“Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of coloured cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.” – Arundhati Roy
With “nationalism” rearing it’s ugly head again the world over, in the form of an almost singular, intolerant sense of nationalism, one of the excuses made by its proponents is that of “maintaining national culture”. We see instances of such nationalistic sentiment upheavals in the United States with the “Trump Tower of Intolerance”, up north in Finland, where a right wing party has declared a “war on the nightmare of multiculturalism”, not very long ago in France with the Charlie Hebdo uproar and the focus on the French “humour culture”, and closer home, what is happening in India with the union culture minister and his “roadmap to maintaining Indian culture and removing western influences”. While nationalistic pride can be an exhilarating thing, I am of the opinion that such exhilaration should be restricted to cricket matches (or football, depending on where you are from). Because, beyond that, it simply is dangerous territory. After all, being born into a country is simply a matter of circumstance – it is neither one’s choice nor has one worked hard for it. So really, why is pride with regards to our nationality an emotion that should exist inherently in us, unless it is propagated by those with a political agenda?
I was born in India, lived for a considerable number of years in Oman, and now travel frequently to Europe and the UAE – with various aspects of my career and personal life in these places. I love being Indian – for the exposure it has given me to different cultures and ways of being right from when I was born, for the optimistic outlook to life that it has given me, for the beautiful, brown color of my skin and my dark hair. I love being Indian, for jackfruit and mangoes and chicken 65. I love being Indian, because here in India, I see streets with a church, a mosque and a temple right next to each other – and they live in perfect harmony for the most part. I am proud of India for a lot of its feats (more in the past than recently). Am I proud to be Indian? I see no reason why I should take credit for that – it was beyond my control.
With the trend towards nationalistic divisiveness, national pride is, I’m afraid, an artificially inculcated sentiment – one that can be potentially very dangerous. After all, what exactly is the nation? Does India mean a country of Hindus? Does the United States have room only for those from Northern European descent? How blonde and blue eyed does one need to be? And how saffron should saffron be?
Let us take the example of India – one of the most diverse countries in the world. “Unity in diversity” has been the favourite adage of most Indians, instilled in each individual right from early school years. Famed for the tolerance practised by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka in the second century BC to the Mughal emperor Akbar in the fifteenth century, where the emperors are said to have had public debates on important issues with representatives from every belief, including agnostics and atheists, India has a history of tolerance, at least in a political context (the caste system notwithstanding). The epistemological pluralism that has existed in India over centuries, welcomed many religions and belief systems and is known to have embraced each one and encouraged them to enter a “relaxed conversation” with the other. No culture or religion that has entered India has been known to have remained dogmatic or exclusive for long. Until now.
With beef bans, a vow to remove western influences (including the conduct of women), changes in educational books, et al, it is imperative that ordinary citizens stop and think about the changes that are occurring around them. Where will the lines be drawn? Are the lines evident and acceptable, or are they going to be drawn in a way that splits individuals in half?
There is the overbearing need for a government to be extremely responsible and fair when it comes to running a country such a India. This is possible only if, as in the time of the great emperors, representatives from each belief system has a say in the running of the nation. Reciprocity in the positive sense is hence, possible only when every participant is heard and respected. Fair representation of every belief system should be a prerequisite for the governance of any diverse nation. In a country where minority rights and sentiments have to be considered, it is never as simple as “majority wins”.
Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Trainer and Practitioner