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The Opium of Nationalism

Are the people who stood around, watched, clapped, and cheered when Ramesh Bidhuri dishonoured a fellow citizens of this country and his community, not complicit in brutal hate speech that tars an entire community?
Representative image. Photo: X/@rameshbhiduri

In the 1988 film The Accused directed by Jonathan Kaplan, the protagonist, Sarah Tobias, played to perfection by Jodie Foster, is gang raped by three men in a bar. The courts fail to do justice by her, and one of the rapists harasses her in a parking lot. She subsequently persuades an attorney, played by Kathryn McGillis, to reopen the case by charging not only the three rapists, but also the men who stood around, watched, clapped, cheered, and goaded the rapists, with criminal intimidation. The rapists are sentenced by the court, as are the bystanders who laughed when a woman was being gang raped. And the message, ‘when a woman says no she means no’, became a part of feminist lexicon.

The film came to mind as we watched two ‘honourable’ members of the Lok Sabha laugh as their party member heaped the most disgusting, despicable, and sickening slurs on another member Danish Ali on the floor of the house. Are the people who stood around, watched, clapped, and cheered when a fellow citizen of this country and his community were dishonoured, not complicit in brutal hate speech that tars an entire community? I forced myself to watch the video just to understand the perverse mindset of not only the man who uttered these slurs, but also the mindset of two members of his party; a party that owes much of its success to fostering anti-minority sentiments.

A Sansad TV screengrab of Ramesh Bidhuri.

We see the same glee when Muslims are lynched or tied to trees and compelled to chant Jai Shree Ram (Hindutva slogan) on the faces of bystanders who take pictures of humiliation and violence on their phones. We saw the same excitement and clapping when a mob of men stripped two women and made them march naked in Manipur, while they openly molested them. 

Something very ugly has been set off in our society. And this is a society that brandishes the platitude ‘the world is one family’ as its unique contribution to world history. Let us make no mistake, silence or laughter at nauseating comments and violent acts, is acquiescence. One day future generations will ask why our generation was silent when this was happening in our country, the way the young in today’s Germany ask their grandparents how they could be part of the ‘final solution’ masterminded by Hitler. They ask these questions despite the rise of a right-wing neo-Nazi movement in the country.

The question has perplexed many historians of modern Germany. On the basis of some hard work and time spent on perusing personal correspondence and diaries, historians tell us that not all Germans were active participants or supporters of  the holocaust. Some were rankly sceptical of Hitler’s project of creating a country free of the Jewish community but remained silent, and some approved of what was taking place before their eyes. The question of how Germans responded to the final solution is complex and complicated. 

The conditions imposed upon a defeated Germany after World War I by the victors created and sustained deep rooted grievances, and were a blow to national pride. This generated a strong sense of nationalism in  most people. As the Germans were wracked by turmoil in the period between the two wars, a strong sense of victimhood loomed large over the country. Hitler wanted to create a global power dominated by the Aryan race by conquering the Slav nations and exterminating  the Jewish community by evoking disquiet and mortification coupled with the development of strong nationalism in the country. Many might not have supported the concentration camp, but they became silent spectators of the horror being inflicted on the Jewish community. Families broke up and friendships were sundered over the Nazi project. But national pride, survival of the nation, and the importance of race as a marker of the identity of the nation absorbed the population to a large extent.

Also read: No Country for My Nationalism

We should learn the lessons that history teaches us. Once politicians,  skilled in manipulating insecurity and national pride, organise the political community on the issue of identity – whether racial or religious, ethnic or linguistic – on selective remembrance of history, exaggerated grievances and rabid nationalism, societies seldom recover. 

Cynical politicians use these weapons to radicalise societies for their own ambitions and the pursuit of absolute power. Societies suffer, and this suffering does not heal easily. It might never heal. Hate becomes a part of personal and collective psyche as weak and unacknowledged sentiments get translated into strong passions. In India, hate speech and its supporters have acted as a trigger to translate unarticulated prejudices into violence. And this is justified in the name of one of the most destructive  ideologies –nationalism and pseudo-histories. Nationalism that exploits the past and  targets communities on this basis in the present, is terrible to behold. 

Eric Hobsbawm. Credit: Twitter

Eric Hobsbawm. Credit: Twitter

British historian Donald Sassoon has edited and written a preface for a collection of essays by fellow historian Eric Hobsbawm. According to Sassoon, Hobsbawm was fond of saying that there might have been a time he believed that historians, who fed into the nationalist project, unlike architects and civil engineers could not cause disasters. Hobsbawm eventually recognised that history in the hands of nationalists can kill more people than incompetent builders. “History is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies, as poppies are the raw material for heroin addicts, ” he wrote.

Nationalism in the wrong hands can scar a nation. Politicians should be careful in evoking primordial passions, for the consequences for human societies are serious. The politicisation of religion or ethnicity leads to unimaginable tragedies. Some might participate in these tragedies; others might watch, but witnesses are by no means innocent.

The issue of how we remember history came up sharply in the period that followed the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. The 1990s witnessed a series of ethno-nationalist wars that swamped the Balkans and then major parts of the world. The rise of fanatical nationalism based on selective historical memory that resulted in hate and massacres, motivated a number of scholars to try to understand the politics of selective remembrance or memory. 

Jürgen Habermas. Photo: Wikimedia commons

German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, who belongs to the tradition set by the inter-war Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, has written extensively on memory. Habermas uses the phrase collective memory to persuasively argue for dialogue and communication between contested world views. This is one way of recovering from the past, and learning from it. He searched for an expansive political community within which these debates are conducted to disable the devastating effects of nationalism. Accordingly, Habermas defends the need for post-national forms of political community, i.e., the European Union, so that the blood-spattered history of the nation can be transcended, and we are able to reach beyond the nation state. 

Many scholars who subscribe to critical theory have struggled with the idea of memory. Max Horkheimer, one the most distinguished members of the school, had written that ‘past injustice has occurred and is completed. The slain are really slain’. The underlying conviction is that we cannot forget the past. To forget the past is to repress it in the Freudian sense. What is repressed will at some point or the other emerge as a sickness. What we can best do is to come to terms with the past to ensure that atrocities committed many centuries ago are not repeated in the present or in the future.

In India however, we deal with another more troubling phenomenon – the legitimisation of state power through selective remembrance and hyper-nationalism. This does not let people come to terms with the past, it pries open old wounds, targets minorities, and tries to build a nation through muscular and aggressive nationalism whether in the form of hate-speech,lynching of Muslims, or destruction of churches. A nation built on tolerance of hate speech, or open support for such speech as we saw in the Lok Sabha, cannot but be scarred. For violence hurts not only the victim but the perpetrator. 

Also read: Real Patriotism Is to Fight Nationalism. Here’s Why.

The manipulation of a common past explodes on the consciousness of the people, and manufactures an enemy with whom there can be neither truck nor transaction. This is the tragedy of our times. The Urdu poet Bashir Badr wrote: ‘dushmani jam kar karo lekin ye gunjaish rahe / jab kabhi hum dost ho jaaen to sharminda na hon’ (be my enemy with all the passion you command, but leave enough scope, for if we become friends, we should not be ashamed). In the language of political theory:  no matter how deep the social divide is,  there should be some space for reconciliation. 

In this folio from a quintet by Amir Khusrow, a Muslim pilgrim learns a lesson in piety from a Brahman. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In this folio from a quintet by Amir Khusro, a Muslim pilgrim learns a lesson in piety from a Brahman. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The project of reconciliation, or even leaving scope for future friendships, is difficult. The manoeuvring of historical memory has become a convenient weapon to hide mis-governance, hunger and poverty. The forcible exclusion of memories that tell stories of a culture of fusion in the mediaeval times – from classical Hindustani music, miniature Mughal paintings, magnificent Mughal architecture, to the way all communities worshipped at roadside shrines of Sufi saints, the formation of a beautiful common language,Urdu, to folk music of love and longing, to great works of literature and poetry – has torn apart communal solidarities. This, it is expected, will create fictional solidarity among the dominant community; a solidarity that is used for ignoble ends such as securing a majority in the next election.

For Tagore, nationalism was one of the most pernicious exports of the West. He argued that nationalism is not a child of liberty or reason but the  opposite –  of fervent romanticism and the idea of political messiahs whose consequence is invariably the annihilation of freedom. He believed in a world that had not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls. In his essay on nationalism, Tagore wrote that ‘my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity’. 

Finally, it is a pity that the new building housing the Indian parliament, which should have been inaugurated by a renewed commitment to the Constitution, has been inaugurated by vulgar hate speech. It does not augur well for a parliamentary democracy, or whatever is left of it. 

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University. 

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