Prime Minister Narendra Modi told his party men yesterday that nationalism is BJP’s core identity, asking them to play it to the hilt. He said, “nationalists are with us, we need to take Dalits and tribals along”. Which could be seen as him talking down to Dalits and tribals as citizens not quite equal to the rest of us.
This comes after BJP President Amit Shah asked “to isolate those speaking against the nation”, in reference to certain slogans seen as pro- separatist and therefore anti-India at an Amnesty International event.
Previously, Shah had said, “there is no debate on Bharat Mata Ki Jai” chant, saying such slogans were “natural”. Meanwhile, Defence Minister Mahohar Parikkar has again picked on film star Aamir Khan for his views on “growing intolerance”. Previously, home minister Rajnath Singh banned the documentary, India’s Daughter on the December 16 gangrape, on the grounds that it showed India in an unflattering light.
The Congress, has despite some flip-flops and ho-hums been seen to agree with BJP on much of this nationalism, including the Bharat Mata Ki Jai chant, India’s Daughter ban and coming down on the alleged “anti-India” slogans at JNU.
Coming back to the PM’s comment on nationalism, it is unclear who he meant by “nationalists are with us”. Did he mean the vocal advocates of Hindu Rashtra, or did he mean the Hindu Nationalists who are core supporters of BJP? It’s unclear.
Moreover, when he mentioned “Dalits and tribals” should be won over, why did he leave out other minority and oppressed groups, like, say, Muslims? Was the exclusion deliberate from a party already tinged in saffron, and whose supporters and even some party members spew anti Muslim rhetoric?
This is all slightly worrying. Amid calls for use of sedition laws on anti-nationals, a weak opposition partly seen to agree on nationalist points with its arch rival, and heightened jingoism over flag and nationalist chants, we can ask: are we already a nationalist nation? Should national identity always trump individual rights and liberties?
As a gray haired Aunty-National, here are some of my concerns over nationalism, whether authoritarian or liberal, cultural or political:
Being Indian does not subvert every other identity. If someone identifies as an Indian, that's fine. If someone identifies as primarily a Hindu or a Muslim or Sikh, then really, that’s their wish too. If someone identifies as a woman or man or transgender, that should be their right. And if someone identifies as a humanist without borders, really again up to them. To each according to their own experiences, beliefs, education, and philosophy, so long as no violence is advocated against any group. The state itself must identify with no ethnic, gender, political or religious group.
Sure civic nationalism is a good idea, a national identity based on common shared cultural heritage where all are treated equal and have equal rights, where philanthropy and campaigns such as Swacch Bharat and Beti Bachao Beti Padhao are encouraged. But mere sloganeering and feel good posturing is of little importance if it amounts to nothing, and talk is not enough when infrastructure and injustice are not addressed. Without actual change, nationalistic sloganeering seems more geared at generating feelings of “nationalism”, than actual change.
The PM talks often about his obsession with “nation building”. We thank the PM for this. Perhaps it is seeing his dedication, to the exclusion of even spending time with his family, that we may have elected him to power. However, the rest of us don’t have to show any inclination to be brahmacharis or workaholics to qualify as “nationalists”. We may choose to work for the advancement of the nation, while also spending time with our family and friends. And just as chanting Bharat Mata Ki Jai and waving the flag may be a recreation activity for some, for others it may be having a drink, going trekking, or even bunking work occasionally. Being a workaholic is not always a virtue - rest and even recreation is important to be productive. In fact, I would strongly recommend that the PM does himself a favour and go on holiday and stop being so sanctimonious about his 24x7 work hour schedule.
The state, of course, cannot dissent. It has to be a neutral, boring fuddy-duddy. It’s machinery slowly churning with a well-oiled stable predictability. However, societies can be dynamic. Individuals can be unpredictable. Art and literature can be provocative. And young people can ask questions.
Questions are not right or wrong, they are just questions and come naturally to the young mind, just as shouting Bharat Mata Ki Jai comes naturally to a “nationalist”. Homogeneity of thought is not desirable or natural. Reasoned critique of state, policy, government and even society, as Aamir Khan did, is a right. This cannot be curbed, or criminalised. These must be tolerated by the state, these are the bedrocks of a healthy, progressive society.
Not only must we ask questions of ourselves, we must be equally open to critique from outside. We do not have to agree, but giving a patient hearing is a practice that should be encouraged. Whether it is Amnesty International or Piers Morgan who expressed amazement that “a nation of 1.2 billion should celebrate two losing medals”, other people’s views must be tolerated. Presenting a reasoned counter point, as opposed to knee jerk trolling, on the other hand, is also our right and must be encouraged.
State and individuals both must actively discourage bigotry, be committed to affirmative action for the oppressed and voiceless, and equal treatment of all. The state may do this in the name of nationalism or constitutionalism or under no name at all, because giving a narrow identity to universal human values and ideals is not required.
Individuals must stand up for their principles whether they are seen as anti-national or not - whether it is Ramya who believes Pakistan is not hell, as Manohar Parrikar said, because the people are nice and hospitable like us. Or Aamir Khan who voiced his views when asked a question on tolerance. As he should be able to, without wondering whether this will irk those in power or neo-majoritarians.
We must continue to value such individuals and celebrate and honour them. Similarly, trolls, as long as they are not breaking any law, must not be silenced but tolerated if we believe in Freedom Of Expression. Everyone must be given a chance to speak with the hope that, in the long run, the highest values will rise to the top and be victorious.
As for the PM’s statements on nationalism, and the questions that have arisen from them due to groups he excluded and included, he must clarify if it is a call for ethnic or religious nationalism, or a belief in the superiority of one group over another. Because going down the latter route can never end well.