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One thing India can teach the West is this — you can be a liberal and a nationalist

People in the West might cringe at the word ‘nationalism’, but it is for us Indians as ‘vishwaguru’ to show them that it need not be a bad word.

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Even now, many in the West are aghast when I declare myself an Indian nationalist. “But you said you believe in individual liberty, in economic freedom, free trade and social pluralism — how can you be a nationalist?” they ask. They find it hard to square the fact that a person who advocates liberal values can also identify with nationalism, which in much of the Western world is defined in ethnic-racist supremacist terms. Indeed, many will argue that it is impossible to be liberal and nationalist at the same time, as these values are in fundamental contradiction with each other.

The origin, development and consequences of the politics of nationalism in western Europe and the United States has led many in the West, and indeed most of the world, to see nationalism as a bad thing. It is not surprising therefore that an RSS functionary in the United Kingdom advised its chief Mohan Bhagwat (in his words), “not to use the word nationalism as English is not our language and it could have a different meaning in England. It’s okay to say nation, national and nationality but not nationalism. Because it alludes to Hitler, Nazism and fascism in England.”

Yes, the word nationalism does have different connotations in the West, but that is no reason for us in India to stop using that word.

Also read: Hate is hot in India. Colder ideas like constitutional patriotism must work harder to win

A civic nationalism

As I have argued before, Indian nationalism has uniquely taken a different route since its inception. In sharp contrast to the shape it took in Europe, Indian nationalism has been inclusive, non-denominational and non-hateful. What united Dadabhai Naoroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose and Sardar Patel was the need to unite a vast people belonging to numerous castes, creeds and religions into a common nation. The objective of the nationalist movement was to secure political independence, not because of hatred for the British, but to attain self-rule. The goal of the Indian Republic, as laid out in the Preamble of the Constitution was to secure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all its citizens.

Of course, reality fell short of these ideals, but ideals make the whole difference. There were those from the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha who argued that a plural Indian nation cannot be, and we had Partition. Ambedkar rightly warned that India cannot be a nation as long as its people divided themselves into exclusive castes. The freedom movement did include people who hated the British and despite Gandhi’s injunctions against violence, took to arms. We know that the Indian Republic sometimes did not — and is not — living up to the values enshrined in the loftiest bits of the Constitution. When we fall short, it only means we have to try harder to live up to the prospectus.

So, we need not have any compunctions in identifying with principles that have forged the Indian Republic and present us with the best template on which to construct our future. Indian nationalism is a civic nationalism that textures plain old love for the country with decency and respect for all its people.

Of course, to the extent that the Sangh Parivar does not believe in Indian nationalism, and considers Hindu nationalism or Hindutva as distinct from it, Bhagwat’s British interlocutor is right to be concerned with the parallels with fascism.

Also read: India was a land of dharma but Europeans reduced it to Hinduism, Islam. And we accepted it

Liberal nationalism can exist

The idea of a Hindu Rashtra, as popularly understood, is reminiscent of Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s 1808 address to the German nation, where he conceived the nation as having “a spiritual existence that needed to be cultivated through education and the flourishing of a national culture built around a national language.” Needless to say, when you mix nationalism and socialism, you get a terrible thing that you don’t want to be associated with.

The problem with European nationalism was that it was designed for entities that shared a common language, ethnicity and perhaps religion. It could work at the level of a Germany, Italy or France. It did not work at the pan-European level. Even today, while there still are German, Italian or Dutch nationalists, there is no European nationalist. In contrast, Indian nationalism works at a subcontinental scale — and can work on a global scale — precisely because it does not insist on a single language, race and religion. Conversely, a nationalism that insists on one language and one religion risks tearing the unity of India asunder.

Theorists will tell us that liberal nationalism is a contradiction in terms, and therefore India cannot exist. But it does. It is the theorists who must update their theories. People in the West might cringe at the word ‘nationalism’, but it is for us to show them that it need not be a bad word. I’ve long felt that “if there is anything India is a “vishwaguru” on, it is this”.

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.

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  1. Words have precise meaning and they convey some sense. Nationalism is a bad word and it will continue to be and shall continue to be. Why fiddle with fire. Let it be as it is. We needed nationalism at a time now we don’t. It is a liability now. and combined with Hindutva it becomes outright nightmare.

  2. Another sh** of writing. They blabber a lot, but say nothing., because they are flippant. Clouded vision and closed minds, filled with hatred. None of these know what left thinking is. Ask them and they will not be even able to define Marxism and socialism. It would be a surprise if they can even spell these terms. Ask them how is socialism different from capitalism and they give 3rd class downright stupid answers…

    Modi’s India is mediocre, self obsessed, ignorant and violent. It can’t achieve anything. They will only destroy. Destroy the faith, harmony and humanity.

  3. Point taken… however I’m not sure if this is worth the fight. Why fight to be able to use the term (“Nationalism”) and having to go around explaining what exactly one means, in what (Indian) context etc. One will still risk being misunderstood &/or confused with other hate-ideologies. So – beyond an initial “shock-value” I don’t see a lot of benefit in using this term.

    Could we not “just” look for an alternative term which has a positive connotation universally?

  4. It is a bit of wishful thinking, Nitin. Definitely, not in today’s time when the people in power our desperate to fool rest of us in the name of every possible division – religion, caste, geography and so on. Though I do hope they get some sense soon.

  5. Nationalists are naturally liberal. The so called left liberals are not only the most illiberal but they are crooks of highest order..

    • In democracies it’s the poor and the rich who choose through their votes. Real beggars are English educated slaves like you.

  6. India represents the worst in fascist nationalism. Hindu fanatics are tearing the country apart by pushing a Hindu supremacist agenda. This article is a joke.

    • You are a perfect case for whom Pakistan was created. A day will come when you’ll exercise your choice that your forefathers could not due to stopage of train service between India and Pakistan.

      • My relatives left to Pakistan but others stayed. India was created thanks to Muslims who fought for it, not lazy Hindus who opposed it. Plus, India was given a big piece of land due to its ‘secularism’ to accept all faiths.
        If India cannot treat Muslims and other minorities right, it must be partitioned again and not be given land that was meant for others and not a Hindutva Nazi state.
        Thanks to you Hindu fascists for doing what China and Pakistan could not, DESTROY INDIA!

  7. Before we talk of Nationalism, we must accept the fact that India has yet to become a nation. We are a.federation of nationalities. Thanks to the vicious propaganda of Sanghparivar.and the rule of its bhakt Modi,we are a long way to make a Nation.So mere talk of being a Nation and beingn Viswaguru. to teach the West is nothing but self applauding and living in fools Paradise.

  8. You are right but none of the liberal political parties in national scenario are nationalist.
    Congress, CPI, APP resemble labour party in UK, Democrat party in USA. Liberal moved too left made them inaccessible which create space for right
    When liberal failed to call the spade
    Silence of labour party on Pak grooming gang case
    Democrat party’s socialist movement and reaction to Iran policy
    Congress and other opposition party’s reaction to violence during anti CAA protest

    The more left we go more space right will get as in battle of perception left is loosing everywhere.

    • The article is not referring to left or right. How is that connection being established? Left and right have both fooled people. Right more often in the name of nationalism, as they think they have divine right over every individual choice in the name of nation. Left swings the same argument in the name of well-being of the masses. Nationalism to me is when everyone thinks of everyone else’s welfare (in a given geography, that ends up being defined as a nation – either by the circumstances created by nature or the actions of people in the past). No one fellow (or a bunch of self-serving politicians) have a right to define nationalism for anyone of us. We have seen in the past what these politicians have achieved for us as a nation. A live demonstration is on in Delhi right in front of our eyes currently.

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