India and the Indian: We're lulled to think that citizens control the narrative, writes Palash Krishna Mehrotra

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.


IN THE YEAR 2000, I wrapped up my studies at Balliol College, Oxford, sat for my Finals, packed my bags and booked the next flight to India. One of the reasons I did this was because I was tired of being an Indian in a foreign land.

It’s exhausting to be the spokesperson for one’s country, to answer silly questions about India at every social occasion. One has other identities, based on one’s interests, hobbies and talent. In India I could let my Indian identity lapse — in a good way. Not erase it, far from it, but at least not be continuously self-conscious about it.

There was another reason. As a writer just starting out, I knew my material lay in India. Fiction, non-fiction, journalism — whatever I chose to do, India was going to be my terrain. One returned out of a sense of literary deshbhakti.

Two decades later, I feel like I never left England. All one’s living days now are spent debating and defending one’s Indian-ness, what ails India and how to fix it. In Oxford, I was called a ‘lapsed Indian’. These days, I could be called a traitor who belongs in Pakistan. This last bit is true to an extent — my father was born in Lahore.

To run away from this overbearing national identity, I did try running away, not to Lahore but to the Ziro Festival in Arunachal, on the Indo-China border, only to run into three thousand kids standing in a field, swaying to the music and shouting ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ in unison.

The rapper on stage, K4 Kekho, a native resident, was performing a song called ‘I’m an Indian’ (about being a North-Easterner in Delhi), which featured lines in pidgin Hindi that a Muslim could identify with: ‘Chuha jesa challo varna koi humlog ko maar dega/ Esa dektai jese vo log sach mein humlok ko khaa dega/ Vegetarian hone se bhi lagtai non-vegetarian hai/Aakh phaar ke dekhtai jese hum log koi alien hai.’


We live in times of renewed nationalistic vim. In the recently concluded elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party didn’t feel the need for a fig leaf; the saffron agenda didn’t have to be smuggled in through the backdoor. The waters had been tested in the last five years. The waters were more than friendly.

 India and the Indian: Were lulled to think that citizens control the narrative, writes Palash Krishna Mehrotra

Representational image. Reuters

Modi possesses a megastar-like quality. Like Amitabh Bachchan playing the role of a platform coolie, or Rajinikanth, the bus conductor, Modi is one of the people — a tea seller. The question though remains: Has India been Modi-fied or saffronised? If Modi, the folk-hero, is not around, will Indians still buy into the RSS brand of hyper-nationalism, under a different leader, say Amit Shah? Or will the ideology become less seductive without the poster boy?

The success of saffron messaging could be an outcome of personal charisma, rather than an ideological triumph. It seems like all these years Indians were waiting for a leader who would play the role of motivational speaker, family guru, pep-talker-in-chief and Dr Feelgood. In Modi they’ve found their man — the harbinger of good tidings. The idea of the commandingly authoritative male genius is alive and kicking it.

Even if one keeps the Hindutva ideology aside, Modi can be credited with having made politics more relatable. In cricketing terms, he understood that the masses were not watching Test matches. It was Lutyen’s Delhi that mulled the finer points of the five-day contest played in white flannels.

Like Lalit, Modi harnessed the potential, mass appeal, coloured clothing and instant gratification of the T20 format. The Balakot strike was an India-Pakistan T20 International, which drew in the crowds. Unlike Sharjah, this time we displayed our ‘killer instinct’, in spite of our avowed vegetarianism. The six off the last ball was hit by Modi, not Miandad.

In his approach, say to foreign policy, Modi proudly flaunts the fact that his method is non-academic. Modi, like Sehwag (who, incidentally, is also a BJP candidate), goes by gut instinct, hand-eye coordination and a see ball, hit ball approach. Modi, in other words, plays his aggressive natural game, which the stadium applauds.


What is the idea of the Indian that is brought into being by this New Nationalism?

From the farmer to the chartered accountant, there is a notional sense of pride in how India’s stock has gone up in the world. The Indian can now walk with her head held high. Modi is not the first to tap into this deep vein of Indian inferiority, a primal fear of being lost in the crowd. It’s a crisis of identity bound to afflict a country of a billion plus.

In 1988, when Rajiv Gandhi ordered Indian troops into Sri Lanka (a decision that would cost him his life), Time's cover bore the legend: ‘Super India — The Next Military Power’. The Congress used it in a TVC, which featured a middle-class Indian holding a copy of the issue and saying: ‘India superpower hai ki nahin ye toh nahin pata, lekin sunta hoon toh acha lagta hai.’ (I’m not sure if India is a superpower yet but it certainly feels nice when I read about it). Like Trump, Modi too sold the idea of an idea whose time had come: ‘We had been robbed of our country; now it’s ours again.’

The New Nationalism is, at most times, a load of hot air, propped up by manipulative memes, invented slights, doctored videos and photos, fudged histories and plain lies.

The New Nationalism fires each Indian with a sense of agency, the illusion that they control the narrative. While demonetisation caused great inconvenience, it provided the average person with the sense that they too were foot-soldiers and doing their bit for the national cause — by standing in a queue and surrendering currency. It was the sacrifice that mattered.

George Orwell, reviewing Mein Kampf in 1940, wrote: ‘Human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, hygiene and birth control, they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty parades.’

Another way in which the New Nationalism involves people as foot-soldiers is not by providing employment opportunities but by giving them a sense of cultural worth and participation by encouraging self-appointed ‘moderators’ of Facebook groups, creating a network of Twitter ‘warriors’ and handing out gau rakshak ID cards.

These measures serve to lend meaning and purpose to lives. Most Indians live in a state of semi-employment, which means that while we are not starving, we have time to idle and fritter. Modi channels this laddish frittering into motherland focus.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

And yet, it would be somewhat naive to think of India’s people as impressionable children who have been led down the wrong path by a devious pied-pier. As Jan-Werner Muller argues in What Is Populism, ‘‘People are angry for a reason, and usually they can articulate that reason, as part of a larger story about what went wrong in their lives.’


Andreas Wimmer, professor of Sociology and Political Philosophy at Columbia, writes in Foreign Affairs: ‘Nationalism is not an irrational sentiment that can be banished from contemporary politics through enlightened education. It is one of the modern world’s foundational principles and is more widely accepted than its critics acknowledge.’

This nationalism also has a dark side: ‘Loyalty to the nation can lead to the demonisation of others, whether foreigners or allegedly disloyal domestic minorities.’ As Jan-Werner Muller points out: ‘Populists hold that those who don’t support them – or who don’t share their sense of what constitutes the ‘real people’ – may not themselves properly belong to the people.’ This is well-documented, evident, and in plain sight in contemporary India. The dark side has already borne deadly fruit.

Nationalism itself might not be an irrational sentiment, but India’s renewed nationalism ever so often stilts into piffle. The scientific temper is not a Nehruvian invention; it belongs to the human race. The rules of football are the rules of football. When you change the rules you are inventing an entirely new unaccredited sport.

Take the proceedings of the 106th Indian Science Congress: Ravan owned a Pushpak Viman and 24 types of aircraft; the theory of gravitation to be replaced with ‘Modi Waves’; Kauravas in the Mahabharata were test tube babies produced by stem cell technology.

To later claim that India’s ‘chhavi’ is flowering in ‘desh-videsh’ is to live in a fool’s paradise. Physics and biology are rigorous disciplines (regardless of nation), not matters of personal whimsy and crackpot mythology. Pigs don’t fly, silly.

This, in effect, is trivialising nationalism, reducing something serious to something utterly flippant. The right-wing Hindutva intellectual is attempting the impossible: to invent a parallel discipline of History or Physics. When he is rejected by the standard-bearers, he sulks and stomps his foot like Rumpelstiltskin.

Let me end with two instances of violence. They are unrelated to the elections but central to the idea of the Indian.

In Dehradun, where I also live, a Hindu businessman was shot dead in broad daylight at his residence in an upscale neighbourhood. He had divorced his wife and was living-in with a Muslim woman 27 years younger to him. According to the police he had recently moved to Dehradun from Muzzafarnagar since ‘his family was protesting against the out-of-marriage relationship.’

In the second instance reported by Gulf News, Nandu Yadav, a father, threw his four daughters (aged between two and five) off an under-construction bridge in Bihar. He was angry at his wife for not bearing a male child. His rage was such that he banged the girls on the ground before off-loading them.

Whether one is Muslim or Hindu, this is no country for lovers. From the diktats of khap panchayats and honour killings to ‘anti-Romeo’ squads and ‘Love Jihad’ warriors, mob justice prevails over the rule of law.

There is little freedom to choose one’s destiny. The individual is stifled by both religions. Both communities are united in the patriarchal belief that the girl child is a curse. The idea of the Indian will truly change the day this curse lifts. The day an Indian woman is able to choose her lover and partner without fear is the day that boundaries of religion and caste will dissolve. That’ll be the day.

At present, the nationalism of pitting one against the other seems self-indulgent. Can a poor country afford the luxury of toying with an ideology which is neither taking us back to the intellectual positives (the six schools of Indian philosophy) nor leapfrogging us to a skyscraping neon future?

The writer is the author of The Butterfly Generation and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India. He tweets @palashmehrotra

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Updated Date: Jun 27, 2019 09:31:23 IST