Nation and its Violences: Sanjay Kumar

Guest Post by Sanjay Kumar

Violent thoughts and deeds are increasingly getting justified in the name of Indian nation. A mob of lawyers has attacked students, teachers and journalists, right in the middle of a court complex in the national capital. Leaders of these patriotic lawyers were later caught bragging on camera about how they will next time throw bombs on anti-nationals. A young woman in Delhi has received emails and face book posts threatening her with acid attack and sexual assault, because she happens to be a sister of Umar Khalid, one of the organisers of the JNU programme, during which according to police anti-India slogans were raised. The mere being of this woman, and her defence of her brother, is enough of a provocation for many men and women of the country to justify the threat of ultimate male violence against women. Another man, Mr Adarsh Sharma put posters in the central district of the capital announcing an award of Rs 11 lakh for anyone who kills Mr Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of  the JNUSU, charged with sedition. Mr Sharma claims that his ‘blood boiled’ when he saw Mr Kumar’s much publicised speech after his release on bail. The popular movie Pyasa (1957) of Gurudutt had a song ‘Jinhen Naz hai Hind par vo kahaan hain’, which used the reality of social degradation to question celebrations of the nation. Sahir’s poem worked because it asked Indians to look at themselves in the mirror of public morality of the recently independent India. That mirror has been cracked for long. With the brazenly violent now claiming that their violence and threat to violence should really be the pride of the nation, we are now witnessing the final shattering of that mirror.

Nobody knows for sure whether more Indians agree with the perpetrators of such violence and threats, or with their victims. It may be true that not many Indians are actually likely to indulge in violence, or threaten violence, for the sake of what they view as their nation. However, many more are likely to agree with the context of such violence. ‘Violence and threats may not be right, but slogans against India can not be tolerated!’, or in the most recent context, ‘what is wrong in saying “Bharat Mata ki Jai!”’, is likely to be the more common refrain. This reasoning is what the strategists of the ruling dispensation are banking upon to  give them a handsome harvest of votes during coming elections. There is a widely shared commonality of a national sentiment, what constitutes an affront to the nation, what is an act treachery, etc. And, if violence and threat to violence are tolerated, (even if not openly appreciated) it is because this sentiment is shared by the violent, and not so violent Indians. Prime Minister Modi’s silence about the violence and threat of violence in the name of the nation is symptomatic of this widely shared creed.

Anatomy of National Violence

The current spate of  violence in the name of India is driven by sentiments. All humans love their sentiments. This love is an integral part of their self love. Sentiments, however are fragile and are often hurt in a world having people with diverse motivations, perspectives and positions. An essential part of socialisation process is learning how do to deal with ‘hurt’ sentiments. Hurt to sentiments can be handled by disapproval, expression of anger, violent reaction, or in some cases also by critical self reflection. An essential requirement to determine the correct course of action is an objective assessment of differences in the world, an ability which humans acquire as they grow up in society. In this regard our sentimental nationalists, both of the violent and non violent type, seem infantile. For example, in the mental map of such nationalists diverse figures like Afzal Guru (or Yakub Memon), the as yet unknown people who raised anti-India slogans at JNU, JNUSU office bearers, JNU faculty, and other public figures who do not agree with their kind of nationalism for their own reasons, are all conflated as uniformly anti-national. The fact that even retired Supreme Court judges have raised objections to the hanging of Guru and Memon, that the CPI, the party of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar is wedded to the ‘unity and integrity of India’, or that the radical Marxist group of Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya has no sympathy for religious fundamentalists and advocates self-determination for all ‘nationalities’ in India, stand for little analytical significance in the world of these nationalists. Theirs is an infantile psyche hell bent on seeing the world according to its own subjective demands. Its vision is self-centered, and it refuses to accept any claims of public rationality on its sphere of interest. The principle of its relationship with others is authority. Their violence itself is an assertion of authority in the face of difference and/or opposition. Their self obsession is matched by an overbearing conception of an Other, the anti-self which stands for anything which is different from or opposed to their view of the world. Since the Other is located outside the world of self’s concerns, it becomes possible to imagine its excision. At times of crises such an excision becomes a site of passionate indulgence, since the other response to crises, namely self reflexivity, is made impossible precisely by the self-indulgent structure of such a psyche.

Individuals of course have as much right to be angry, wish harm to others, or imagine indulging in violence, as much as they have to be happy and contended. We are witnessing a public association of such sentiments with the Indian nation. This is not a result of individuals’ actions, but of deliberate politics. It is well known that  fascism is precisely that brand of mass politics which feeds on and encourages such sentiments. It is adept at creating crises, or making use of crises, to create conditions for mass participation in the excision of the Other. The recent events around JNU are a good example. The police files a case of sedition against students on the basis of a video, proved to be fake, in which some people are shown shouting ‘anti-India’ slogans. It disregards Supreme Court decisions that mere shouting slogans is not sedition. The home minister makes claims about the connections of students to LeT terrorists on the basis of a tweet which turns out to be fake. Another minister goes hysterical claiming hurt to her Bharat Mata. A select group of TV channels go bananas, airing a fake recording repeatedly and demanding punishment to the anti-nationals. Hindutva politicians, their followers in the state administration, and media act as if according to a script. A mass sentiment is created that the JNU is the center of ‘anti-nationals’, that people like Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid are the linchpins of this anti-India crusade, and that anyone who stands with them is an anti-national.

Another sentiment much used by fascist politics is the emotional shock of martyrdom, i.e. meeting death in the service of the nation. This politics converts the sombre occasion of a death into a spectacle of mass participation. When used with the death of security forces personnel , it also prepares ground for militarisation of society. Lance Naik Hanumanthappa’s death, who survived ten days under fifty feet of snow after an avalanche in Siachen glacier, but could not be saved, has been much used by sentimental nationalists in their recent attacks on ‘anti-nationals’. Interestingly little is heard of the other nine soldiers who died in the same avalanche. Hanumanthappa’s rescue (in itself a sign of the tenacity of the rescue team), his transport to national capital, visit of the Prime Minister to  the hospital, and anxiety ridden days when most Indians hoped that he will beat death, all these elements made his tragic death ideal for a spectacle and a slogan to beat ‘anti-nationals’ with. Actually, martyrdom is the last thing any modern professional army thinks about, or trains for. Calculated courage and bravery is rewarded, and if death occurs in such circumstances, it is publicly honoured. But that is very different from making a spectacle of a death. In reality, far from seeing it as an occasion for any sentimentality, professional armies see death of personnel in operations as necessitating a reappraisal of training, preparation, and strategy. Which of course, is the only sensible way to value life.

It should also be noted that Indian security forces have been engaged in war like operations for decades in the North-East, Kashmir, and Bastar in central India against insurgencies which do not accept the sovereignty of the Indian state. In 2004, twelve Manipuri women, all middle aged and older mothers, protested naked in front of the head quarters of Assam Rifles there, with a banner reading ‘Indian Army Rape Us’, after the rape and murder of a young woman Thangjam Manorama in the  state. How should Indians react to that protest? Indians who are prepared to be violent, or would tolerate violence, when India is criticised would perhaps not even register it, if like Kashmiri Muslims, in their mental map Manipuris too have been cordoned off as the Other, who count for nothing. Indian administration and politicians are likely to belittle the protest, or try to prove it as a conspiracy. But are these the only ways Indians can react to it?  This leads to the second question with regard to nation and its violences. Is it possible to engage with a nation critically from within? Or, is a sentimental attachment to the nation, which gets easily hurt when the nation is shown in bad light, the only way to relate to it?

Many Nations of India

Nations are imagined political communities. Communities of any type are glued together by common symbols, rituals, remembered histories, and associations, all of which make people’s social being, and are prime sites of their sentiments. Communities are also made by shared ethics, sanskars, and traditions, which are different from sentiments, yet are closely associated with community identity. In the political arena people are driven by their community sentiments, as well as by their values. Sentiments are attached to our identities, what we believe we are. Values like democracy, tolerance, basic honesty, respect for the rights of others, etc. are subjective resources which help us evaluate, and determine different courses of action, and make decisions. They help us become. Without values we will remain prisoners of our being, we wont be able to fashion our own being, we will miss an essential quality of being human. Nationalist ideologies enact a careful mix of sentiments and values. The claim, ‘America, the land of liberty!’ associates America, felt as a unique and a great country, with the value of liberty. The degree of mix however can vary greatly. The statement, ‘India is the largest democracy.’ is largely about India and a value, though it can also work as a nationalist sentiment, as an assertion of pride for Indians. ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ is largely a sentimental assertion. It does not assert any value. So, it does make a big difference what kind of nation is invoked in nationalist imaginings, and history gives many examples of stark contrasts.

The elements of Hindutva nation have a long pedigree going back to the the first modern stirrings of Indian nation in the colonial world of the late nineteenth century Bengal. A sentimental attachment to India as a Mother, in the image of Durga in chains of alien rule, is already there in the later writings of Bankim Chandra, author of the much used nationalism hymn ‘Vande Matram’. The Swadeshi movement of 1905, which started as a popular opposition to the partition of Bengal by colonial rulers, and was perhaps the first popular movement to use the slogan ‘Vande Matram’ ended up in communal riots. As Wilhwelm Reich shows in Mass Psychology of Fascism, patriarchal family values and acceptance of mysticism played important role in preparing ground for Fascism in Germany. The early mix of patriarchy, religion and nation in colonial and multi-religious India faced unique problems, not encountered elsewhere. A key political element of nations is sovereignty, which is unitary by definition. Hence to be successful, national imaginings have to become hegemonic. It became obvious that an imagining of India that relied upon Hindu upper caste symbols and whose sole driving force was a simplistic moral (us vs them) opposition to colonial rulers could not be hegemonic. The country was simply too diverse and complex; there were simply too many Indians other than upper caste Hindus. Muslims, who actually formed the majority of Bengalis, and not only lived in a cultural zone outside Hindu castes, but also across class chasm from upper caste Bhadraloks, had little place in it. Tenant farmers from oppressed Hindu castes too had little fervour for it. When the actual politics became messy with many contending interests, the model was more likely to slip into demonisation of the Other, (Muslims came in most handy) rather than self-reflection. Tagore’s Ghare Baire is an acute comment on this degeneration. On a parallel note, it is surprising so little of Muslim Bengal is visible in creations of even as sensitive and enlightened an artist as Tagore.

Gandhian revolution in Indian politics inhered in the replacement of the simple binary of ‘us vs them’ that asserted the difference between colonial rulers and Indians, by the value of justice in Indian national imagining. India had to be freed from colonial rule because it was unjust. Gandhi started his satyagrahas by showing how specific colonial policies were unjust and oppressive. His politics freed Indians from the narrow frame of essentialised ‘us vs them’, and broadened their horizons beyond a ‘we’, which would have always remained bounded by cultural boundaries. It is little appreciated that when in 1927 Congress took the decision to have its organisation based on linguistic divisions, that was perhaps the first time a nation was being imagined beyond linguistic boundaries. The European nationalists, both from the left and the right, had always regarded a common language as an essential property of a nation. The extension beyond a narrow ‘we’ of language, religion, etc. was a change of moral prism, which fundamentally affected national politics and the nature of political subjects. The idea of justice is expansive and dynamic. People from diverse backgrounds can come together to imagine and fight for a common vision of a just society.  The Nehruvian extension of this imagined nation further took it beyond traditional and conservative moorings of Gandhi.

The Nehru-Gandhi idea of India did become near-hegemonic. It formed the foundation of independent India’s constitution, and the self ideology of Indian nation state. These developments actually covered up its internal contradictions. It had an elitist core. It allowed for elite transformation, but on their own terms. Hence, upper castes could be ‘reformed’ to give up untouchability, without losing their upper caste status. Gandhian ahimsa, and liberalism of Indian state threw a safety net around interests of upper class and caste Hindus. These did not advocate violence, but accepted everyday violences of an oppressive and exploitative society. People like Ambedkar, and left political groups continued to show ugly faces of actually existing India, but had little traction inside the Gandhi-Nehru model of India. Indian nation state took on the responsibility of reforming Hindu society through law. This actually arrested struggles for democracy from within, so that decades after laws were passed against them, caste and gender oppression continue. In fact the nation state of India in many formal aspects is more democratic than the Indian nation it represents. This is not a recent development. Despite all trappings of formal democracy of the state in India, its society did not become democratic. Now that the hegemony of Gandhi-Nehru model of India is crumbling, the hard undemocratic core of Indian society is emerging as the central support base of Hindutva fascism.

From hindsight it is clear that the three decades after independence were perhaps the best for upper caste Hindus in modern Indian history. Anxieties about a separatist Muslim elite got washed down in Partition. The hegemony of the prevailing idea of India disarmed movements against caste and class privileges. Expanding higher education and public sector opened many vistas for material and social advancement. The Congress system returned stable polities on the basis of an hegemonic alliance of upper caste modernising elites with minorities and dalits. The political assertion of numerically superior OBCs and, later of dalits laid much into future. In fact the successes of Hindutva in the past two decades owe as much to the disintegration of this alliance, and subsequent disquiet among upper caste Hindus, as to political campaigns of the RSS.

Nationalist Sentiments vs Azadi

Hindutva is trying to push its brand of nationalism to the center of  politics, because through that it can undercut democracy. Media publicity, sedition cases against JNU students, and subsequent threats and violence, have given the idea of the Indian nation a quotidian context, to which many Indians can relate to in much more tangible ways, than assertions and arguments about the history of the freedom movement, constitution, fundamental rights, etc. Equality, fundamental rights (particularly of others), appreciation of plurality, etc. require some imagination. Hurt to sentiments, anger and the instinct to fix the wrong, are more immediately felt. Hindutva game plan is to enervate popular politics, so that it remains chained to the latter, rather than fight for the former. Democratic politics would play into Hindutva’s plans if it tries to prove itself to be a better example of nationalist politics. Democracy does not exist for the nation, nation exists for democracy.  The importance of someone like Kanhaiya Kumar lies precisely in this. His narrative, centered around the slogan of azadi presents an alternate framework, which is quotidian, resonates with the everyday experiences of Indians, and is sufficiently suffused with political values to give them subjective resources to fight for a better life. India desperately needs many more of such narratives. Otherwise, history shows that societies which get sucked into the black hole of fascism, get out of it only after wholesale disasters.

(Sanjay Kumar teaches Physics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi)

One thought on “Nation and its Violences: Sanjay Kumar”

  1. The basic question tags of “why”, ” what”, “how”, and ” when”, etc., are the prime causes of violent reactions in any society. If Newton or Galileo had not questioned the old dogmatic thoughts of biblical notions, the world could not have moved forward. But in India, the brahminal class took all necessary care to stop such questions being raised from time to time by the suppressed classes by removing possibility of their education and constantly engaging them in hard labour to earn their daily bread. They were never allowed to spend time on the basic questions of the divisive caste system and reflect on injustice meted out to them by ingeneous doctrine of the theory of ‘karma’ and they were shown the imaginary world of heaven if they follow their present duties accorded to them in this ‘janma’ (incarnation). Only when the British made education accessible to the lower classes, did they received enlightenment as to the illogical theories of the Hindu mythology and the clever brahmincal tactics of comfortable living on the production of the lower strata of society. That is why the aesthetic brahmin and the supporting fringe classes dwelt on sex and log in their works of art while the laborers literature is replete with songs of sufferings and reality of life. The boon of education made the lower classes rise and question the status quo. The brahmins sensed this and started hating the British as they felt danger of their citedel crumbling to pieces. Though the British had their own selfish agenda, they helped the rise of caste consciousness in dalits and backward classes cannot be ruled out. Phule couples, Ambedkar and others openly started to despise the brahminical cruelty and started mobilizing the masses.
    Quickly, the brahmin classes sensed danger and started ‘reformist’ measures in the garb of ‘Gandhism’ and tried to forge unity to drive out English imprialism, instill ‘patriotism’, among the lower classes, show them false images of equality after independence and empowerment of women, adivasis, etc., and thereby suppressing their rising intellectual power of revolting against the elite classes.
    The present trend of violence and intolerance should be seen in thus historical background and the struggle of survival of the ancient caste system in its original form. This struggle would be intensified in future as the mobilization of masses is gathering momentum more than ever. The fanatical hindutva elements are trying no stone unturned to diffuse the congkemaration of all the oppressed classes by dividing their power and alluring some if their leaders to support their ideology. The war has just started…


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