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READING LIST

AUGUST 2016 ISSUE


When History Change Identities Also Change

We have to decide whether as citizens our commitment to the nation is to shout slogans or by looking at how we can make it a society that is viable for every citizen
 
ON NATIONALISM Cultures or the patterns of living in a society are varied but have integral relationships that are intrinsic to nationalism. We tend to identify with the culture of the elite upper caste, and ignore that of the marginalized groups. But national culture has also to integrate the culture of the underprivileged. This does not mean a reshuffling of all cultures to arrive at a uniform pattern. It means that at least there should be the juxtaposition of cultures with interconnections so that some are not swept aside. The interconnections are often the clue to cultural norms and these in turn are significant in assessing a nation. It is all too but this misses the point of defining national culture as all-inclusive. Recognizing the range of cultures is crucial to the meaning of nationalism as is that of recognizing those that are catalysts.

What we most easily understand by cultural nationalism has stayed close to the contours dictated by colonial preconceptions. The claims frequently made by groups today to authentic, indigenous identities, unchanging and eternal, pose immense problems for historians, as they are often rooted in colonial readings of the past. Identities are neither timeless and unchanging, nor homogenous, nor singular, as maintained in the nineteenth century notion of civilizations. Cultural nationalism draws on ancient history. Understanding the construction of this particular nationalism requires familiarity with pre-modern history, although those that claim it frequently lack expertise in its study Cultural nationalism does not mean the imposition of the culture of the majority community on society but the search for an integral cultural articulation that includes the range of communities.

I have been trying to question some of the identities with which we live and which some regard as historically valid. I have tried to argue that those identities that have conditioned some aspects of our lives in South Asia or are now being held out as determining our national future should be re-assessed to ascertain their validity. There is a need for recognizing that they may not be rooted in history but in other extraneous factors. And we have to remember that when history change identities also change. If the premises of the identity are no longer viable, can we continue to refer to them by the same label? Such monitoring involves a dialogue among historians and scholars but also, and importantly, between them and citizens.

To conclude on a personal note, these thoughts came to me again and again in the past few months. There has been so much talk about who is national and who is anti-national and those in authority insist that it is all about the kinds of slogans that one has to shout to avoid being called anti-national. But slogans do not make for nationalism or anti-nationalism. There has to be something more substantial to give hope to those that live at the edge of nowhere, that there is a reality that makes up a nation, and that this reality will take them away from the edge and bring them to the centre and make life worthwhile. It can be done but there has to be a will to do it. There has to be a reordering of priorities.

Among those that shall inherit this land, its cultures and its problems, there are some who are aware of this. These are issues that are foremost in the minds of students, perhaps more so among Dalit students. We heard them raise these issues at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and other universities. They were not just shouting slogans. They were demanding a different society, a society that ensured human rights and justice for all— precisely the kind of society that converts a country into a nation.

Speaking at the teach-in at JNU in March 2016, I was reminded of three experiences in my life linked to what is happening to us today as teachers and students. One was the discussions that were raised in the 1960s in many Indian universities about the kind of nation we wanted to build and what were to be its parameters. There was much thought on economic growth and on reducing the inequities of caste as a first step to removing them. The two streams of thought were interlinked. The discussions assumed the right to a complete freedom of expression when discussing all aspects of the nation— its weaknesses and its strengths. This freedom was respected as it generally is when it is given. The future of Kashmir was not treated with kid gloves.

Then I was reminded of the start of JNU in 1971.Ideas across the board went back and forth in the sorting out of courses and syllabi, with the Vice Chancellor of the university encouraging us to think of interdisciplinary courses and of not just repeating what was being taught in other universities. This we did achieve and it marked a new departure in the study of history, among other disciplines, as a social science in India we also worked out as a university our own set of admission procedures with some small concessions to underprivileged students from economically backward areas, and what a dramatic change this made to the ambience of the university and to student-faculty relations.

It was not all smooth sailing. We had many gheraos of the Vice Chancellor and of individual faculty members, and we all took these gheraos and strikes in our stride. The issues ranged from student representation in the administrative bodies and student participation in deciding on courses to be taught, to statements on the malfunctioning of the government when it came to matters regarding education and even other matters of policy. The issues have hardly changed over the last half-century although students and teachers at universities have frequently and freely discussed them. But now the attitude of those in authority has changed. Perhaps it is their insecurity and lack of confidence that has terminated the possibility of free discussion.

At that time those teaching in Indian universities were well aware of the student protests that had virtually swept across the world since 1968. There was turmoil, there were demands for a different kind of course structure and student representation in university bodies. The students joined up with organizations of workers and of the poor, the demands took account of not just the kind of education they were getting and the courses they were getting and the courses they were being taught, but also included the kind society they were living in.

There were barricades in Paris manned by students and faculty and there were clashes with the police. There was at the same time much discussion between students, faculty and administration, sometimes acrimonious and sometimes persuasive. What are today described in India as anti-national opinions were plentiful at the sit-ins at these universities and open to debate. Finally, changes were made in teaching and courses to accommodate some of the new ideas suggested and subsequently some student and faculty demands were introduced, and some rejected. The notion of sit-ins and teach-ins and extensive serious discussions was central to the process of learning and living in society.

That was one aspect of the nurturing of nationalism. It was turbulent but it encapsulated some of the changes that in retrospect one realizes were necessary. And further that it is imperative that universities provide the space and the opportunity for free discussion. Open minds and thoughtful minds are essential to the enterprise called national-building.

A small tremor of this movement was also felt in Delhi University where I was then teaching. One of the forms it took was discussions among faculty and students about the nature of the revolution in Naxalbari that had just begun. We all knew therefore who the faculty and students were who were involved in these debates and those that supported this new form of self-expression as well as those who opposed it. Anxious parents would ask us to wean their children away from these radical ideas but we knew that this was an essential part of learning to think. The more open the discussion the better. The place for arguing about the validity of revolution was not prison, but university. Arguments should not be confined to secret cells but should be made openly. No one suggested closing down the university and sending faculty and students to prison. Vice Chancellors and governments knew, and had the confidence to know, that the best place for the young to talk about such problems was the university. Today, it seems those in authority think first of arresting students and faculty, charging them with sedition, and sending them to prison. All this for daring to discuss issues that are contrary to government policy. They are then punished with heavy fines and rustication. Some public personalities even demand the shutting down of the university. Are we living in the twenty – first century?

We have to decide today whether as citizens our commitment to the nation is to shout trite slogans required of us by people whose concern is largely that of acquiring power through current politics, and to dismiss as anti-national those that do not shout these slogans? Or whether we should reaffirm our faith in the nation by looking at how we can make it a society that is viable for every citizen a society that stands by secular democratic values, that ensures a livelihood for everyone, and that defends and protects the right of every citizen to social justice. The latter would seem to be the more attractive future for our country.

The choice is ours.

ON NATIONALISM
Romila Thapar, A.G.Noorani, Sadanand Menon

Aleph Book Company, Pg 148

 
 


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