Editor's note: In his essay titled 'From National Culture to Cultural Nationalism' Sadanand Menon explores the cultural ideas behind the nation state. This is the first in a three-part series.
Incipient, amorphous, contradictory and always-in-formation, national consciousness or nationalism precedes the emergence of all nations.
This constructs itself around two visible axes — the political and the cultural. While the political engages with concepts of freedom, self-determination, sovereignty and self-reliance, the cultural tosses up difficult, contentious paradigms of identity, a coherent historical past, artistic heritage and a moral self.
As the consciousness of a nation-in-the-making accelerates, the idea of a national culture begins to consolidate, becoming the visible face of nationalism.
Culture and nationalism have ever been close allies. Culture has always set up the contours for national movements and nations have used culture as a convenient flag to wave in ideas of superiority or exclusivity. They constantly service each other in the project of manufacturing identities and consolidating boundaries—real and imaginary.
This lasts well into the formation of the nation. But, quite independent of this and not always lurking in the shadows, we also witness the parallel articulation of a rabid, virulent idea of cultural nationalism, which strives to define the political nation in narrow, restrictive and culturally monolithic and exclusionary terms.
A nation that, at some point, lets its political primacy be eroded and overrun by cultural nationalism can be construed to be on the verge of an implosion. India is today on the edge of such an implosion. Majoritarian nationalism masquerading as a ‘cultural good’ is systematically displacing the urgent imperatives of the political economy from the driver’s seat, and is pushing the nation onto a path entirely contradictory to what it strived for or claimed during its movement for national independence.
What is visible today is a new hatred for the idea of democracy as we know it and for the rights as guaranteed in the Constitution. This is quite in keeping with the agenda of cultural nationalism, which strives—through generating a climate of intolerance and intimidation — to keep civil society in a state of constant agitation by subjecting it to constant attack.
Cultural nationalism, by any definition, is a rogue version of nationalism which is already present in concepts of the nation state. Its cunning agenda is to evacuate all ideas of political rights from the idea of a nation state and transplant in its place ideas of cultural rights, obviously weighted in favour of concepts of primogeniture, racial purity and genetic ancestry as contained in ideas like janmabhumi or birthland/homeland and other emotive aspects that touch upon shared language, food and consanguinity. It is a highly charged area of irrational self-beliefs that give little credence to claims of history or any other kind of scientific research. It is an imaginary homeland constructed out of imaginary hurts, insults, wounds and defeats inflicted by imaginary enemies, who always belong to religions and regions not (you believe, are) your own. It is a strange, anxious individual who will not pay the slightest heed to one’s own proven hybridity. In history, nothing stays ‘pure’. Or, as Salman Rushdie would have it, it’s all subject to ‘mongrelisation’.
In the Indian context, the RSS’s effort has been to construct a ‘national identity’ which is anterior to and elides over the colonial as well Islamic periods of recent times to reach out to an ‘authentic’ India of the hoary past, which remains emblematic of its ‘real’ culture — unique, untrammelled and unadulterated by colonial or Islamic hybridity. In the past, this version found favour with the reigning tenets of Orientalist thought which divided the world into neat, essentialised compartments of the ‘East’ and the ‘West’. The East was, then, nothing but ‘spiritual’. Partha Chatterjee, in Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse, has clearly argued how these tropes play out, sometimes straight and sometimes inverting their own claims.
A constant character of the manufacture of cultural nationalism, therefore, is the constant and nagging ‘unhappiness’ over the narratives of the past which digress from specious claims of purity, undifferentiated unity and political power. Every attempt then is to exhibit unbridled triumphalism over its own antiquity and past glories that anticipate similar fortunes in the future.
Excerpted from ‘On Nationalism’ with permission of Aleph Book Company.