The Abuse of History and Making of the Anti-Nation
By Suchintan Das, 2nd History
The University of Delhi, which is no stranger to controversies, has recently found itself at the centre of another. The issue in question pertains to the revision of the syllabi of several undergraduate honours’ courses in general and that of History in particular. The specificity of the objection raised by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad regarding the same was remarkable. The teaching of ‘Naxalism and Communism’ in the course was unpalatable to them. However, what is worthy of being paid greater attention to is not what the ABVP means by or thinks of these ‘isms’ but the question of what it strives to achieve through protests of this nature.
It would be platitudinous to suggest that the ABVP protesters are solely driven by the motive to close the space for contestation in history as a discipline and claim it as their own. What often gets overlooked in this regard is that this demand for certain subtractive changes in the syllabus cannot be viewed in isolation. It is intricately linked to practices which have been familiarized and condoned by this present regime time and again such as dogmatizing citizens as ‘urban naxals’ and ‘anti-nationals’, coining terms with inescapable derogatory connotations like ‘libtards’ and ‘sickulars’, assassinating free-thinkers and rationalists, strategically controlling and silencing the mass media, privileging particular slogans like ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ over others, and above all, attempting to implement the National Register of Citizens across the country.
All these constitute a kind of essentialization. They exemplify a certain project—that of building the Anti-Nation. The act of discrediting is more easily attempted and more effectively realized than that of legitimizing. It goes hand in hand with the objective of rendering citizens outsiders from within—homeless within their own homeland. They are then projected as the members of an imagined community, ever conspiratorial and complicit in seditious crimes against the ‘nation’. They are therefore depicted as the inhabitants of an anti-nation. The obsession of the present government to weed out ‘non-citizens’ and dissenters alike is merely a manifestation of this project, which is administrative in form and ideological in content.
This making of an anti-nation is complementary to the RSS’ scheme of establishing a Hindu Rashtra. For it is only through the process of reducing everything into binaries—citizens and non-citizens, Hindus and non-Hindus, nationalists and anti-nationalists that the devious questions of dispossession, deprivation, and dissension can be shoved under the proverbial carpet of perpetual ignorance. This whole project has radically altered the fundamental objectives of the RSS and by extension, its political outfit—the BJP. They have begun to concentrate more on controlling the structures of counter-narratives than the intricacies of the narrative that they seek to promote. This is a strange exercise of power – one which sparks off a sense of urgency to combat an imagined enemy—an anti-nation inhabited by the most defiant individuals, who are burdened with the responsibility of proving themselves to be otherwise.
It is in this context that the question of how this is actually achieved emerges. The answer to the same comes from an imagined Machiavelli who says “My scheme envisions the neutralising of the press by the press itself. Because journalism wields great power, do you know what my government will do? It will become like them. It will become journalism incarnate. Like God Vishnu my press will have a hundred arms, and these arms will stretch out their hand to every shape of opinion. Everyone will be my party without knowing it. Those who think they speak their own language will be speaking mine, those who think they are marching under their own banner will be marching under mine. I will be able to say that I direct opinion at will on all questions of external and internal policy. I awaken people’s minds or lull them to sleep. I reassure them or confuse them. I plead for and against, the true and the false.” (Dialogues in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu—Maurice Joly)
These journalists incarnate and self-proclaimed agents of the ‘nation’ then charge at the ‘Tukde Tukde Gang’ and the ‘Khan Market Gang’ like Don Quixote at the windmills. As history is replaced by a compendium of myths, propaganda subsumes the necessity of news. A combination of these constitute identity and knowledge-formation in the ‘nation’, whereas, anything with even the remote possibility of unsettling these processes come to be associated with the ever-lurking idea of the anti-nation. The nation, in effect, gets likened to a herd of sheep where “glory, the most foolish of divinities and the most murderous, [takes] the place of liberty.” (To Business Men—Pierre-Joseph Proudhon) The existence of the nation is seen to be perpetually under threat and the position of those in power eternally assured so long as the idea of the anti-nation remains a despicable and disastrous one.
In order to succeed in such a portrayal, the abuse of history becomes a necessary presupposition. “Italian fascism has proclaimed national ‘sacred egoism’ as the sole creative factor. After reducing the history of humanity to national history, German fascism proceeded to reduce nation to race and race to blood.” (Nationalism and Economic Life—Leon Trotsky) Since it has become rather difficult to tread the conventional path of reclaiming history from the clutches of its abusers, any attempt to resurrect the Nehruvian notions of unity in diversity and harmonious coexistence in India since time immemorial will fall upon deaf years. Similar will be the possible fate of an effort to problematize these very notions so as to uncover more heterogeneous histories. Let us for once admit that Indian history has largely operated on structures of violence and is replete with episodes of conflict, continuous or otherwise, between classes, castes, and communities.
It will not do us any harm to choose sides in these historical struggles. It will do the RSS more harm if pre-existing conflicts are deprived of the privilege of being pretexts for self-perpetuation. The culture of vengeful violence needs to be thoroughly undermined. The anti-nation might be of some use in this regard for it is also an alternate nation, a nation that departs from the existing one, a nation which is sought to be created. The ties binding the inhabitants of the anti-nation are those of victimhood and martyrdom. These are strong enough in their own rights and worth solidarizing for. Instead of labouring an obvious counterpoint to the RSS’ abuse of history, turning this project of building the anti-nation on its head is of greater significance. This can be achieved through the denouncement of the premise that a better future cannot be imagined with the baggage of a worse past. Let it be murmured loudly that whether Ram was historically born at the place where the Babri Masjid used to stand does not matter. What matters is whether its destroyers are brought to justice or not.
History writing in India is often pulled in two different directions. There has been a long-standing attempt at portraying India’s history as one of harmony, synthesis, and relative amity. The response to this has characterized Indian history as being one of discord, divergence, and overarching violence. ‘Myth-busting’ and self-reflexive exercises such as problematizing the conspicuous absence of testimonies in existing sources have taken place in the academia from both sides, with each laying claim to a set of convenient truths. This, however, has hardly impacted the notion of Indian history as it is constituted in the cultural psyche of the common citizen. The much more refined argument that histories of conflict can and should be written in India without suggesting either the necessity or aggravation of further conflict doesn’t have much of an audience beyond the academia either. It is necessary but not sufficient to merely pose a counterpoint to the abuse of history. What is required is a total dismantling of history’s hallowed position of power in the public sphere—a position that enables its abusers to use history as a justificatory apparatus for mobilizational purposes. In order to be in a position to even suggest this, the complicity of the abuse of history in the creation of a nation needs to be recognized and the latter as a category thoroughly critiqued.
Tagore had defined nation “in the sense of the political and economic union of a people” as “that aspect which a whole population assumes when organized for a mechanical purpose.” (On Nationalism—Rabindranath Tagore) The anti-nation, on the other hand, is a category of all that gets spilled and thrown out in the project of nation building. Nonconformity and heterogeneity are its fundamental characteristics. In fact, it is prefigurative of the idea of a future world nation, the product of a time when the concept of nation-states will become anachronistic. This concept is both constituted by and attributed with a sense of national pride. “But pride in every form breeds blindness at the end. Like all artificial stimulants its first effect is a heightening of consciousness and then with the increasing dose it muddles it and brings an exultation that is misleading.” (On Nationalism—Rabindranath Tagore) The subversive aim of the anti-nation should therefore be to question and eventually unsettle any national pride that colludes to impose subjecthood on citizens.
“Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should — in which, for example, the Spanish Armada was a success or the Russian Revolution was crushed in 1918 — and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible.” (‘Notes on Nationalism’—George Orwell).
It is to this end that Hobsbawm remarks, “Historians are to nationalism what poppy growers in Pakistan are to Heroin addicts: we supply the essential raw material to the market.” (‘Ethnicity and Nationalism in Europe Today’—Eric Hobsbawm)
“Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation and it is for this reason that the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to nationality.” (‘What is a Nation’—Ernst Renan) Unfortunately, the obverse is not true. Remembering, rather, selective remembering (which is always inevitably the case) fulfills the same purpose.
Fighting the abuse of history does not require the reiteration of a firm commitment to a rigorous reading of the nation’s supposedly real history. What is indeed essential is to dislodge nationalism from the pedestal of being a high virtue and imagine an alternative to the socio-historical construct called the ‘nation’ as we know it today. Notwithstanding what is usually read into the history of the Indian nation, it is more crucial at this juncture to seize control of the making of the anti-nation by suggesting that it is the idea of the same that transcends parochial classifications. It is only by choosing not to belong to any one nation or for that matter, any great nation, that one can summarily reject its ideological bulwark – nationalism. Even if India is not truly a socialist secular republic and even if it never was, there is absolutely no reason why it should not be made into one. Connected in their being relentless and unapologetic dreamers, it is quite certain that the inhabitants of the anti-nation are going to lead the way!
More recently, it has come to be known that the Government of India has unilaterally revoked the articles 35A and 370 of the Constitution and has resolved to bifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, of Ladakh and of Jammu and Kashmir, with the former devoid of any legislative apparatus. Before administering the death blow on the concerned articles, the government had deployed a huge number of paramilitary troops, put the army and the air force on high alert, placed all mainstream political leaders of the state either under detention or house arrest and cut off all modes of communication in the state keeping citizens in the dark about their very future. This undeclared emergency could be seen in stark contrast to the claims of the Home Minister in Parliament that the Government acted in order to realize “people’s aspirations”. What was more surprising was the support that was extended to the blatant governmental contravention of the Indian Constitution by parties in the opposition, like the BJD, the AAP, and even the BSP among others. These parties are so lustful of acquiring or remaining in power, that they have begun to operate within the political paradigm of competitive nationalism that has been curated and sustained by the BJP. In doing so, they have done away with both their political autonomy and the ideology with which they had come into existence.
What the BJP has been able to do in its five years of rule over this country is to successfully abrogate and discredit all notions of consent, social or political, individual or collective. Mob lynchings have been the prototypical acts of such negation of consent, which is now being used to underwrite the systematic demolition of the federal structure of the country. The revision of university syllabi, implementation of the NRC, and the revocation of articles 370 and 35A seem to be eerily connected by the usage of nationalism as a justification that seeks to coerce all conversation regarding these issues into a permanent closure. What is being done at the same time is to claim the land of Jammu and Kashmir as that of the Indian nation from time immemorial, while casting out all its inhabitants into the anti-nation that is the perpetual bête noire of the RSS’ ultimate fetish, the ‘Akhand Hindu Rashtra’.
Order prevails in Kashmir today. However, ‘the jubilant “victors” fail to notice that any “order” that needs to be regularly maintained through bloody slaughter, heads inexorably towards its historic destiny; its own demise’. (Order Prevails in Berlin—Rosa Luxemburg) The very intellectual exercise of differentiating between nationalism and jingoism has become futile in this context. A spectre has been haunting the country — the spectre of Nationalism. All the powers of ‘new India’ have entered into an unholy alliance to conjure and sustain this spectre: big businessmen and bureaucrat opportunists, herbal capitalists and market fundamentalists, right-wing politicians and Hindutva terrorists. There is no one way to exorcise this ghost of Nationalism. Subverting the very idea of the anti-nation seems to be a good way to start. Patriotism has long been dead. Long Live Nationalism!