Modi, Muslims, Scotland and J&K: Why we must junk flawed ideas of nationhood

It is good that Scotland voted against secession. Any secession is based on flawed ideas of nationhood. It is good that Modi said Muslims will live and die for India. What he should not question is why they may live and die for India

R Jagannathan September 22, 2014 16:05:01 IST
Modi, Muslims, Scotland and J&K: Why we must junk flawed ideas of nationhood

Narendra Modi’s statement in a CNN interview, that Indian Muslims will live and die for India, is an important one not just because of the message it sends to Muslims and Hindus in India, but the whole world. While the statement will be parsed for its political content and for embedded meanings, intended on unintended, I would like to make it a starting point for discussions around nationalism, patriotism, the idea of India and secessionism.

Let me state my conclusions upfront. One, people live and die for their country or a cause (like religion or even abstractions like truth or honour) for their own reasons. So it does not matter why you choose to be an Indian. Two, there can thus be as many ideas of India as there are Indians. Three, what one person considers patriotic may not sound patriotic to another – but broadly it does not matter. And, four, secession is a bad thing in itself.

The reason why people are nationalistic or patriotic or truthful may vary from person to person. Hence living and dying for anything is specific to the individual. A solider may die for his colleagues rather than his country. Someone may fight for narrow caste sentiments or lofty reasons involving the flag or nation. It does not matter why you are doing something as long as you are doing the right thing.

Modi Muslims Scotland and JK Why we must junk flawed ideas of nationhood

Representational Image. AFP

A Muslim may live or die for India for reasons that may not necessarily coincide with what the Sangh Parivar considers patriotism. It could be because he was born here, because his kith and kin are here, or because India allows him to practice his faith. A Hindutva ideologue may live or die for India because this is where 94 percent of the world’s Hindus live and where Hindu civilisation – in fact all Indic religions – took root and grew.

Nobody has any right to decide why I may love this country, or not love it so much. So, in a sense, both the Sangh and the secularists are wrong. One can be patriotic or unpatriotic for any reason and it does not matter which one works for you. The only thing no Indian can forsake is the law of the land. Patriotism demands nothing more, and nothing less, than this.

Yesterday (19 September), the Scots voted to stay in the British Union by a 55:45 vote. A five percent shift in the ‘yes’ vote would have made Scotland independent. That is precisely what is wrong with the idea of nationalism that can lead to secession. The margin of loss does not matter when the idea of nationalism itself if flawed.

The point is, Scots can have a nation without necessarily having an “independent” state. After all, what does it mean to be a Scot? Can any Englishman take away the average Scot’s right to his own culture, his own sense of nationhood and community, his own sense of what it means to be Scottish? Equally, can anyone living in Scotland be denied the right not to be Scottish? You can be Scottish without having an independent state called Scotland. You can be non-Scottish, too.

Similarly, anybody can claim membership of an emotional idea called Hindu nation without having to think of this “nation” as defined by Indian geography. Any Hindu anywhere in the world can theoretically belong to this nation. Similarly, any Muslim or Parsi or anyone else can think he does not belong to this emotional definition of a Hindu nation.

You can belong to a Muslim Ummah (an emotional nationhood) and still be a citizen of a state that is not largely Muslim. You can live in a state peopled largely by Muslims and still not be a Muslim.

Elaborating on what I wrote yesterday on the distinction between nation and state, the point is this: a nation is defined by a common emotion or culture or history or all of them; state is defined by the rule of law and a common set of obligations for the citizen. States are created by an explicit or implicit contract between citizen and government: the state provides protection, law and order in return for the citizen agreeing to follow certain rules.

People not following the law should thus leave the state – or face the consequences. They can defect to another state where the laws are more to their liking – just as many Indians do by migrating to the US or UK. Or they can try and change the law itself.

The same rules do not apply to the idea of nation. One can secede from an idea without assigning any reason, for this is a purely voluntary membership. No one has any right to impose the idea of patriotism or nationhood on anyone. These are ideas that can exist separately from the state and my obligations towards it (and vice-versa).

Put another way, one can secede from a nation, but not a state (except by migrating). For geography and the rule of law are clear and explicit. Nationalism, on the other hand, is an emotional concept and can be tweaked to one’s own purpose. It is often decided by collective consciousness and a sense of belonging. So one can choose to belong or not belong to it.

Also, one can belong to several emotional affiliations – of religion, caste, ethnicity, interest group, or class. But one can belong only to one state. You can belong to the Hindu nation and the Dalit nation. You cannot be both Indian and American – at least in the legal sense (though some countries allow dual citizenships, but this brings multiple obligations. Someone who is both Indian and American citizen will have to follow both laws; what if one conflicts with the other?).

This brings me to the idea of secession – and the Scottish vote. If you accept my basic proposition that ‘nation’ is about a shared group emotion and common history, while ‘state’ is about geography and the law, it follows that you cannot secede from a state. You can, however, freely choose to join another state, provided that state allows you to do so.

Secession driven by a sense of nationhood makes no sense for it means one group, with one idea of nationhood, decides by brute majority that it will create a new state when many people with other ideas of nationhood do not want to be part of that.

Consider the Scottish vote. Some 45 percent voted for the idea of a Scottish nationhood and state, but 55 percent were against this idea. But what if this were the reverse, and 55 percent of Scotland voted for independence? It would mean 55 percent were imposing their idea of nationhood on the whole population.

We can take the analogy to Jammu and Kashmir. It is possible to believe that if a vote were held in the Valley, a majority could vote for independence. But what about the minority that does not want to belong to this Muslim idea of nation?

The problem comes because we mix up the idea of nation with state. Both Hindus and Muslims can belong to a Jammu and Kashmir state, but only one of the communities can belong to an independent Kashmiri nation-state.

Nation-states can be given independence only when all – or nearly all – of the population buys simultaneously into two different ideas: nation and state. This is a near impossibility in most countries.

Worse, the idea of seceding on the basis of a narrow sense of nation is essentially sectarian and bigoted. It is tantamount to saying we are different (by religion, or race or ethnicity) and so we don’t want to live with you.

If we accept such concepts of nationhood to decide secession, we should equally support secession on the basis of other differences between people – class, caste, or whatever. The process can never end till each family or individual decides to become an independent island. Self-determination is nothing but bigotry clothed in high-sounding phraseology.

People who want to secede from a state should migrate. People who want to belong to a nation can do so even while being citizens of a state. Secession is a flawed idea built on flawed foundations of logic.

What is important is for all states to push more and more powers as much down as possible so that people feel they are in control of their lives and the immediate things that matter to this. Secession as an idea will die a natural death if we realise this simple idea of devolving power and learn to distinguish between the idea of nation and the idea of state.

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