Monday, March 2, 2015

Nationalism - I

Many nationalist leaders in India thought that promoting nationalistic sentiments like in the Nation-states of Europe were essential to pull India into the contemporary world. They began to equate expression of skepticism about nationalism as compromising with western imperialism. But that did not stop some influential figures in the movement from expressing doubts about nationalism as they began realising that colonialism's record of violence was because of decay of their moral values brought about by their nationalistic sentiments.

Jiddu Krishnamurti said, 'Obviously what causes war is the desire for power, position, prestige, money; also the disease called nationalism, the worship of a flag; and the disease of organized religion, the worship of a dogma.'A leading figure in the national movement who had reservations about the European model of nationalism was Rabindranath Tagore. He was a patriot but not a nationalist as shown by his decision to return his knighthood after the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre.To most Indians the two concepts are the same. In Notes on Nationalism, George Orwell writes:
Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By "patriotism" I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
Tagore was a widely travelled man having visited US, UK, Japan, China, etc and thus had an understanding of many cultures. From his observations he arrived at a nuanced understand of India's place in the world. He was not happy about the xenophobic and inward looking tendencies in some parts of the Indian national movement. An example of such militant nationalism was Tilak's statement that 'love of nation is one's fist duty' or that India was 'God's chosen nation'. He felt that both India and the West could learn from each other and that 'it is our vanity which makes us think that it is a battle between contending rights'.

Many people may be surprised that Tagore, who was anti-imperialist throughout his life and whose songs and poems inspired many during the Indian national movement, was negative about nationalism. Gandhi differed in some aspects from Tagore in this respect, but his version of nationalism was more inclusive than what is popular today. Both recognised a link between morality and politics which was fading away from the conventional idea of nationalism. Gandhi's views were modified by debates with Tagore who made no bones about his view that nationalism results in 'inhuman cruelty' that 'struts with barefaced pride'.

Initially Tagore was more open to the idea of nationalism as defined by the west and like many Indians of the time felt that Indian society had degenerated. But slowly he began to be disillusioned and began to discover 'how easily those who accepted the highest truths of civilisation disowned them with impunity whenever questions of national self-interest were involved'. Ashis Nandy quotes Tagore in his essay The Illegitimacy of Nationalism:
There came a time when perforce I had to snatch myself away from mere appreciation of literature ... I began to appreciate that perhaps in no other modern state was there such a hopeless dearth of the most elementary needs of existence. And yet it was this country whose resources had fed for so long the wealth  and magnificence of the British people.While I was lost in the contemplation of the world of civilization. I could never have remotely imagined that the great ideals of humanity wold end in such  ruthless travesty. But today a glaring example of it stares me in the face in the utter and contemptuous indifference of a so-called civilised race to the well-being of scores of Indian people.
The brutality that even  unwilling imperialists feel compelled to commit because of their feeling of being trapped in their cloak of authority is shown in George Orwell's essay, Shooting an Elephant. Tagore concluded that such callousness was due to nationalistic feelings of the colonialists because of which only self-interest rules which gradually made him disenchanted with the western idea of nationalism. Thus the only person who has written two national anthems (for India and Bangladesh, the latter being the only Muslim nation in the world to have a national anthem written by a non-Muslim) came to regard nationalism as a bhougaliik apadevata or a geographical demon. In Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats, Sarvepalli Gopal writes:
Living in a world 'wild with the delirium of hatred', Tagore felt that the chief lesson to be learnt was how to be rid of 'arrogant nationalism'. As it had developed in the West, a nation was 'an organized gregariousness of gluttony', with selfishness a necessity and therefore a virtue.  He loved India and was eager to see her free; but he did not wish her to develop as a nation on the European model, and said there was no word for nation in his language.

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