Nationalism, patriotism, is a hoax. There are historical reasons for its emergence as a social force. Those reasons are not under dispute. But as an attitude, as an ideal to follow and propagate, its fraud is pretty apparent if one could look at its functionings without it playing in one’s head.
An interesting example to begin with is how easily it injects geopolitics in sports, and food, and things like that. We have just seen a glimpse of this in the two sports tournaments held of late: the Euro cup, which saw massive riots between soccer fans of various countries, and the cricket world cup. Having a more personal experience of the world cup, I’d like to point out some telling examples from it. The first most obvious, yet incredibly overlooked aspect is that patriotism is a selling commodity, with highly inelastic demand. In a world where food and other essentials are being kept away from so many, nationalism is the stuff of mass spoon-feeding. Such drivel as put in advertisements, devoid of wit, sense, or aesthetics, is still accepted if it calls out to the patriot in us, much as god calls out to the devotee in us. Commentators on radio and television chant on and on the requirements “for India to win”, seven times often between six balls bowled. The commentator’s purpose seems to be to tell his audience what they must be bothered about. Had this been a gladiator’s fight in a Colosseum, we couldn’t have told the difference. Did we not see a flag representing the Indian Army in the match against Pakistan waving in the crowd? A radio transmission of a cricket match had its commentator suddenly losing his voice in the middle of a sentence; when his co-commentator resumed after an awkward gap of five seconds, we learned that a player of our beloved team, “our player” had just been bowled out. As we understood that our run-rate did not qualify us for the semi-finals, the cameras in the TV transmission flashed to us constantly clips of the supporters of Pakistan, sporting T-shirts of South Africa, since it could now prevent our entry in the semis over theirs. If we took the broadcast company’s bait – which many of us did – we would be among those delusionals who refuse to clap at the rival’s shots because we just cannot see they’re playing good, who feel that those Pakistanis have no moral fibre because “they can stoop down to wear another jersey”, “they are at it again, heckling us”, and such other ruses, not for once recalling our bad mood a few hours ago when they defeated a team we lost to.
The person who’s patriotic – and today this mostly means chauvinistic – because he feels the enemy is constantly scheming feels justified because he is given so many examples, of which even if many are manufactured, many still are true. However, even those examples are reflections of what “the enemy” has seen in us. So even if there is a sense of self-righteousness, but deceit from outside, this exists on both sides. And when we would see the networks of industry and realpolitik between the two sides, this illusion would be broken. Therefore, one is shown as little of this as possible. The problem isn’t that they are bad; the problem is that we aren’t very different from them, and as they cling to their powers and terrors, so do we to ours.
Constraints over entertainment industry, even if real and necessary, have some looseness in application which seems “allowed” in some sense. So, when cricket “analysts” question the Duckworth Lewis score system when their team has lost, but look at it in askance in another hour, we laugh at it but also know that it matters little. However, much more is expected from news-broadcasting. Let us see what is delivered: a radio broadcast on the day of Gandhi Jayanti spoke about “tribals and local officials in the Andamans paying eager homage to the father of our nation in a sarvadharma prarthna (all-religious prayer ceremony)”. This is a rare message from those faraway islands; what is disturbing is that everyday there is an industry waiting to turn those islands into a major tourism zone, even more disturbingly into some sort of a “primitive man zoo”, very much with the permission of the state. But, since “the tribals” have paid homage, they must be “one of us”, so things cannot be bad for them. In Gujarat, the same ceremony was held in the name of that vile rioter Narendra Modi. Likewise, in a state that is liberal in principle, it no matter of shame or oppression for a foreign minister to say angrily, possessively “Kashmir is an integral part of India” at a UN forum, much as one may say that a certain tree falls in my backyard. Apparently, these reasons are adequate to ban the consumption of gutka and liquor from the Andamans and Gujarat (“as was Gandhi’s belief”), to deploy massive armies in “disturbed areas” (an inheritance from colonialism).
That nationalism is a powerful force has been known since long; what truly reinforces this fact is that it is so effective still, in spite of the many indications of its harms to those very people who have espoused it. It is a tribunal for those who are presented with it: the next time you see someone swearing by the nation, do observe if you can see traces of his being coerced into it by our situation. At the same time, it distracts beautifully. Our Prime Minister recently made a strange comment: he equated the opulence of the few rich, “our” economy, to matters of “national security”; apparently, he has faith over the garbing properties of the phrase “national security”, much as this term invokes memories of terrorism, amplified by predatory media that has silenced everybody in its noise. The biggest advantage that nationalism has is that it is like a capsule that can be doled out by a small clique of people, and then spreads on its own. That’s why the state wants to be seen at its fountainhead, and also those nationalist movements that emerge from a large chunk of people eventually tend to statism. We would find plenty of examples: Gorkhaland, Telangana, so on and so forth. Even those “revolutions” that are anti-nationalistic in their outlook – many of the Communist states formed in the 1900s – bear notorious marks of branding as “betrayal” or “counter-revolutionary” any activity that seeks to differ from what the high-command has in mind.
Nationalism takes the place of other tendencies that are not so emotional, so irreflexive, and so inflexible as it is. All sorts of movements where people have raised protest over legitimate demands have known, often have been stunted by, the heavy hand of patriotism of some kind which tells them what they think is unimportant compared to what the powers have planned. Or else, they are co-opted by it. We are seeing this in Koodankulam and Kalapakkam, where even the judiciary believes the real question is not what the people think about the plant, but whether the nuclear plant is safe or not. We saw this in the case of the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union struggle in IMT-Manesar, Haryana, where the state unambiguously supported the management in every way possible, first in apathy towards a management’s high-handed and violent attempt to break the workers’ right to organize themselves, and then in hounding them with greatest judicial speed possible. Moreover, when Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. showed signs of moving out of Haryana, Narendra Modi (an icon of today’s nationalism) sprang up to invite them, saying he could build a bigger garrison for them to set up their factory in, to exploit cheap, desperate hands, and keep them under the leash of hired muscle-power of the same class of men. The truth is that everyone is well aware of these things: demolition of shanties, rural distress, casualization of labour, all these are tied, eventually, to the fingers of the state. However, there’s a veil of nation and allegiance to nation (hence to state) that makes these seem legitimate state of affairs.
Today, Indonesia is added to all those places in Africa, Arabia, Europe and the Americas where people have discarded questions about whether the nation is important or not, and asked if power must be entrusted to the state. In Indonesia, millions of workers have entered the streets denouncing their casualization. Even this list is not exhaustive: there are many other places where protest is the norm of the day. Meanwhile, how we can look above the questions of nation would decide what we can do for ourselves as autonomous people. There’s definitely a lot to be done.