'Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.' said Albert Einstein.
One man’s nationalism is another man’s patriotism. When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat visited London recently, a RSS sympathiser counselled him to refrain from using the word ‘nationalism’ since it is associated with Nazis and Fascism. Recalling this advice at a public function last week, Bhagwat strongly advised the Parivar to do the same saying, “Nationalism shabd ka upyog mat kijiye. Nation kahenge chalega, national kahenge chalega, nationality kahenge chalgea, nationalism mat kaho. Nationalism ka matlab hota hai Hitler, naziwaad.
(Don’t use the word nationalism. Using ‘nation’ or ‘nationality’ is okay but don’t use ‘nationalism’ which means “Hitler and Nazism”.) Since nationalism is an English phrase which lacks specific translation in largely non-English speaking India, it has been hijacked by a sentiment that veers closer to a standpoint — North Indian cultural matrix rather than Desh Bhakti. In its name, acts are committed which has given right wing politics a bad name. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who famously identified himself as a Hindu nationalist, is constantly at the receiving end of liberal acid, because his party and its far fringe fellow travellers are unable to explain his idea in its truest sense because BJP itself is unable to explain the difference between nationalism and patriotism.
For decades, the RSS and the Sangh Parivar have been curetting patriotism brick by brick. But its vocabulary and slogans define it as the citadel of nationalism, not patriotism. For the last few years, the RSS has been trying to distance itself from hardcore nationalism. For a while, religious chauvinism has been a cause of confrontation between the Sangh and liberals who have been marginalised by Modi’s ascent. Westernised Indians and the elite have cracked the conflict code: they allege BJP is weaponising ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, ‘Vande Matram’ and ‘Gau Seva’ to torpedo the national identity of a section of the population.
Moreover the Parivar’s inability to make a substantial part of the minorities equal stakeholders in India’s politics and culture has come back to bite. Its adversaries pitch the patriotism patent-against-nationalist narrative, opining that a nationalist can at best be a pseudo-patriot. On the eve of retirement, Charles de Gaulle had said, “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first”. In this context, the BJP and its affiliates are projected as forces which patronise ‘me and mine’ while targeting ideological dissenters. When a saffron Sadhvi mocks Mahatma Gandhi, it smacks of nationalism.
When a gross sadhu asserts that menstruating women (in spite of Modi’s push to dispel the stigma) will be reborn as female-dogs if they cook and serve food, such travesty of taste is attributed to nationalism’s regressive recipe. When a young minister asks followers to “goli maaro”, nationalism gets the blame. Chants like ‘Garv se kaho, hum Hindu hain (say with pride that we are Hindus) provide enough fuel to pencil in the religious overtones of nationalism on the Indian canvas.
Another minister’s proclamation that all Indian Muslims must be sent to Pakistan is celebrated as nationalism’s gold standard. Ironically, this mismatch becomes glaringly apparent when Gandhi is considered a patriot and Godse a nationalist. Using regional culinary preferences to define nationalist ipseity is getting no laughs. Political parties thrive on short-term memory: the saffron lot seems to have forgotten the difference between the contrary food and views choices of Vajpayee and Advani. Liberal Vajpayee was strictly non-vegetarian while hardcore Hindutva’s forgotten political prophet Advani is a committed vegetarian. But their loyalty to India, its people and kaleidoscopic cultures remain unquestionable. In fact, in spite of a large majority of politicians being non-vegetarian, their patriotism has never been in doubt.
The unending invective laden debate on nationalism, liberalism and patriotism has ignited a conflict of identity-based on religion—Majoritarism vs. Minorityism. Since elections are won on playing either the caste or religion card, the nationalism vs non-nationalism stance is linked to the fight for Hindu supremacy over the rest. A Muslim lawmaker’s threat that 15 crore Muslims can teach 100 crore Hindus a lesson makes it obvious that the battle lines have been drawn.
The nationalist argument owes its birth to vote bank politics. Jan Sangh-turned-BJP reengineered itself as a party with Kashmir, Uniform Civil Code and Ram Mandir at its ideological core. Liberating PoK and abrogation of Article 370 has always occupied saffron mind space with contrarians being seen as anti-national. While BJP’s top leadership has been hesitant to paint its opponents as the enemies of the nation, its lower and middle-level followers have made its agenda non-negotiable tenets of faith.
The Congress and companions, though committed to Kashmir unification, categorise the BJP as an outfit, which wants to get rid of the minorities. It was the Congress and its chief ministers who have been seeking permanent citizenship for persecuted Hindus and other minorities from Pakistan. Modi and Amit Shah did what the Congress couldn’t because they feel that giving legislative legitimacy to the persecuted is in the national interest.
As they say, give a dog a bad name and kill it—a fate awaiting nationalism as a concept which defies geographical boundaries. With RSS pushing for Bharatiya over Hindu, National over Nationalist and Hinduism over Hindutva, India is heading for cultural unity. Ever since Modi’s aggressive religious politics made others taste the dust, even secular satraps have been on temple runs. Rahul Gandhi publicised his Janeyu (sacred thread) as proof of his Hindu accreditation. Mamata Banerjee, Kamal Nath, Akhilesh Yadav et al have revived their connections with Indian traditions and heritage. Left leaders are conspicuous by their presence at religious functions.
RSS claims that anyone who lives in India or was born here is a Hindu by association. However, the emphasis on nation over national is what puts a leader in the high chair. Be it Donald Trump in the US or Modi in India, seeking power in the name of ‘ Great America’ and “New India” attracts more votes than the promise of eradication of poverty, inequality and unemployment. Nationalism is truly the opium of the masses.
( The author can be contacted at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla )