NATIONALISM – IS FEAR THE KEY?
Joseph Mani, writer of BEYOND GODS & SCRIPTURES and several other books and whose articles are very thought-provoking, gives a new dimension to Nationalism (Patriotism). He asks some pertinent questions whether nationalism means love of the land of one's birth and living or love of all the people who live in that land irrespective of who they are and where they came from? Is the nation its mountains, rivers and land and not its people? Asks Joseph Mani. Is well-orchestrated Polarization of the people of a nation, the key to whip up Nationalism? This article is certain to make us wake up from our comfort zones and take a hard look at our conventional notions about Nationalism. Isaac Gomes, Associate Editor, Church Citizens' Voice.
In the science-fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin et al there was a planet called Gethen in a far-away galaxy. One country in Gethen was Karhide and the neighbouring country was Orgoreyn. There were always small skirmishes between the two countries and forays into each other’s territories but nothing serious. The ruler of Karhide was King Argaven XV. Argaven went into temporary retirement appointing his nephew Harge rem ir Tibe as Regent. While Argaven was insane and stupid, Tibe was insane and clever. Under Argaven, Karhide had diversity of beliefs and opinions; there was dissent and questioning of Argaven’s policies. Tibe not only wanted his country to be strong and powerful he also wanted the people to be united under him and tighten his control over the people. Tibe decided that great social mobilization under him can be achieved by evoking fear in his people – fear of the “other’. So he ordered his army to intensify the conflict with Orgoreyn. He would give fiery speeches everyday about how our brave soldiers repelled vicious attacks by the Orgoreynians; the highlight of each day’s speech would be the number of enemy soldiers killed that day. Tibe also thought that his aim would be achieved even better if he can also evoke fear of those from within. So he declared that there were traitors within the country who also needed to be dealt with severely. His speeches now included the number of the treacherous anti-nationals arrested or killed by our patriotic police force. He was evoking nationalism and in the process strengthening his own position.
There are a number of issues about nationalism.
What does Nationalism Mean?
Does nationalism mean love only for the country where you or your ancestors were born and antipathy towards those who live on the other side of your border, a border which is man-made, sometimes created by war – "boundaries drawn in the blood of past wars" – and which are often changing? Does it mean Amartya Sen, Abhijit Banerjee, Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai should have allegiance to their janma bhoomi India and not to their karma bhoomi U.S? Einstein said “I am by heritage a Jew, by citizenship a Swiss, and by makeup a human being, without any special attachment to any state or national entity whatsoever.“ Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught “The Self of everyone, the Atman of everyone, the transcendental reality for everyone, is the same for everyone. Where the body calls itself an American, German, Indian or Chinese, it doesn’t matter.” J. Krishnamurti had stated that he was not an Indian or a Hindu, that he eschewed nationalistic labels, not identifying himself with any country, religion or community.
Does nationalism mean love of the land where you were born and live or love of all the people who live in that land irrespective of who they are and where they came from? Is the nation its mountains, rivers and land and not its people? The Telugu poet Gurajada wrote in his poem ‘Love Thy Country’, A nation is not the soil/ A nation is the people.
On August 15, 1947 on the grounds of a college in Guntur, standing shoulder to shoulder, students and workers, landlords and labourers, Brahmins and Dalits, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, sang in one voice the words of another Telugu poet Sri Sri:
A different world
A different world is calling us
It will be confluence of
The sacrifice of Jesus
The Compassion of the Buddha
The teachings of Mohammad
And the glorious dharma
As one religion and one dharma
A different world is calling us.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote:
No one knows whose call made streams of so many populations
Come from where on turbulent currents, lose themselves in an ocean
Here Aryans, here non-Aryans, here Dravidians, Chinese
Sakas, Huns, Pathans, Mughuls dissolved in one body
The doors open to the West today
All bring gifts from there.
Give and take, meet and merge,
No one turns to leave
On this seashore of India’s great humanity
Come O Aryans, come non-Aryans
Come today, come you English. Come, come Christians.
Come Brahmins, cleanse the mind, hold the hands of everyone.
Part of the poem was written in 1910. This poem is considered anti-national by some.
Is Nationalism Beneficial?
Many see nationalism, as understood and practised through most of history, as inherently divisive because it highlights perceived differences between people, emphasizing an individual's identification only with their own nation. The idea is also potentially oppressive because it submerges individual identity within a national whole.
Nationalism propagates itself with little regard for the benefit to humankind. Some thinkers have described nationalism as a deadly plague which spreads throughout the world causing wars, oppression, hate and genocide. One country catches the virus, it then spreads to neighbouring countries. The nationalist virus presents itself as beneficial to humans, but it has been beneficial only to itself.
George Orwell said that nationalism is ‘the worst enemy of peace’. According to him nationalism is "power-hunger made stronger by self-deception". For Einstein nationalism was an infantile disease, the measles of humanity. Rabindranath Tagore anticipated Einstein. In his book Nationalism published in 1917 Tagore warned of nationalism as an "evil epidemic". In words written more than a hundred years ago, Tagore depicts the nationalistic politicians of today: He wrote, "And the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion – in fact, feeling most dangerously resentful if it is pointed out."
Why is Nationalism Propagated and Accepted?
If nationalism is harmful to humanity as a whole, how come throughout history and today particularly, it is held out as something noble and which every citizen should embrace wholeheartedly and even give up his life for? Part of the reason is that those in power have a vested interest in nationalism. It gives the elites or political leaders potential opportunities to manipulate or control the masses. It gives them the power to replace citizenship by right with citizenship by permit.
Nationalism also gives meaning to death. Until the late-19th century, all major religions considered death and its aftermath central to the meaning of life; life on earth with all its miseries, sufferings, tragedies and injustices did not make sense unless there was a life after death when everything will be set right. Imagine Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism without after-life; there would be no heaven, hell or rebirth. Much of religious piety was fuelled by the fear of death and what would happen after death. But most modern ideologies have taken death and after-life out of the equation. Capitalism, socialism, humanism and feminism have lost interest in after-life. It is pointless to ask Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Isaac Asimov or Simon de Beauvoir about what happens after a capitalist, communist or feminist dies. Among all the modern ideologies only nationalism gives meaning to death. It promises that whoever dies for the nation will become immortal because they will live forever in the collective memory of the nation. Earlier, people were exhorted to die for the glory of God, now it is for the glory of the nation.
Another way to understand why nationalism, though harmful to humanity as a whole, still has hold on large sections of people is through Game Theory. Game Theory explains how in a multi-player system, views and behaviours that harm all players still manage to take root and spread. Arms race is an example. The arms race starts when one country wants to become militarily superior to another. But that does not happen. When one country acquires nuclear weapons, the neighbour also becomes a nuclear power. The balance of power remains the same, only everyone gets bankrupt. The money could have been invested in health, education and roads benefitting millions. Everyone knows that the arms race is not just wasteful but hugely harmful, still the arms race continues, harming all and benefitting none. The same is true of nationalism.
How Does One Evoke Nationalism?
You can evoke love for your country by making your country a better place for people to live. This means there are better roads, better schools, better hospitals, better security and justice for women, children and the poor and a better standard of living for all. It means citizens who pay water tax and water charges don’t have to collectively spend another 15,000 crore and install water purifiers because the water supplied by the City Corporation is unfit for drinking; it means people don’t have to pay 6,000 crores for air purifiers in addition to paying for the large establishments of Pollution Control Boards; it means people who pay the government-run discoms for electricity don’t have to install power back-ups spending 20,000 crore because the power supply from the discoms is erratic; it means young office goers don’t become obese because they spend equivalent to about 10 days in a year just sitting on their bikes or inside their cars because of traffic jam and bad roads after having paid 1,20,198 crores as road tax, registration fees and entry tax, 24,396 crores as toll fees and 1,32,000 crores as petrol and diesel cess. It means the common man feels confident to approach the policeman, the bureaucrat, the court and the politician to get his problem solved rather than keep away from them because they are more problem-creators than problem-solvers, because once you get entangled with them you are worse off than before.
But this is hard work; helping millions of people to have a more prosperous and safer life is a long drawn-out process, and worse, the benefit for yourself is uncertain; there is no guarantee that the people who benefitted from your policies or hard work will be grateful to you and continue to keep their allegiance to you. After having tasted prosperity, they would want more of it. They may switch their loyalties to someone else who promises even greener pastures.
So rulers and governments have found an easier and surer way to evoke the national spirit. This alternate way is the Tibe way. Throughout history, nationalism was based on the division of people into “We” and “They” and then creating fear and hatred of the “They”, “They” being synonymous with the enemy. It doesn’t matter what criterion you use to divide people. It can be religion, race, territory, ethnicity or colonialism. It also doesn’t matter who “They” are. It can be aliens from another galaxy, it can be the people who live on the other side of your border or on the other side of your street. It doesn’t matter what name you give them. Pakistanis, Mexicans, Urban Naxals, Tukde Tukde Gang, Love Jihadis, Illegal Immigrants, Pseudo Liberal Leftists or Far-Right Wingers, Islamic Fundamentalists or Hindu Terrorists – any name will do as long as you can make a large number of people believe that there is an enemy, within or without, who is out to destroy your way of life, attack your cherished beliefs and defile your wives and daughters. It is enough to portray them as foreigners, terrorists or ant-nationals. If you can get your people to buy this narrative, you can get strong bursts of nationalism which will then spread faster than the coronavirus.
The movie Mission Kashmir starring Hrithik Roshan and Sanjay Dutt was released in 2000. Overnight Hrithik became a sensation. A month after the film was released, a news item appeared in a Nepalese newspaper that Hrithik said that he despised Nepalese. Leftist student unions sent their members to the streets of Kathmandu. Two students were killed and 150 injured in police firing. The Nepal government banned all Hrithik Roshan films from the Kingdom. Roshan denied on the radio that he had ever said any such thing. He proclaimed his love for the Nepalese people. It made no difference. Earlier, students had tattooed Hrithik’s name on their forearms and girl students had swooned in ecstasy at the sight of his face. The same students were now baying for his blood because someone told them that he was an anti-national even after it was proved that the news item was a lie. People were willing to die and kill for a lie because their national pride was hurt.
Fake news and hate speeches against the “other” are not modern-day inventions. Hypatia was the first woman mathematician in recorded history. She taught philosophy and math in Alexandria in the fourth century CE. The Christian Bishop of Alexandria was Cyril. Cyril loathed Hypatia because she was a woman who dared to teach and, worse, she was a non-Christian. He used to give vituperative sermons against Hypatia. One day Cyril’s followers waylaid Hypatia, dragged her to a church, stripped her naked and scraped the flesh from her bones with tiles while still alive. Her body was burned and her works destroyed. The Church glorified Cyril by making him a Saint.
Nationalism for the Benefit of the Ruler?
Nationalism can be used to beef up the ruler’s power if the ruler can blur the distinction between himself/his government and the country. Tibe was on the radio every day proclaiming that he did everything out of love for his country. Over time the leader becomes identified with the country. It is then an easy step to convince the people that anyone who is not for the leader is not for the country. The next step is when the leader convinces his people that the only way to save the country from external and internal enemies is if he, the true nationalist, the strong and decisive leader, is given the power to put down these enemies and traitors. The people become convinced that for the love of the country they should give him this power – and a Hitler, Mussolini, Putin, Erdogan and Trump is born – created by people who are motivated by their nationalism.
So there are two ways to evoke nationalism: You can evoke national pride by making the country better and safer for its inhabitants. This is arduous and time-consuming. This benefits all the people. Alternately you can evoke the national spirit by making fear and hatred of the “other” the bedrock and wellspring of nationalism. This is easier and faster. This benefits the rulers and those on the side of the rulers.