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On why Nationalism is a very recent idea: Read an excerpt from Shashi Tharoor’s book

On why Nationalism is a very recent idea: Read an excerpt from Shashi Tharoor's book
Shashi Tharoor
On why Nationalism is a very recent idea: Read an excerpt from Shashi Tharoor's book
  • In the book “The Battle Of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism, And What It Means To Be Indian”, eminent thinker and bestselling writer Shashi Tharoor explores hotly contested ideas of nationalism, patriotism, citizenship, and belonging.

  • In the course of his study, he explains what nationalism is, and can be, reveals who is anti-national, what patriotism actually means, and explores the nature and future of Indian nationhood. The book also explores the battle between what might be described as ethno-religious nationalism vs civic nationalism.

  • Firmly anchored in incontestable scholarship, yet passionately and fiercely argued, this is a book that unambiguously establishes what true Indianness is and what it means to be a patriotic and nationalistic Indian in the twenty-first century.

  • Read an excerpt from Shashi Tharoor’s book “The Battle of Belonging” below.

I remember reading once the somewhat bemused account of a British writer who had encountered a black African, impeccably attired, on an aircraft in the 1940s. The writer, curious about his fellow passenger, wanted to know where he was from, and ventured to ask the stranger his nationality. The African drew himself up to his fullest height in his seat and replied with great pride, ‘Moi? Je suis français.’ (Me? I am French.)

The Briton was nonplussed. He could not imagine a brown-skinned subject of Britain’s colonial empire in India feeling able to say ‘I am British’; even if the Indian carried a British colonial passport, he would have said he was Indian, not least because British rule did not empower him to feel British. But the notion of nationhood was clearly experienced differently by the African in the next seat. He had no doubt that he was French.

Almost eight decades later, in mid-2018, a popular joke went around that France was the last African country to remain in the football World Cup, because so many of the French players had sub-Saharan ancestry. To passionate French supporters of the national team, their nationality was unrelated to their visible ethnicity—but to the racialist right wing, it was a betrayal. The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut even wrote that the French soccer team ‘has become black, black, black and [France] the laughingstock of Europe’. To people like him, being French required participation in a certain type of national homogeneity, one of whose unavoidable markers was white skin.

As we have seen in the previous chapter, the consciousness of ‘the nation’ as the social unit is, in historical terms, a very recent idea, emerging in a specific (and rather limited) historical period. Before the nineteenth century, people did not see themselves as constituents of a nation, let alone a nation-state: their sense of belonging was related to a locality, a much smaller territory than most nations, and their allegiance was to an individual (a baron, a duke, a prince, a feudal lord, or their equivalents in various societies), a city-state, or at most a king who controlled that territory.

As the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes had theorized, the fact was that the lives of most people had been ‘nasty, brutish and short’ before a strong ruler, a Leviathan, arose to impose order; allegiance was therefore inevitably to that ruler, who ensured the security and prosperity of his subjects. Larger loyalties were extremely difficult to parse: for example, in the land of Malabar, where my ancestors lived, as late as the second half of the eighteenth century, local chiefs, rajas, and tribal lords were linked through tributary relationships (much of it ceremonial) to a more powerful overlord far away, such as the Zamorin of Calicut, who in turn had to negotiate with multi-ethnic, multi-cultural empires (the Vijayanagara empire once, the advancing British later) and trade and form military alliances with the Deccan sultanates, against other aggressors like the Portuguese and the Dutch. It would have been very difficult for my ancestors in Palakkad to have explained which ‘nation’ they belonged to.

Of course, group and community sentiments are as old as human civilization; families, clans, and tribes have constituted meaningful units since time immemorial. Larger communities were defined in various ways. In the Islamic world, for example, Ibn Khaldun drew an important distinction between loyalty to the ummah (a nominally universal category covering all Muslims everywhere) and to the asabiyyah—a group or clan. As modern communications and weaponry permitted those small territories to expand, the domain of the individual they swore loyalty to extended much further afield, but here too it was not confined by any ideas of nationhood—rather the kingdom was a reflection of the king’s power, the material resources (in men and treasure) that he could command, and the limitations imposed by geography as well as by the countervailing power of other kings.

The classic ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, the Arthashastra of Kautilya, brilliantly analyses the duties, role, and responsibilities of the king; but there is no reference to the idea of a nation. Statecraft is predicated on both artha (material well-being) and dharma (righteousness and spiritual good), which Kautilya cleverly weaves together to argue that the king should pursue a state policy aiming at material progress in order to ensure success. The loyalty of the subjects is mentioned and has to be earned and maintained, but of loyalty to a national idea, there is no conception. For Kautilya, the state (coeval with ‘raja’ or ‘swami’) was more important than the ‘nation’. Implicit in his writing is the assumption that people of different nations or languages can be subsumed in a state but the state mechanisms must be permanently guarded. Kautilya’s theory of the state is usually called the ‘saptanga’ doctrine—the seven limbs that constitute the state: swami (king), amatya (ministers), janapada (land), durga (forts), kosha (treasury), danda (internal security), mitra (allies). But, anticipating a favourite approach of nationalists two millennia later, Kautilya added an eighth characteristic: shatru (enemy)—which includes sahaja shatru (enemies from within), krtrima shatru (enemies by design), and prakrita shatru (enemies by fate, e.g., neighbouring states). In all of this, the idea of ‘people’ is taken for granted, but there is no concept of ‘nation’.

Individuals, therefore, belonged to principalities, kingdoms, and empires delimited by the power of their rulers and nothing more. One might imagine, in the heyday of the Mughal empire, an Indian in the far-flung south imagining himself a Mughal subject; but Indian kings and emperors were linked through tributary relationships, which meant the writ of the Mughal emperor did not always apply universally within his own empire, and the emperor had to negotiate support from the provincial governors he had himself appointed, some of whom, like the Nizam-ul-Mulk in Hyderabad, reigned no differently from the sovereign ruler to whom he nominally owed allegiance. (Interestingly enough, new scholarship exploring the relationship between the Mughal emperor and his subjects has overturned the assumption that the urban masses were merely passive objects of rule and remained unable to express collective political aspirations until the coming of colonialism. They could be actors in their own right, but always in a space demarcated by the emperor, not by any conception of the nation).

This meant that for people in most of the world, well into the middle of the nineteenth century, their allegiance was to individuals, groups, and rulers, rather than around anything resembling the idea of a ‘nation’. You were the subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth or paid tribute to Emperor Akbar—you were not the citizen of a state or the member of a defined nation. The concept of nationalism arose when the absolute power of the ruler became untenable in more complex societies, and power began to be diffused; at that stage, people began to relate to each other by identifiable and unchanging common features that could be considered the attributes of a nation—a political entity broadly understood to be united by a defined geography, ethnicity, language, religion, and culture, common (and idealized) heroes, and a shared identity and sense of community for all its constituent people. In the mid-eighteenth century, French Foreign Minister René-Louis de Voyer de Paulmy, Marquis d’Argenson, remarked that ‘the word nation and state have never been used as much as they are today…. Under Louis XIV the two words were never spoken, and one did not have so much as an idea of them.’ Nationalism, for the first time, identified the state with the nation and the nation with the people, determining the nature and boundaries of the state on ethnographic lines. The nationalist idea was that each ‘nationality’ so defined should form a state of its own to include, ideally, all members of that nationality. The emergence of the ideas of popular sovereignty and self-determination, involving a common citizenship in which all could partake, enabled the rise of a collective consciousness that expressed itself as nationalism.

On why Nationalism is a very recent idea: Read an excerpt from Shashi Tharoor's book

Excerpted with permission from The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism And What It Means To Be Indian, Shashi Tharoor, Aleph Book Company. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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On why Nationalism is a very recent idea: Read an excerpt from Shashi Tharoor's book