At a juncture when the frontiers between history and myth, dissent and intolerance, passionate pursuits and violence, are being transgressed with blatant incivility, it’s crucial to reflect on the seemingly nebulous idea of the nation – the location of all such transgressions and tensions, both as an imaginative entity and a spatial reality. I see the nation as a text in a myriad of media, made possible by the fluidity of its form, or because it has no form at all. Whether the nation is an ‘imagined political community’, as Benedict Anderson suggested in an ‘anthropological spirit’; or a unit based on ‘anonymity’ and ‘cultural homogenisation’ to make it congruent with the political structure at work, as Gellner would opine; or Savarkar’s idea of the ‘Hindu-rashtr’ in the Indic context, is debatable. But how do we question the nature of this entity when the very idea of nation is being shamelessly used to stifle dissenting voices? Is it because the proponents of this absolutist nationalism are afraid of the idea of nation itself that they don’t want their fellow citizens to talk about it? Why is it so profane to talk about the ‘punyabhumi’?
This paradox of propagandist nationalism, peppered with many similar incongruities manifested itself in its most spectacular avatar on the 21st and 22nd of February, in and around Ramjas College, which had spontaneously emerged as a contested realm of ideas and beliefs, the resonance of dissenting voices and iron rods making headlines across the country. As a member of the (in)famous Ramjas Literary Society – Wordcraft, and as an organiser of the seminar titled ‘Cultures of Protest,’ which according to some was ‘potentially seditious,’ I want to rethink the idea of the nation, I want to engage in dialogue with people who label us as anti-nationals, I want to cross boundaries, aesthetically. I vividly remember the sheer vibrance of that moment when the optimistic chants of ‘Inquilabo’ clashed with the equally passionate (booming with hyper-masculine aggression) chants of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, and diffused in tacit unison. It made me question the binaries we create and perpetuate, it made me proud of the ideological heterodoxy that this country accommodates. But what followed was no less than a nightmare – naked violence in the name of the nation. When sexually charged expletives and rape threats are woven in the same string of thought that hails glory to Bharat Mata, you know for sure that it’s a facade to delude the citizens in the name of the mother goddess.
Historian Cynthia Eller countered the idea of matriarchal prehistory propounded by the second wave of feminism (1970s), and called it a myth, an invented “ennobling lie.” The archaeological evidence of female figurines doesn’t necessarily imply an elevated social status of the feminine, it could have been a visual exercise in mimesis as well. Similarly, singing praise to ‘Bharat Mata’ doesn’t make you a nationalist or ‘desh-bhakt,’ and the refusal to do so doesn’t make you an anti-national. (However, I draw this parallel to show the significance of portraying the feminine with agency in both academic scholarship and pragmatic politics, and by no means will I compare the second wave of feminism to the rise of an ‘exclusive’ nationalism in India, and denigrate the former) I love my country and its people, and I don’t need to publicize my love by growling like a territorial alpha-male. It is important to reiterate what many people have already said- No, Gurmehar Kaur is not a pawn, she’s an aware individual who fearlessly exercises her constitutional rights, living upto the dreams of the makers of our constitution, who have been eminent nationalists during the anti-colonial movement. But do we realise that ‘Bharat Mata’ is the pawn? The need to personify a territory and engender it, and label every critique of the state as a violation of the mother goddess is a crafty measure to insulate the state from the civil society. It is interesting, and heartening to note that you need a mother to legitimise your love for the sacred fatherland. This well-informed and strategic use of the ideological state apparatus deserves appreciation.
I remember instances from everyday life on campus, when I and my friends are called ‘Marxists’ and ‘Communists’ for wearing Kurtas, by self-proclaimed nationalists. That they reduce us, the “other”, to such simplistic, homogenised categorical labels is a different story, but what interests me as an individual who likes to read people as texts, is their unrealised contribution to the persistence of a visual atmosphere of universality and globalisation on campus – our nationalist friends are always seen in ‘western clothes’ on campus, nevermind their objection to Valentine’s day celebration and women drinking alcohol. Ironically the indigenous ‘Kurta’ has earned an anti-national hue, and is always being scanned by the nationalist gaze, penetrating through the Ray Ban sunglasses of our ‘rashtrvadi’ friends. What troubles me is this reification of ideas, and needless to say, almost every ideological camp does it- be it the left, or the right. As a student of the humanities, I understand how visual idioms and metaphors convey political meanings, but how can we call every person carrying a sling bag (jhola-wala is the term used) a Marxist or every person wearing a saffron t-shirt a proponent of Hindutva, or Bhakt? The sling bag is not Marx’s invention, neither is it the monopoly of the Marxists. And the use of the term Bhakt for the proponents of ‘Hindutva’ or the right leaning people, is to ignore and bury to oblivion the syncretic tradition of Bhakti which became a major movement of ideas in the Medieval and Early Modern times. Here is the problem of binaries, of extreme polarizations, the absence of self-reflexivity. Our critiques of this authoritarian, exclusive, patriarchal, anti-subaltern nationalism is itself flawed because it is restricted to academic journals and elite discourses, as is this piece of writing. It is this hiatus between ideas and people, that empowers the state and its pampered goons, high on dreams of consumption and corporatization, to delude people in the name of the nation.
On the 31st of March, Shunya- the Ramjas Dramatics Society, had its annual Street Play festival, called ‘Mukhatib.’ Street theatre, markedly different from the proscenium productions, is an excellent tool to start a dialogue between the public and the arts, something that the college administration was not at all comfortable with. The administration censored four plays which were to be performed by four Delhi colleges (namely SGTB Khalsa, Dyal Singh, Guru Gobind Singh College of Commerce, and Gargi), for the scripts sounded discordant. What the honourable board drawing inspiration from Pahlaj Nihalani failed to realise is that any honest theatrical production is meant to be discordant in times like ours, for a play is nothing but an act that mirrors the society.
What prevails is a state of terror, of unrestrained censorship, of a single strand of culture and thought, stagnant and dull, defeating the very idea of a multi-ethnic, democracy, once again in the name of the nation.”Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are,” said Bertolt Brecht. Our lives are tuned to the melodies of Pete Seeger and Iqbal Bano, we splash Van Goghs and Shergills in our dreams, our streets bear the footprints of Safdar Hashmis and Badal Sircars. We don’t hit back with bricks and blows, but with ideas, invitations and inclusivity, for the love of our country, for the love of the integrity of its imagination, and not merely its territory.
(Somok is an undergraduate student of History at Ramjas College, and a member of Wordcraft-the Ramjas Literary Society. He is interested in studying the functioning of societies and their historical lineages, and seeks solace in verses, visual metaphors and songs.)