Shashi Tharoor explores idea of nation in new book; says 'Hindutva's ethno-religious nationalism will deny India to many Indians'

Are some Indians more Indian than others? Dr Shashi Tharoor examines the ideas of nationalism, patriotism, and what it means to be Indian in 'The Battle of Belonging'.

Manik Sharma November 03, 2020 10:36:40 IST
Shashi Tharoor explores idea of nation in new book; says 'Hindutva's ethno-religious nationalism will deny India to many Indians'

The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism, And What it Means to Be Indian (Aleph) is Dr Shashi Tharoor's most recently published book

The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism, And What it Means to Be Indian (Aleph) is Dr Shashi Tharoor's latest book. In it, the MP, author and former diplomat examines these terms, exploring the question — "are some Indians more Indian than others?". Edited excerpts from an interview:

Before we get to the book, how has the pandemic changed your reading/writing process?

It’s given me more concentrated periods of time to myself, for reading and writing, than my normal frenetic life, hurtling around the country, would have permitted. There’s been no shortage of work-related demands from my constituents and my political life, but not travelling has certainly enhanced my literary productivity.

You mention in the prologue that a certain ‘globalist sensibility’ that may have been attractive not too long ago has become unfashionable. What are the social and political disadvantages of this narrow worldview?

I go on to say that such a viewpoint has become unfashionable because of the growing phenomenon of hyper-nationalism, which is, by definition, exclusionary and restrictive. It asserts that one’s country must be supreme over others, and that interaction with any foreign country is a zero-sum game. The globalist sensibility I speak of is one that seeks to bring countries together in pursuit of the common good. It may sound idealistic to some, but that is the very mission that drives the United Nations, where I worked for 29 years, to do its indispensable work.

The disadvantages of an inward-looking, anti-globalist mindset are many, particularly that such a dogmatic attitude makes one blind to the benefits of cooperation. We have seen much of that attitude on display, from Brexit to the American withdrawal from the WHO and other international agreements. Political behaviour no doubt impacts societies, and we have seen appalling xenophobia grow in the wake of such political developments. Those of us who disagree with ugly bigotry and myopic isolationism have a duty to oppose it.

You go into some length about the personal, often contradictory choices, that different generations of your family have made with regard to Indian citizenship. Is the appeal of the Indian passport waning (even within your family)? What implications does a diminished ‘brand India’ have for a globalised future?

The appeal of the Indian passport to my family is undiminished, but the practical reasons for choosing other nationalities varies according to the circumstances of each family member. When my son Ishaan, who works for the Washington Post in America and needs to travel at short notice to countries where Indians need a visa, became American this year, he told me how much he wished India permitted dual nationality. It’s not a political choice but a practical one.

Still, I know of a number of Indians living abroad whose inclination to retain Indian passports has been shaken by the recent developments in our country, the rise of bigotry and divisive communal hatred, in particular. That kind of India is not one they are proud to be associated with any more. To that degree yes, “Brand India” is tarnished internationally and its image needs to be burnished if our country’s lustre is to be regained.

Generalisations about India, as you explain in the book, are almost impossible to make.  Yet they seem fetching, and evidently popular. As someone who dipped his toes into politics before the social media boom, what has changed?

Oh, social media has undoubtedly introduced a toxicity into Indian politics that wasn’t there before. The shield of anonymity that social media permits has unleashed a level of vicious vituperation that we wouldn’t have heard publicly before, and that has poisoned political discourse more generally. There’s something terribly self-reinforcing about social media too, because people are emboldened by seeing their prejudices being expressed or echoed by others, which gives them a sense of confidence in their views and emboldens them to express them more volubly. That’s how social media has become an accomplice of bigotry, communal prejudice and divisive anti-social behaviour.

In the chapter ‘we are all minorities in India’ you make an interesting case for how no one in this country is really a majority. But how much of a role does the nature of Indian electoral politics play in selling a sense of majoritarian envy? What could be the remedy?

In the book, I speak of the fact that some enjoy bandying about the phrase “majority community”, but so often this is misleading in the extreme: gender, caste, language, and much else besides often puts any self-proclaimed member of a “majority” in a minority quite quickly. To reverse Michael Ignatieff’s phrase, we are a land of belonging rather than of blood.

You’re right that electoral politics complicates this, because the quest for an electoral majority has driven much of today’s political majoritarianism. The old formula was that you constructed a majority out of a coalition of minorities. Now the ruling party, by harping on a Hindu identity that subsumes differences of caste, region, language and gender, has essentially marginalised the minorities in their quest for a majority base.

What could be the remedy? To reassert that such petty politicisation or identity actually divides the majority rather than unites it. And to remind voters that there are more important issues that affect their daily lives than asserting their communal identity.

The north-south divide has always existed in some sense, but it has now been politicised for cynical gain through Hindi imposition etc. How has this affected you personally, and as a public personality who represents a region that is now repeatedly targeted? What could be the long-term cost of such efforts?

Forcing a language, or indeed any aspect of culture, on any group is of course deeply harmful. The linguistic diversity of India is one of its greatest strengths. As I have pointed out in the book, there is no evidence that a single national language helps bind a country together – and in fact, the immense failure of this idea is demonstrated quite aptly by Pakistan’s attempts to impose Urdu across its erstwhile eastern and western halves. A single national language is, naturally, unimaginable in India, where you cannot grant an advantage to Shukla and Singh that imposes disabilities on Subramaniam and Reddy. Any attempt to impose Hindi on the unwilling will divide the country, perhaps fatally.

There is absolutely no need for one language to take precedence over another. As I pointed out when the controversial earlier draft of the National Education Policy was last year, most of us in the South learn Hindi as a second or third language, but nobody in the North is learning Malayalam or Tamil!

India’s pluralism is a worthy romantic ideal, one that you obviously believe in. But to a large part of India, it’s the material, the tangible that may matter more. How do we communicate this idea to them? Is that a challenge most liberals have perhaps struggled with? 

I don’t think it’s a particularly romantic idea — rather, it forms the basis of our seven decades of unity as an independent country! But I do understand that it is an idea that must be constantly replenished and strengthened: any ideal, no matter how meaningful, is vulnerable to dilution if not nurtured over time. Pluralism is essentially about the coexistence of different communities, which is not just a romantic idea but the way we have lived for millennia and arguably this country’s greatest strength.

As for the material issues you raise, the idea of equal justice among all is one that we in the Congress have promoted and it’s a core tenet for us. At the last election our proposed NYAY programme was highly popular and we’ve implemented it effectively in Chhattisgarh. I don’t think an emphasis on material justice is in any way incompatible with highlighting pluralism.

Why ‘civic nationalism’ in a nutshell? And what are some tendencies that Indian political parties, including the opposition, might have to forego to usher it in? 

Civic nationalism is, essentially, the nationalism that originates in the consent of citizens to participate in a free and democratic society of their own making. It is based on a few key pillars of representative democracy: constitutionalism, individual freedoms (especially freedom of expression), liberal democratic institutions, the right of people to be and become whatever they wish to be so long as they don’t harm others. Crucially, it emerges from a voluntary participation in civic society. It is this civic nationalism that is guaranteed by our secular constitution, which outlines the central position of representative democracy and liberal institutions in Indian society.

One thing that is key for all parties to remember about civic nationalism is that it is, by its very definition, an inclusive, all-encompassing idea. A political mindset that seeks to exclude people based on any immutable aspect of their identity (religion, colour, caste, language and so on) is fundamentally against the ethos of civic nationalism. It is crucial that the civic nationalism enshrined in our Constitution, which asserts inclusivity and harmony, is promoted and protected; the ethno-religious nationalism of Hindutva would end up denying India to many Indians.

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