How The Fetishism Of Nationalism Serves Majority Authoritarianism
I love our National Anthem. This is not because I am abundant with "patriotic" pride for a complex country with its great share of problems, but because of its aesthetic and political value. I rejoice over the fact that 66 years ago, Indian political leaders were nuanced enough to choose "Jana Gana Mana" written by a Nobel laureate who renounced his Knighthood in light of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, over Vande Mataram, the latter marred by streaks of Hindu nationalism. I enjoy its tone of inclusivity (without reference to religious tendencies) through the lyrical rivulets of Tagore's words, and the arousing sentiment of fresh freedom from the British Raj that emanates from the concluding stanza of:
"The saving of all people waits in thy hand.
Thou dispenser of India's destiny,
Victory, victory, victory to thee."
However, I (or the state and judicial machinery) cannot prescribe that every citizen of this country should love, sing, stand for, or embrace this anthem: not to those for whom singing or participating in such anthem would be against their religious ethos and practice; for those marginalised in Kashmir or the Northeast who do not necessarily believe in the forced integrity of a mainland India and its hegemony, for those oppressed in a capitalistic system that constantly uses the national rhetoric of development (of a few); and for those who simply do not want to. To do otherwise, would be violence.
Recently, the Supreme Court issued an interim order in response to a public interest litigation, directing all cinema halls in India to play the national anthem and requiring every person therein present to stand up as a part of their “sacred obligation”.
In University, during a Political Science class, I listened intently as we deconstructed the concept of nationalism and the very idea of a nation. I learned about the Constitution, and about individual rights, and yes, our collective conscience. The most important lesson that remained with me at the age of 18 was that collective conscience is not the same as "greater good". I remember my professor posing a question after detailing Rousseau's social contract theory: What is problematic about this? We had read Rousseau with enthusiasm and until this point everyone seemed to be in agreement about his genius. I was not interested in class that day, but observing the silence, I decided to troll Rousseau. "In crafting the perfect social contract theory, he ignored the minority."
Thanks to the professor’s subtle encouragement and the minds of my peers, my interest in exploring such conceptions of nationalism and the inevitable argument of the "greater good" at the expense of any minority view or group (whether on the basis of ideas, religion, class, or gender) grew. At home and in school, I learnt to engage with differences in views. Nothing was taken for granted. Not even the bland assumption of irrationality behind the suicide-sati of young women in post independence India or the assumption of ignorance of the culturally right. We did not even take for granted the feminist movement, nor socialism- always keeping our minds open to questions.
What is collective conscience then if not opposed to individual or minority right? It is true that collective conscience of a society hinges on patterns of commonality that allow for one to identify with others- creating a sense of unity. But, does it have to be a structured unity? Is the commonality not in our diversities and does morality not lie in the tolerance of it? The answers may seem simplistic. But in an era of Indian history where any act of dissent is suppressed or maligned in the garb of nationalism, the answers seem to elude us. The answer lies in our history: of public reasoning in India, encouraged by Buddhist traditions later aided by Asoka’s council meetings facilitating free discussions on contentious issues of the time including civic duties; Akbar’s encouragement through dialogue of the “pursuit of reason” over tradition; and the accommodation, even celebration of divergent views in Hindu literature.
One learnt to respect such diversity through the idea of tolerance even if one did not agree or condone. Is that not the point of civil society? And today, to read that a Supreme Court two-judge bench has grossly applied its interpretation that "any different notion or the perception of individual rights" is not allowed in light of reading Art 54(A)(a), which is a Directive Principle (non-binding in law), is distressing to my values. Not because I differ, but because it closes room for diversity, difference and tolerance, not to mention encroaches on the legislative sphere. It ignores the Indian historic values and ancient traditions of public debate and intellectual pluralism. More technically, the bench in its bid to moral police the country, conveniently ignores the Article's preceding clause that talks about abiding by the Constitution and respecting its ideals and institutions, that includes tolerance and the upholding of our Fundamental Rights (of free speech and expression) which necessarily imply the right to stay silent or refrain from participating.
“Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our constitution practises tolerance; let us not dilute it.”—Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy
[Let us not forget our constitutional morality]
While the question of remaining silent during the singing of the national anthem has been decided 30 years ago in Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala, where the progressive Supreme Court bench upheld religious freedom and constitutional tolerance over forced nationalism, the issue of "obligatory" standing has never been addressed before this. But surely, sense dictates that locking of theatre doors in order to compel people to stay and stand during the national anthem, and imposing of what is the Court's notion of patriotic values on persons, is far from guaranteeing a citizen's liberty in engaging or not engaging in the way she wills. It is far from being “the real test of a true democracy" lying in "the ability of even an insignificant minority to find its identity under the country’s Constitution.” (Bijoe Emmanuel)
The Bench should have read the critique of Rousseau's social contract theory. Or better still kept in sight of its judicial reasoning, the rich tradition of debate exemplified in the Mahabharata where contrary sides of an issue are presented with nuance and equal worth, before declaring the intolerance to different perceptions regarding the “act” of showing respect to the national anthem. The coexistence of diverse, competing ideas in India consequently gave root to an argumentative tradition in India that Amartya Sen in his book “The Argumentative Indian” says has been celebrated, as heterodoxy in India “has always been the natural state of affairs.”
For the Bench to deny Indians the right to interpret the idea or practice of nationalism erodes our constitutional right to liberty; to instruct and obligate a showcasing of “respect” towards a mythical entity that for many in our country, is a reason for their oppression and deprivation, and even if not, reeks of fetishism of nationalism to serve the current political climate that is inching towards majoritarian authoritarianism every day.
Ironically, the architect of the national anthem, Rabindranath Tagore critiqued nationalism (preferring humanism over it), keeping in mind that nationalism has been used to justify colonialism, upholding of oppressive “cultural” practices against women and lower castes, war and hatred. He said: "The Nation, with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns…and the literary mock thunders of its patriotic bragging, cannot hide the fact that the Nation is the greatest evil for the Nation…”
Yes, the nation is necessary in the scheme of realpolitik, backed by political legitimacy. But to paint it as a moral authority backed by some human virtue, obliging all to blindly follow and internalize is fetishisation forebodes dangerous consequences and an erosion of our diverse values.
Our commonality and strength as Indian people lies in our historic openness to heterogeneity in thought and practices, including the belief in or practice of “national pride”. Nothing is/should be sacrosanct.
(Disclaimer: I was privileged enough to attain a discourse of education at home and university where deliberation and questioning was the norm, where I had the time and food on my plate to engage in such education. I understand that alternative forms of such engagement take place all around the country (I’ve been witness to that) and that is something to be encouraged. I mention my education to emphasise on the discourse that led to my own understanding of the tolerance of diversity in our traditions).
(Sriya Coomer is currently studying at the Boston University School of Law)