Like most political phenomenon, even nationalism is not a static one. It changes with the changing political equations and has a very diverse range of expression. As such, nationalism has had a long journey and, in particular, state policies have used it for to assert the power of the state vis-a-vis its people and vis-a-vis neighbouring countries, and so on.
In India the practices of the state have changed over the last few years, such that the very meaning of nationalism has transformed. With the Hindu nationalist BJP gaining majority in parliamentary elections, it has unfolded policies in which the drastic change in the meaning and application of nationalism in regard to citizens—particularly those belonging to the minority community—is discernibly different. The application of nationalism with regard to the liberal and defenders of human rights is similarly completely altered.
Former prime minister Manmohan Singh hit the nail on the head when he said that nationalism and the slogan of Bharat Mata Ki Jai or BMKJ, which means Glory to Mother India, are being misused to construct a “militant and purely emotional” idea of India which excludes millions of residents of the country and its citizens. He said this while releasing the book, Who is Bharat Mata, edited by Purushottam Agarwal and published by Radhakrishna. This book compiles significant extracts from the writings of the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and has included important assessments of, and contributions of, Nehru by prominent personalities.
Singh also said: “With an inimitable style…Nehru laid the foundation of the universities, academies and cultural institutions of modern India. But for Nehru’s leadership, independent India would not have become what it is today.” This statement of Singh has great importance in contemporary times, as Nehru is being denigrated by Hindu nationalists for all the problems which India is facing today and attempts are on to undermine his role and glorify Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. It is also significant as it gives us a glimpse of what nationalism meant for Nehru.
The moment Singh captured the present nationalism being practised by the BJP and company, the Hindu nationalists immediately shot back, saying that Singh is supporting anti-India activities at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia and that his party is supporting anti-India nationalists. They asked whether Singh likes the nationalism of the likes of Shashi Tharoor or Mani Shankar Aiyar who, according to Hindu nationalists, are provoking the Shaheen Bagh protest rather than making the protests quiet. They asked Singh whether he likes the anti-national protests which go on at JNU or Jamia. To them, there is no nationalism in the Congress party. One more example being cited is the private visit of Shatrughan Sinha, who joined the Congress last year after a long stint in the BJP, who had met with Pakistan Prime Minister-elect Imran Khan during his visit there.
Most arguments being used to oppose Singh are very superficial. What is being referred to is not opposition to Indian nationalism and its central values, which were the core of anti-colonial struggles. While BMKJ may not be acceptable to a section of population, even the title of the book he was releasing has ‘Bharat Mata’. What Singh was criticising was the twist that the BMKJ slogan has been given by Hindu nationalists, which has served only to frighten religious minorities, threaten them and intimidate all people, regardless of religious belief or denomination, to utter the same slogan.
The Indian nation came into being on the values which later became the foundation of the Constitution. This Constitution carefully picks up those terminologies which were away from the concepts of Hindu or Muslim nationalism. That is how the country came to be called ‘India, that is Bharat’. Freedom of speech and expression were the hallmark of freedom movement and it was given a pride of place in our Constitution. The document respects India’s diversity and formulates rules where the nation was not based on particular culture, as Hindu nationalists would like us to believe. Cultural diversity was recognised as central to the Constitution. In addition, promoting good relations with neighbours and other countries of the world was also part of our principles.
JNU, Jamia and AMU are being demonised because, so far, most institutions in India regard freedom of expression as core to Indian democracy. These institutions have been thriving on discussion and debate, which are based in liberalism. Disparaging slogans have been coined only with an aim to defame these institutions.
While the Constitution mandates good relations with neighbours, creation of an anti-Pakistan hysteria is the prime motive of many channels and sections of the media, which are servile to the ideology of the ruling government. They also violate most of the norms of journalism, where the criticism of the ruling party is an important to keep the ruling dispensation on its toes.
A stifling atmosphere has been created over the last six years. The Prime Minster can take a detour, land in Pakistan for a cup of tea with the Pakistan PM, but a Congress leader talking to the Pakistan President is seen as a sign of being anti-national. Students taking out a march while reading out the Preamble to the Constitution are labelled as anti-national and stopped, while those openly wielding guns near Jamia or Shaheen Bagh are allowed to roam freely.
Nationalism should promote amity and love of the people. It should pave the way for growth and development. Currently the nationalism which is dominant and stalking the streets has weakened fraternity, one of the pillars of Indian democracy. Nehru did explain that Bharat Mata is not just our mountains, rivers and land, but primarily the people who inhabit this land. Which nationalism to follow was settled during the freedom movement when Muslim nationalism and Hindu nationalism were rejected by a majority of Indians in favour of the nationalism of Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Maulana Azad. In it, minorities are equal citizens and the weak deserve affirmative action. In today’s scenario, on the contrary, the Hindu nationalists refuse to accept any criticism of their policies.
The author is a social activist and commentator. The views are personal.