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What fuels Indian Nationalism?

A deep sense of inferiority and fear, says Ashis Nandy

Three anxieties have continued to plague us since the mid-1980s. The first is the diminishing role of the sacred in everyday life, even though India continues to be seen as a country surfeit with religions and rituals. Indian religions are organised around rituals, family priests, village and family specific gods, pilgrimages and mannats—all predominantly local or regional. The traditional religious sensitivity built on these has become increasingly unsustainable as people have moved from villages to cities, from state to state, and from one linguistic zone to another. This uprooting has created a need for a generic version of faith, in which a person who moves from Kerala to Uttar Pradesh can continue to believe that he is a part of his religion. All-round secularisation of life has underscored the fear of losing one's faith.

The second anxiety is the product of urbanisation. Technically, India is still predominantly a rural society. However, urban norms, life styles and tastes have begun to make their presence felt in a way that would have been unthinkable two decades ago. The cities have opened up the possibility for an individual to escape and reinvent himself in an ambience of anonymity and impersonality. Yet, the anonymous impersonality also demands a form of individualism and capacity to live with the loneliness that grows out of weakening family and castes ties. If you happen to be a first-generation migrant to the city, you are bound to look back nostalgically on the life and social ties you have left behind, and seek the old sense of belonging.

Third, since the 1830s, the Indian middle class has been consistently exposed to a form of modern education that has underwritten a global hierarchy of cultures. Over 150 years they have come to believe that western societies are modern and Indian society is premodern and backward. Distinctions between westernisation and modernisation have not touched the bulk of western educated modern Indians, who are convinced that their future lies in being exactly like Europe and North America. Do not be taken in by radical rhetoric. If you examine where most of our Left and Swadeshiwallahs send their children to study, you will find remarkably little difference between them and other sections of the Indian bourgeoisie. Inevitably, modern Indians have come to live with a deep feeling of inadequacy. They seek parity, not with other Asian countries doing well, but with the West itself. Last year, a study found that Indians are the most nationalistic people in the world, overtaking countries like the US, Japan and Pakistan. This nationalism is propelled by a deep sense of inferiority.

The only set of political actors who have sensed and responded to these anxieties are the Hindu nationalists, though their close competitors, the Islamic fundamentalists, too, have come close to reacting to these anxieties. Neither have done so self-consciously or by design; they are too dumb to identify or know the psychological space they occupy. They have done so intuitively.
Nevertheless, they have reaped the benefit of what they have done. During the first 40 years of Indian independence, the electoral support base of the Hindu nationalists ranged between seven to nine percent, roughly speaking. It has expanded to more than 20 percent now. This support base is disproportionately higher among the urban middle classes and among educated, modern Indians. Among NRIs in the First World, I shall not be surprised if some survey finds that the support base of Hindu nationalism is more than 90 per cent. It is true that this base is unlikely to rise much further. But even this base goes a long way in Indian politics today, given the fragmented party space. The democratic process in India has brought close to power many social sectors that would not have dreamt of having access to power only 30 years ago. But in the process of creating a nation-state called India, this process has also ensured that those who are close to the Indian state also imbibe its global, homogenising message. A part of that message is that if you want to be successful as a nation-state in the global arena, you have to do to your cultural diversity, to your minorities, your forest dwellers and your tribes, what Europe and North America and Australia have done to theirs. The Hindu nationalists seem well-equipped and well-qualified to do so.

The writer is an eminent social scientist

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