Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



Updated: Nov 23, 2020

This conversation was a part of ‘The Idea of Nationalism’, the second annual History for Peace conference.

Gulan Kripalani. How do we celebrate diversity in a country that is increasingly getting polarized? One of the ways that we (at Citizens for Peace) have been addressing this issue is by providing a forum—or as we like to call it spreading a durrie—to enable people of different views, ideas, points of views and opinions to come together and to listen to each other. This is particularly for people that we do not agree with. To be able to listen to and understand some of the anxieties and aspirations of groups who seem to us to be representing something that we inherently do not agree with is integral to understanding and celebrating diversity.

In order to think about what is giving rise to this polarized conversation, we need to think about why today, in our homes and workplaces, it has become OK to say things about the Other. How is it becoming more and more acceptable? How is it becoming almost respectable to say these things, which it was not certainly when I was growing up? How do we live with people who speak differently, dress differently, eat differently, worship different gods? How do we live together and celebrate this?

We think that perhaps listening would enable dialogue. It would pave the way for mutual respect, understanding and help us live in peace, without necessarily having to agree with everything others say or stand for. That’s in brief what we’ve been trying in different ways at Citizens for Peace. Rajni and I have been co-travellers in this process for a while. Before I hand over to Rajni, I thought it might be interesting to start with distinguishing between patriotism and nationalism. These are two terms that are being used absolutely interchangeably, and in our conversation they have become one. Of course, many people have defined it. I will start off with a quote from none other than George Orwell, who says in his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’:

Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. By ‘patriotism’ I mean one’s devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world, but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand—is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.[1]

I thought Orwell’s definition would be a good starting point for us, and to ask you, Rajni, if you could give us some broad ideas about the meaning of nationalism, perhaps before independence. One of the ideas being talked about was: What does it mean to be a nationalist? What were some of the values that the word incorporated? What were some of the thoughts of Gandhi and Tagore and others at that time? Was it not a much wider, more embracing, inclusive feeling? And where do you feel this absolutely marvellous idea of vasudhaiva kutumbakam—the world is my family—fits in today’s increasingly narrow definition of the term?

Rajni Bakshi. I’ll try and take the questions one by one. Patriotism is more like when we say ‘Yeh mera desh hai. This is my home.’ A sense of bonding with that which you have grown up with—very much like what you feel for the mango tree in your grandfather’s backyard. It’s a sense of belonging that is non-competitive, and completely unrelated to the Otherness of anyone. To me, that is patriotism.

As for nationalism: I think Orwell has done a good job of describing it. I must say that I am also very influenced by Ashis Nandy’s differentiation between these two. Ashis-da says that patriotism is an emotional state of bonding—a non-ideological sense of territorial identity. One may feel it for Calcutta or for Bengal, because that’s the culture one has grown up in.

Swaraj is primarily command over ones own passions. It is finding your ‘swa’, or self. Swa ke upar raj—control over oneself—is Gandhi’s primary goal, and that’s why Hind Swaraj is not freedom from the British as much as it is about finding one self. That self cannot be found as long as we are seeking it in relation to some other body. Then, inevitably, one will be in conflict and competition, one will end up nursing all kinds of real and imagined grievances. For Gandhi, the nation can only be an extension of this rule over the self. When you rule over your own passions, then the nation becomes the basis for expressing your humanism. Many great scholars have said it with a great deal of documentation.

On a connected note, I would strongly urge anybody who has not read it yet to read Godse’s self-defence during his trial. Godse is very aware that he is committing patricide. He says Gandhi must die because his model of the nation will mean that we will be puny and effeminate thanks to all this mumbo jumbo about humanism. According to him, Gandhi will enslave us on the world stage again. The imagination which Godse comes from cannot visualize that one can build a society and a nation grounded in protecting its rights while also protecting the rights of the larger of body of nations, a society committed to living in a global community but without a sense of competition with the Other. So it is not nationalism, which is the evil for Gandhi—it is the narrowness, the selfishness, the exclusiveness which is the bane of modern times and which Gandhi identifies as evil.

That brings us to vasudhaiva kutumbakam. How do we find ways to sift, to pick apart the threads of these toxic elements, to deal with them and deconstruct them? Because all of us now—especially teachers, educators, and those in communication—have to do this on a daily basis. There is no other way for us to fight this specific, complicated issue. It seems that most of the media today is hardwired to generate hysteria unless we are able to pick apart the threads. And I think many people are doing it. It’s not that it’s not being done.

The problem with the term vasudhaiva kutumbakam is that it has been brutalized from many different sides. The first attack takes the form of an allegation—that it’s a fraud, a hypocrisy. Even though that’s the most reductionist way to look at this term, it’s true. How can the society that has untouchability and in which 50 per cent of the population is deemed unfit for social inclusion—how can that society claim vasudhaiva kutumbakam? So this is the easiest way of completely dismissing the idea.

But why don’t we look at it as an aspiration? Societies are known as much by what they aspire to as by what they attain. For example, my hunch is that the story of Shravan in the Ramayana is actually indicative that the neglect and the abuse of the elderly must have been an endemic problem. That’s why a hero like Shravan was created, who is such an extreme case of filial devotion. Similarly, the ideal or the aspiration of vasudhaiva kutumbakam is, I feel, worth exploring. This can be done while being fully cognizant of, and yet not being defeated by, its historical imperfections and failures.

The reason I say this is because I’m coming back to patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism can deal with poetic imagination, which means then that patriotism is comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. It doesn’t need to live in a black and white world. But nationalism cannot do that. This is most manifest in not only the direct use of the term but also in the way the media has now taken shape. Currently, there is very little room in the media for any kind of ambiguities and uncertainties, for the freedom and confidence to say, ‘I don’t know, I’m not sure’. It is those who are actually not confident, and therefore insecure, who need to constantly say that they are sure. They are also the ones who are only comfortable with one right answer.

Just to close the vasudhaiva kutumbakam issue—because I grapple with it all the time: How should we respond to Mr Modi bringing it up on many world platforms? In the UN and in many other speeches delivered abroad, he has said, ‘I come from the land of vasudhaiva kutumbakam.’ As someone who does try to live creatively with ambiguities and uncertainties, my hunch is (even though I’m not sure how to act on it) that we need to say, ‘Great, we are happy to hear this. Now tell us how we are going to work with it.’ We need to be able to say that not out of sarcasm and not out of a sense of ‘Hey, I know you’re a fraud, but I’ll hear you out’, but as an entry point to say, ‘OK, if this is your take on it, let’s see the various ways in which we can make it happen.’ I am hopeful that in the discussions we’ll have over the next two or three days, as historians and as teachers, we can struggle or grapple with some of the nitty-gritty of this challenge, of how to work with this.

In my talks with college students, I have seen that young people are really hungry for open-ended thinking. They are sick of being told what it is. Or that: We are ‘like that only’. They are really sick of it. This is my conviction. I would love to hear if you agree or disagree on this.

Gulan Kripalani. On a connected note, how do you distinguish between the idea of desh and rashtra? If you could just elaborate, it would make it clearer as to how we stand in our values of being interconnected.

Rajni Bakshi. Maybe I should share that I come from a family that was affected by Partition along the Punjab side. We are Punjabis. I was lucky that I had clever and insightful ancestors— they left before the worst of the violence began. But in all the memory that I picked up from within the family, the one thing that came through was that they never imagined that they were leaving for ever. It was unthinkable. Why? Because even though Muslims and Hindus were two different groups—it was unthinkable for one to marry into the other—they were not ‘others’ in the way we experience ‘otherness’ today. No marriage in either Hindu or Muslim family was complete without members, neighbours and family friends from the other community playing a crucial role—a ritual role. These are the memories that we were given.

So one clear way that I can distinguish desh from rashtra is that I and the Punjabi Pakistani are supposed to be two different rashtras. If I sit with them and talk about Al Qaida or terrorism, then I will also be coming from a position of: What is the threat to my borders? What are you doing to me in Bombay or any of the other places in India that have been attacked by terrorists? At the same time, we can interact as human beings—we have a commonness of desh which is really astounding.

All the Pakistanis I meet are also born after Independence and Partition. With Punjabi Pakistanis, we have the same jokes, the same poetry/shayaris. Those links are continuous, and I think maybe that is our sense of desh, which is a cultural affinity. It has to do with so many things—the flavour and texture of food, festive rhythms, the language, its cadence. I have met Pakistanis who hear my Punjabi and are able to tell where my ancestors came from because there are so many nuances from Punjabi. To me that is desh.

Also in a sense, desh is what songs like ‘Ae Mere Pyaare Vatan’ are about. I think it is desh which, in that famous Kabuliwala song, is the centre point of melancholy. Now, I don’t know what Iqbal meant when he wrote ‘Saare Jahan Se Achha’. But as children who grew up singing it, never for a moment did we think that it was to be taken literally. Again, it is the literal mind which will read or sing ‘Saare Jahan Se Achha’ to mean ke baaki saari duniya bekaar—the rest of the world is trash. That was not the intention and emotion that was communicated to us whenever we encountered that song in our childhood. I don’t know if that helps. It’s an idea, a distinction, that we can only work on more and more. It’s not a readymade construct.

Gulan Kripalani. You spoke about how it takes confidence to live with ambiguity—that it takes humility to admit ‘I don’t know’, that we’re all trying to figure out what it means to be human and to stand up for the values of equality, justice and fundamental interconnectedness. Yet there have been people who have been able to transcend all that. I’m thinking of Tagore, about aspiring to a life based on these values. There are only a few who can grasp such ideas of a different future, to understand that we can create without Othering. So is it a failure of our imagination that we want certainty here and now?

Rajni Bakshi. One way of answering that is to refer to Vinoba Bhave. Vinoba Bhave used to say that humanity is located in a spectrum. At one far end—you can think of it as the ultraviolet end—you have Buddha, Christ and Gandhi, and other highly evolved souls to whom this comes naturally. And at the other end you may have Hitler and other genocide manufacturers. His argument was that the bulk of humanity lives in the middle. There are some people who are not saints but who are inclined towards those ideals. But the bulk of humanity is swayed by the atmosphere of the times, and I have now lived through successive cycles of what I think of as infected by a kind of ‘psychic virus’.

My first encounter of it was 1984. I was in Delhi, sent to cover the post-assassination politics by a magazine from Bombay. And I ended up covering a massacre. When I left Bombay the night we received news of the assassination, we had no idea what was going to happen. Also, we mustn’t forget Operation Blue Star. That’s very important. We can’t talk about the post-assassination phase without talking about the violence that built up to Blue Star. The kind of dread that one had learnt to live with in Delhi—in 1982–1983, signs began to appear on buses: ‘Look under the seat before you sit in case there’s an unidentified package which has a bomb’. So not all fear is manufactured—I’ve seen how fear is created by circumstances also. The manufacturers are able to tap into and maximize or exploit fear, but there are physical events that have caused that fear. There are physical, political, violent strategies that have created these atmospheres. And then what you get is like a psychic virus which causes perfectly, rational, reasonable otherwise humane people to behave insanely.

In those four days of the massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi, I could not find eight out of ten people who thought that it was absolutely wrong. About five thought that this kind of brutality is very wrong but, surely, I had to understand that people were angry with the Sikhs because two Sikhs had just killed the prime minister. Out of ten, I could only find about two who were categorically and unconditionally horrified by what was happening. But if you talked to the same set of people six months later, they behaved differently—those who had supported the violence had second thoughts, they felt remorse.

From that to the 1992–93 Bombay violence to 2002 in Gujarat and now Kashmir, much has changed. Harsh Mander’s important insight about Gujarat is that this process of remorse and recovery didn’t happen there. That is why it is even more frightening.

If you go with this premise for a moment, i.e. that these are psychic viruses, then we have to be a little clinical about them and not get swept away by panic and hysteria and think, ‘Oh yaar, all of humanity has become like this. We are all going down the tube.’ No. There are recoveries; because if we had been like this as a species, we wouldn’t be here today, sitting in this very civilized context. This again, is Gandhi’s key insight: if violence, hatred and competitive brutality were parts of our core nature as a species, we would not have made it out of the trees, ever. So how do we find the spaces to work in ways that are not just intuitive but also based on a finely informed understanding of what people are going through? That means asking: What is the real fear behind their anger and their hatred? And then finding it in ourselves to listen for the concern behind the complaint. This is a fundamental lesson that I learnt from you, Gulan, and the work you have done in the noetic sphere. You should say more about that.

Gulan Kripalani. I think it connects with what you said, about our impatience to come to answers quickly, to quickly slot people—whether they are individuals or groups—as ‘this’ or ‘that’, to not listen to the reasons behind what is going on. We are continually responding and reacting to the symptoms of something rather than to what is at the root of it. We need to change the way we have conversations with people we don’t agree with, rather than saying to them, ‘You are that and, therefore, I have no way of engaging’.

Rajni Bakshi. That headline today in the Telegraph is very accurate. ‘Angremica’? Anger and America—they have combined the two words. It is one thing to say it is more evolved to be liberal, and quite another to say that if you’re not then you’re an ‘idiot’ or some kind of a subspecies of the human race. This attitude is now present everywhere. It has become a kind of fascism. There are even universities in which such political correctness is enforced, almost policed. A friend who teaches at a university in the US said that it’s a rule of the university that if any professor is going to use material containing references or descriptions that may be deemed violent or gender insensitive or racial, she or he has to inform the students so that they may opt out of that class lest their sensibilities be damaged or offended or traumatized.