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'Nationalism is a restrictive ideology'

By Geetanjali Krishna
August 15, 2018 10:13 IST
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'Patriotism is a sentiment, a feeling of belonging to a place.'
'Nationalism is an ideology, and like all ideologies, it is absolute and restrictive in nature,' Ashis Nandy, arguably India's leading social thinker, tells Geetanjali Krishna.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

It's not often, I muse, as I wait for Ashis Nandy at Indian Accent at Delhi's The Lodhi Hotel on a hot summer afternoon, that I get to have lunch with someone who has inspired a Facebook page demanding his arrest.

One of India's foremost public intellectuals, Nandy's writings on colonial identity, nationalism, modernity and violence have been remarkable as much for their intellectual brilliance as they have been for their divergence from prevalent positions.

As I leaf through The Intimate Enemy (1983), and the recent festschrift edited by Ramin Jahanbegloo and Ananya Vajpeyi, Ashis Nandy: A Life in Dissent (2018) that I am carrying with me, I wonder what life looks like to a man who has questioned every accepted canon -- be it science, religion, nationalism and even the concept of development.

Just then, he walks in, a sprightly octogenarian with pensive, piercing eyes and a diffident smile.


"What sort of name is Krishna?" he asks after the usual pleasantries have been dispensed with. I explain that a branch of my family decided to discard the surname which denoted our Kayastha identity.

He tells me my forefathers were scribes, learned people who wielded the pen instead of the sword to their advantage.

As he talks, I remember his observations about India's educated middle class, which in its haste to become 'modern', has become disconnected from its own history. I ponder my own rootlessness as Indian Accent’s signature blue cheese naans arrive on the table.

Is the rejection of traditional practices, I ask, such a bad thing?

True to his reputation, Nandy's response is well-reasoned, if unexpected. Human psychology is such, he argues, that if it rejects one certitude, it has to find another.

"In my experience, when people lose faith in religion and community, they strive to repose that lost faith in something else, so-called modern science, development and progress for instance."

Nandy is a critic of these modern absolutes as much as he dislikes the unquestioning devotion to tradition.

For him, the gods of religion and science are alike, in that they both have clay feet.

"Without questioning, without debate, both science and religion become dogmas -- exclusivist, absolute and dangerous," says he.

"In fact, I believe that there is a correlation between the growing absolutism in religion, and the absolute belief in science, modernity and nationalism."

It's time to order the food. Nandy is a small eater, but the menu at the restaurant is enticing. We decide to share a plate of roast soft shell crab for starters.

Wine is a natural choice, for who can discuss politics, psychology and philosophy with empty glasses?

As the wine and the crisply succulent crab arrive on the table, I ask Nandy why he so often draws the distinction between patriotism and nationalism.

In fact, Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, co-editor of Nandy's festschrift, once remarked that Nandy's referring to him as 'Persian' not 'Iranian' was a refreshing allusion to his civilisational rather than political identity.

"Patriotism is a sentiment, a feeling of belonging to a place," he says. "Nationalism is an ideology, and like all ideologies, it is absolute and restrictive in nature."

Perhaps Nandy's early training in psychoanalysis compels him to lay bare the deep psychological roots of such sociological constructs.

I recall The Intimate Enemy in which he argues that colonialism in India has persisted long after the British left, and in generations that were born after, because its mantle has been inherited by the colonised.

Today, perhaps, we are both the colonisers and the colonised, as we reject our old ways and our heritage to push the concept of 'development' upon our own people.

What then, I ask, does he think is the best way forward?

It is, he says, unsurprisingly given his intellectual position, to never accept anything without questioning.

"Somehow, we must learn how to be sceptics in this country..." he says.

Meanwhile, our server has brought back the menus so we can order our main course. Nandy opts for buttered scallops and rawa prawns. "Like all Bengalis, I love my fish!" he quips.

I choose lamb shanks, because Kayasthas love red meat, and probably for the first time in years, I'm feeling like one.

Our conversation has now moved to the subject of Gandhi. Nandy is that rare intellectual who espouses the Gandhian notion of development which accords rightful importance to traditional wisdom, decentralised village development, local culture and mythology.

"Modern education has made Gandhi out to be a traditionalist, regressive even," he says. "But my research revealed that Gandhi was extraordinarily well read in the writings of dissenting Western thinkers like Emerson, Ruskin and Thoreau."

Our mains arrive, and there's a momentary lull in conversation as we get acquainted with our plates. The food is delicious, but my mind is on the piquant thought of Gandhi, not the Mahatma whose portrait can be found in every public building in India -- but the political being.

Nandy's Gandhi is an astute thinker who is not afraid of questioning, "I believe that Gandhi was able to create rebels in huge numbers in the middle class," he says. "It is not something that any political party has been able to do since."

And just like that, the conversation veers towards politics.

Nandy believes that the popularity of the ideology of Hindutva and its notion of a unified Hindu great tradition which ignores the immense diversity within it, is because India's burgeoning but frustrated middle class is looking for something to believe in.

Impatient for economic development as promised by the Singapore model, it is ripe for 'developmental authoritarianism', something that Nandy had predicted nearly 40 years ago.

Nibbling on a hoisin duck-stuffed kulcha, I wonder what hope there is for a better future.

"Such regimes have historically never lasted long," he says. "We've seen it with Indira Gandhi's regime during the Emergency. Democracies have inbuilt checks and balances for this."

However, the problem with totalitarian ideologies is that they present an artificially homogenised version of societies.

"So the prevalent idea of 'development' means aiming to become like Singapore or the USA," he says. "But if we take away our cultural and social heritage from the picture, what sort of development would that be?"

It seems only fitting to end the afternoon with a discussion on dissent, and what it has meant to him in his own life.

Nandy the contrarian has been, at different times, pilloried by Marxists, secularists, feminists and liberals.

He has provoked libel cases, been attacked in public and online forums and worse.

Discomfort over dissent is nothing new, he says as his order of mishti doi cannoli arrives.

Every government since Independence has been uncomfortable with it. My whiskey and fig ice cream follows. Both look great, so we decide to share them and resume our conversation.

One reason why Indians find it hard to question and be questioned, is that we are too reverent, he says.

Which is why Nandy, the mentor, has always encouraged egalitarian relationships with his protégés and encouraged them to debate rather than accept.

There's nothing I enjoy more, I realise, than mixing good food with a goodly dose of anarchic conversation, but it's time to wrap up.

In parting, Nandy reiterates something with which I agree with unquestioningly: "Somehow, we need to re-learn the art of questioning," says he. "Else, without dissent and debate, our public life will become intellectually impoverished."

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