The unfinished business of nation-building being attempted was always guaranteed to be difficult since new perceptions and sensibilities have to be implanted and become the default norm. It will unavoidably challenge extant fissured self-identification and imperil them, nothing more assured to unsettle and provoke unrest.
The unruly demonstrations across India over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) obscure the profound historic changes unfolding in India. The contemporary socio-political tsunami unleashed by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is Ashokan in scale and guarantee them immortality if the follow through and implementation of their policies succeed. In the historical context of disunity, it was the catastrophic warring between the Rashtrakutas of the South and the once mighty empire of the troubled Gurjara-Pratiharas that opened India’s doors to a thousand years of unimaginably destructive and cruel enslavement. The prolonged desolation was to be followed by the racist British marauders in the 18th century. They are still being defended by “coolie” Indian academics in a tradition of self-hatred that ingrained itself during colonial rule. But something massive is now afoot, the meaning of which will become truly clear in historical retrospect.
It was the Mahatma that decreed that India should not acquire the standard accoutrements of nationhood that violated his bizarre eschewal of physical survival necessary to ratify his timeless sainthood, in the tradition of Jesus Christ. His chosen Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, did not altogether abandon this underlying moral imperative, though circumstances severely circumscribed its realisation and it finally perished in the icy Himalayan wastes in 1962. The unavoidable task of building the nation, begun majestically by the incomparable Sardar Patel, with pragmatism, iron will and sagacity, had faltered after his death in 1950. In subsequent decades, the efforts to create a nation out of long extant internal fissures and suicidal rivalries were stifled by the struggle to retain political power at the centre, while the periphery’s sense of belonging to one nation ebbed away.
Into this political vacuum, multiple external predators, other governments and their insidious evangelist assets, never completely dormant, quickly intensified operations, suborning and coordinating with local political allies, in a phenomenon with ancient roots in the civilisation of the Hindus. In the struggle to gain and retain regional power, political parties in India were more than willing to sup with the devil, including foreign ones. The most shocking revelation has been the apparent collusion of national parties with the Pakistani ISI in facilitating the July 2005 Delhi and the 26/11 terrorist assaults on Mumbai. Broadly speaking, foreign powers have routinely provided political support to disgruntled local political movements, from Maoism to regionalism through state agencies and concoction of intellectual legitimacy, using arm’s length intelligence agents in major Western universities. A majority of Western scholars, engaged with their own national intelligence and foreign policy agencies, sustain narratives, first evolved during colonial rule, of oppressive Hindu hierarchies and allege racial divisions that apparently enjoin erasure at all cost. They have recently become quite blatant because ongoing unprecedented changes in India under the Modi government are unsettling them. A highly reliable witness reported that one leading Oxford academic went so far as to suggest that Prime Minister Narendra Modi organised the killings of 40 Indian soldiers to justify Balakot for electoral purposes.
The Left has never been comfortable with the idea of the nation as an institution because they have a quasi-religious obsession with the idea of a borderless world. This is an aspiration also shared in the Islamic notion of the Ummah, though only exclusively under the exacting rigours of the Shariah, a counterpart to communist universalism as the sole ideological rubric of proletarian world dictatorship. Of course, neither communist nor Muslim nations ever managed to practise this unlikely political phantasmagoria, since both have unfailingly been organised, historically, as sectarian individual polities, often in bitter conflict with each other. Joseph Stalin himself, still the undisputed hero of the ludicrous Indian Left, unceremoniously eliminated internationalist Trotskyite dissent. During World War II, Trotsky was improbably advocating that the working classes of Germany and the Soviet Union unite, at the very moment the Nazis were engaged in trying to liquidate the Slavic people in entirety. Now the world is witnessing the terrifying spectacle of Chinese nationalism, only rivalled by the aspirations of world empire in the past millennia of the Mongols and Islam.
The need for nation-building to survive in a hostile and predatory world was recognised by the great poet, Rabindranath Tagore, in an astute essay admired by the political philosopher, Isaiah Berlin. Tagore’s eloquent analysis regretted some dimensions of nationalism, but he deemed it unavoidable. But approval of nationalist mobilisation has long been the staple of Western political thought and historical study. The political cohesion of the group was enumerated as an imperative even by the great Arab thinker, Ibn Khaldun, though the societal bases he identified for it are less relevant to the contemporary world. India is almost the only nation in the world, even including the modern Scandinavians hell-bent on self-liquidation, with a raucous chorus that opposes all manifestations of national unity. From Thomas Hobbes, who insisted freedom is only possible when order prevails under overriding authority to contemporary historians, all identify analogous bases for nation-building. Even when they seem uneasy, like Linda Colley, about the full meaning and impact of nation building, she recognised that Great Britain was created through warfare and religious fervour. Indian academics, who cannot really be described as thinkers at all since their oeuvre is mostly imitative, wax eloquent on the artificiality of the nation. All the accusations of “invented traditions” are smugly aimed at India, without taking on board the how nations, which provide their handsome current salaries, were established in exactly the way exposed critically by theorists Benedict Anderson, Terence Ranger and Eric Hobsbawm, etc.!
The unfinished business of nation-building being attempted by India was always guaranteed to be difficult since new perceptions and sensibilities have to be implanted and become the default norm. It will unavoidably challenge extant fissured self-identification and imperil them, nothing more assured to unsettle and provoke unrest. Once India was rescued from accelerated break-up as a polity and an economy, which was being jubilantly charted by the erstwhile Congress government, Narendra Modi’s dispensation has pursued a number of weighty aspirations essential for building the nation. These embraced some of the goals abandoned following the passing of the inestimable Sardar Patel. The first was the erosion of the dominance of caste equations in Indian political life, though the efforts still remain tentative in impact, demonstrated twice in national elections that elevated instead the benefits of good governance as a political mobiliser. This political programme of Narendra Modi has already been an enormous and historic accomplishment, though not fully acknowledged. The second objective is the building of a strong, competitive domestic economy, with a significant manufacturing base and capable of supplying a major share of defence procurement. The latter goals have suffered some recent short-term setbacks, but remain essential and the incumbent government appears seriously committed to them.
The third goal of defining the nation’s borders was another policy that has been promulgated by the abrogation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, an essential task that no political dispensation had even imagined possible, leave alone attempted. Its political costs are not yet fully known, but its historic achievement cannot be denied. The NRC and CAA legislation also perform an essential task of nation-building by defining India’s borders and ascertaining who has the legal right to reside within it. The protests and hand-wringing over them only unambiguously identifies the reality of a small but vocal minority in India, some of it highly privileged, perfectly tranquil about inflicting incalculable damage to the Indian nation for short-term political gain. And evidence is emerging of foreign involvement to destabilise India through terrorist assets within India. The arguments being proffered against the NRC and the CAA are so absurd as to beggar belief. They have been answered with unequivocal and devastating pointedness by the former Additional Solicitor General of India, the extraordinarily nuanced Harish Salve. In summary, economic migrants, fleeing material distress in neighbouring countries cannot be considered victims of religious persecution, but an exception is being granted to minorities suffering genuinely from it. To be morally in accord with international standards, India will continue to entitle everyone to be considered for political asylum.
As for antediluvian liberal ideologues, including the UN Secretary General, and various inane commercial media outlets currently berating India, like the BBC, New Yorker and the supercilious Washington Post, thought itself unable to resist China’s overweening demands to conform, they only reveal their perilously inadequate grasp of history and reality. It is best they crawled back into their respective pits in silence.
Dr Gautam Sen taught international political economy for more than two decades at the London School of Economics and Political Science.