Nationalism cannot be without its limits: 'On Nationalism'

Editor's note: In the last part of  the series, in her essay titled 'Reflections on Nationalism and History'  historian Romila Thapar considers the fraught definitions of nationalism.

At the most visible level, a nation is identified with territory. For the Indian this was the territory of British India that the colony hoped to inherit on becoming a nation. This had to be bifurcated with Partition in 1947, and that was problematic when identified with the erstwhile territory of British India. So the territory of what constituted India had to be redefined.

Nevertheless, the subcontinent remained the framework when thinking about India in historical terms. We learnt from history that through the centuries there was a constant changing of boundaries and the coexistence of many political units within the subcontinent. This raised the question of whether a permanent boundary of a nation state was feasible, but for the purposes of nationalism it was assumed to be as permanent as possible, with the caveat that it could change.

 Nationalism cannot be without its limits: On Nationalism

Cover of 'On Nationalism'

This also turned our attention to the real entity of nationalism and that was the people who inhabited the territory. This was meant literally and it included all the people, irrespective of their sub-identities of religion, caste, language, region and such like. There was an axiomatic belief that the primary concern of nationalism was to ensure the welfare of the entire society, and of all its citizens. This was defined as establishing the equality of all citizens and their entitlement to human rights. National interest meant ensuring that every citizen lived with dignity. This required both economic growth and social justice as fundamental to the establishing of a nation. These essentials of a nation were discussed extensively, especially in universities and research centres, in the first couple of decades after Independence.

Nationalism had, and has, much to do with understanding one’s society and finding one’s identity as a member of that society. It cannot be reduced merely to waving flags and shouting slogans and penalizing people for not shouting slogans like ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. This smacks of a lack of confidence among those making the demand for slogans. Nationalism requires a far greater commitment to attending to the needs of the nation rather than sloganeering, and that too with slogans focusing on territory or ones that have a limited acceptability. As was recently said, it is indeed ironic that an Indian who refuses to shout this slogan is immediately declared as anti-national, but an Indian who has deliberately not paid his taxes or stashed away black money is not declared as such.

The question of what is national and what is anti-national does depend on what is understood by nationalism. A commitment to the nation if it encourages concern for and an ethical attitude towards other citizens of the same nation is always commended. However this should not be expressed by vicious hostility towards neighbouring nations as also happens. Hostility, in particular situations, has to be tempered with reason and this is one difference between good governance and bad. Nationalism, therefore, cannot be without its limits and the limits have to be carefully worked out.


Excerpted from ‘On Nationalism’ with permission of Aleph Book Company.

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Updated Date: Jul 08, 2016 12:53:40 IST