Some ideas on nationalism

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.


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