Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Tarana-e-Watan, slight reprise

Reference to Context : this

Gaurav asserts that a lout, a thief who believes strongly in the idea of India and stands up for Vande Matram is a better Indian than an impeccable, polished, law-abiding citizen who doesn't care too much about the nation. In the dictator's world, a nation is nothing but an idea, and thus anyone who refuses to believe in the idea is actually detrimental to the national identity. The second half of his post is largely something that one agrees with. But this initial assertion has to be rebutted.

A nation is indeed an idea. But ideas have no independent existence - they are solely dependent on the people who hold them. The idea is glorious, nay, even credible only if the people who believe in it are taken care of. A nation is an idea, but it is not just an idea. One could speak of the common culture, food, geography, language, etc. but in a nation like India, these are so distinct and numerous that they are superficial and inadequate proxies. There is exactly one concrete marker of a nation, and that is its current constituents. India is a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me it is primarily the people who inhabit the nation today, and more pertinently, the people who identify themselves as Indians. The strength of their belief in the idea of India is of low consequence to me.

One could argue that the individual's safety is dependent upon the group's, as Gaurav does. Or one could argue that the group's safety is nothing but the safety of each one of it's individual members. This top-down vs bottom-up approach to individuals and groups can be discussed ad infinitum. I believe there is one critical aspect that such a discussion ignores. An individual and his/her freedom are well defined, and often, static entities. A group is only a template. A nation is a group, so is a gender, so is a religion, a caste, a state, an ethnicity, an instiution, and even a dorm within an insitution. An individual, as Amartya Sen beautifully explains in the first few pages of Idenity and Violence, is at the very least an intersection of these various groups. I am an Indian, a Hindu, a Bihari etc. Which one group's safety is most important for my safety? What is the correct level of granularity at which it becomes undesirable to express one's allegiance to a group virulently? Every group has contributed to my identity - which ones have the right to demand a compromise on my freedom? What is the priority order of these groups in their claims on my freedom?

One could also argue that status quo dictates that believing in a strong nation has near universal acceptance, and hence a nation has the first claim. That would be an argument hard to beat on the basis of current data. But to argue that it is this aspect of the status quo that needs to be perpetuated would take either a leap of faith, or a rational justification on some grounds. Would it be possible to evaluate essentially irrational choices on the basis of utilitarian grounds?

I am a liberal, and I am a nationalist. India has the first claim on my freedom. But there is no rational reason for this choice. I would be hard pressed to explain why it is not Hinduism, my religion, or Bihar, my native place, or Gujarat, my state of domicile, or the Kayasthas, my caste, or indeed, the entire male 'brotherhood' of the world. If one regards the ' I do not want to sing Vande Matram ' Indian as a threat to the idea of India, should one also regard the ' I do not want to sit for the Satyanarayan Pooja ' Hindu as a threat to the idea of Hindusim?

A nation is not just an idea, it is primarily the people who identify with the allegiance to the idea. The thief, when he commits a crime against an individual in the nation, an act that the nation does not permt him to commit, betrays the nation. No amount of symbolic respect to the nation's idea absolves him of this betrayal. To me as well, there is no dilemma. The man disrespectful of the Indian flag but respectful of her citizens is a far better Indian than the Vande Matram loving lout. One does not disrespect a nation only by disrespecting the flag. When one spits where one is not supposed to, one disrespects the nation too. Somebody else, a fellow country man, will have to come and clean it. It would be rather fraudulent then, to claim that one's respect for the national anthem makes up for the lack of respect for another Indian's dignity, and a lack of respect for the conditions required for the country's efficiency.

It amuses me that the dictator proudly proclaims to be a Hindutva Fascist. It would be interesting to know if he also subscribes to the following descriptions - Male Chauvinist, and Kayastha Supremacist. Reverse snobbery is the easiest game to play.

p.s - People who are wondering about the obvious Jimi Hendrix reference in the title of the post must know that I'm not exactly the man's greatest fan. I mean, sure, he was great, revolutionary blah blah. But to claim that he was the greatest guitarist ever! One might as well say that W G Grace was the greatest batsman ever. First great != greatest.

p.p.s - Which is not to say that he wasn't great either. If you are not a fan of his rendition of All Along The Watchtower, you haven't the foggiest idea about hard rock guitar.

p.p.p.s - With reference to the last line of the p.s, yes I am a computer engineer by training.


~A said...

"The thief, when he commits a crime against an individual in the nation, an act that the nation does not permt him to commit, betrays the nation."

What if it is against somebody else?

zen babu said...

Well, then the betrayal of the nation factor is perhaps reduced, still not gone. The crime is still an act not permited by the nation.

I do find it difficult to get as worked up about a foreign national getting cheated as about an Indian one. This random distinction that I create between people based on their nationalities stems from the same irrationality that makes me a
nationalist, I suppose.

I hope that you understand that this is purely about my take on nationalism and the country, and not about the formal set of laws that should be invoked to punish the crime.

Anil said...

Why does the nation have first claim to your allegiance? Your brilliant question led Bakunin through Chomsky to anarcho-syndicalism and Hobbes and Mill to come up with brilliant defenses of the idea of nation.
But why does it lay first claim to your allegiance? Is it simply because it is the least offensive form of self-categorization that you are confronted with? Or maybe because the guardian angels of nationhood were more articulate and sophisticated than the ones that propagated religion or caste. After all, they have the schools, books, TV, movies...
Nationhood as we understand it today was essentially a European construct to denote cultural homogeneity, and the most successful nations have been ones that had an overwhelmingly monolithic cultural ethos, down to the most recent examples of successful nations, Japan, South Korea and China. The definition of nation has evolved to accommodate changing sensibilities and realities, but no truly diverse nation has ever done well for itself, the US at first sight would appear to be an anomaly, but their 'democratic' polity ensures the same kind of person rules the nation over and over again...
We are like the idiot playing roulette in Dostoevsky's Gambler, playing to rules not framed by us, not knowing that the house always wins...