Another book on the idea of a nation serves as a reminder for course correction.
Having juxtaposed the ideas of Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Ambedkar and Aurobindo on nationalism in the opening chapter of his book Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, poet and political theorist Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee concludes: “It is through the measure of justice alone that we may measure the promise of a nation.”
The measure is apt. Established on the promise of justice to all, most modern nation-states have performed badly in their primary test. Democracy was meant to be “the antithesis of fascism” but, as Bhattacharjee rightly notes, by allowing popular passions it has legitimised “political inequality by openly coercing minorities”. However, the more pertinent question is this: Is it the failure of individual states or is there something ingrained in the idea of nationalism that the states it gave birth to had to fumble at a crucial point?
The book highlights the pathologies of nationalism and traces them to the grand dream of modernity that had inherent flaws from the beginning. The author then moves to various victims of nationalism in India, like Muslims and untouchables, and brings in a lot of Indian and foreign thinkers to buttress his argument. He underlines the syncretic culture of India that has seen the fusion and co-existence of several religions. The book has some interesting anecdotes, particularly a Bengali tale about a Muslim bangle seller, his Hindu women clients and a Durga temple.
Yet, the book may leave the reader a bit dissatisfied. First, there is a lot of work available on the topic. Nationalism, modernity and communalism have faced severe intellectual rejoinders in India right from the British era. Gandhi and Tagore, among others, were the fierce critics of these concepts. Even Swami Vivekananda, now being perceived as a Hindutva leader, advocated for a “Vedanta brain and Islam body”. Bhattacharjee’s book is certainly an addition to the existing work, but it doesn’t seem to bring any new argument.
Second, it tries to cover an exceptionally wide ground in too few pages. As the discourse expands from nationalism to minorities and Dalits, at several instances one wishes that the argument had received sufficient space. For instance, in a chapter on violence against human bodies, the author brings in Aadhaar, recent crimes of mob lynching, including the incident when a Kashmiri man was tied to an Army jeep. All these certainly confirm the ills of nationalism, are the fallout of the politics of the recent decades, but don’t seem to be woven in a coherent argument.
The book reflects erudition, has a wide range of references, from Hegel on Gita to Foucault on psychiatry, and offers rich ideas. It reads wonderful in parts but falters as an organic unit. It sets up a rich palette, but the requisite strokes on the canvas seem missing. That said, its worth lies in sending a necessary reminder to Indians that the path their state has chosen requires immediate correction.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla