I often wonder how nationalism managed to make its glorious comeback in the 21st century. What is it that took over human rationale in such a sweeping motion and with such finality that no doubts thenceforth entered the hefty fortress of a young, nationalistic mind? How is it that across continents, modern governments replicated oppressive models of a violent world history while simultaneously gaining jubilant admirers?
With that in mind, when I look at India today, I see that a large part of the fuel that powers modern young Right Wing angst, is that “for far too long, we have been made to feel ashamed about our culture and our religion”. In other words, pride. Wholesome and flawless pride. That overwhelming sense of contentment with a state of affairs or oneself. A safe haven of emotions where doubts are not entertained and fear lurks just outside the periphery of satisfaction.
Now, from a strictly theoretical point of view, I can understand this. I don’t agree with it but it can be analysed enough to see where the other party is coming from. That’s perspective, a tenet of democracy. Therefore I understand and agree that shame is debilitating to a human’s self-worth. Recurring guilt paralyses personal growth. So when an entire community is viscerally attacked over the matter of its privilege, it is tempting to strike back with “pride” — pride in a religion, a race, a caste, an ethnicity, a culture etc.
To add fuel to the fire, the current Government’s principal thrust-point has also been nationalism: the extremist cousin of patriotism that nurtures the idea of pride in one’s country. It is extremist because unlike patriotism, nationalism clearly demarcates the nature of a citizen’s pride. It is acceptable and praise-worthy only when it is blind to the country’s flaws and the government’s blunders. Anything to the contrary is looked upon as harmful to the nation’s development.
Such a qualified characterization of pride can give way to dangerous territory in a democracy. This is easily explained by the fact that when pride is wielded as a shield to deflect valid criticism of problematic status quo, its beneficiaries continue to propagate those ills while remaining insulated to consequences.
And that is how nationalism reared its head again. Pride became an easy defence, an emotionally stimulating excuse or a readily available protective device for anyone being questioned. In fact, questions have now become akin to shaming, an affront to personal identity. So the person who deems himself shamed for his identity then doubles down and rejects what can be valid criticism. That is why attaching more value to a country over an individual breeds an aversion to criticism of the same, even if it is well-placed. When it is limited to a party, it is worrisome, one problem amongst many others. But when it is sponsored by the government, it is a threat to free speech.
The 2019 amendment of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (hereinafter referred to as UAPA) is an example as it raises genuine concerns about free expression in this country. Originally intended to combat terrorism, the 2019 amendment has seemingly expanded the Government’s powers to counter criticism under the garb of a crackdown on terrorism. What would otherwise be deemed as fair use of liberty of thought and speech has been demonized for mere association with an idea or a movement. Individuals can now be notified as ‘terrorists’, a word that can single-handedly dismantle an innocent person’s life, career and social standing. Furthermore, the de-notification process is not separated from politics as the Review Committee overseeing that procedure will consist of Government appointees and not independent judges.
But what truly stands out is the arbitrary nature of the Government’s powers, strengthened by vague wording of the Act’s provisions. With no specific criteria laid down for designating individuals as terrorists, the amendment quickly reveals itself to be more of a political tool than an administrative one.
Any misgivings regarding the same were dismissed when CAA protestors, mainly students and activists, were arrested for allegedly committing offences under UAPA. Even the general public anger against CAA protestors stems not from a logical counter-argument but from this idea that criticising the Government is an overt act of undermining India’s value. It is an idea that equates government to country, an idea that says “if you don’t like the Government, you must be against India”. Put simply, a nationalist idea.
But nothing could be farther from the truth! In our daily cycle of twitter outrage, we have forgotten that a question is not an attack. Criticism can add perspective to our position without taking away the validity of our existence. Not every street-side skirmish is a war to end all wars. An article on Maoism or a joke about LaalSalaam is not an induction into violent secessionist groups. It is not a challenge to the Government. It is a sentence that talks about a serious political issue and that’s about it. Similarly, protesting is not anti-national if all it does is ask questions that stand true to the intrinsic values of our Constitution. Even on an individualistic note, questions or criticism of our privilege coming from our religion, caste, skin colour, place of birth, or family name are not public declarations of us being bad people. However, they may be a path to us being better people, ones who are more self-aware.
That’s how laws that criminalize contradicting thought processes reveal the true intent behind their creation: an inability to be self-aware and an authoritarian agenda. When a person struggles with criticism at his own microcosmic level, it is a personality issue that can be modified. But when a collective conscience of a republic country adheres to a Government because of a systemic belief that criticism is anti-national, it is fertile soil for an elected body functioning with zero accountability. Nationalism seeks to stifle free speech, free speech is bullied into silence, silence breeds more nationalism.
Thus in the chaos that democracy can be, it is important to see that criticism is an opportunity for us to understand how much water we displace and how much that displacement affects those around us. It is an opportunity to learn how to tread softly, speak gently, and act kindly towards those who have historically been victims of inequality — inequality perpetrated by our own ancestors and inequality that we never had to suffer because we were on the other end of the spectrum.
There is no dearth of information outlets that will try to make us feel good about our identity. These places can be comfortable and can feel safe. Some of these outlets will go as far as to tell us that we are the victims of the ‘vested interests’ of the poor, the underprivileged, and the destitute. They will tell us that the poor are poor not because we have too much, but because they are lazy, or genetically incapable of doing better. They will try to convince us that there is something fundamentally good or virtuous about us and our religion or race that no one else can possibly have because they were not born into it.
Therefore I submit that it is ignorant to follow any idea uncritically. An idea doesn’t become valid on account of how old it is or how many people accept it or if it has sovereign force. Its merit has to be evaluated on the basis of varied intellectual criteria. And one of those criteria should be checking our pride. If the only reason we like something potentially harmful to others is because it makes us proud of our country and doesn’t hurt us, it is time to understand what misplaced pride is.
Pride coming from social privilege and cultural capital that steps on the backs of others to stand tall is not worth generational protection. An India that begets religious bias is not worth an Indian’s pride. What we need, more than ever before, is a sense of solidarity that rings true as much in its spirit as it does in its advocacy.
So the next time something you hold dear is criticised, try seeing the other person’s perspective. As I said above, it is a tenet of democracy.
Vijayendra Mohanty is a writer of speculative fiction and an independent creator. His areas of interest are society, culture, and storytelling. He is the co-creator of the mythological comic book series Ravanayan and the YouTube channel Epified.
Asmita Kuvalekar is a student at Government Law College. Mumbai.
Photo Credits: Pratham Gokhale/Hindustan Times