India and the Indian: Will we never be able to achieve consensus on being legitimately Indian, writes Aakash Singh Rathore

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.


DURING AN EARLY encounter between MK Gandhi and Dr BR Ambedkar, it is reported that the latter remarked, ‘Gandhiji, I have no homeland’. Ambedkar’s autobiographical fragment, Waiting for a Visa, gives us hints about how to understand this claim. Consider the autobiography’s title: exactly which visa is Ambedkar waiting for?

A visa, of course, is an official document permitting a person to cross borders and freely travel in or through a foreign country. In this case, it appears that the ‘foreign’ country must be India — Ambedkar is treated as alien there; is this a nation denied to him?

Like an outsider, Ambedkar is hindered all along the way from entering the society freely, from finding accommodation for overnight stays, from travelling without harm or obstruction. Indeed, his life story reveals that a former ‘untouchable’ seems to require some sort of visa, granted as a privilege and not a right, in order to be able to enter Indian social life on an equal footing with bona fide nationals.

The visa for which Ambedkar remained forever in waiting is in a sense the same visa that had been denied to Dr Payal Tadvi, and millions of others for whom her tragic story resonates so viscerally.

 India and the Indian: Will we never be able to achieve consensus on being legitimately Indian, writes Aakash Singh Rathore

Illustration © Satwick Gade for Firstpost

So who is in and who is out, and who gets to decide? By which precise criteria do we distinguish the bona fide national from the outsider, or those on the margins forever at risk of falling outside — the Dalit-Bahujan, the Muslim, the Adivasi, the queer, the supposed anti-national? This is a thorny knot that we have been unable to bloodlessly untangle in these nearly 70 years of the republic.

Building upon the academic work of Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner, and Anthony Smith, scholars continue to debate the origins and nature of the nation and nationalism — is it primordial with all political formations, or is it peculiarly modern? Does it function as a benefic cohesive force, or is it more a system of social control that permits elites to retain power? Decades prior to these debates, India had its own vibrant rival conceptions of the nature of the nation, forwarded by leading intellectual political practitioners from across the full breadth of the political spectrum, from anarchist to totalitarian.

We’ve long heard encomiums to the ideas of Gandhi or Nehru on the nation; and, given the unfulfilled promise of either, the last decade has rightfully elicited increased attention to the more inclusive and egalitarian vision of the likes of Ambedkar. But there are other authors and positions that the leading intelligentsia have tended to altogether ignore, or at least only evoke in order to ridicule. Ironically, it is apparently these academically marginalised and only partially interrogated conceptions of the nation that seem to grab and hold the political imagination of the majority of our fellow citizenry. It is time, in order to more adequately comprehend ourselves, that we think through and evaluate these massively appealing, even if repugnant, ideas of the Indian and of the nation.

We could cite the example of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya here. Upadhyaya obviously has his champions on the right, but he has never been absolutely assimilated into the saffron nationalist pantheon where the likes of Savarkar and Golwalkar rest. According to Upadhyaya, ‘when a group of persons lives with a goal, an ideal, a mission, and looks upon a particular piece of land as motherland, this group constitutes a nation’. Hence, Upadhyaya is anchoring participation in the nation within the realm of ideas. While still largely reactionary, Upadhyaya’s conception affords a certain flexibility with respect to national inclusion that is unavailable to mainstream nationalist thought, which grounds membership in the nation in exclusionary categories like ethnicity, religion, and language.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

In our own day, it is not territory and ideas that constitute the national bond between us. It does not even seem to be basic law, constitutional values, or an inclination toward social security that pervade our cultural and political climate. As far as politics goes, classical concerns like rights and freedoms, federalism and democratic procedure have been all but abandoned to a civil (or some say uncivil) society largely characterised by intolerance and violence. People — ordinary Indians — are losing their lives on account of exclusionary categories like caste and religion.

Every such tragic event, from individual suicide to mass pogrom makes us wonder anew, will we never be able to achieve an overlapping consensus on inclusive national belonging, on being legitimately Indian?

Hatred is hot, it rallies crowds, and it tends to motivate more people more passionately than love and other positive (but colder) concepts. Similarly, religion rallies more vehemence, and weaponisable obedience, than secularism ever will. Just the same, nationalism is hotter than constitutional patriotism, which is a much colder notion. The true challenge that faces us is this heat, this passion, emotion, which always falls naturally toward the right. We thus find ourselves fighting against the currents of natural passions when we seek to ignite mass support behind inclusive constitutional ideas as opposed to exclusive ethno-nationalist ones.

Can ‘cold’ constitutional values like fraternity, secularism, liberty ever quell the rage that hatred and nationalism have fomented on the streets, and chill this propensity toward violence?

Love, for example, even tolerant inclusion, is extremely difficult to vernacularise. And yet we have no alternative other than vernacularising our basic constitutional values, of championing sadhbhavana, ahimsa, and a related basket of concepts that may contain more heat, more passion. It’s a tall order to make fraternity, love politically organic. But inclusive concepts — ideological and not ethno-racial — must occupy the mental and spiritual space currently monopolised by exclusive ones.

Without reclaiming and disseminating these ideas, we will continue to be swept away by the exclusivistic sense of the nation, which we, in our fear and weakness, are permitting to define who gets to be a bona fide Indian — always with tragic consequences.

Aakash Singh Rathore is a philosopher, author of A Philosophy of Autobiography, and an Ironman triathlete. He tweets @Aakash_Ironman.

— Image courtesy REUTERS

Updated Date: Jun 29, 2019 09:26:18 IST