October 27, 2020
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The Virulence Of Nationalism

Many Indians may be repulsed by Chinese violence against Tibetans, but majoritarian violence against ethnic minorities gets pushed under the carpet as much in India as elsewhere.

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The Virulence Of Nationalism
The Virulence Of Nationalism


As the troubled Olympic torch relay winds its way to Beijing, the recent fury in China about the evil doings of the "Dalai clique" in Tibet and of the western media goes beyond the ever-active orchestration by the Chinese leadership. As nationalism has replaced socialism as the social glue in this vast country, old memories of humiliation at foreign hands and current pride in phenomenal economic success generate popular resentment at what looks like external attempts to rain on the parade of China’s glorious Olympic moment.

Of course, the Chinese protestation that the West is politicizing a sports event is disingenuous, as all parties concerned, including the Chinese government, treat it as much more than a sports event. The government now tries to tame the anti-West passions of the people and has made some gestures, at best half-hearted and likely futile, toward negotiation with the Tibetans. Modulating the mass passions and keeping them under appropriate bounds so that they don’t boomerang back is a tough job, as Chinese administrators know very well.

But serious Chinese social thinkers cannot be comfortable about the preening nationalism all around them, often stoked by the frenzy of the internet mob--witness the harassment and persecution of a Chinese student at Duke University and her family in China on grounds that she committed the grievous offense of trying to mediate between two opposed groups of demonstrators on the occasion of the campus protests around Tibet. Nor can the Chinese thinkers be unaware, that despite tight state control over sources of information, the economic, political, cultural domination--and migration--of the Han Chinese will keep on fueling unrest in Tibet even when the current opportunist protests die down.

Nationalism in all countries whirls around the great tradition and rides roughshod over the "little people" and their distinctiveness. China in particular has a long history of homogenization of culture and language, and suppression of voices of dissent, reflexively taken as signs of rebellion. The historian W.J.F. Jenner in his book The Tyranny of History, describes one of the basic tenets of Chinese civilization as "that uniformity is inherently desirable, that there should be only one empire, one culture, one script, one tradition." Even feeble movements for autonomy among the Tibetans and Uighurs are thus treated as sedition or "splittist." This way the moderates in these movements are discredited, often radicalizing the leadership in the long run and providing the ingredients of self-fulfilling prophecy of the ruling authority in their efforts at suppression.

In contrast, Indian political culture has been somewhat more tolerant of pluralism, dissent and diversity, and electoral arithmetic often makes compromise and cooptation of dissenting groups necessary. Yet much of the rest of the country looks away--or regards it as the necessary price for keeping the nation state intact--as gross abuse of human rights and violence by the Indian Army regularly take place in Kashmir and the north-eastern part of the country, often reciprocated by the rebels. In different parts of India, the Hindu nationalist forces raise their ugly head, politically and socially, and win elections from time to time. They regularly question the national loyalty of other religious groups and justify atrocities on them. Even sporting events become political when, during an India-Pakistan cricket match, the Hindu fanatics look for traitorous signs of jubilation among Indian Muslim spectators if the Pakistan team scores.

Majoritarian violence against ethnic minorities is also familiar in the recent history of Malaysia and Indonesia. Xenophobia has been almost a state-propagated religion in North Korea and Burma. In all these countries, the minorities are routinely branded as anti-national. And earlier in the first few decades of the 20th century, militant nationalism that grew in strength in Japan wreaked havoc in much of Asia.

Of course, in many of these countries the ideology of the nation state with its homogenizing and aggrandizing propensities was an import from the West. Western history is littered with the devastation at home and abroad caused by the overbearing nation state. The memory of colonial oppression and defeat by the West and the longstanding reality of its international economic and military domination add fuel to the ultra-nationalism in Asia, both on the chauvinist right and the anti-imperialist left. The misdeeds and the ambiguity of a country’s own history do not deter the nationalist zeal and myth-making. As the 19th-century French philosopher, Ernst Renan, famously said, part of being a nation is to get its history wrong..

Surely, nationalism is not without its benefits, especially in countries where divisive conflicts among different parochial communities tear society apart. Particularly in socially extremely heterogeneous countries like India or Indonesia, nationalism can play a role in taming and transcending the internecine-group conflicts and chaos. But while there may be occasions when one wants to give some primacy to the national identity over other cultural or regional identities, this should not be an argument for suppressing the latter or letting the national identity supersede the larger values of humanitarianism.

India is somewhat fortunate in having Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore as intellectual mentors in the independence movement against the colonizer, as all three warned against the excesses of nationalism. Gandhi called imperialism another name of armed nationalism, which he regarded as a curse.

In particular, Tagore, one of India’s greatest writers and thinkers, was most trenchant in his criticism of nationalism--even though two of his songs became, posthumously, the national anthems of India and of Bangladesh. About a hundred years back, even at a time when a fervent nationalist movement in India was surging all around, he wrote novels and essays that pointedly showed how harmful nationalism can be--"with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns"--how in the name of national unity the majority often tramples on minority concerns and aspirations for self-expression, and how national conceit makes society lose its moral balance.

Exactly hundred years back, in 1908, he wrote in a letter to a friend: "Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live." During an invited lecture on Nationalism in Japan in 1916, Tagore praised Japan for its impressive national achievements and for inspiring self-confidence among other Asian people, but he was open in his sharp criticism on the rise of militant nationalism there. The Japanese public, earlier effusive about him, considerably cooled its reception in subsequent days. In 1938, shortly after the Japanese invasion of China, when a Japanese poet and friend wrote to Tagore, seeking moral support of Japan’s action since China was being "saved" from the clutches of the West, Tagore was severely critical and described the Japanese poet’s sentiments as translating "military swagger into spiritual bravado."

At a time when Asian countries are becoming more important economically and geo-politically, they should be wary of the dangers of ultra-nationalism and the damages it can cause to their own society and to others, as the history of nation states in the West illustrates so tragically.

Pranab Bardhan is professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-chair of the Network on the Effects of Inequality on Economic Performance, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. He was the editor of the Journal of Development Economics for many years. Rights: © 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online

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