Nationalism: Good Or Bad?

Just about three years ago, in the month of February, Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested & accused of sedition. He, his friends & the entire institute— Jawaharlal Nehru University— was labelled “anti-national” by a large portion of media. How did the JNU react to this?

Every day, as the clock struck 6 in the evening, JNU’s administrative block area would become an open-air classroom. Students & Professors, with notepads in their hand, gathered to listen to lectures on Nationalism. Well-known academics like Romila Thapar, Tanika Sarkar, Achin Vanaik & many more gave talks on Nationalism. All the talks are available on YouTube.

I am going to summarise one of those talks. It was the talk by the renowned economist & political commentator Prabhat Patnaik titled “Two Concepts of Nationalism”. You can watch the video & refer to this answer as your “notes” to revise what he says.

Is Nationalism good or bad? The question assumes that Nationalism is a homogenous entity. The Nationalism invoked by Mahatma Gandhi was different from the Nationalism invoked by Hitler.

We know that the former was good while the latter was obviously evil. So, we must draw a distinction between the two concepts of Nationalism. The European Nationalism was very different from the Nationalism found in the third world which originated as a form of resistance to European colonization.

Nationalism in Europe had three important characteristics:

One, It looked for an enemy within— the Jews everywhere in Europe, the Catholics in Northern Europe which was protestant & the Protestants in Southern Europe which was Catholic. It was not an inclusive nationalism but something that was directed against an enemy within.

Two, It was imperialist from the very beginning. The struggle for empire, including within India, was from the very inception a part of this Nationalism.

And three, It put the Nation above the people. It was not about the people’s living standards, their well being or the poverty in the country. It was about the power, the prestige and the wealth of the nation. Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ too is just about the wealth of the Nation & nowhere it talks about wealth being trickled down to the masses. The nation is put above the people.

These features made the European Nationalism essentially an aggrandizing nationalism— something that tries to enhance the reputation of the Nation. Fascism was the apogee of this aggrandizing Nationalism.

In today’s Europe, Nationalism is looked down as a “dirty” word by the progressives because for them Nationalism can only be of one kind—the aggrandizing nationalism. The horrors of fascism have taught them how that isn’t a great path to walk on.

But this presumption is wrong. There’s an alternative nationalism, the one found in countries like India in their anti-colonial movements.

It was more or less an inclusive nationalism. It had to be an inclusive nationalism because what it was fighting was the mammoth Empire. Only a united nation could fight such a battle. Everybody was part of this nationalism as opposed to the “enemy within” from its European counterpart. In Europe, the word “nationalism” is only talked about in reference to the parties of the Right but in India, the Left, as well as the right, can claim to be nationalist.

It had to have solidarity with other anti-colonial nationalisms & it recognised the validity & the legitimacy of other nationalisms rather than excluding them. This too is very different from the European counterparts.

And thirdly, it did not glorify the nation above the people. This is apparent in that famous quote from Gandhi that the essence of freedom for him meant wiping tears from the eyes of every Indian. This nationalism was about the people. The nation was not above the people, it was constituted by the people.

All these anti-colonial nationalisms were based on a social contract. It had to be based on a social contract in order to bring people into the anti-colonial struggle. The examples of this are the freedom charter in South Africa & the Karachi Congress resolution in 1931 which talked about equality before the law, secularism (that the state will have no religion) & many other things. Other similar nationalism had such a moment of social contract. This, in essence, has been translated into our constitution too.

So, nationalism isn’t inherently bad. We have inclusive nationalisms & divisive nationalism. We have nationalisms that are about the glory of the nation even if the people are kept wretchedly poor. We have nationalism that is first & foremost about removing poverty & any kind of discrimination against the historically oppressed classes.

So, if you really want to be a nationalist, there are some really great items on the menu. You don’t necessarily need to go for the poison.

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