence to Islam there. Implicit here is the view that Pakistan has paid dearly by pandering to pan-Islamic ideas. Musharraf has since cracked down on jehadi militants, arresting 2,500 of them. He may have started cutting the umbilical cord between the Pakistani state and political Islam, and proceeded to dismantle communal electorates.

Musharraf has launched only "half a revolution". His reform agenda lacks a "perspective from below", one that arises from the struggles of the working people. It has no economic content worth the name. Musharraf's chosen agency for his reform "from above" is none other than the Pakistani state, a thoroughly corrupt, compromised and unreliable entity. He may not succeed. Formidable forces are arrayed against him.

To point this out is one thing. To term his address an exercise in "deception" or "doublespeak" is quite another. This approach ridicules the very possibility of reform in Pakistan by declaring it irredeemable. Indian leaders have at best been grudging and mean-spirited in acknowledging that Musharraf has done something remarkable. Thus, L.K. Advani called the address "path-breaking", but only for its domestic agenda. Vajpayee only saw some "positive elements" in it.

This leaves one wondering if this parsimonious response has something to do with the BJP's general fear of secularisation and modernisation---contrasted to its own agenda of turning India into a morass of obscurantism, superstition and communal prejudice.

Contrast this with the Vajpayee government's kowtowing to the US. Never before has any Indian government so pusillanimously colluded with hegemonic US moves in this region or actively invited American interference in its internal affairs. Vajpayee & Co not only uncritically supported the US "war on terrorism" with all its excesses and its devious manipulation of the United Nations. They did not let out even a squeak of protest or concern at the US' current construction of four military bases in Pakistan.

It allowed an FBI agent to visit Kolkata after the recent "terrorist" attack just as it welcomed a whole stream of FBI, Defence Intelligence Agency, "counter-terrorism" and other officials.

According to The Telegraph (Jan 21 & 22), it is about to launch joint operations with US agencies to stop possible terrorist infiltration and activities in Jammu and Kashmir. The Indo-US Joint Working Group, which met in New Delhi in the third week of January, has announced a broad range of "cooperative" activities including "political, diplomatic, military, intelligence and financial measures".

India has "welcomed" a US "pilot project" involving equipment and technology to strengthen "border management and surveillance". The two sides reportedly also discussed "forensic cooperation" and added aviation security to their agenda, and placed "special stress" on ways to beef up intelligence and investigative cooperation, including the possibility of access to each other's database on terrorists.

This goes far beyond "intelligence sharing", even "cooperative monitoring" through agencies like the Sandia National Laboratories of New Mexico, a well-known US weapons design and production facility.

On the cards are "joint operations" on the ground, for which the way may have been paved by the visit of DIA chief Admiral Thomas Wilson to the Kashmir Valley, including "sensitive" border areas.

This spells serious interference in India's affairs and erosion of our sovereignty, with potentially dangerous consequences. The public stands warned.


The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia was formed in 1993 to combat rising religious intolerance in South Asia and to campaign for peace and justice in the region. We are committed to working towards a just, non-violent resolution of the crisis we are currently living through. If you are interested in joining us in this work, please call 617-983-3934 or e-mail info@alliancesouthasia.org

3 Feb 2007

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