India and the Indian: Genes are the root of nationalism but don't determine our destiny, writes Praveen Swami

This essay is part of Firstpost’s ‘India and the Indian’ series, which examines the renewed idea of nationalism in vogue today, and what it means.

Read more from this series.


Flo, Fifi, Gigi, Mike: In the 60s, as the Age of Love bloomed across the world, the primatologist Jane Goodall made us familiar with these gentle giants, our closest evolutionary relatives.

The Kasekela chimpanzees shared food, and sex, with a magnificent lack of possessiveness; they knew no borders, and welcomed strangers. The science writer Robert Ardrey, in 1966, wrote that the chimpanzees introduced us to our own true nature, an "arcadian existence of primal innocence".

Except, it was not true.

From the 70s, the growing Kasekela chimpanzee community split into two, apparently because of male sexual competition. Brutal border warfare broke out, with a series of murderous skirmishes ending in the annihilation of the breakaway Kahama community. Primatologists Toshisada Nishida, Christophe and Hedwige Boesch, and Richard Wrangham even discovered chimpanzees practicing those most human of behaviours — rape and torture.

In the midst of a world witnessing a dramatic sharpening of group identities — religious, ideological, ethnic, national — the story of our primate relatives ought give reason to reconsider our most fundamental beliefs about ourselves. Precisely what does it mean to be Kasekela or Kahama, Indian or Pakistani, Hindu or Muslim? Exactly what does belonging to a tribe, or a caste, or a nation mean? And why exactly is it we believe these things are worth dying — or killing — for?

The answers to these questions, and the roots of nationalism, are in our genes.


Karl Marx points us in the direction of where the modern Indian nation-state began to emerge. "The misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan," he argued in 1853, "is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before." "All the civil wars, invasions, revolutions, conquests, famines, strangely complex, rapid, and destructive as the successive action in Hindostan may appear," Marx observed, "did not go deeper than its surface."

"England," Marx went on, "has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing". "This loss of his old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history. "

Put another way, Indian nationalism was an effort to resurrect identity and culture from the levelling processes of capitalism and imperialism.

 India and the Indian: Genes are the root of nationalism but dont determine our destiny, writes Praveen Swami

Illustration © Satwick Gade for Firstpost

Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, understood this clearly. Indians, he argued, "did not have a sustaining consciousness of self that would equip them with the determination and resources necessary to defend themselves." Thus, Hedgewar concluded, "they needed a philosophy of action founded upon the historic society and cultural community that had produced them but of the which they were only dimly aware."

Like all nationalisms, thus, the idea of India is a fiction: Nation-states, communities and cultures are in constant movement, admitting of no neat beginnings or ends. The purpose of ideology, of the which religions are a subset, seeks to impose order upon the chaotic narrative of history.

In its various iterations — Liberal, Hindu-nationalist, Marxist — Indian nationalism seeks to explain who we are, and what our purpose for being might be. The making of the Indian-nationalist story, though, involves judgments about what to leave in, and excise; what to re-imagine, and what to make up.

Hindu nationalists revelled in ancient cultural and social achievements; few, however, celebrated the sexual freedoms of Khajuraho or Konark. Indian secularists, similarly, drew on 'Ganga-Jamuni' syncretic culture, but elided over the enslavement of Hindus by Muslim rulers in the pre-colonial period.

From its outset, Indian nationalism was concerned with the reclamation of male agency — a feature of nationalist movements across the world, too. In Bengal, the crucible of Indian nationalism, Professor Bose's Great Bengal Circus was hailed for its discovery of the tiger-wrestling Syamakanta Banerjee; his feats were "patriotic efforts at wiping out the unjust stain of physical cowardice cast on the Bengali community."

Ramamurthy Naidu's displays of breaking an iron bar, stopping a car engine, and letting an elephant stand on his chest played no small role in inspiring members of the post-1918 Bengal terrorist anti-colonialist movement, contemporary accounts tell us.

In nationalist movements across the world, this forging of masculinity — the reclaiming of manhood from the humiliation of defeat — has been a central element. Fear thrives in times of great cultural dislocation and crisis, such as our own, giving life to aggressive masculinity. The chimpanzees of Kasekala can help us understand why.


The chimpanzee wars of the 70s tell us two important things about nationalism. First, the identity-building process is arbitrary. Political nationalism binds together an imaginary community on the basis of less-than-robust reasons, and excludes others just as arbitrarily. The second lesson is just as vital: Violence is an inexorable consequence of the sharpening of group boundaries. There is, after all, no one story as powerful as the one which involves the shedding of blood.

Godi, the first of the rival chimpanzees to be murdered, was feeding peaceably in his own territory, offering no provocation, unable even to offer resistance to the eight males who attacked him, using their limbs and rocks. The two chimpanzee communities were not facing a resource shortage; their key members had maintained a friendly relationship prior to two groups forming.

Like humans, all mammals cooperate to secure food or to protect themselves from predators. This is the genesis of sophisticated forms of social organisation, like the tribe, the caste and the nation.

From the experience of the Kasekela chimpanzees, though, it is clear that the two kinds of mammals build communities around patrilineal-bonded groups. Cooperation can be a stepping-stone to carnage.

From history and political science we know nationalism — founded as it might be on religion, culture, language or ethnicity — has almost always led people down this path. The ideological construction of 19th-century Italian nationalism, fascism in German, or Latin American rebellions against the Spanish crown to construct their states was very different. Yet, each led to epic carnage.

Evolutionary biology asks the question: Why did the European religious communities massacre each other? Why did the Hindus and Muslims kill during communal riots? Why did the Nazis slaughter Jews? Or Hutus massacre Tutsis?

"Perhaps," primatologist Wrangham speculated in 1996, "humans have retained an old chimpanzee pattern which, though it was once adaptive, has now acquired a stability and life of its own, resistant even to new environments where other forms of society would be better."

But our genes are not our destiny. For one, we have the examples of the bonobo, the pygmy chimpanzee genetically as close to us as its larger variant species. For bonobos, sex, not violence, is the warp and weft of social life; conflict is mediated not through aggression, but the offering of pleasure.

Indeed, until recently some zoos barred children from visiting bonobo displays, for fear of exposing them to displays of casual sex, including oral and homoerotic pairings.

Lethal violence visited by the males against neighbouring groups — communities, tribes or nation-states — is embedded deep in our evolutionary make-up, and in our minds. The bonobos, though, tell us that our genes can generate very different outcomes.

From multi-national Austria-Hungary to the European Union, history has demonstrated that there is no shortage of successful models to order human life other than nationalism. Animal impulses drive powerful nationalism, but their triumph is far from inevitable if humans are willing to carefully reflect on why we behave in the ways we do.

Your guide to the latest cricket World Cup stories, analysis, reports, opinions, live updates and scores on Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates throughout the ongoing event in England and Wales.

Updated Date: Jun 19, 2019 09:40:02 IST