Against the False Choice of Nationalism

April 17, 2017

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By Alex George


We must make it clear that revolution does not merely mean an upheaval or sanguinary strife. Revolution necessarily implies the programme of systematic reconstruction of society on new and better adapted basis, after complete destruction of the existing state of affairs (i.e., regime).”


Thus, wrote Bhagat Singh in his introduction to ‘The Dreamland’, a book of poetry by Lala Ram Saran Das.

In India’s current political climate, communists of the Bhagat Singh mould, hell, even, moderate left-leaning political activists will find themselves systematically disenfranchised from the mainstream discourse. Through the rightward shift of the conglomerate media houses, even the liberal voices having to affirm their allegiance to such values as nationalism is becoming the norm. Where, in the United States, the mainstream media is fighting against the normalisation of Trumpian politics, in India, the fight is against subversion, against any kind of evolution of the concept of the nation itself, a fight the protects the hegemonic concept of the nation-state.

Today, even the most radical voices will clamour to realign the coordinates of nationalism, taking an opposed definitional stand against the shrill voices of the far-right that taint them as ‘anti-national’. In the face of such allegations one sees the need to position oneself as truly patriotic and just simply anti-hindutva and anti-RSS.

Though one must accept the truth of such responses, I don’t think it goes far enough. Responding in such a fashion already concedes too much ground to the conservative ideology of ‘nationalism as paramount’. Only a few years ago, it was quite fashionable in the bourgeois liberal circles to say that the nation was going to hell and the best thing to do was to escape out of this gutter. Look at films like ‘Rang de Basanti’ (a film which would never get past the current censor board regime), where young privileged people sat in posh restaurants and groused about the state of affairs.

Now, the nation has become a monolith, the mother, that must be respected and protected at all costs. But never once do the chauvinist defenders of the metaphorical mother turn around and ask her, “Do you want our protection in the first place?” If they did, they’d see that the mother they were protecting was in fact an abyss. The nation itself is elsewhere. It is in front of them. It is that which they attack in order to protect their invisible nation. This is a typical facet of conservative ideology, which is necessarily backwards-looking in a vaguely temporal sense, which looks at that which was, that which must be preserved; which is fair-enough, to each her own ideology. But the progressive and radical voices must take heed to not give in to this presentation of false choices by the conservative consensus.

If nationalism is defined as love for one’s country, it reveals itself to be a disingenuous category. Love is that notion which marks an acceptance, which embraces the other despite its flaws. Love is a self-flagellation, that makes a subject beholden to the loved one. Love is a supreme sacrifice, that which puts everything at stake. One might be tempted to say that the right-wing aren’t true to this category, because of their rage and violence. But I would argue on the contrary. They are indeed true lovers, they fight for their ideal simulation of the nation tooth and nail. Even if one is to reject their definition, and define the nation as that which comprises as all the varied peoples that populate it, one cannot apply the category of love in one’s fight against the right-wing ideology. Love is necessarily dichotomous, it creates the object that is loved, even in the love for oneself, one is forced to create an ideal apparition which is separate from any authentic fullness of one’s being. Therefore, in order to love, one must necessarily apprehend a not-fully-real thing, one has to fantasise the object which is separate from its actuality.

If we were to apply the same nationalistic fervour to our own ideology of inclusivity, then we would have to accept the far-right ideology, we would be fighting for them too. If we say it is we who truly love the nation, then we have already lost. We can be charged with the same accusation: which is this fantasy object that we call nation that we love? After all, don’t they, the far-right, also appear in this vision of the nation of varied peoples. This might appear attractive, to be so magnanimous as to allow space for opposed ideologies, it is necessary for one to identify one’s ideological difference from the right. How can we fight out of love to protect the rights of some people to decimate Babri Masjid in the name of ideology? How can we protect the right of people to spread hatred and uphold subjugatory cultures? The question is not simply about a sharing space within public discourse, but to affect change in the lives of the people. For too long the left has purported to establish dominance within the university, and falsely believed that it has the moral might to take on the right-wing.

The right, however, has mobilised its ideology into the lives of the people, has allowed majoritarian sentiments to provide new moral coordinates for the people, which allows them to falsely dream of a better future. In the face of this all-pervasive display of strength, radical voices cannot just fight for spaces within which free discourse can take place. The fight must necessarily be that which isn’t all-inclusive, that which acknowledges the fractured nature of the monolithic nation. This fight must transcend the pithy yet ultimately meaningless love for the nation, and instead be about the better instantiation of such universal categories as freedom and equality.

Allegations against ‘anti-nationals’ include that they want ‘Bharat ki barbaadi’, that they shout ‘Bharat, tere tukde tukde honge’. Even until now the actual people who raised these slogans haven’t been identified. But, no matter, why must these allegations scare the progressives. In fact, something, like “Bharat tere tukde honge,” must be ironically adopted by the radicals, rather than be forced into a defensive position about it. Why? Because it affirms that India is already in pieces, that India is a vast heterogenous mass, that represents various fractured identities. Bharat ke tukde ho hi nahi sakte, kyunki woh pehle se hi tukdon mein hai.

It is the agenda of the far-right to present a false picture of national unity, held together by a constructed ancient culture, when in fact our unity is far more precarious and far less all-inclusive. We are bound by the imagined idea of the nation, and we find unity in our shared history of the freedom struggle. All generations since, have been held captive in the shadow of the events before 1947. The struggles that our forefathers underwent in order to establish freedom for all of us, we are its slaves, because we will never know what it was like to give our all for the cause of freedom.

The biggest paranoia of the liberal elite, other than losing their bourgeois comforts, is to concede the secular and socialist institutions, like the constitution, to the right-wing. It is the robustness of these structures that forces even the economic right of both the BJP and the Congress to take at least cosmetic socialist steps.

Anything too radical would usurp this precarious balance and could clear the way for a demagogue more Modi-like than Modi himself. But as we saw in the US, institutions like the electoral college, which are supposed to be checks against such individuals, ended up helping Trump rise to power.

It is here that radicals must assert the truth of their belief system. Radicalism and progressivism are ideologies that are in themselves clarion calls of change. Whereas the right may purport to stand for a change, all it wants is a return to some past, to those non-existent glory days of old; it wants to preserve the hegemonic order. The radical spirit is that which looks to the future, looks at constructing a new reality, unshackled from the past.

In this spirit, we cannot keep ourselves confined to the limits set by the freedom struggle and let ourselves become it slaves, or at least the slaves of the purported guards of national history. On the contrary, we must embrace its revolutionary potential, its fearlessness of going forth into the unknown and constructing a new reality. The progressive spirit is that of Bhagat Singh, which doesn’t haggle with the present or adjusts within its folds. Instead it braves against accepted wisdom and tries to reorient society itself.

Radicals must embrace the pejorative slogans that are falsely labelled against them. “Bharat ki barbaadi,” isn’t the barbaadi as a nation, but a barbaadi of that Bharat, that order, which wields power and keeps Bharat captive. It is the barbaadi of this structure to make Bharat freer; a negation of this fantasy-Bharat to construct a more fully actualised Bharat. This embracing of seemingly dangerous slogans, reveals that the fight for freer, fairer society must be fought against the people who are our own countrymen, residents of Bharat, not an oppressive Other like the British Empire, Iss Bharat ki barbaadi.

Radicalism isn’t simply about polite rhetoric in university debate societies. Where today, we see universities themselves being targets of violence, one must remain shameless in one’s adherence to a political stance. Isn’t such shaming that very force which kept the Dalits, the women, in check for millennia, forever locked into the moral worldview of those who wield power? Wasn’t it the rejection of the given values which led the Dalit Panthers to declare a seemingly paradoxical statement that every person oppressed by the Brahminical-capitalist was a dalit? The shame directed at radicals can only be rejected by being shameless, by rejecting this false value system in its totality, by standing outside of it, and by promulgating new coordinates of morality itself. The fight is not just for the university as a safe-space, but for the nation as a freer, fairer entity. In the face of this task one cannot remain shackled to the protection of institutions one holds dear, but must press on with subversive ideas so as to infect and ‘corrupt’ the ideas of all disenfranchised communities, going beyond the Socratic tradition of merely corrupting the student body. One must say dangerous things, for they are only dangerous to those who hold the reins of power. The rest, as Marx said, have “nothing to lose but [their] chains!”

The violence we currently see, is the violence against ideas and speech. New constructs have come into place which make even talking about certain things an offence. The arrest of Professor Saibaba shows very clearly what the state line is: if you even read something subversive, you are the enemy. This violence doesn’t just see a simple physical manifestation in the ruling order, it seeps into our collective unconscious. A radical cannot become her own censor board, allowing herself to be guided by the coordinates set by the right, letting the dictates of the powers that be bully her into giving explanations. The agenda of the right is a sophisticated one, it wants to give normative superstructures within which we can construct our questions. We must reject this false creation of a national conscience. Against their endeavour to normalise their own universalist worldviews, the radical spirit mustn’t shirk away from its given charge, and be unafraid in its subversiveness, accepting the moniker of ‘anti-national’, and upholding itself as the true defender of the spirit of Indian freedom.


Author Bio: Alex George is a student of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University
of London. His works have appeared in The Four Quarters Magazine and The
Kashmir Walla.