understanding nationalism

Yuval Noah Harai, in his book 21 lessons for the 21st Century, gives a beautiful perspective on Nationalism. He says that the nation is basically a story we tell ourselves. No doubt every nation has its geographical boundary. But without those stories, the collective feeling of belonging to a nation would not come.

In order to subscribe to a common story, nations in Europe became smaller and smaller after the dark ages when military might was the way to define the boundary of a nation. First the nations identified themselves along languages and some of these small nations further got divided along ethnic lines.

But before we invented stories to keep the people of a region together, how did the idea of nation arise?

During our hunter gatherer days, homo sapiens did not have nations. Even about 10000 years back, during the early days of agricultural age, people did not organized themselves into nations. Those who were engaged in agriculture lived in self-sufficient small groups along the rivers. When flood threatened to wipe out entire clans, there was no system where by the nomads living in the mountains could come as a call of duty to rescue them.

Today it is not so. If flood devastates the entire state of Kerala down south, soldiers in High Himalayas, if ordered by the authorities of the nation, are duty bound to come and help the victims. It is the idea of a nation(in those days kingdom or empire) that not only kept the diverse communities together under the banner of a single king, but also made them to cooperate for common causes.

Basically the idea of ‘nation’ started with the transition of homo sapiens from hunter gatherer to agricultural societies. The hunter gatherers who quite often moved from one place to another and were self-sufficient did not need a nation.

So the idea of nationalism, which assumes showing allegiance to a particular nation, has its practical utilities. It gets reinforced over a period of time by the stories we invent and tell ourselves to highlight the commonalities and its greatness.

There is nothing wrong with nationalism when it fosters cooperation among its citizens for achieving goals that require collective effort. But when it takes chauvinistic proportions as it happened in the case of Nazi Germany, it becomes a threat not only to the global order but in the long run to the nation itself.

There is nothing wrong in feeling proud of one’s nation. But when ideas are propagated that one’s nation deserves to lord over other nations by virtue of it being historically or racially being superior to others or for any other reason, it takes the flavor of hyper-nationalism which causes people to be far removed from ground realities.

In a country like India it is difficult to reach that state of hyper nationalism, however hard some elements may try from time to time because of its immense diversity.

Even a large country like China has a single language. There has been no significant changes to its boundary since Qin Shi Huang unified China and became its first emperor in the third century BC. In present day China, there is virtually no democracy or freedom of speech. All media organizations are state controlled and flow of information passes through state scrutiny. In such a situation it is easier to make people subscribe to state sponsored stories.

Even though US is on the other end of the spectrum as far as freedom of speech is concerned, it has a very high standard of living. It has one language. It has some diversities but its advantage is that majority of the people who are at the helm of all important affairs are white Christians with strong racial feelings and they influence all policy decisions.

With thousands of languages and ethnicity, the range of diversities in the case of India is immense. It has one dominating factor – the majority of its population are Hindus. But the problem is that, unlike the monotheistic religions such as Islam or Christianity, Hinduism is a pluralistic religion. In the case of India it is difficult to find a common story that everyone would subscribe to.

Post-independence, following Nehru’s socialist leanings and friendship with countries like Russia, communism found its roots here. History repeated itself. Something that happened during the time of Gautam Buddha happened during Nehru’s rule.

Most of the ardent disciples of Buddha were Hindu intellectuals. The greatest minds born to Hinduism got attracted to the philosophy of Buddha and joined his fold in hordes. Slowly, Hinduism declined to such an extent that it needed the concerted efforts of a genius like Adi Shankaracharya to revive it.

After independence, due to the ceaseless communist propaganda, the great minds of Hindus got attracted to the ideology. Hinduism dominated in population and in streets. But in policy decision making bodies, in press and in publishing organizations, people with strong communist or secular leanings dominated. That is how we find mostly negative aspects of Hindu History in our text books. It does not mean I would like unnecessary glorification of Hindu practices. But, at least there could have been balanced approaches.

With such diversity and being dominated by a pluralistic religion where evangelism has never been its agenda, it is difficult to find common stories to appeal to all segments of its population. That is also the reason why India can never become a country of hyper nationalism like it has happened in countries like Japan or Germany. Of course, chauvinistic tendencies restricted to particular segments of population raise their heads from time. But such forms of regional or sectarian chauvinism weaken Indian nationalism.

So, what stories kept us together as a nation post-independence? I think these are the stories written in our constitution. By stories I don’t mean those fictious events you find in novels. If you have read Harari you will understand what I mean by stories. The organization or company you work for is a story, Hinduism is a story, Christianity is a story, Islam is a story, Communism is a story, Liberalism is a story, Equality is a story, Freedom of Speech is a story, and Nationalism too is a story.

You may also read : Kahaniyon ko leke hi to ladte hai hum

It is the constitution that grants us freedom of speech. So, when our freedom of speech threatens to undermine the sovereignty of our nation, which is derived from the same constitution, it is a cause of serious concern.

Even though the boundary of India has kept changing, the idea of India is an ancient one. What has kept the idea of India alive since ancient times through the trials and tribulation of history? Maybe, my next post will provide the answer.

7 thoughts on “understanding nationalism

  1. Reblogged this on Ritu’s blog and commented:
    Nationalism is psychic feeling which holds group of people together And, this psychic feeling evolves out of certain dimensions, say, language, history, culture, tradition, etc.

    While pre-independence, the feeling was grown out of kingship and his/her divinity or religious traditions. In post-independence, the project of building a NATION (India) was rightfully done by our constitutional assembly.

    The project was initially inherited as a fight against foreigner’s rule. It later transformed into holding the free India together. And, for that constitution and certain objectives (liberty, justice, etc) were accepted and upheld. These very objectives and rights are foundation of India’s nationalism (moving away from heterogeneity of language, religion, etc)

    But, the religiosity penetrating into society is creating gulf in this united nationalism. We have come full circle, i.e., constitution’s very origin lies in the fact of upholding heterogeneity of diverse India. Yet, the diversity is being hierarchically arranged today, questioning to our very nationalism with pseudo-nationalism in the name of security, religion or nativism.

    Even though these fissures would shake our Indianness today or tomorrow, but our living constitution will secure the soul of Indian nationality through rights and duties of its citizens.


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