European nationalism, khaki shorts

First published on: October 1, 2003

The RSS that wants to be regarded as indigenous and reviles secular democracy as “western”, has itself borrowed its whole construction of the nation from a narrow western exclusionary nationalism


The advance of the neo-liberal agenda and its demand for free flow of capital and commodities is seen to be generally unrelated to the fault lines of ethnic and religious violence that are opening up in various countries. If they are related they are seen more in terms of an assault by forces of backwardness on a “civilised West”. Even those who are victims of this assault do not challenge what constitutes western civilisation but only invert its categories. To others, the nation state is passé and is an anachronism that will be overcome in an increasingly globalised world.


In economic language, things are not quite what they seem: often, terms are constructed to mean their opposite. Globalisation, competition and free trade are some of these terms. People may think that these are all positive ideas: globalisation should mean the free flow of people and ideas, allowing advances taking place anywhere to be shared by others; competition should translate as more choices for the consumer. And free trade should make it easy for producers to get a better deal.

Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. Globalisation has meant a free flow of commodities and capital, that also primarily of speculative capital. Free flow of ideas has come up against a much harsher Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regime. Competition in practice has meant mergers and acquisitions on a global scale and creation of mega monopolies. The other element missing from this picture is that globalisation of the current variety is only for finance capital and commodities: people are excluded from the globalisation scheme. They are up against a far harsher immigration regime today. While a global corporate elite — rich, mobile, and integrated — is emerging, the overwhelming majority in most countries are becoming marginal to this global economy. They are increasingly pauperised as their nations implode or fracture.

Some supporters of globalisation argue that it is better to submit to an American Imperium with its “western” values, as this would automatically secularise countries such as India. With increased globalisation, the world will become infused with common global values, presumably much better than the national and local ones currently in vogue. Unfortunately for this view, globalisation has been accompanied by far more violent “religious” and ethnic conflicts: somewhere this equation between a “civilising” global order and realities on the ground is breaking down.

If we locate the problem correctly, the reasons are not difficult to seek. In the period of struggles against colonial regimes, the nationalist forces all over the world had differing views of the nation, much in the same way that they did in India. It is not surprising that in most national movements, civic nationalism with its core of economic nationalism became the dominant force as economic exploitation of people and countries was at the centre of colonialism. If we give up the economic space of the nation, the basis of civic nationalism then collapses. Once the leadership, in country after country, decided to give up their economic space under the assault of neo-liberal globalisation, they had two choices: either give up the concept of the nation itself or define the nation in terms of either a cultural, linguistic or an ethnic identity. As giving up the nation would mean accepting virtual re-colonisation, therefore the need arose for falling back on narrow nationalism with its attendant ethnic or religious fault lines.

The global neo-liberal agenda is to dismantle the nation state except for its police functions. As Wayne Ellwood notes: “True believers in the neo-liberal agenda would prefer a pliant nation state, one which supports them when it is necessary and stands aside the rest of the time (Redesigning the Global Economy, New Internationalist, Jan-Feb, 2000). If the nation states are to be dismantled except for their police function, they cannot have legitimacy without re-defining themselves.

A state that only oppresses its people to further global corporate rule must find some other identity. It is here that the ethnic and religious agenda are playing themselves out. By redefining the nation in religious or ethnic terms, they turn the focus away from the process of re-colonisation. Similarly, it is difficult for the new imperial order to claim legitimacy for forcing a global corporate rule on the world including their people. Therefore, they need the legitimising myth of a rational and civilised “West” being confronted by forces of darkness rising out of the “non-West”.

The West as an Ideology
After September 11, there is the recurring motif in the media of clash of civilisations. The West and Islam — in conflict from the time of the Crusades — are pictured in perpetual conflict except for a small interregnum in which the West clashed with the ‘Evil Empire’ of Communism. We had expert after expert and political leaders — dim-witted or otherwise — echoing that the attack on the World Trade towers is an attack on western values and civilisation. The underlying message is clear; the killing of thousands of innocent people is non-western and could be the handiwork of only those who find themselves incompatible with the West.

It is not only the “injured” west that is replaying endlessly the theme of clash of civilisations. The Indian (Hindutva) variant has also projected an alliance of civilisations — Hindu-Christian and Zionist — against the new Evil Empire of a resurgent ‘Jihadi’ Islam and portrayed itself as a victim of past Islamic dominance needing redress.

The current national and international backdrop is allegedly this clash of religions. In the west, it is cloaked as the Huntington thesis, a clash of civilisations. Strangely enough, a Talibanised Islam also echoes this view of clash of civilisations. And at home, we have the Hindutva lobby who seek to project in the past a conflict between religions — a homogenised monolithic Hinduism against an equally monolithic Islam.

The Hindutva view which posits itself as an “opponent” of the west has absorbed the entire format of the west in its construction of a mythical Hindu past.

The underlying subtext of such worldviews is that current society is built on a foundation of hate and conflict, with the “we” and “they” being interchanged. In this worldview, periodic sectarian clashes — Palestine, Bosnia, World Trade towers, Afghanistan and closer to home, Gujarat — are a reaffirmation of this framework of clash of “religions”.

In all conflicts, we hear about the superiority of the values of “us” against “their” inferior ones. A Bush talks about the “western civilisation values” forgetting the genocide of the Jews in Hitler’s gas chambers, 350 years of slavery of Africans and King Leopold’s horror filled colonial regime in Congo that killed 10 million in his lust for collecting and selling rubber. Similarly, Vajpayee talks about 10,000 of years of Hindu tolerance, unmindful of the savage repression of Dalits throughout this “tolerant” period. This amnesia over history is very much a part of this civilisational discourse.
The problem with this kind of partial view of the West or Hinduism is that it seeks to present a mythical and airbrushed past. The mythical “past” is for projecting a particular future in which “Western” or “Hindu” values would be hegemonic. The hegemony of “western” values boils down to the dominance of “western” multinational corporations and their global corporate empire. The “Hindu” is a euphemism for the upper caste Brahmanical order, which would acquire a dominant position under the hegemonic ideology of Hindutva.

Myth-making and falsifying history is a part of this future project. The history chosen is crafted out of the past and quite often even manufactured. In this version of the West for example, Greece — the classical civilisation — is the progenitor of all western values. And this Greece arose from a primordial Aryan Greece with hardly any influence of the proximate older civilisation of African Egypt or Semitic Phoenicia. This deeply racist view of history, in which the “West” and “western values” have borrowed nothing from elsewhere, provides the underpinning of the popular view of this manufactured West. All other groups then are denizens of a space, which is informed by inferior values, largely irrational and generally primitive.

The bloody wars between nations in Europe including two world wars, the brutal repression of its religious minorities, gas chambers, are all forgotten and are somehow extrinsic to the innate “West” that germinated in Greece, lay dormant in the Dark Ages and has now put up its green shoots all over the physical west — Europe and Americas. That the indigenous people of Americas were “ethnically cleansed” just as Moors from Spain were after being there for more than 800 years, does not find a place in this narrative.

If building myths did not involve building a particular future, we could perhaps ignore it as common prejudice that would slowly disappear with a better appreciation of the past. Just as colonialism sought legitimacy defining itself in terms of its civilising role, current imperialism couches its mission as one of spreading reason. This idea of western history as reason and civilisation is a myth that needs to be exposed in the fight against the neo-imperial order.

Hindutva as an Ideology
The Hindutva view which posits itself as an “opponent” of the west has absorbed the entire format of the west in its construction of a mythical Hindu past. Denying its Dravidian antecedents, Mohenjo Daro and Harappa are Aryanised. The inequity of the caste system, the clashes with Buddhism, the conflicts within Hinduism — Shaivites versus Vaishnavites — are all airbrushed out. All intolerance is attributed to Islam while Hinduism — in this view — remains innately tolerant.

The problem is that while the past is the terrain in which this battle is being fought, the project is one of creating a future exclusionary India in which minorities know their “place”. The fight against this manufactured past is necessary to create a society that does not exclude any community, not merely out of love for tolerance, but as the only basis of a nation.

Quite often the RSS agenda is thought of as a much larger fundamentalist wave in the world. Whether it is the Christian Right, the Ayatollahs in Iran or the VHP here, there is no question that fundamentalism has gained ground. It is true that fundamentalists do share certain common features with those who want to use religion for a “nationalist” project. The fundamentalists — Islamic, Christian or Hindu — want the people to recover a past where peoples’ lives were governed by sanction of the scriptures. Therefore, both religious nationalists and fundamentalists seek to glorify the past.

The RSS project, however, is not one of merely returning to this past. Its core project is one of building a “modern” nation in which minorities have no place: they can either be “assimilated” or live in complete subjugation. The RSS agenda is one of building a homogeneous nation, a bleak landscape where there is no diversity or plurality.

It is not an accident that an Islamic Pakistan and a Hindutva-led India are at the brink of war: this is the history of this variety of nationalism. Unfortunately for all of us, this war, unlike the European wars of the past, may be fought with nuclear weapons. This is why European nationalism wrapped in Khaki shorts is so dangerous.

The RSS concept of a homogeneous nation is not an original one. It was borrowed, lock stock and Khaki knickers from Europe. The premise of much of European nationalism was this exclusionary homogenous nation, which led to 300 years of continuous bloodletting, ending with two world wars last century. The RSS project has also little of traditional Hindu values, which it quite often derides as weak and effeminate. Tolerance, love and peace, in this scheme of things, are what led to India’s enslavement and therefore the RSS espousal of the newfound “virtues” of intolerance and “militant” Hinduism. Much of the RSS criticism of Gandhi is a criticism of this kind of “soft” Hinduism, which in their view led India to be repeatedly invaded and conquered. Gandhi’s religious idiom was therefore dangerous to the RSS, as was his secular politics.

European nationalism soaked Europe in blood; massacres and brutal persecution of all minorities — ethnic, linguistic and religious was its hallmark. Not that this form of nationalism was not contested. The French Revolution produced the other view of nationalism — civic nationalism — where all citizens were equal in the nation irrespective of any other characteristic. The blood and race variety of nationalism is built on the straitjacket of homogeneity and exclusions; the second (civic) allows diversity and plurality. However, civic nationalism, the dominant form today in Europe, had ceded ground to the blood and race variety of nationalism before being de-legitimised by Hitler in his gas chambers.

The West has a high degree of collective amnesia; it forgets its bloody past. Thus when Bush talks about “our western civilisation and its value”, he does not mean genocide, slavery, colonial plunder and bloody wars that was also the characteristic of its past. In the West, the recent emergence of a more tolerant civic nationalism must be seen against the backdrop of its extended barbaric, past exclusionary, ethnic nationalism. The amnesia encourages the belief that the West had civilised nationalism while the others have only the brutal variant. However, even today there are uncomfortable echoes from its past: immigrant Turks in Germany cannot get citizenship even after three generations. And Enoch Powell in England earlier, and Le Pen in France now, stand for this exclusionary variety of nationalism, where ethnicity or “white nationalism” is the basis of the nation.

That the RSS nationalism is a derivative of this exclusionary ethnic European nationalism is clear in the way Golwalkar defines the nation, “ … Nation — satisfying all the five essential requirements of the scientific nation concept of the modern world.” (italics added). Further, “Thus applying the modern understanding of ‘Nation’ to our present conditions, the conclusion is unquestionably forced upon us that in this country, Hindusthan, the Hindu Race with its Hindu Religion, Hindu Culture and Hindu Language, (the natural family of Sanskrit and her offsprings) complete the Nation concept…” (Ref: We or Our Nationhood Defined). Both Golwalkar and Savarkar, the other ideologue of Hindutva, were looking at how to build a “modern” nation using religion as an important element. This involved — as a natural corollary to this trajectory of nationalism — the glorification of a Hindu past.

Nations as we know them today did not lie hidden in some remote past and have not merely unfolded in modern times. They have been historically constructed out of language, culture and race; quite often this construction of the nation has led to bloody conflicts. Even language, the cement in many of the nation states today, grew and was standardised in the last 300 years: the nation and its language grew together. The process was not a simple, linear one. The complexity of nation building thus involved dissolving multiple identities that people had into simple, monolingual, mono-religious and mono-cultural ones.

Historically, the homogenising process that accompanied European nation building produced relatively sterile monocultures, banishing its minorities to either the Americas or to its prisons. Ironically, many of the ethnically cleansed minorities of Europe replicated the same pattern even more violently on the indigenous population of the Americas.

Present day Europe is striking in its homogeneity. Countries largely speak only one language, are largely Protestant (Germany, England, Sweden) or Catholic (France, Spain, Italy) and if they have linguistic or religious minorities such as the Basques in Spain, or the Catholics in Northern Ireland, they are still in conflict. The nationalist wars in Europe altered fundamentally the landscape of European nations, the result of continuous wars that they fought. Added to this dangerous mix of culture, language and religion, was the new found enthusiasm for scientific racism: that black and brown populations were “biologically” inferior, leading to the killing of six million Jews and half a million gypsies of Indian origin.

Golwalkar traces his lineage from this definition of narrow European nationalism. His nationhood is defined in terms of five “unities”: geography, race, religion, culture and language. Plurality has no place in such a nation. This is the vision that was the basis of the RSS slogan of “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan.”

Golwalkar tried to remove the problem of language by claiming Sanskrit as the mother language and therefore declaring that all Indian languages are either derived from Sanskrit or they are not Indian. Urdu, even though it is totally indigenous to the country, became in the eyes of the RSS, foreign and Dravidian languages had to be claimed as derived from Sanskrit. The language riots of the 60s forced the RSS to give up, at least publicly, that Hindi should be the only national language; the fascination for Sanskrit still remains. The Hindu-Hindustan plank obviously still remains intact.

The striking feature of Golwalkar’s variety of nationalism is not only what it claims as its basis but also what it does not. It nowhere talks about the economic basis of nationalism: the right of a people to control its economy, market and its resources. It is not surprising therefore that the RSS did not fight the British: their main focus was against the enemy of the “Hindu” nation: the “secularists” and the Muslims. It is not an accident that the BJP government is quite happy to surrender India’s economy to the US, IMF and World Bank while still claiming to be nationalists. Advani riding the Toyota Rath is not a coincidence in his bloody march to the Babri Masjid. It symbolises their “Hindu” nationalism in which the national economy has no space.

Once the nation is defined in these narrow terms, the crucial question is what to do with the excluded minorities. Golwalkar’s solution was simple: either accept his homogenous framework of the nation (Murli Joshi’s Ahmediya Hindus, Christiya Hindus) or remain outside, forever subordinated and in peril of extinction.

Why do the RSS ideologues so viscerally hate the secularists? It might be thought that as Hindutva proponents, their target would be other religious groups. In physical terms, that is quite true as a Gujarat brings out, but in ideological terms, they share a kinship with the Taliban or similar fundamentalist groups. An Islamic Pakistan (or Afghanistan) sits quite comfortably with the concept of a Hindu Indian nation even if it means continuous wars. What the RSS cannot tolerate is the idea of a nation that is inclusive and allows plurality. The secular definition of the nation, by which the nation state is neutral between religions and does not allow religion any place in governance, goes against the very basis of the monolithic nation built on identities of certain kinds. It is this definition of the nation that is at the core of the dispute. And in this dispute, the fundamentalists and the communal fascists are on the same side.

While the RSS wants to be regarded as indigenous and reviles secular democracy as “western”, the RSS has itself borrowed its whole construction of the nation from a narrow western exclusionary nationalism. It is blind to the truly original contribution that India has made to the discourse on nation and nationalism. The concept of a plural nation, with many languages, religions and cultures, is a unique one and it is this unique experiment that is in danger of derailing now. And derailing for a putrid form of European nationalism that even Europe has discarded.
It is not an accident that an Islamic Pakistan and a Hindutva-led India are at the brink of war: this is the history of this variety of nationalism. Unfortunately for all of us, this war, unlike the European wars of the past, may be fought with nuclear weapons. This is why European nationalism wrapped in Khaki shorts is so dangerous.

Archived from Communalism Combat, October 2003. Year 10, No. 92, Forum



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