Some ideas on nationalism

November 26, 2016

Rohit Dhankar

Recently I spoke on nationalism in a panel discussion and one old friend raised some questions on what I said. Here I am articulating some of the ideas expressed in this session. Obviously this article remains only at some sundry ideas and nowhere near any rounded articulation of a position. However, some of the ideas here may play a pivotal role in a rounded position, if it is ever fully developed.

Recently some of the very prominent and noisy intellectuals have been shouting on every proper or improper opportunity that ‘nationalism is an evil idea’. There can be nothing good in it. There can be no beneficial or even benign interpretation of this idea. It is necessarily: 1. repressive for some sections of population in the country (nation), and 2. inimical to some other nation. The argument is made on the basis of historical analysis of emergence of the idea of nationalism in Europe. Where, it is claimed to have been used in consolidating nation states through internal repression and external aggression.

I will leave the historical analysis as it is, without commenting or questioning. But will ask a different short of question: what kind of concepts permit immutable certain knowledge? What kind of concepts permit fallible but reliable knowledge? And what kind of concepts permit interpretative knowledge of particular instances which may or may not be generalizable in all supposed to be similar situations? Is “nationalism” a kind of concept which permits immutable certain knowledge? If no, what is the basis for shouting loudly that ‘nationalism’ can be only a repressive and aggressive evil idea?

To elaborate on the same point a little further let’s consider three particulate concepts and the kind of claims that can be reasonably made about them.

First let’s take a triangle. In Euclidian geometry a triangle by definition is a figure contained by three straight sides. Figure, straight, three, sides, angles, etc. all have their definitions. It is not necessary for any of these concepts to correspond with anything in the real world of experience; even if they are abstractions of very real experience in the world.

Now, when one says that sum of all the interior angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles; it is nothing but statement of a relationship between various definitions; which all are abstract and immutable. This conclusion can be deductively proved starting from definitions and using only one’s reason; or logic, a more direct and restricted from of reason. Since the definitions are immutable, and the procedure of arriving at conclusions is deduction, the knowledge expressed by the above statement is immutable as long as the definitions and logic remains the same. And one can confidently claim anywhere and everywhere that sum of the interior angles of a triangle is always equal to two right angles. But, remember that in real-world one can never draw or make such a perfect triangle. This perfect triangle remains only in human imagination.

Second, let us consider the concept of a leaf. A dictionary definition of leaf could be: “a flattened structure of a higher plant, typically green and blade-like, that is attached to a stem directly or via a stalk. Leaves are the main organs of photosynthesis and transpiration.” This object is found is nature, it has a ‘natural’ relationship with plant, green, flattened shape, stem, stalk, and a process called photosynthesis. These are names given to objects and processes found in the nature. Therefore, they are not purely definitional; here definitions have a job to do: to represent nature as closely as possible.

In this case leaves may or may not adhere absolutely to the characteristics given here: they may not be always green, may not always be very well flattened; could be thickish. There could be fence sitters who one wonders whether to call a leaf or not. The claims that can be made about leaves have to be found in the nature, and they may not be as clear, absolute and immutable as those about triangles. Therefore, there is always a possibility of finding leaves that actually have some characteristics not so far attributed to them or even those which may not have some of the characteristics supposed to belong to them. There might be laves which have thorns on them or may have sharp edges. On the basis of this evidence one cannot claim that “all leaves have thorns”.

Third, let’s consider the concept of a “school”. The simplest definition of a school could be “special arrangements made and space set aside for teaching of the young”. This is abstract and captures only the purpose and arrangements required to achieve that purpose. Now, there is a possibility that in a particular time and place there are schools which teach Sanskrit grammar mainly through rote learning. That does not mean that all schools always teach Sanskrit grammar and in this manner. But teaching is of course essential in this definition of the school. Suppose that teaching necessarily ‘changes the state of mind of a person’; then one can claim that schools necessarily want to change the state of mind of their students. Again, if some schools have made some students’ clones and cronies of their teachers or crafty cheats one cannot claim that all schools produce such graduates.

School is a concept that describes a social arrangements and functions. They can be of very different kinds in their content, pedagogy and organisational structures and still all may have the central purpose as facilitation of learning in young children. Therefore, statements like “all schools kill creativity”, “all schools teach confirming to authority” etc. may be true of particular set of schools. They may even be true of “all existing schools so far”. But they are not necessary part of the concept of school, and therefore, the possibility of someone creating a school that enhances creativity and teaches rebellion against authority is not closed.

Coming back to the concepts of a nation and nationalism: what kind of concepts are they? Are they definitional like a “triangle”, which contain all their properties in their definition itself? Or are they like “leaf”, which has to describe a natural object and its properties are contingent on natural phenomena, which need observation and cannot be deduced from the definition itself? Or are they like the “school” where a social phenomenon and organisation is deliberately demarcated; and which can change, grow, be modified etc. as per the changing needs, functions, theories of learning and so on?

One does not need to spend time in arguing that “nation” and “nationalism” are like “school”; and not like “triangle” and “leaf”. Therefore, the claims that can be made about them can never be generalised on all possible forms of these concepts. They are open to interpretation and constantly evolve.

In view of this analysis if one wants to make a claim that “Indian nationalism is necessarily repressive and aggressive” then one has to first establish that there is such a thing as unified “Indian nationalism”, and then one has to show on the basis on empirical evidence that the current version of what is being called “Indian nationalism” does have these characteristics.

Is any such analysis available at the moment? As far as one knows—none. There have been ways of thinking and conceptualising nationalism in India which is non-repressive internally and perfectly compatible with international cooperative coexistence. How do the critics of the idea of nationalism today know that the majority Indians do not hold this kind of positive and integrative concept of nationalism? Why do they assume that some social media hoodlums and coward vigilante represent the majority idea of nationalism?

The intellectual incapability of the noisy critics of nationalism is very clear at the moment. They are not able to distinguish between the hoodlum-nationalism and sentiments of concerned Indian citizens. In their zeal to attack the hoodlums they are constantly deriding the ideas of the nation and nationalism. Yes, the hoodlums need to be defeated and silenced. But so do need the overbearing critics of the ideas of nation and nationalism.


On community identities: sundry thoughts

November 13, 2016

Rohit Dhankar

The very idea of a community is premised on relatively greater affinity and acceptance among a set of people. It necessarily requires another set of people with whom the affinity and acceptance is seen to be relatively of a lesser degree. That much is a conceptual requirement of the very idea of community, and one can do nothing about that unless is ready to completely junk this very idea.

So far this idea cannot support universal democracy at the national level. To be a democrat one has to recognise the rights and ways of living of people not belonging to one’s own community. On the basis of just being human. This requires recognition of areas of social and political behaviour where affinity and community based acceptance are not only invalid criteria for decision making; but are positively harmful and morally wrong. That means going beyond the bounds of one’s community, and creating an identity which is not circumscribed or limited by one’s own community ethics.

Human affairs are not neat and clean, ideas are not accepted and understood uniformly by all members of a nation or a community. Even when an idea or principle is understood and accepted acting according to it may not be equally possible for all and in all circumstances. Therefore, the principles of justice, equality and public space for every one and for all communities may not always operate in an ideal manner. Because of the sheer numerical weight of majority community minorities and less privileged communities may actually face discrimination or develop a perception of discrimination. It may or may not involve any active effort and conspiracy from the majority and more privileged communities; still the discrimination remains equally real and perception remains equally distressing.

In any case this is something undesirable and a way has to be found out to do away with discrimination as well as the perception of discrimination. When an aggressive identity politics is used to fight against this real and perceived discrimination the fundamental principle of democracy “operating without one’s community identity” is violated. Then in reality there is a demand on the majority to weaken their community identity while at the same time there is a process of strengthening community identities of the minority and less privileged sections. In other words it is demanded from the majority to ‘de-comminitize’ itself; while simultaneously support aggressive ‘communitization’ (deliberately not using the term “communalize” in both cases 🙂 ) of the minorities and less privileged communities.

To deal with this democratisation process the majority community has to grow mentally in order to understand the demands of democracy. This is the job of the ‘intellectuals’ in the society to help the majority understand this process. The minorities and less privileged also have to understand the mental and moral limits of their communitarian demands. This moderation is also the job of the intellectuals in the society.

When the very same intellectuals start weaving theories where all community-based thinking and action of the majority is derided, discarded and attacked without intellectual engagement at the level of the masses it’s logic escapes the massage in majority. At the same time if spacious theories are spun to obfuscate and support each thought and action of the less privileged and minority by the voluble cacophony through various captured means of communication the majority starts feeling marginalised, right or wrong. This brings about an anxiety in the majority and a backlash starts.

When these concerns are not addressed the political and thought leadership in the society leaves the ground open for the rogue elements to capitalise on the slow festering unaddressed discontent of the majority. That is what is happening in India for a long time by now. An is the main strength of BJP, it is a ‘negative strength’ curtsy thought leaders of our country.

If you see yourself as a thought leader in the political arena you have the responsibility to deal with the unsophisticated crudely expressed bigoted and self-centred concerns of the people who did not have the opportunity to learn your obfuscating language. If your theories did not prepare you to engage with that person without quoting ten irrelevant books and without using rarefied terminology which you yourself do not understand, you are spewing crammed junk and the people at the ground level engaged in menial tasks know intuitively when you are talking nonsense.

Those who are interested in democracy in the country have to engage with those crudely expressed ideas and concerns at the level of the people who are effected by them. Deriding them as fools and misguided by some army of the devil is not going to help.

More evolved and sophisticated your understanding is better equipped it should become to communicate with the genuine and simply expressed fears and anxieties. If it does not happen you are mistaken in seeing yourself as a sophisticated thinker and an intellectual; you are only re-producer of crammed junk.


Reducing oneself to irrelevance

November 6, 2016

Rohit Dhankar

Then the king said, “Venerable sir, will you discuss with me again?”

“If your majesty will discuss as a scholar, yes; but if you will discuss as a king, no.”

“How is it then that scholars discuss?”

When scholars discuss there is a summing up and an unravelling; one or other is shown to be in error. He admits his mistake, yet he does not become angry.”

“Then how is it that kings discuss?”

When a king discusses a matter and advances a point of view, if anyone differs from him on that point he is apt to punish him.”

“Very well then, it is as a scholar that I will discuss. Let your reverence talk without fear.” (Emphasis added)


(Debate of King Milind, Chapter 1.3.  Tranlation Bhikkhu Pesala, Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc, Web site:

This is part of a debate (dialogue?) between a Buddhist Monk Nagasena and King Milinda— a Bactrian Greek—who was ruling over major parts of the north India at that time. “Milind Panha” (literally “questions of Milinda”) was “probably compiled in the first century B.C.” This indicates historical roots of the culture of dialogue in this country. This also shows that the scholars of that time made a distinction between dialogues held between scholars and that with a King. And Nagasena makes it clear that he is willing to discuss with the King only if the King discusses as a scholar. But then Nagasena also characterises the dialogue between scholars as that in which there is summing up, unravelling, admission of errors and all this without getting angry.

This was a scholarly dialogue on existence of the soul and other related matters. But the conditions of scholarly dialogue sound good even for a political dialogue, as what is the point in a dialogue if there is no summing up (however delayed), no unravelling, no change of opinion and admission of mistakes either in the facts or in the logic employed in the dialogue? A dialogue is not to bash the other, or to buttress your own point. If a dialogue is to enhance understanding and arrive at informed consensus then ‘listening’ to the other and admitting the strength and persuasive power of the other’s argument—if there is any— has to be an integral part of it.

Can presently raging political ‘debate’ in our beloved country, then, be called a “debate” or a “dialogue”? Of course the matter is much more complex and serious. The subject matter is not a theory about the soul, but a live political situation which has immediate effect on people’s lives. That makes it much more emotionally charged. The participants are not only the government (King) and the Monk (journalists and intellectuals) but also an army of social media using commoners, the janata, and the supporters of the government. So it is a battle between multiple forces to grab ‘public mind’.

There can be other positions in addition to that of the scholar and the King. One such position can be a closed minded propagandist who cares little for the fact and truth, and actually wants to create public acceptance of a predetermined political position. There can be an umpteen number of bullshitters in a public debate who are determined only to push their own line of thinking with complete disregard for the available facts and accepted moral (political included) and epistemic  principles.

To understand this let’s take a small part of the currently raging debate around taking one channel of NDTV off air for a day. But before that, to avoid misunderstanding, let us admit that the government presently is not behaving in a manner conducive to either democracy or a healthy public debate. Their position on nationalism, cow slaughter/protection and communalism is deeply disturbing. This is a matter that should be understood in detail, here I am simply accepting all this without providing any evidence or argument in support of these claims. This is obvious that all this should be resisted and fought against to protect the right to free speech and to protect a vibrant democracy. In this context let’s look at the NDTV one day ban on one channel.

First there are some factual questions:

  1. What exactly is the order of ban? On what grounds? Does anyone know and have read the exact text of the ban order?
  2. What is the legal position on this issue? Katju in his Facebook post claims that legally TV channels are banned only from airing live operation. Other reports that are not live feed can be aired? Is that the case? Can one air position of sensitive installations and other spots like ammunition depot?
  3. Is it really a first ban of this kind or such bans have been there in the past as well? Venkaiah Naidu claims that “AXN was banned for two months. FTV was banned for two months. Enter10 for one day. ABN AndhraJyoti seven days. Al Jazeera was banned for five days for showing wrong map of India. These are all done earlier.” Is he right? What were the reasons behind such bans?

Then, there is the issue of singling out NDTV. It is claimed that other channels have aired the same or similar reports, they are not punished. Only NDTV Hindi channel is picked out. Is it a good argument? Suppose airing the kind of stuff NDTV aired, is it a good defence that it should not be punished as others are not punished for the same crime?

Ravish Kumar’s programme on the episode in Prime Time is very well appreciated by a large number of educated Indians. Does that episode clarify any of these issues? Does weaving a powerful episode using an art form necessarily enhance the level of debate and help in making informed choices? Even if all the questions or facts and moral principles are left untouched? Or such a programme becomes just a powerful propaganda which further caricatures the real situation and firms up the already existing non-communicative divisions in the society? In short: was this particular prime time episode of Ravish a sound argument in healthy debate or is it simply a closed minded propaganda? Does Ravish explains and unravels? Does he provide counter facts to make the other party in the debate accept their error? Does he answer the questions raised by the other party?

Another question that arises is to whom should a serious journalist like Ravish Kumar respond? Ravish has made much of Rijiju’s statement that raising questions on the security forces and authority is not good culture. As a journalist with conscience and intelligence was it his duty to clarify whether Rijiju’s was talking about “questions in general” or about the “habit of raising unnecessary doubts and questions”? Should we as alert citizens come to an immediate conclusion (that the government is wrong) on all events involving security forces? Or should we try to ascertain facts and then come to a conclusion? Do all questions have the force to challenge powers that be? Or can questions be asked in a misguided and hyperbole manner that end up discrediting the one who asks them and therefore, strengthen the stranglehold of the entrenched powers?

On the other side a characteristic response from the supporters of Modi and his government is somewhat like this: “कभी आप ने कुत्तों के झुंड को भौंकते देखा है? आपने देखा होगा कि गली का एक कुता जब भौंकना शुरू करता है तो उस गली के सारे कुत्ते पीछे से भौंकना शुरू कर देता है। कुछ ऐसा ही हाल हमारे देश के एक गली में हो रहा है जिसका अगुवाई देश के जाने -माने होशियार कुता कर रहा है। खास बात यह है कि इस गली में रहने वाला सारा कुता कुछ खास समय पर कुछ खास अवधि के लिए ही भौंकता है क्योंकि ये कुत्ते किसी आम गली के आम कुत्ते नहीं है, ये कुत्ते खास हैं।” (Taken from a Facebook user’s wall. I am not writing the name because I am using it as a characteristic response and not from one particular person alone.) Obviously this supporter is not ready to listen to any genuine and serious criticism and questioning of the government, BJP and Modi. Is he helping in a democratic debate? Is he actually challenging the critics of the government and BJP or simply discrediting himself? Is he not being abusive?

Kant gives us a few useful concepts in his essay “What is enlightenment?” to understand this situation. He writes “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage.” And to him tutelage is “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.” And “Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another.” Have most vocal Indians given themselves into some kind of other tutelage to their chosen guardians? Are they making use of their own reason?

Further down in the essay he talks of “private” and “public” reason. He says by “the public use of one’s reason I understand the use which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public.” While “Private use I call that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him.” Kant recognises that in private use of reason—say, as a government official, defence personnel, a Church official, etc.—one may have to accept some restrictions in speaking out. He says that “Many affairs which are conducted in the interest of the community require a certain mechanism through which some members of the community must passively conduct themselves with an artificial unanimity.” Examples for this may be as given above. But in public use of reason he argues for sharing one’s own opinion by a scholar, his/her opinion guided by his/her own reason alone, without any tutelage.

The people engaged in public debate in India are members of political parties and media houses who have their own policies and positions. One often wonders: are they speaking as public scholars and using their own reason or are going along the lines given by their respective masters? And what should general public do with the opinions and arguments advanced as per standard line of some political formations and organisations? What if such political lines demand avoiding certain questions and disregarding some facts and principles?

At present most of the voluble participants in the debate already seem to have taken some or other positions and conducting their thinking strictly on lines demanded by that position. If anything counter to that position surfaces the standard response is ignoring that particular argument or fact and dive straight in to the conclusions propounded by the guardians. Are these debates taking us all into self-incurred tutelage of our respective masters? Or are they enlightening us? Making us independent in our own judgment?

And the Trolls

At the end I would like to understand the phenomena of trolling. Ravish kumar has made a lot of “the Troll” in his above mentioned Prime Time episode. The most often complaint and fear one hears from the government biters is that of getting trolled. There is much in this which is beyond me. I need help from more knowledgeable people to get my head around this problem.

Let’s construct a scenario: suppose I write a piece which severely criticise some action or policy of the government or Modi or BJP. Then I notice that hundreds (if I am very famous may be thousands) of people react to my piece; in comments, on twitter, on Facebook, and so on. Suppose that they all condemn my piece. Some try to give arguments which are not very sound. Some try to provide counter facts which are wrong. Some others simply call me names like antinational, and advise me to go to, say, Pakistan. And lastly, some others start abusing and attacking my personal life.

The questions that come to my mind are:

  1. How do I know that I have not irked some public sentiment, and given the fact of accessibility of social media and general level of semiliterate Indian net user these are not just random people from the public? Or that there is some organiser of this troll attack who is targeting me?
    1. To make sure on these two points I must be able to trace the commenters to some IP addresses and see some threads of coordinated attack in all this. Is there evidence of this nature? Please share if there is.
    2. By the same token if I notice that there are some particular people who deride every single decision of the government about 10 times in a day, though never use abusive language, can I call them trolls as well?
  2. How is a troll a threat to me? What can this anonymous person who is abusing me on the social media do to me? Yes, it is irritating, insulting and infuriating. But how is it dangerous to me? Why should I stop from saying what I want to say because of these morons? Where does the fear factor come from?

If it is such a big factor and all the critics of the government fear this, these are important question. Any answers please?

In conclusion the questions this style to countering the government and BJP design raises in my mind is: can you refute stupidity by becoming more stupid? Can you counter bias by becoming more biased? Does poison really cure poison? Or will you have to be more logical, more balanced, more accurate and more rational in your attempts to counter all that is going on? This is not new, this question always assaults my mind each time I read exaggerated and biased analysis, each time a cacophony is raised which paints Indian society more black than it actually is. Are we aware that there are people who can make a distinction between genuine criticism and hyperbole? Who may be worried about the dangers of the government and want to fight that with fair reason? In last two years has exaggeration strengthened the supporters of the government or is it having any effect in mellowing it down? Or are here any signs that the critics are winning the support of silent voter? If not, do they need to rethink their style and strategy? Should they become more balanced and just in criticism? Should they respond to the arguments advanced by their opponents with less cunning and more reason? In other words should the opinion making sages of today debate like scholars who sum up, unravel, admit errors if any?