The Rising Totalitarian Nationalism in India

No nationalism is complete. In several ways, we can trace that there are competing nationalisms in India.  But in recent days, we seem to be faced with an invasion of a totalitarian nationalism. A lot of this can be noticed in the way nationalism and anti-nationalism has become a discourse that draws clear lines between people demarking and separating those who are with the nation and those who are deemed as not. The lines that marked the nationalists from those who are certified as anti-nationals were often based on fluid, trivial and almost irrational grounds. Nothing seems to stop the march of this triumphant totalitarian nationalism.  Nationalism of all shades and hues proposes some standards in terms of which it’s so called detractors are measured and set aside.  But as the discourse began to rage into an inferno, one can discern how superfluous standards like the kind of food one eats, persons one loves and marries and slogans one raises or refuses to raise strangely become basis to mark the nationalists from the anti-nationalists. Within this framework, the fact that democracy seems to be ruptured and hollowed out by a totalitarian nationalism still remains uncontested is profoundly discomforting.  The denial of democracy under the cover of nationalism cannot be dismissed as a stray phenomenon because the exclusionary nationalism that is fundamentally not national enough, can steadily lead to the collapse and death of liberal democracy in India.  

The intolerance debate in recent days gave the warning bells of the approaching dangers to democracy in our country. Although our civilizational values are deeply embedded in an ethos of openness and tolerance, yet in recent days we seem to have become increasingly intolerant and largely exhibit an incompetence to deal with difference and otherness. The hostilities that emerge from this intolerance has put on the mask of nationalism to the extent that  one can shout some nationalist sounding slogans and indulge in vandalism and hooliganism beating up one’s fellow Indians and  yet  seemingly remain above the law.  The hooliganism at the Patiala House Court is not one stray event but is also a symbolic instance that often minorities have been facing regularly on the question of conversion in our country. While everyone condemns violent behaviour yet violence when combined with nationalist slogans suddenly transmutes into some kind of patriotic action and pulls its defence and legitimacy from several quarters. That is why we need to critically watch nationalisms of all shades because it can degenerate into xenophobia and mindless chauvinism and justify organised violence and tyranny. That is why the wide diffusion of an intolerant totalitarian nationalism in our society cannot but leave us terrified as the very idea of India seems to be crumbling right in front of us.  

No one disputes that several Indian nationalisms have brought us freedom from the colonial rule.  But when nationalism revives and hybridizes the divide and rule policy of the British colonizers, we are in danger of the new forms of colonisations from within.  While nationalism is a doctrine invented by Europe in the 19th century and borrowed into our country, it was naturalized, appropriated and assimilated and given Indian civilizational value by the right wing that never really fought to free India from the colonial masters.  The two nation theory that emerged during the colonial era and resulted in the partition of India is still afflicting our society.  Hence, it is not surprising that some ultra nationalists direct people that they deem as anti-national sometimes based on mere food habits to go to Pakistan. This indicates that we in India are travelling in a ship whose inhabitants throw people they deem anti-national into the ocean.  The ship that is moving in search of a nation is allied to the mad ship that Michel Foucault, a French philosopher portrays his magnum opus, Madness and Civilization.  This seems to stand out in the way we have witnessed how dissent is being silenced and stifled with the strong arm of nationalism by the present regime that has not refrained from using state apparatus against student rebellion at different universities in our country.  

Impatience and resentment against a nationalism that teaches us lessons of hate is growing among the young people in the country.  The demand for Azaadi by the students of JNU, the resistance of students in IIT Chennai, the struggle of the student at FTII, Pune, the fight of the students at Hyderabad University etc., appears to have a common enemy, the totalitarian Hindu nationalism which has produced frenzy and unrest in the academic campuses of our country.  Besides, the saffronization of syllabus and administration, there seems to be an attempt to police and crush free thinking students by framing them as anti-national.  Moreover,  direct cuts in the budgetary allocation for higher education has  victimized the Dalit students which then coupled with discrimination and humiliation has led a student like Rohit Vemula to take the tragic step of taking his life.  The JNU row in several ways typifies the way totalitarian nationalism has hijacked democracy in India where the denial, deprivation and erasure of democracy masquerades as nationalism. Hence, the growing demand for constitutional nationalism made by Kanhaiya Kumar appears both relevant and urgent in the present scenario.  The rhetoric of the heart that stirred our conscience by his speech at  JNU, on his return after he was granted bail from the jail for sedition has already moved people across the world. This has only strengthened our resolve to resist and defeat a totalitarian nationalism that wounds our democracy and undermines our constitution.  

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao