The traditions of India leave no room for narrow, extreme, and chauvinistic nationalism. India’s nationalism must be clearly distinguished from those of Europe and the West
Ved P Nanda
The Brexit vote by Great Britain to leave the European Union has led to the collapse of the Pound, destabilisation of markets, and a wide sense of deep political and economic uncertainty. One outcome was the
warning by political analysts that the rise of “resurgent nationalism” in many European countries is a grievous blow to the world order. The current turmoil reminded me of the heated debate on nationalism, intolerance, and freedom of expression which followed the
student demonstrations and arrests in India a few months ago. I recall that the din of shrill voices criticising or
justifying the action against students by law enforcement authorities rarely led to rational discourse or thoughtful reflection. Having followed these
developments from a distance of nearly 10,000 miles, it occurred to me that both the term “nationalism” and its content are not only highly complex and
contested but misunderstood, as well. A nation and national identity may be generally defined by reference to
common origin, ethnicity, or cultural ties. Those constituting a nation consider themselves distinctive in terms of their history, customs, traditions, identity, language, character, etc. And the concept can encompass either how the members of a nation care about their identity as belonging to that nation or how members of a nation take action to achieve political sovereignty. The action taken by Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress (INC) to fight for India’s Independence with the goal of forming a political unit, the territorial state, illustrates the latter. Nationalism and religion are often intertwined. Historians refer to ideals of Christian universalism, which was
subsequently secularised as modern
liberal politics developed, and describe how secularisation facilitated the rise of extremist nationalist movements such as Nazism, which became exclusivist, illiberal, and intolerant. Ultimately, it was that extremism and xenophobia resulting from chauvinistic nationalism responsible for dehumanisation of
categories of people — Jews and Roma (Gypsies) — and eventually to their extermination in the Holocaust by the Nazis, all justified in the name of the Fatherland.
But in today’s Europe extreme nationalism is on the rise in many
countries, and the outcome is incidents of xenophobic political discourse,
antisemitism, and hate speech. Minorities and immigrants are attacked, a clear evidence of racism and an
anti-immigration world view. Countries are closing their borders and Euro-skepticism has grown. After World War II supranational organisations, multinational enterprises, and nongovernmental organisations, coupled with globatlisation, have fostered interdependence.
How does Indian nationalism fit into this booming, buzzing, confusing
scenario? India’s nationalism is
different, as it is cultural nationalism with universal values. Thousands of years of history, customs, traditions, art, music, etc. have given it a unique hue. India’s liberal concept of nation has united people from all over the country who speak dozens of languages and enjoy distinct cultural elements.
The traditions of India leave no room for narrow, extreme, and chauvinistic nationalism, for this form of nationalism is foreign to India. India’s history is replete with the overwhelming evidence of its warm embrace of diverse people representing different religions, ethnicities, and cultures seeking shelter with a great deal of magnanimity, grace, enthusiasm, and humanity. Persecuted people have always found safe haven in India.
Over the millennia, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and more recently Tibetans and Yazidis, have been warmly welcomed with open arms. Obviously, this is not an expression of intolerance. It is not merely tolerance but acceptance and even respect for their religions,
cultures, and traditions. The two
tenets of Indian culture — Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam — the entire human race is one family — and Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah, Sarve Santu Niramayah —may everyone be happy! may everyone be healthy! — are not mere slogans but constitute the living, guiding spirit of India. Indian nationalism, which upholds these principles, is indeed in sync also with the movement towards international interdependence emanating from the emergence of globalisation.
Given this reality, is not a nation
justified in holding a person
accountable who calls for its destruction (barbadi)? Is the freedom of expression and right to dissent a license to utter hate speech? Of course, responses vary from state to state. The first amendment to the United States Constitution
permits an individual the right to burn the US flag and allows an organisation to demonstrate with Nazi slogans in a city with a large Jewish population. In many European countries, on the other hand, hate speech, even when not an incitement to violence, is analogous to shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater and is prohibited.
The point is that there is a reasonable limit to an individual’s freedom of expression. Each country’s constitution sets those limits, which ideally reflect the people’s expressed preference of their relationship with the nation. India’s Constitution contains just such a
limitation, as Article 19(2) authorises the law to impose “reasonable restrictions” on the exercise of the freedom of speech and expression, “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, [and] the security of the State.” And the judiciary in its case law has applied the law to allow such restrictions.
India’s nationalism must be clearly distinguished from the narrow nationalism experience of Europe and the West.
(The writer is John Evans Distinguished University Professor, University of Denver; Thompson G. Marsh Professor of Law, founding Director, International Legal Studies Program, and Director, the Ved Nanda Center for International and Comparative Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law)