To someone who agrees with neither Jawaharlal Nehruvian students nor self-proclaimed nationalists, their views must sound parochial. The comparison may not be obvious, for parochial conventionally means limited to a small region. But it will become clearer if we look at the etymology of parochial. Oikos means a house in Old Greek. Paraoikos means someone near the house, a neighbour; that leads to paroikia, a neighbourhood. Once Christianity arrived in Greece, the meaning became more specific: the neighbourhood of a church. Those living in the neighbourhood would go to church; they would be homogeneous in their religious belief, or parochial. So if we remove the judgmental part, parochial means sharing a belief. Nationalism in the sense it has acquired in Delhi is quintessentially parochial: it is a shared belief in a goddess called Bharatmata.
This is not the only sense in which nationalism has always been used. In the decades before freedom, nationalists were basically Gandhi’s colleagues and followers. They wanted the British to leave and let Indians alone. The political forerunners of the present Bharatiya Janata Party were comfortable with the British and uncomfortable with the nationalists. They were not the only ones. There was an upper class – which formed a much smaller proportion of the population then than now – which wanted the British to stay and rid the colony of nationalists. So in terms of the dichotomy of that time, the Hindu nationalists (in those days, they would have objected to the application of that term to themselves) as well as the comfortable upper class were antinationalists. They were not the same. The middle class was much more widely distributed and larger than Hindu nationalists, who were small groups confined to upper castes in western and northern India. There was no explicit conflict between the nationalists and antinationalists because the British never sought support from their own friends and wellwishers. They regarded all Indians as colonial subjects of their king. After Indian soldiers made a difference to British fortunes during World War I, some British came to think that they should teach Indians the democratic game and make a dominion, like Canada and Australia, out of India. But Indian nationalists under Gandhi turned into rebels, and British methods of imposing law and order multiplied their numbers. A time came when the British gave up on teaching dominion to their mulish, disobedient subjects, and left them to their own devices.
A nation is defined by its boundaries. Nationalism would be irrelevant in a country whose boundaries do not touch a hostile country. If an Indian went to Guam or Kiribati (pronounced Kiribash) and preached nationalism, people there would think he had gone crazy. India’s nationalism would also have faded away but for the hostility with Pakistan and China. The association between nationalism and international bad blood is important in the minds of westerners, especially Europeans, for whom Hitler was the quintessential nationalist. Nationalism is not quite dead; hostility towards Russia keeps nationalism alive in the west, and vice versa. But their hostility has been passive for so long that no one gets excited about nationalism. For westerners, nationalism is an ailment peculiar to Indians and Pakistanis.
India and Pakistan cannot have a war as long as their rulers have a modicum of rationality; neither side would court a nuclear war. And after the reforms of 1991, India has grown faster than Pakistan. In 1991, India’s GDP was 4 times Pakistan’s if valued at the same prices; now it is 5 times. With its superior performance or better luck as the case may be, India’s fear of Pakistan has faded; Pakistan hardly figures in Indian media or Indian consciousness.
That has been a terrible tragedy for run-of-the-mill Indian nationalists; they have no bogey left to wave before Indians, frighten them, and unite them. Kashmiri Azadists would serve them perfectly, since they want to leave the Indian nation, and could survive in separation from India only if they aligned with Pakistan. But they are not numerous or active enough to give Indian nationalists enough to get worked up about. Their Pakistani confreres steal across the border, kill a few and get killed; but they are dealt with by our armed forces, which are pretty professional and low-key about it. They do not give nationalists enough of a chance to make a song and dance.
But the nationalists are hungry for a chance to do so. The Bharatiya Janata Party has been in power for close to two years. Many jumped on its bandwagon in the hope of sharing the spoils of power; but in our system, the spoils go to a small minority. Hence frustration builds up in any party in power for some time; the majority that does not share power rues the rise of the minority that does. It was palpable in the Congress; so many small officeholders and minor leaders ran out of it in its last days. There are equally frustrated hordes in the BJP; but they have nowhere to go. The Congress, which was pretty undiscriminating about letting people in, has no chance of coming to power; the Aam Aadmi Party’s prospects are not bright enough.
This is why the BJP hordes in Delhi jumped into the fray when the Kanhaiya Kumar affair gave them a chance. The showy violence was a pursuit of publicity; the patter about nationalism was self-advertisement. And it worked. Delhi has active media, so some of the aggressive hopefuls got satisfactory exposure.
Exposure is fine; but will it lead the aggressive hopefuls into party positions? To candidacy in elections? To positions of power? Delhi is a very small state; it has few electable positions. BJP has done badly in its elections, so there may be a churn in candidates. Some of the noisy troublemakers may get a chance; but many more will be disappointed.
A nation is a geographical region. Residents of the piece of geography they were born in are counted as its nationals without a by-your-leave. They are told that certain heroes fought to deprive the British of the land, succeeded and hence were heroes. In school, they are made to sing songs in praise of this mythical national construct. Once they leave school, they leave those rituals behind and go their own ways to higher learning or livelihood.
Now, an insufficiently educated minister of education wants to foist those rituals upon universities; her party confreres want to beat up those adults who do not admire controversial acts of her government. But no prayers, no obeisances to a mythical mother India can veil their determined, violent efforts to suppress political dissent. They themselves have an equal right to dissent, to indulge in national mythmaking, provided they recognize everyone else’s right to dissent from them – as long as India is a conventional democracy. Democracy is not the first love of politicians; what they look for is a slice of the pie. The question is whether their aggression will be suitably rewarded by their political masters. We will not know for some time; what is unmistakeable, however, is that a determined effort is being made to change the rules of the democratic game – for the worse.