Our Linus Blanket

Fear of the foreigner is what helps the nation-state survive

Societies in moments of anxiety need a sense of order. They need to focus on an enemy outside or a scapegoat within. Such objects of hate make a society focused, give it a sense of solidarity. The danger begins when the object of fear is a more anomalous creature, a person who resists classification or violates categories.

The Polish emigre sociologist Zygmunt Bauman claimed that modernity always had problems with the stranger. The stranger is one who is here today and gone tomorrow. But what happens to strangers who are here today and stay tomorrow? The exile, the migrant and the refugee become problematic categories. They violate boundaries because they belong to both inside and outside. We treat them as foreigners, aliens haunting our everydayness. What makes such a relationship lethal and even genocidal is the nation-state.

India as a civilisation was naturally syncretic. It welcomed the outsider. Even the British coloniser was invited to become another caste and the English would have if the missionaries had not ruined the part. Even our national movement was hospitable, allowing the likes of A.O. Hume, Annie Besant, C.F. Andrews and Madeleine Slade to participate in it. Even Partition, which went on between 1947 and 1955, maintained a sense of openness, a condition which allowed Jinnah to think he could settle in Bombay. It is only when our imagination froze along the boundaries of the nation-state that the foreigner became an object of fear and suspicion.

Once a nation-state crystallises, suspicion becomes a ritual against those who are not citizens. They become threats to security, the visible hand that threatens the integrity of our boundaries. Foreigners are necessary; the nation-state could not exist without them. In a world of anxieties, they provide an object of hate, a trigger for solidarity. Where would the US be without the Communist or the Islamic terrorist? It is they who sustain the nation-state as phenomena.

Indians too are susceptible to the ‘foreigner as virus’ metaphor. Interestingly, our suspicions and our labelling of the outsider provide new cartographies of time and space. When the Gujarat riots took place, riot-torn areas in Gujarat were labelled India and Pakistan. Many a middle-class person was found claiming that the Mughals had at last been defeated. But the suspicion of the foreigner is not a communalist disease alone. Ideologies often survive on it. Where would India be without the ISI or CIA? The foreign hand seems to be even more powerful than the invisible hand. The invisible hand of the market is an abstraction, but the foreign hand needs to be labelled and allowed to become concrete as an object of violence. He is the necessary sacrifice nationalist suspicion demands.

The theory of the foreign hand has a nuanced amplitude. The nation-state believes that our local people can never reason for themselves. If they revolt as a social movement, it is because of the foreigner, an alien who arrives through an NGO. The fisherman of Koodankulam can fight for a decade but it is only some helpless foreigner who is seen as a driving force. In a global world, we seem to need the foreigner because without him our anxieties would be nameless. We carry out wars against McDonald’s, KFC because they emphasise our impotence. Their chicken seems more welcome than our local breed. We see Walmart and Rupert Murdoch as threats to our civilisation, our way of life.

Suddenly, nationalism is not about loving your neighbour as fellow citizen but of hating the foreigner as a continuous threat. The fact that the Indian diaspora is spread across the world is seen in a separate register. We want the world to be open to us but we in turn want to be selective about our openness to the world. As our anxieties increase, the foreigner as a category becomes a Linus blanket our sense of security needs and survives on.

The foreigner is not only the man from another country. He could be the man across the street, the Bodo in the next village, the merchant in the market, the domestic in search of a job. All it needs is the ritual of inside and outside. Classifications kill and the availability of the outside becomes a permanent invitation to violence and genocide. From Manmohan Singh to Indira Gandhi, from Modi to Advani, the foreigner is that indispensable piece of sociology that no leader can do without. No nation-state can survive without him. No security state can allow him to live harmlessly. He is the secret of the social contract that sustains order, the sacrifice that keeps the nation-state oiled. Without the CIA, Americans, German NGOs, French multinationals etc, India as a nation-state could not survive. The nation-state owes a toast to the foreigner.


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