Whose Nationalism is it anyway?

In the last two months the country has witnessed fervent battles in the name of nationalism. We have unwittingly entered a competition of proving who is a greater ‘deshbhakt’ and who is a greater ‘deshdrohi’. While the 9th February incident in JNU accentuated the developments, hypernationalism was well on its way since quite some time. We should not forget how Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a students’ organisation of Madras IIT was targeted and how Rohith Vemula and others of Ambedkar Studies Circle of University of Hyderabad were also marked as anti-nationals.

This incident has brought a good time to rekindle certain debates – be it on the much needed anti-people colonial law of sedition or the question of an exclusive brand of nationalism. 9th February, 2013 marks the day when Parliament attack accused Afzal Guru was hanged. Some students in JNU organized a talk in which they decided to take up the issue of Afzal Guru being wrongly hanged. A simple research on his case will reveal that many have felt his hanging was wrong and how for Kashmiris his death is closely related to the Kashmir question. Denied to meet his family for the last time, his hanging carried out in utmost secrecy seemed like a pacifying tactic for a ‘collective conscience’ which would satisfy with nothing less than the life of a man.

When alleged ‘anti-India’ slogans were raised in the same programme, it was a dangerous concoction as angst of Kashmiris came together with the question of the ‘judicial murder’ of an alleged terrorist who was a Kashmiri Muslim. This is a crucial moment to revisit the question of nationalism in the context of Kashmir. One cannot deny the fact that we are still at a distance from solving the Kashmir problem. Years of alienation and administrative failures in the valley has led to reverbation of ‘India go back’ frequently on the streets of the valley. However one also must take cognizance of the fact that not everyone from Kashmir lends support to the demand of secession.

The current debate has given birth to the idea of a narrow nationalism. A narrow territorial or cultural idea of Indian nation reduces the very diversity that our country claims to espouse. Professor Gopal Guru who spoke in one of the alternative classes of JNU made a case of looking at nation not as an institution that excludes but as an institution that acts as a means to achieve egalitarian goals. State’s institutions like bureaucracy and ministries should play a nation-building role.

Cultural nationalism as promoted by RSS and its political wing BJP reduces the nation to a majoritarian construct. As such those who question the dominant hegemonic ideologies are branded as anti-national and a potential danger. As a result Dalits who reject Brahminical Hinduism, leftists and secular intellectuals who reject Hindutva, beef eaters, inter-religious couples and even those like Kanhaiya Kumar who demand ‘azadi’ from social evils like poverty, communalism, casteism etc are branded as anti-national.

Lets move to another part of India which have also challenged a narrow reading of nationalism. The Northeastern region has had a difficult relationship with nationalism and nation building. While North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA) became Arunachal Pradesh, the nature of the frontier region has not changed much over the period. After decades of army operations Assam, Mizoram, Tripura have been identified as low intensity conflict areas but Manipur continues to burn. The persisting problem in this small state of Eastern India has led to gross human rights violation.

Much of the state’s problem can be traced back to its problematic assimilation to the Indian state post independence. In place of loose autonomy the Manipuri King was made to sign the Instrument of Accession without consulting his ministry. This is still for many nothing less than deception. What followed after independence is there for all to know. Terrorism and counter-terrorist state intervention have wrecked havoc in this tiny state. A state much smaller in size than Kashmir has seen casualties which is close to that in the valley. Gross violation of human rights of women, children is pervasive. Use of child soldiers as human shield is rampant in the state.

When General G D Bakshi broke down on National TV on the issue of hoisting national flags in central universities, a Manipuri student reminded him that there was more than the national flag in Manipur University. They had their own Assam Rifles’ Camp in the campus. The same Assam Rifles which have been held responsible for the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama and numerous fake encounters in Manipur. The chilling encounter of an unarmed 22 year old Sanjit Meitei points to the state of the affairs. A pregnant woman was also shot in the cross fire. Civil society organisations have demanded probe in around 1,528 alleged fake encounters.

Our bleeding heart nationalists did not stop from coming out in streets in large numbers baying for blood of ‘anti-national university students’. Lawyers who act as custodians of law behaved like rowdy hooligans beating up students, professors and even journalists. But their nation and nationalism was not shaken by the Malom massacre where Army passed a 16 year old and a 60 year old among others as ‘dangerous potential insurgents’. 10 people waiting at a bus stop were gunned down by Assam Rifles in November, 2000. This very incident prompted Irom Sharmila to start her fast for repealing AFSPA. Their nationality is not further ashamed when Irom sharmila has been fasting for the last 15 years and is force fed by police personnel. The likes of General Bakshi have no tears to spare for her.

The racism that people from Northeast face in other parts of the country shows how our imagination of nation and its people is at best stunted. The assault ranges from remarks like ‘chinki’ to sexual and physical assaults. A 20 year old Nido Tania from Arunachal Pradesh was brutally attacked in 2000 which led to his death. 19 year old Richard Loitam from Manipur succumbed to his injuries of being subjected to tortuous ragging by seniors. Minor scuffles lead to physical assaults. Northeastern students were also picked up by police confused with Tibetans protesting the Chinese premier’s visit.

Nationalism and its derivative sub- nationalism have caused turbulence in Assam since decades. Borders drawn through the kitchen of many families made them foreigners in their own natural homeland. People living in border districts are bearing the brunt as large number of voters are marked as ‘Doubtful Voters’ and denied voting rights. It is this very idea of narrow nationalism that fuelled the Assam Movement which started the systemic harassment of Muslims of East Bengal origin as ‘illegal immigrants’. Their identity continues to be under question. These border areas are treated as security zones where the developmental initiatives of state are conspicuously absent.

These incidents show that we are far away from believing that a mongoloid featured non Hindu, non Hindi speaking person is as Indian as someone from Delhi or Uttar Pradesh. That the suffering of erosion led displacement comes within the purview of human rights violation and should not be overdetermined by the nationality of the victims. These people who buy into the narrow idea of nationalism also uphold, glorify and hold sanctimonious an ahistorical idea of India. It does not take into account the reality of the process of nation building and the pragmatic politics that went into the same. When citizens are systemically excluded and sometimes air bombed (like Aizawl in 1966) then their response to hypernational cries of love for motherland is mediated by their own experience of exclusion. The bombing of Aizawl in 1966 remains till date the only instance when India carried an airstrike against its own civilians.

The condition in the region continues to be grim and with election around in Assam, politics of polarisation is at play. The claims of the political party in power, BJP’s antics with giving citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis have one hand made mockery of the genuine concerns of the indigenous population, on the other hand have put people belonging to the East Bengal origin at the receiving end of xenophobic hatred. Nationalism which has become a fancy tag for many in the capital, continues to be a question of life and death for many in the region.

The marginalized of Northeast will be more comfortable in standing up with the Dalits, minorities, LGBT and other excluded communities rather than chest thumping self acclaimed deshbhakts who will use a Hanumanthappa in every second sentence but opt for a better paying job abroad then slog in India. When one is constantly treated as the ‘other’, in terms of nationalism they are compelled to ask difficult questions like whose nationalism this is. Why those people who are willing to physically exterminate the ‘threats’ (read University students) to the country does not find the time to come out in the streets for the dying farmers??

A few decades back many in the northeastern region asserted its cultural difference with other parts of the country and demanded the right to secede. Of late most have accepted Indian sovereignty and Constitution. But what is unacceptable is the continuing gross violation of this very Constitution in different parts of the largest democracy on a regular basis. What is required is giving more people at the margins a stake and a stronger voice in the nation. Development rather than armed forces should be the face of the nation. Once it is done all will come under the banner of nationalism and work towards a more egalitarian society. Narrow chauvinist nationalism will stop being the benchmark of love, respect and allegiance for the country that one lives in.

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Parvin Sultana Written by:

Parvin Sultana hails from Dhubri and is currently working as an Assistant Professor in P B College in Gauripur, Assam. Her research interests include gender, Muslim politics and migration

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