While we pray
“The historical people prefer the hope of the future to the blessing of presence”.
— Stanley Rosen
We celebrate, once more, the advent of our nation upon the stage of world history. But the
people and traditions of India were in existence for centuries prior to August 1947, so what are we
celebrating? What was new was India’s admission to the theatre of nation-states;
its formalised entry into modernity. Modern is a famously slippery term, originating in Latin, indicating made just now, today, and referring to recent or present time. Since it is over a thousand years old, its current usage clearly refers as much to a condition of the human spirit as to a historical period. It’s been now for a long time!
No matter how ancient the heritage claimed by nationalists for their nation, the nation-state is of relatively recent vintage — it dates to the Western revolutionary era of the 18th century. That was also when the (geometrically derived) circular meaning of revolution underwent a change, and the word began to refer to progress in a straight line. Nationalism merged with the vocabulary of the assumed rectilinear course of modernity, and the nation-state emerged as the spatial home of a fabricated abstraction called the nation. With its conquest by nationalism, the state began to be viewed less as an instrument of law, and more as the instrument of the nation. Somewhere along the way we forgot that sovereignty is a human and not a divine matter. Along with minerals and forests, human beings became a resource, and the inversion was complete. The nation-state held sovereign power, and the people whose will was supposedly the foundation of legitimate governance, were transformed into mere biomass, building material to be sculpted into glorious nationhood. Nationalism became enforced affinity, the modern form of prayer.
A partisan spirit has overtaken the polity. The standard of relevance for ideas tends nowadays to point automatically to political parties. We inhabit a world of cliché and accusation. Both forms of speech refer to the Nation — the clichés speak of its bright future, while the accusations are employed by partisan wrestlers bent upon showing themselves as more patriotic than their opponents. Presumptuous phrases such as “world class”, “one billion Indians”, and “the nation wants answers” bombard our minds every day. Metaphysical abstractions such as “collective conscience of the nation” are bandied about by judges. Yet more abstractions such as “Hindu nationalism” are being presented for our edification. (Haven’t we had enough of this? Remember the fate of Muslim nationalism?) Truthful speech is cast aside, intellectual bankruptcy and deceit are on parade. Those who want us to remember 1528 ask us to forget 2002. Those who stalled justice for the victims of 1984 tell us that Maoists are India’s biggest security threat. Why shouldn’t the rampaging violence against women and children be given that status? Development is surrounded by criminality; and reforms are taken to mean unrestrained assaults upon land, forests, rivers and poor people. After the Uttarakhand disaster, news editors who regularly decry environmental regulations as “green terror”, began denouncing the environmental negligence of officialdom without a word of self-reflection.
The other dimension of national existence is its bondage to conflict. World military expenditure in 2012 was estimated at $1,756 billion, representing 2.5 per cent of global GDP, higher than in any year between 1945 and 2010. The world system is an enemy system and nationalism is ideologically crucial to it. It exists as a tight nexus of arms industries, nuclear weapons production, massive national arms budgets and growing surveillance empires. India, China and Pakistan are the world’s top three arms importers, with India replacing China at the top of the list in 2011. Nations cannot exist without enemies, even though this structure keeps the world perpetually on the edge of catastrophe. The language of national animus enables everyone to disclaim responsibility for conflict — it’s always (credibly) someone else’s fault. For India and Pakistan, the daily military calisthenics at the Wagah border manifests the orchestrated nature of national animosity.
War has become an internal affair — essential for the ruling groups of all countries. South Asia abounds in private armies, the most prominent of which portray themselves as armed patriots of their preferred identity. Maoist guerillas, lashkars of Allah’s faithful, Hindutva cadre and commandos of various liberation forces, all warriors of sacred causes are united in their fascination with martyrdom, machismo and the long march towards the glorious future. As if international conflict were not enough, we are now conditioned by everyday propaganda to prepare for the militarisation of civil society as well. Communal tension and violence have emerged as tools of clever governance. It might be difficult to accept this, but war is not meant to be won. It is meant to be continuous.
By a recent estimate, bribes add between 35 to 40 per cent to the cost of infrastructural projects. The fate of honest officers underscores the fact that some of these payments must facilitate wrongful clearances. This implies that some officers, businessmen and leaders are consciously violating the law. Those who resist them are often depicted as enemies of national progress. Can we please stop the nation worship, glory-talk and world class mumbo-jumbo for a few minutes and think about the people in factories, slums and villages? What is a nation less its people? India ranks 181 out of 188 countries in terms of public expenditure on health; and 142 out of 194 in life expectancy at birth.
In expected years of schooling, India ranks 142 out of 192 countries. In health and education taken together (with the above indicators), India ranks 163 out of 186. Does it look as if lofty nationalist phrase-mongering will make a dent in this alarming social reality? Thirty-eight years ago, during the Emergency, DTC buses carried slogans telling the public that we were marching towards a happy tomorrow. Tomorrow seems to be
taking its time. But today is here. How we act and speak today is what will make a difference.
The writer is a Delhi-based historian and author of Revolution Highway