Who Imagines The Nation?

One of the big advantages of studying again is that I can let the assumptions that I lived with be questioned, and even discarded, with much qualms. Sure, this would make some of my older posts look silly, but then, as Lord Keynes said, "When facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?" As a wise woman (only a woman could see this naturally, I deduce) once said, or so I derive from what she said, the path to wisdom starts from the courage to contradict oneself!

I have always made a lot out of the imagination of a nation. I have seen it, after some of the great social scientists and historians, as a modern imagination, even something that emerged after men escaped the thrall of religion, and needed an organising principle to arrange their ideas. It is, I always believed, a belief system invented (imagined is the word Benedict Anderson used) to sustain new states since the mid-nineteenth century, starting with Germany and Italy. 

This was a convenient theory that explains a lot, and fits neatly into the contemporary history. Coming from India, this allowed me to understand the Idea of India, at a time when the modernist conception was just about to fall apart. The Republican ideas that underpinned 'India', the democratic miracle that accompanied Indian state creation inspired me and formed the basis of my own political ideas. I saw the world through their prisms, and argued that this idea, this state, needs to be protected. 

What changes this now is that I am confronted with a basic question that I perhaps overlooked: Who imagines the nation? The assumption that the nation is an imagination, something crafted as a justification of the modern state which takes over the mantle of religion to serve as a worldview (just as it did to me), is modernist in itself: The idea is that a social and political elite, the leaders of the movement, state or cultures, invents nationhood, which then the wider community subscribe to. However, what is less obvious is that this rules out the pre-existence of a national consciousness - the essence of the people which every nationalist doctrine aims to establish - and nationalism is seen as a tool of power, of the elite on the masses. 

This is one construction, but not the only possible one. One may claim that the historical experiences of Risorgimento or the German unification bear this out, and nationalism was a political ideal that the Italian elite, Cavour and his friends, used to unify Italy. But this does not explain the Mazzinians fully, nor does it explain persistence of nationalism in the persecuted communities, such as the Kurds. This also excludes Zionism, which closely intertwined religion and nationhood, built around a thousands of years old idea that was incredibly difficult to achieve at the start. This reduces to the idea of Pakistan as merely an imperial intrigue, built over the heads of most of its citizens, and does not explain why Pakistanis are so proud of their nation, despite all its failings. 

For each vantage point, there is a possible view of nationalism. This idea of a nationalism as an invented political strategy somewhat adapts uncritically that social ideals come from the top. The alternate view, that the Italian leaders like Cavour only came to nationalism late in the day, and perhaps unified Italy against their own better judgements, or that the German Consciousness may have been shaped much much earlier than even Frederick the Great started his imperial adventures. And, indeed, there may be different kinds of nationalism - the British imagination may have been entirely different from the American ones, the Russian enterprise may have been a pre-modern project than a modern one, and nationalism in Asia may not have all in opposition of the Colonial rule and as a product of Western consciousness, but as a realisation of an intrinsic nature of the people. The dominant view that India was never a nation before the British, a view straight from the playbook of the imperialists, may just be one part of that civilising narrative: Indeed, the thesis put forward by Diana L Eck, about an India united since the ancient times through its sacred geography and religious consciousness, is surely worth considering. 

The danger in all this is indeed is to succumb to the conclusion that there is no such thing as nationalism at all. Despite its variety, it is hard to deny that the idea travelled. Many Asian nationalists were educated in colonial schools, and were deeply influenced by political conversations of their age; Mazzini, Garibaldi and others have inspired many, as did Lenin, Mao and David Ben Gurion, who were in turn influenced by ideas of others. The task of understanding nationalism therefore may be more than just saying that there are nationalisms, but no Nationalism; it is about seeing the phenomena of love of one's country, of a 'land', a way of life and its memories, as a complex and multifaceted one, not just a modern one imposed from above, but a contingent one, not just determined by the political ambitions of the elite but a romantic political imagination achieved from below, reaching political viability and cultural expressions at a given state of social and economic development.

This makes me look the idea of India in a different light. It is not just a construct of the Europeanised political elite, a tool for unifying diverse people, built around the principles of republicanism and democracy. And, this shifts my position, only slightly it must be said, on what I think of Hindu Nationalists - instead of crazy, I think of them as the cynical ones - and perhaps that is not a big shift after all.


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