Through three prisms

Essays that examine the idea of nationalism through the lens of politics, law and culture, opening the floor to wider debate

I am one of those readers who thinks of a publishing company as a living entity, a huge commons of ideas that cooks new books and serves them up in interesting ways. Harper Perennial recently published U.R. Ananthamurthy’s moving last testimony, From Hindutva to Hind Swaraj, a manifesto explaining why he could not stay in a Modi-dominated India. Aleph has now come up with On Nationalism, a triptych of essays, each delightfully different, each articulating a world view that needs to treasured and protected. The three critique nationalism, in terms of politics, law, and culture. As you read the feisty arguments, they show you how citizenship and scholarship can be fun. On Nationalism is the cleansing of a concept that has been muddled too long.

Begin any way you like. I began with the third essay by Sadanand Menon. He reads nationalism with a photographic eye as visuality, language and performance, contending its gaze has been distorted. He emphasises the need for new metaphors to define new ways of looking and living. Menon plays white with a delightful anecdote, a story I would love to steal. It is a crowded conference at ICCR where Georg Lechner, the head of Goethe Institute is introducing celebrated choreographer Pina Bausch. Lechner begins by asking Bausch to concede the Germanness of her work. The dancer denies it, blowing smoke rings of protest. At the third prompting, Pina retorts “Georg, had I been a bird, would you have called me a German bird?”

Menon reflects on the relationship between culture and nationalism, citing Gora and Tagore’s essays to note that the poet always treated nationalism as an evil. For Tagore, humanity made more sense than the corset called ‘nation state’. For Menon, the virus, both real and imaginary, is cultural nationalism. He warns that in India today, cultural nationalism masquerading as a public good is displacing the real issues before the country. Menon shows that when imaginary homelands become real, the nightmare called nationalism begins. History and scientific proof can do little to contain the emotional charge of this irrational world.

At the core of this devastation is the collective RSS mind, obsessed with cleansing history of the hybrid and the syncretic. Cultural purism like racial purism is an act of cleansing national identity into an imaginary sense of authenticity. Using Reich and the Frankfurt School, Menon puts the RSS on the couch of history and finds an obsessive-compulsive attempt to sanitise the past, terrorise the present, and threaten the future.

Oddly, Menon’s narrative breaks down as he reaches the present, becoming more ideological and less pluralist; his narrative machismo losing out to the gentler storytelling of a U.R. Ananthamurthy. URA never demonises Savarkar or the RSS but shows how categories create self-fulfilling realities. There is a pluralism here that Menon’s work lacks, its force becoming its weakness. His is a critique of the RSS without self-reflectiveness, and by the time he moves to JNU, he is on weaker ground. The recent events at the university showed solidarity between teacher and student, emphasised the role of university in civil society, but there was a touch of narcissism. The JNU debates did not add anything new to the understanding of nationalism. A Gandhi or a Tagore still sounds fresh and immediate in a way the Andersons do not. One wishes Menon had listened to his old friends, the chemist, C.V. Sheshadri, and URA more. Their modesty was not softness, yet their understanding of science and the nation has a resilience that the Left critique still needs to develop.

The second essay in the book is a long one by Ghafoor Noorani, a brilliant populariser of legal controversies, outlining both the career of concepts and their fate in the legislature and the law courts. Noorani seeks to interrogate the idea of sedition, a colonial invention.

In fact, if one reads the essays of the historian Dharampal, one discovers that the right to secession and sedition were a part of tradition, and villagers often abandoned an arbitrary king.

Noorani follows the fate of the concept from colonial to modern times and outlines its irony. Most of our great nationalist leaders from Tilak to Gandhi were subject to charges of sedition and developed what Noorani calls “a deep loathing for the concept.” How did it become the jewel in the crown for the BJP regime?

Noorani explains that when the drafting committee of the constituent assembly began work, K.M. Munshi demanded that the term be deleted. He argued that the essence of democracy is criticism of the government. Accordingly, the revised draft constitution of 1949 “omitted sedition by a deliberate considered decision”. By 1951, sedition was constructed more affably as a “reasonable restriction on the right to speech in the interest of the security of the state, and in the interests of maintaining friendly relations with foreign states.”

In Romesh Thapar vs State of Madras, Justice Patanjali Shastri ruled that criticism of the government or exciting disaffection is not sedition. Noorani says, in sheer delight, that “it is no function of the court to recycle statutory garbage”. However, in 1962, the court in Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar did just that, with an argument so illiterate, says Noorani, that “an undergraduate whose essay on sedition contained blemishes such as these would earn a deserved reprimand.” Today, sedition has become colonialism’s most disabling gift to a free nation. Noorani’s essay is a superb fable on the obtuseness of law when it fails to be a self-correcting system.

The book is anchored by the first essay, a careful survey of the concept of nationalism and its foibles by Romila Thapar. The language is low-key, the essay grounded in footnotes, the caveats providing a perfect display of the rules and rituals of scholarship.

Thapar has been a lifelong teacher dedicated not just to the idea of a secular democracy but to the ideal of a plural university. She explains that one needs complete freedom of expression when discussing not just the kind of nation one wants but the university we dream of.

Nation-building for her is not separate from university-building. The turbulence of the university is part of the nation and to suppress one is to emasculate the other. Scholarship becomes necessarily anti-national when every act of dissent is read as sedition. One only wishes that Thapar had explored the contradictions of a secular history and a secular democracy; she black-boxes the terms when she could have been more open to the critique around them.

As a whole, the book’s power and passion are impressive. Yet, one senses that it is a prelude because a lot is left unsaid. For instance, Thapar talks of interdisciplinarity and yet there is little exploration of the history of science in the history of nationalism. The relationship between science and nationalism in India is a playful one; Indian nationalism invented the ideas of a post-German science and a post-industrial society. The encounter between religion and science was more pluralistic than the current relationship of religion and state.

In fact, one of the shortcomings of the JNU department of history is that it is illiterate about the history of science, which is critical to the debates it is dealing with today. This moment of contestation might be an appropriate time for JNU to correct this anomaly and explore issues the present regime is wooden or ignorant about. But maybe that is the power of the book. It becomes an invitation to new debates, reconstructing concepts critical to the future of our society.

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