Nationalism A Bridge to Nowhere

In his article “Is Nationalism a boon or a curse” (Economic & Political Weekly, February 16-22, 2008), Amartya Sen has pronounced that Nationalism can be a ‘curse’ too.

Written by

KHAN YASIR

Published on

In his article “Is Nationalism a boon or a curse” (Economic & Political Weekly, February 16-22, 2008), Amartya Sen has pronounced that Nationalism can be a ‘curse’ too. But his conclusion lacks in intellectual honesty. One wonders if it can be a “boon” for the society. Sen’s article is full of the statements like, “it is not hard to see that Nationalism can indeed be a boon, offering benefits that are significant and substantial”, or “Nationalism is surely a boon in many contexts”.

However, the author has failed to provide any substantial argument in his vindication of Nationalism, except that it can reconciliate different identities based on language, religion or region, etc. But this is a general phenomenon of plethora of identities and cannot at all be cited as distinction of only Nationalism. For example, does language not reconciliate different identities based on nation, religion or region, etc.? Or does a religion fail to reconciliate identities based on nation or language at times?

The rule of such reconciliation depends on circumstances. For example, if a fundamental right is violated, all the people unite on the basis of being ‘citizens’; if derogatory cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless and greet him) is published, Muslims unite on the basis of being the followers of a particular religion; if China attacks India, all Indians unite on the basis of being Indians; an assault on a woman is sufficient to unite all the ‘feminists’. To see in a larger scope, if aliens would assail the earth, the whole mankind will surely unite on the basis of being humans. In all the above mentioned ‘unities’, each bases reconciliation on one or other identities as and when situation demands.

In the concluding part of the article Amartya Sen has played rather safely, “Nationalism is both a curse and a boon.” In fact, his claim that Nationalism could have “hugely positive effect” is indigent of either some cogent arguments or solid historical justifications. Unfortunately it lacks both.

Some selected definitions of Nationalism are: “the policy of asserting the interests of one’s own nation, viewed as separate from the interests of other nations or the common interests of all nations” [Webster’s Dictionary]. Nationalism is “loyalty and devotion to the state such that national interests are placed above individual or global interests … at the end of 19 century, European nationalist movements began to lose some of their inter-Nationalism and became more and more conservative and even reactionary. The progressive intensification and parochialism of these nationalist movements culminated in the outbreak of world war one” [Encyclopaedia Britannica]. “Patriotic feeling, often to an excessive degree” [Oxford Dictionary]

“Nationalism turns devotion to the nation into principles or programmes. It thus contains a different dimension from mere patriotism, which can be a devotion to one’s country or nation devoid of any project for political action” [The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of Politics].

“Nationalism is political or social philosophy in which the welfare of the nation-state as an entity is considered paramount. Nationalism is basically a collective state of mind or consciousness in which people believe their primary duty and loyalty is to the nation-state. Often Nationalism implies national superiority and glorifies various national virtues. Thus love of nation may be overemphasized; concern with national self-interest to the exclusion of the rights of other nations may lead to international conflict” [The Columbia Encyclopaedia, Sixth Edition].

“Nationalism is a term referring to a doctrine or political movement that holds that a nation – usually defined in terms of ethnicity or culture – has the right to constitute an independent or autonomous political community based on a shared history and common destiny. Most nationalists believe the borders of the state should be congruent with the borders of the nation. Extreme forms of Nationalism, such as those propagated by fascist movements in the twentieth century, hold that nationality is the most important aspect of one’s identity while some of them have attempted to define the nation in terms of race or genetics” [Wikipedia].

In simple parlance Nationalism means that the nationalist should give preference to his nationality over all other nationalities. We know that by ‘barbarian’ the ancient Greek simply meant ‘non-Greek’ – this was un-christened Nationalism. Nationalism swelled into its horrible form during World Wars, the slogans “Germany overall”, “America is god’s own country”, “Italy is religion”, “to rule is Britain” and in short the feeling of “My Country! – Right or Wrong” are manifestations of different yet conflicting Nationalisms.

The following are the four stages essential for full-fledged Nationalism:

  • The sentiment of national pride which leads a nation from loving its national traditions and characteristics to the worshipping of them, and which compels a nation to exalt itself overall other nations in every respect.
  • The sentiment of national consciousness which, keeping aside the question of truth and justice obliges a man to support his nation whether it stands for right or wrong.
  • The sentiment of national self-preservation which, to protect its actual and visionary interests, compels every nation to adopt tactics which commencing with self-defence end in invasion. For instance a nation may be obliged in increase or decrease customs duty on import and export to protect its economic interests; may impose restrictions on the emigration and immigration of other nationals; deprive foreigners of civil rights and opportunities of earning sustenance within its frontiers; outview other nations in organising its fighting services for the defence of the country; march into the other lands to safeguard the rights and interests of its nationals.
  • The sentiment of national prestige and national aggrandisement which produces in every progressive and powerful nation the assertion that it should dominate and rule over the nations of the earth; increase its happiness at the expense of others; regard itself as appointed to civilise backward nations; and claim as birth-right the exploiting of the natural wealth of other countries [Nationalism and India – Maududi. P.18-19].

Have not the American Nationalism accomplished the peak today?

Joseph Leighton has pointed out, “The dilemma of politico-economic Nationalism is this: the nation-state is the necessary instrument for furthering the welfare of its people; not only their economic well-being but their cultural development – their education science, arts, and so on – depend on the prosperity of the nation-state. But under the competitive system economic Nationalism, which means the attempt to prosper at the expense of other people, breeds rivalries, suspicions, fears, hatred between peoples, and from the state of economic international conflict the passage is all too easy to open warfare”.

George Orwell argued the same, when he asserted, “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them”.

A peculiar characteristic of Nationalism is its opportunism, where a nationalist never pay heed to any ideals. We find an ideal illustration of the character of a nationalist in the career of Mussolini. Before the great world war of 1914-1918 he was a socialist. After the outbreak of the war he severed from the socialists only because he saw that his nation would gain if Italy entered the war. But when Italy could not secure what it wanted from the booty of war he inaugurated the new fascist movement. He, however, went on changing his principles while working in this movement.

In 1919 he was a liberal socialist, in 1920 he became an anarchist, in 1921 for some time he opposed the socialists and democrats and then co-operated with them for a while and ultimately seceded from them and chalked out a new policy of his own. “This capriciousness, this indifference to principles, this opportunism is not something particular with Mussolini; it is a natural concomitant of Nationalism”. It was only the drive of  this nationalistic fervour that led Savarkar to thunder, “A Hindu (Indian) means a person who regards this land of Bharat Varsha, from the Indus to the seas as his father-land as well as his holy land that is the cradle land of his religion” (emphasis added). The same had happened in the Nazi Germany. One section of the Nazis was openly disclaiming Jesus, because he was of the Jewish race, and to be a Jew was enough argument that an Aryan racialist should reject altogether all his cultural, moral, and spiritual values. Thus these people unscrupulously declared that Jesus was a proletarian Jew, a forerunner of Marx; as against this, the Nazis who still posed some faith in Jesus said that he was of Nordic race. That is a German nationalist would discredit Jesus because either he was a Jew, or if they believe they would believe not in the Jesus of Israel but in the Jesus of the Nordic race! Moral of the story: “A German nationalist would never be prepared to accept a non-Aryan as the leader of the moral and spiritual culture”. It is thus confirmed that when Nationalism captures the heart and the mind of a person all his interests are constrained within the circle of nationality. It can be argued that these are superficial arguments but the fact is when Nationalism would progress on these lines it will ultimately reach such climax. History is the evidence!

However, to conclude from what the preceding paragraphs that this writer is against patriotism and has no love for the nation etc. will be misconstrued. Here comes what Amartya Sen has called the role of multiple identities. “None of which can be taken to be person’s only.” Nevertheless, the practical fact is that one identity prevails in issues of conflict. What this scribe is against is the predominance of this national identity over the other identities. Humans are distinct from the animals and must not be defined by the ‘jungles’ they live in. National identity is defined by what Amartya Sen himself referred to as ‘accident of birth’. It is superficial and farfetched to argue that ‘a change in citizenship is possible nowadays’, as he did. A person’s defining identity must be his ideology, which he upheld after a prolonged empirical investigation, thorough study and examination.

George Orwell said, “By ‘Nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly – and this is much more important – I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”

I do not understand the case of those staunch nationalists who oppose regionalism. Isn’t Nationalism, a ‘regionalism’ in a broader (yet narrower) perspective? For example a regionalist – let’s say Raj Thackeray – thinks in terms of development only of his region and people living in his region, however negative it could prove for the nation as a whole. Likewise a nationalist – let’s say Hitler – thought in terms of development of only his country and his people however damage it may cause to humanity. Thus, what selfishness is in individual life, regionalism or nationalism is in collective life.

Then what is the bottom line. In my view – though ‘blasphemous’ – Nationalism is in itself a negative term like fascism, even without the addition of prefixes like ‘ultra’ to it. In simpler parlance, what Nationalism means actually, is what common people understand by ultra-Nationalism. George Orwell argues more cogently when he says, “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality” (emphasis added).

To conclude, Nationalism is made up of two ingredients:

1. Great love for one’s nation.

2. Aspiration to achieve national interest by hook or by crook.

Any dichotomy here is not possible, picking only one condition up and dubbing it as Nationalism is wrong, not only etymologically but also historically. Intellectuals like Amartya Sen would like us to believe in this misnomer. I respect the first condition – which is patriotism – and is genuine, natural and even desirable but I unequivocally denounce the other as it is not only unjust, sectarian, parochial, divisive but also inhuman. We must understand and acknowledge that ‘there is no contradiction between global sympathies and national loyalties’.