On nationalism
in South Asia

          By Nyla Ali Khan, IIPRC, March 6, 2018


Political institutions cannot be subordinated to precepts determined by the clerical elite of any religion or faith. The clergy belongs in temples, churches, synagogues, and mosques, while political institutions are meant to be run by administrators and politicians. Let’s not blur the boundary between these two set of institutions.

The political and social upheaval that followed upon the creation of India and Pakistan in 1947 has left legacies that continue to haunt the two countries. The Partition enabled the thunderous forces of violence and displacement to tear the pre-existing cultural and social fabric so systematically that the process of repair hasn’t even begun.

The borders that were brutally carved at the time of the Partition of British India have led to further brutality in the form of riots, pogroms, and instances of cultural depletion with which the histories of independent India and Pakistan are replete.

Instances of mob lynching, recourse to blasphemy allegations to settle scores, gharwapsi campaigns, and mass religious conversions in Uttar Pradesh are manifestations of forces of yore that continue to eat away at the sociocultural fabric in both countries.

The moulding of collective subjectivities by evocation of pan-national religious affinities — a trend particularly visible these days — results in stifling of minority voices that express culturally and socially divergent opinions.

Although the ‘Third-World’ intelligentsia unceasingly complains about manipulations and short-sightedness of British imperial cartographers and administrators, I would argue that the onus for the calamity engendered by Partition does not lie entirely on the colonial power. The failed negotiations between ‘Indian’ and ‘Pakistani’ nationalists belonging to the Congress and the Muslim League, respectively, alongside blustering by these nationalists and the jingoism and an unquenchable hatred it stimulated on both sides contributed to the brutal events of 1947.

It is an unfortunate fact that all historical and social events that had led to the Partition can best be understood within the explanatory frameworks of religious and familial obligation.

In addition, ‘official’ accounts of Partition discount narratives that do not contribute to the deepening of the breach caused between the two countries by a nationalist collective subjectivity and religious identity.

The Partition is a vivid manifestation of the claim that the two post-colonial nation states were founded on an act of bloody severance of the umbilical cord — an act that fortifies borders between them with irrational and remorseless violence.

The mainstream concept of nationalism, which rules the roost in the Subcontinent, deploys the idea of citizenship and fraternity that unifies the entire community in pursuit of a common goal. This notion can be elucidated with reference to Eric Hobsbawm’s analysis of the unprecedented rise of new nationalisms. As Hobsbawm argues, nationalism establishes an inclusion/exclusion dichotomy in which those who belong can be winnowed away from those perceived as outsiders. He observes that this binary was reinforced most forcefully in the post-Cold War era.

In order to assert itself, a nation-state needs to draw clear borders, so it can define itself in opposition to other nations. But ultra-right wing nationalism in both India and Pakistan goes a step further insofar as it erases all traces of a shared past. Bloody man oeuvres to destabilise the British Raj were employed by Muslims as well as Hindus of colonial India in a joint effort to oust the oppressor. The composite culture constructed by the two communities was an inherent part of pre-colonial India as well, but is expunged by ultra-right wing nationalists in their attempt to disseminate a unitary discourse of nationalism.

Militant nationalism must evolve into critical nationalism — an acknowledgement that unless national consciousness transforms into social consciousness, the so-called ‘liberation’ would merely be a continuation of imperialism. The realisation that relentless violence and bloodshed cannot validate the ‘reality’ of borders dawns on the wise, sooner rather than later.

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Photo: Cathal Mcnaughton / Reuters