Nationalism had become sanctified in the lexicon of not only India’s political leaders but also its intellectual elite.
Many years ago, while researching the World War II Battle of Kohima, I had travelled to Moreh on the India-Myanmar border in Manipur. Friendly border guards allowed me to cross over to the Myanmar side from where a road ran to Mandalay. A few kilometres from the border checkpost is a small hillock where I was told Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army (INA) had rested before moving towards India.
The year was 1944; and the Japanese Army, after having swept across Southeast Asia, now exhausted and short of supplies, planned a bid on the well-stocked British garrison at Imphal. Netaji said his army would join in the assault even though his soldiers had barely one bullet each and little to eat. He rightly believed that Indian soldiers joining the fight against their British masters would shake the foundations of colonial rule in India and force London to concede independence.
Standing somewhere near that hill, on February 4 that year, Subhash Chandra Bose exhorted his troops: “There, there in the distance — beyond the rivers, beyond those hills, lies the Promised Land, the soil from which we sprang — the land to which we shall now return. Hark, India is calling, India’s metropolis is calling, three hundred and eighty million of our countrymen are calling. Blood is calling blood… The road to Delhi is the road to freedom — Chalo Dilli!”
I could not help the goose bumps recalling those lines on that lonely hillock in Myanmar. That was the event that had electrified a nation and sent shivers down the spine of the British Empire.
The Japanese and the INA were badly defeated in the Battle of Imphal. Thousands perished as Manipur’s rice fields turned red with those killed in the bombings by the Allied forces. But the Empire was shaken.
A secret military memo written by the head of the British Indian Army a couple of years later warned: “If it became impossible to rely on the Indian Army, British troops in or within easy reach of India would not suffice to maintain law and order throughout India.”
A top secret British Cabinet note further noted: “The Cabinet Mission have proposed that an emergency plan should be worked out in consultation with GHQ India for the removal of United Kingdom civilians from India in view of the very considerable risks to which Europeans may be exposed… The Cabinet Mission had also pointed out that it would be very helpful if immediate steps could be taken to expedite the passage of women and children in India now awaiting return to the United Kingdom.”
The wheel had turned, and the idea of nationalism had electrified a once enslaved people. Nationalism had become sanctified in the lexicon of not only India’s political leaders but also its intellectual elite.
Since then, though, it has been a steady slide downhill. We have finally reached a point today where nationalism is suspect in many quarters, equated with jingoism, war-mongering and right-wing politics.
This development is both regrettable and dangerous. Regrettable because nationalism is the basis that binds together our disparate nation with its multitudinous socio-ethnic groups, cultures and beliefs.
Novelist Salman Rushdie had once said of the idea of India: “It may be the most innovative national philosophy to have emerged in the post-colonial period. It deserves to be celebrated because it is an idea that has enemies, within India as well as outside her frontiers, and to celebrate it is also to defend it against its foes.”
The nation state in one form or the other has proved indispensable so far in history for the perpetuation of a civilisation. When the nation state perishes or atrophies, so does the civilisation, its culture and everything else associated with it.
Take the case of Afghanistan and parts of northwest Pakistan, which was once a flourishing Buddhist kingdom called Gandhara. A series of invasions culminating with Islamic rule both destroyed the kingdom and its associated civilisation. All that remains today is a small museum at Takshila (Pakistan), and the machine-gunned ruins of the Bamiyan Buddhas.
Demeaning or opposing the idea of nationalism is also dangerous as then the latent sentiments associated with it is invariably usurped for narrow partisan purposes.
This is precisely what has happened in recent times with the BJP and its leader, Narendra Modi, projecting themselves as the sole custodians of nationalism.
The Opposition has lost it, failed to judge the popular pulse and forfeited an essential aspect of the collective consciousness. Political leaders such as Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee and others who aspire to national power have reduced themselves to being champions of narrow notions of caste, race and parochialism.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has waded into the gulf with gusto and even taken the fight to the Congress Party, which was once the heir of the nationalist movement. Half-truths and ahistorical claptrap are being employed to project Jawaharlal Nehru, the father figure of the Congress Party and dynasty, as the root of all national evil, even though in truth he was the one responsible for fixing the firm foundations of an electoral democracy.
Nehru was at the helm of affairs when things could have gone horribly wrong as it did in neighbouring Pakistan and many an emerging republic. Nehru also transformed rural India by abolishing zamindari, land revenue and implementing a host of other reforms which constitute the basis of our agrarian system. The country’s industrial base, heavy industries included, were also the results of his policies.
Did Nehru err at times? Of course he did, as have most political leaders. But it would be ridiculous to blame him for all the country’s present-day ills, just as it would be absurd to claim that the economy has been destroyed only because of demonetisation.
The Congress Party, instead of reinforcing its legacy as the champion of nationalism, has abandoned it, thereby ceding the “nationalistic” space to its rival, the BJP. The country’s liberal elite are guilty of the same mistake, thereby allowing the concept of nationalism to be abused by the right-wing fringe of hyper-nationalists and rabble-rousers.
This is tragic. For nationalism, in the ultimate analysis, cannot be the sole preserve of any one party or leader; it is a gift bequeathed equally to all Indians; it is also the unshakable foundation of our freedoms.