OPINION

Liberal Nationalism

October 07, 2010
Indian Liberals

I have extracted the following comment from one of my recent blog post discussion. A commentator took exception to the fact that I in some way appealed to certain communal sentiments and I am partly to take blame for it. For the article was addressed to the Hindus specifically and it is very easy to look at it from a "communal" angle. I have pasted a part of the comment below:

"In your article I perceived a tone of ‘communal’ competition. Now, don’t get shocked by my use of ‘communal’ here! According to me, appealing to the sentiment of nationalism is exactly the same as appealing to the sentiment of religiosity or regional pride (“sons of the soil”-argument)." [emphasis mine]

At the outset, I must clarify that I wasn't appealing to anyone's "communal" sentiment. But that's not what this post is about. What stuck with me most was the commentator's likening of nationalism with religiosity and regional pride. Again, I don't blame the commentator for that. After all, that's what nationalism has been reduced to these days!

I spent a good part of last week thinking about, and researching, the concept of nationalism. And after going through scores of references, I've come to realise that nationalism means many things. But since this is not an academic discussion on the meanings of nationalism, I will stick to *what I think* is the common man's understanding of nationalism i.e. devotion and loyalty to one's own nation!

As a liberal idealist, I dream of a world sans national borders - a world where every place belongs to everyone and where no one is an alien and no one the "son of the soil"! And I positively despise people who claim to love only a tiny piece of land on this great beautiful planet. My dislike of these people is not because they love their nation but because they claim to love their nation more than other nations. I fail to see the rationale behind it!

But at the same time, I love the place where I was born and feel a sense of attachment to it no matter where I live. Without doubt, I remain devoted to India and I wish to see India prosper and take its rightful place in the world. That, for me, is nationalism! And I am sure that many people across the world feel about their respective nations exactly the way I do about India.

Clearly, there's a conflict between liberalism and nationalism, you would think. And sure enough, liberals and nationalists identify themselves in different groups. Having spent some time understanding these two concepts, however, I think that it need not necessarily be the case. The problem is not in the conceptualisation of liberalism and nationalism but in the interpretation of the two.

Nationalism in India

India has had many different interpretations of nationalism over the many years of our history. Prominent amongst them are Hindu nationalism, Muslim nationalism, socialist nationalism, and in the recent days, territorial nationalism.

Hindu nationalism is a form of cultural nationalism. It is a form of nationalism in which a nation is defined by a "shared culture, history and ancestry". It implies that anyone who doesn't share a certain culture, history or ancestry isn't qualified to be a national of that country.

Muslims nationalism, as the name suggests, is founded upon the tenets of Islam. This religious nationalism gave way to the expression of Muslim separatism and statehood and continues to do so to a large extent in the troubled Kashmir region. Obviously, anyone who doesn't belong to the religion of the state is at best treated as a secondary citizen of that country. Most of the Muslim nations are a testament to that.

Socialist nationalism, on the other hand, was made popular by the Nehru-Gandhi family. Although this form of nationalism has largely rejected the cultural and religious nationalism, it is still an extremely authoritarian form of nationalism. The command & control structure of the Indian National Congress should work as a very good example here. It is limited in its scope in that it is closely tied to left-wing politics.

And finally, the recent phenomenon is territorial nationalism. It idealises citizenship and assumes that all inhabitants of a particular nation owe allegiance to their country of birth or adoption. The growing Indian diaspora across the world reflects this form of nationalism exceedingly well. You would see an increase in this form of nationalistic sentiments even within India - Maharashtra for Marathis, for instance!

There are a few other forms of nationalisms prevalent in India such as ethnic nationalism (Dravidian parties in the South) worth a mention. The problem with most of these forms of nationalism is that they are equally xenophobic, supremacist and diversity-intolerant. Unfortunately, prevalence of these interpretations, or of their combination, have necessitated most Indians to align their sense of patriotism with one or the other. So if you love your India, you will have to identify yourself as either a Hindu nationalist or a territorial nationalist. Unfortunately, a liberal is almost always branded anti-India, anti-national!

I think it need not be that way. I was certain that there had to be a reconciliation or my liberal values and my love for the nation. And that reconciliation is liberal nationalism!

Liberal nationalism

Liberal nationalism is essentially a form of non-xenophobic nationalism compatible with the liberal values of freedom, tolerance, equality and individual rights. It lies within the traditions of rationalism and liberalism but as a form of nationalism, it is contrasted with all the above forms I discussed.

Liberal nationalism views a nation as an assembly of free individuals who choose to live together. These people are not bound by culture, history, ancestry or territory but by, as Ernest Renan put it, "by their desire to live together... having done great things together and wishing to do more!" It is, according to him, a "daily plebiscite", implying that people are free to be part of this nation and free to leave it.

Liberal nationalism is the only form of nationalism that respects an individual on his/her merits; not on that individual's race, religion, ancestry or place of birth. It is the only form of nationalism that is inclusive instead of exclusive, extrovert instead of introvert, progressive instead of regressive, and fluid instead of stagnant.

India, with it's fascinating diversity, is best poised to be a liberal nation. Unfortunately, this same diversity is creating political rifts along religious, regional and ethnic lines and fostering undesirable chauvinistic nationalist sentiments. And such nationalistic sentiments could only take us down the road of destruction.

Hence my appeal to the liberals of India: before you surrender the concept of nationalism to the likes of Sangh parivar or the MNS or DMK or the Congress, ask yourselves what kind of an India you would want to build - an India of liberals or an India of bigots?

IndianLiberals is a group for all liberals of India to unite in favour of freedom, liberty, equality, human rights, tolerance and non-violence. This place is a platform to discuss, develop and promote liberal values in India and organize a resistance movement against all communal, socialist and communist forces in our country.
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