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5. Imagining the Nation

What is a 'Nation'?
When we cheer for a particular team and country in a cricket game, we rarely question what reasoning has gone into our idea of 'nationalism' at that point. The history of nationalism is now far enough in the past for us to take it for granted that all human beings have nations and that 'good' human beings profess a loyalty towards their own nations. However, when one asks “What is a nation?” or “Why is the nation so important?”, one finds that often such fundamental questions are ones that we have never had occasion to ask ourselves and we do not have ready answers for them. Over the past few decades several answers have been given to these questions and yet social scientists are dissatisfied with the descriptions they have available to them.

Ernest Renan provided one of the earliest answers to the question, 'What is a Nation?':
A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Only two things, actually, constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of remembrances; the other is the actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to value the heritage which all hold in common.
[Renan. 1882. Paris. `Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?' in Nationalism. 1994.]

Though this was one of the first answers to the question and is more than a century old, this answer is far from obsolete. In fact, it seems to keep re-surfacing in common understandings of nationalism. This definition points us towards the two crucial factors that have resurfaced in the discourse of nationalism practically everywhere in history: a shared past and the will to “live together” under one State.

Memories of shared glory, great sacrifices and suffering are vital in creating a sense of solidarity. The nation is projected as a territory which has been unified by ancient ties which then gain an almost sacred connotation. Even the youngest of nations seeks to create for itself a very old history.

Thus, to deny the `sacred' bond of the nation then becomes almost to blaspheme against an order that is natural and higher than any that a human being has created. This then leads us to the latter element—the will to live together. This is crucial because it includes within it a certain complicity or conformity to the idea of the nation, and is the emotional investment we make in the nation.

This is why cheering in a cricket match is an act charged with significance. Think of instances when somebody cheering for another country, an 'opponent', is labelled 'anti-national' or a 'traitor', and the fact that this reaction is generally considered natural and justified.

Can we explain why an individual who does not support the country in a game is considered a threat to the country? Surely when someone supports one cricket team over another s/he is not guilty of creating a situation of any physical threat to the country. So then why is s/he labelled a 'traitor'? What trust has this individual betrayed?






List out some of your own answers to the above question. Click on the link above for more activities.

Can you think of movies you have seen that revolve around the question of nationalism? Identify for yourself who was the protagonist and who the antagonist in these movies.

List some of the characteristics associated with the protagonist and the antagonist

Further, can you identify what was the threat posed by the antagonist and to whom?


State and Nation




Check your responses to the last question. Some of you will find that the answer to the question—What was the threat posed by the antagonist and to whom?—in some way or the other, usually features threats to the State.

That is, in most movies, the bad guys are out to destroy either property that belongs to the State or to gain territory from the State. In the same way, though we may not realise it, we also associate those who would support a team other than the national team, as more liable to pose some kind of potential threat to the Indian State.

Most of us consider the categories of nation and State interchangeable (and indeed most movies do use them interchangeably) and do not make any distinctions between the interests of the former and those of the latter.

It is important to understand the distinctions however. The major difference is that a nation is not a political entity, it is a purely symbolic entity. The State on the other hand, though it may generate symbols of itself, is however, a definite political entity with functions and subsidiary institutions. It encompasses government agencies and bodies like the executive and the judiciary. The State has certain duties and functions to perform towards the people within its constituency. The nation on the other hand, is kept alive in people's imaginations and through their cultural artefacts.

For instance, many films about Indians settled abroad have depicted a deep sense of nationalism in populations which no longer have any allegiance to the Indian State and are, in fact, citizens of other States. For example, in the block buster Pardes, it seems quite clear that the family settled in the United States are citizens of the United States, but the song Ye mera India displays strong feelings of cultural nationalism.

On the other hand, if someone who is a natural born citizen of India and resides here, has strong nationalist feelings towards the United States , it is unlikely that he will, by that very fact, be granted citizenship! Thus, the State confers nationality and in turn the sentiment of nationalism strengthens the State.

Thus, though there are strong connections between the nation and the State they are not, in fact, the same entity. The United Kingdom for instance, is one State but includes four nations—the English, the Irish, the Scottish and the Welsh. Scotland actually has a separate parliament though under the sovereignty of the English monarch and the Irish nation is actually split into two States—the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Furthermore, in the process of building States nations may be destroyed, as happened when the Six Nation Confederacy of the Iriquois was destroyed in the process of the creation of the United States.


Read Ronald St John's article on the American role in the rebuilding of Iraq:


Does his distinction between nation-building and state-building help clarify the differences between the two entities?


Read this excerpt from an article by Dan Smith—it points to other links between nationalism and the state:






Ernest Gellner, professor of social anthropology at Cambridge University in the UK, wrote in the 1980s that nationalism is the recognition among a group of people that they share the same culture or "system of ideas and signs and associations and ways of behaving and communicating". Nationalism gains strength if it is paired with a state or other defined territory, as was evident in the rise of a unified Germany in the 19th century.

Because nationalism helps meet fundamental human needs—self-identity and a sense of self-worth—it is perhaps the most powerful psychological force after survival instincts. Nationalism provides the context in which individual identity is melded to community and one's community is set apart from others. And in the hands of determined leaders, as we discovered—too late—in Vietnam, this distinction of us from them is enough to fuel armed conflict to secure the independence and integrity of culture and state.




The nation and its history





It is often presumed that nationalism brought with it the birth of states. For instance, we in India are used to considering a history of at least 100 years of anti-colonial struggle as our freedom movement or nationalist movement. And we learn that we successfully gained independence at the end of this struggle and thus was formed the Indian State.

It is also presumed that since nations are supposedly ancient and part of some natural cultural order people will naturally struggle to achieve that natural order. Further, that this natural order, once achieved, remains more or less constant since it is rooted in the popular imagination and in the cultural affinity a people share.

States on the other hand are supposedly subject to greater change. For instance, Hindutva texts draw maps of Bharatvarsha as an ancient nation including within its territory the States of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even Burma! This territory is set up by those who espouse the ideology of Hindutva, as an aspiration to be regained by the State today. But it seems quite unlikely that such nationalist aspirations will ever be fulfilled. Thus, nationalism does not necessarily lead to state formation, though there are nationalist struggles taking place all over the world as different groups aim to create their own States.

Think of various secessionist movements over the years. Though one thinks of the nation as a sacred bond one cannot begin to understand the questions these movements raise. Perhaps the first step to begin to understand these movements would be to understand the ideas of nation and state themselves.

Here it is important to understand in greater detail what these two terms mean. To begin with, it is important to realize that both the terms nation and state as we know them today are completely modern phenomena.


Read these passages in which Schulze explains the distinct origins of the terms State and Nation:




Nation is a traditional term derived from ancient Rome and it originally meant birth or descent as a distinctive feature of groups of all kinds. Cicero used it to mean a section of the population, namely the aristocracy; for Pliny, a school of philosophers was a nation. In a remarkable number of cases, however, we find nation as the opposite of civitas, i.e. in the sense of an uncivilized tribe without a regular constitution, more or less in the same sense as the English might use the term natives, the French natifs or the Germans Eingeborene. The heathens of the Vulgate, Isidor von Seville's barbarians, the heathen Mohammedan hordes of Bernard of Clairvaux - these were nationes, and the main Germanic tribes of the early middle ages, the Franks, the Langobards or Burgundians, were also described as nations because, although they were of common descent, they seemed to have no internal political or social structure, those features that were characteristic of a civilized people.

Together with kindred terms like gens or populus, the use of the word led to the late medieval meaning of nationes, which referred to the major European peoples, each of which in turn might include several gentes or nationes.

The limits of a nation were ill-defined and long remained so, but the word in its original Latin sense ultimately came to denote a community under the law to which an individual belonged by reason of his birth. [Schulze. 99-100]

He also draws crucial distinctions between medieval political formations and the modern state. It was reckoned that states represented an age-old, indeed eternal, principle of human organization—original creations of the human mind, Leopold von Ranke called them, 'one might almost say, God's thoughts'.

Modern research has moved away from this view. We now know that the structure of medieval communities was far more complex and diverse. It is certain in fact that well into the middle ages there could be no question of royal authority governing an entire land and its people, i.e. nothing resembling a state…. In most of Europe political power was based on the feudal system: medieval Europe was unfamiliar with the idea of states on a purely territorial basis, it acknowledged only personal bonds based on an oath of allegiance.

States, as we know them, are built to last, they are impersonal and linked to institutions: the medieval personal bond, however, was limited in duration, it came to an end with the demise of the overlord or his vassal, and had to be repeatedly renewed. [Schulze. p.7]

Schulze states that the first modern state to come into existence was France; and quite contrary to popular belief, it was the state that gave birth to the nation.

Schulze describes a long process of territorial consolidation of various dynasties under one sovereign, which set the stage for the establishment of a French State. However, it was not until the French Revolution that the French nation, as we understand the word, emerged. It was only after the French Revolution in 1789 that the common people became members of a nation. Before that the French nation consisted of “those individuals who were in a position to initiate political action through direct relationship with the crown, or who were at least represented through the estates.” [Schulze. 104]

This means that it was basically the nobility that formed the French nation. This seems completely absurd when seen alongside our modern understanding of nation, which confers nationhood equally on all citizens of a particular state. However, this was not possible until modernity had established new political ideas such as 'equality'—part of the slogan of the French Revolution.


To summarise the main points of this segment:





Nations are different from States, the main difference being the latter is a political entity unlike the former.

We have also seen how States can contain within them different nations and vice versa, and how they can destroy other nations as they come into being.

The existence of nationalism does not guarantee the existence of the corresponding State, and while nationalism has been considered the precursor to struggles for separate States, it is often not until there is a State in some form that the process of creating the nation begins.

Furthermore, the processes of nation-building and state-building are different and have different requirements.

The terms nation and State have not remained static through the ages, and our understandings of them are basically modern. This is especially important to understand because our popular imagination and cultural artefacts deny both the modernity of the nation as well as its possible dynamism and rather give it an unchallenged sanctity, which the State can then easily exploit.



The Nation as 'Modern Community'





Read the extract from Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson that forms the introduction to his book on nationalism.

Benedict Anderson calls the nation an imagined community. In the extract provided, Anderson explains certain characteristics of nationalism that are important to note. (Click here and read pages 1-7 of the Introduction)

The nation has become the most widespread ideal driving movement across the world, especially since World War II. It has in fact, superseded other revolutionary creeds like Marxism to gain universal political legitimacy.

The nation is not a natural and historically immutable category, i.e. it is an entity that comes into being in certain historical periods and circumstances and changes with these factors. Yet, it is treated everywhere as precisely such a category.

Nationalism, unlike other political creeds does not have a well-formulated theory or philosophy. Yet it has been more successful than any other political creed in recent history. This has confused social scientists who wonder whether one can deal with nationalism as a political creed at all or whether it must now, considering its spread and consolidation, be treated as a universal category of social science.

Anderson stressed the fact that the nation is an imagined community. There are two aspects to this. First, the community of nation is necessarily limited along an understanding of a community of people who belong to the nation and is posed in antagonism to another group/community that is the other. Second, such a community requires no kinship ties, but is united by certain perceived symbolic and cultural affinities, which have demonstrated the strength to hold populations that are diverse and unequal in the bonds of “a deep horizontal comradeship”.


The concept of community




The concept of `community' in anthropology usually denotes a group of people united by kinship ties. However, the community of nation is based, according to Anderson, on ties forged between people who have never seen each other yet believe they share certain deep cultural affinities. The European history of nation-building was based largely on a common language. But in large parts of the third world, linguistic diversity staggers any attempt at imagining a nation along a common language. Yet, history has seen many heterogenous people coming together under the umbrella of one nation after the break up of colonial empires all over the world. Nationalism has been a force of economic and political consolidation. At the same time, however, the world has witnessed a great deal of violence when nations have targeted certain groups or communities within their territories as the other. For instance, Sajal Nag quotes these figures in his article “Nationhood and Displacement in Indian Subcontinent”:

The first world war led to the killing of about 1.5 million Armenians by Turkey which has been described as the first modern attempt at exterminating an entire population or ethnic cleansing…. A total of 1.3 million Greeks were repatriated to Greece from Turkey. Some 40,000 Turks were decanted into the state, which claimed them. Some 20,000 Bulgarians moved into the diminished territory bearing their national name; about 1.5 or perhaps two million Russian nationals escaping from Russian Revolution or on the losing side of the Russian civil war found themselves homeless…. The years 1914-22 generated approximately four to five million refugees. The human catastrophe caused by the first world war was nothing compared to that in the second. It has been estimated that by May 1945 there were perhaps 40.5 million uprooted people in Europe…. About 13 million Germans were expelled from the parts of Germany annexed by Poland and USSR…. The second world war was also known for the holocaust by which six million Jews were exterminated and another 1.2 million fleeing Jews finally migrated to the newly formed state of Israel….There were 15 million refugees as a result of the partition of India…. Thus, the period of nation-building has also been 'an age of catastrophe'—in terms of human impact. [p.4753-4]


The 'Other'



Recall what you read about 'the other' in the module on culture and representation.


It is often proposed (though not with a great deal of veracity), that third world countries went through processes that were far more difficult and bloody than Europe in the history of nation formation. This is attributed to the fact that most erstwhile colonies were made up of highly diverse societies that were difficult to form into nations without a great deal of friction, whereas the community of the nation required a sense of homogeneity and cultural affinity in order to foster equality. This cultural affinity was defined in opposition to groups/cultures that were perceived as the binary opposite of the in-group that formed the nation (the 'other'). (A binary opposite is, as the term suggests, something that stands in direct opposition to the concept or thing under consideration. But the word binary—meaning dual, involving a pair—indicates a deeper relationship than simple opposition. Binaries not only oppose or negate each other, they also serve to define each other, where one gets its identity from not being the other, as for e.g. black and white, good and evil, night and day—that which is not day is night and vice versa.)


In most colonial societies the colonizer provided that binary opposite.


However, although the opposition to the colonizer is clearly defined and propagated, it did not guarantee a smooth transition to nationhood for all the groups that were involved in the anti-colonial struggle. That is perhaps why it was two States India and Pakistan that emerged out of the 'nationalist movement'. (And then, a third, Bangladesh, which emerged soon after.) In fact, the in-groups and out-groups of the nation were volatile and dynamic categories and far from settled even when the Indian State was finally formed in 1947 and continue to be so even today.


Learning Nationalism as Learning Modernity



We must recall what we have earlier come across in Schulze's tracing of the idea of nation. If, in the West, it was the French Revolution that first instituted the idea of nation in the sense that we use it today, in the East it was colonialism that carried and transmitted this idea. In the West, the idea of nation emerged only after processes of 'secularisation' and modernisation had taken root over many decades. It was a slow process of evolution. In the East however, it was not a process of evolution so much as a process of grafting a Western idea into an Eastern context. Yet, this was a contradiction that was not easily resolved because this meant that the East had to learn from the West what political language was legitimate and what political goals to aspire to. The East would then use this very learning against its colonial 'masters'—used here to denote not only the political control that the coloniser exercised but also its role as 'teacher'. But as we have just seen, the West was staunchly the 'other' in all anti-colonial movements. How did we reconcile these two very strong opposing currents?


In writers such as Rabindranath Tagore and Mohammed Iqbal there is a definite rejection of the idea of 'nation' as a Western ideal, which is destructive. In an era permeated by nationalism and the need for a nationalist identity Tagore and Iqbal, though in significantly different ways, disputed the very authenticity of the idea of a nation. Strangely enough, Iqbal, who sought to break the legitimacy of the idea of the nation became known as the national poet of Pakistan . Not far from the predicament here, where Tagore's Jana Gana Mana became the national anthem though Tagore himself was a staunch critic of nationalism.


Thus, it seems like nationalism has managed to sweep even its critics into its own fold. This is also because this strain of anti-colonial but also anti-national thought never really gained much popularity. It was rather the 'nationalist' movement that became the most potent force in anti-colonial Indian history. But besides understanding that nationalism was not the only anti-colonial vision available in the 20th century it is also important for us to understand at least some of the dimensions of what nationalism meant in the Indian context.


Activity - I





Read the following extracts from Jawaharlal Nehru's speeches/writings.

Extract One. Extract Two. Extract Three.

Do the sentiments he expresses about 'the idea of India' resonate with Renan's definition that you encountered in the beginning of the lesson? Remember, Renan pointed towards two factors that made up a nation. The first is a common heritage in the past and the second is the desire to live together in the present. It was the second factor that troubled Nehru after independence had been achieved. Nehru felt that the problem of 'communalism' was not a lack of the spiritual principle of nationalism in India; rather, he felt that communalism was a mark of primitivism, which would disappear when the people were educated into modernity.

Although he identifies nationalism as a sentiment that does not reside in any particular community and attacks the bids of any community to be the legitimate 'in-group' of the nation, at the same time he posits a different kind of community as being required for the nation—the modern community. Nehru believed that modernity was a mindset that education would be able to disseminate. This in turn would eliminate the problem of 'communalism', replacing it with the 'true' spirit of nationalism. Thus, the repercussions of this reasoning meant that all dissent against the all-powerful idea of nation was seen simultaneously as going against the spiritual principle that had held the country together since ancient times, as well as a rejection of modernity itself and ideals of equality and the ability to live together! The ability of nationalism to reconcile contradictory ideas in order to legitimise itself is quite remarkable. It is in learning to read these contradictions however, and in re-examining at every point how nationalism deploys them that we can begin to understand our current socio-political context.


Activity - II




Watch the film Mr. and Mrs. Iyer.

The film deploys ideas of 'modernity' and 'tradition' in interesting ways that serve to problematise many of Nehru's ideas. Can you identify the factors within the film that serve to contradict Nehru's understanding of 'communalism' as a problem of primitivism with answers lying in modernity?

Does the film pose 'nationalism' as the answer to 'communalism' as Nehru did?

Go back to your answers to the first few questions posed in Activity 1.

Have your answers changed in any way after this lesson? How?

Consider any one of the 'nationalist' movements that have emerged post-Independence in Kashmir, Punjab or Nagaland. Do you think it is justifiable to call these movements 'nationalist' considering the distinctions we have pointed out between state and nation?

Pay close attention to the idea of the 'other' in definitions of nation. Pick out a text you are familiar with—whether a film, a novel, a story or an article—and analyse who the 'other' is and how the 'other' is depicted in contrast with the in-group.



Nationalist histories




To sum up, the following trends appeared to characterise nationalist histories at the end of the colonial period:


The analysis of the colonial economy and arguments linking Indian poverty to colonial economic exploitation of various kinds. The writings of Dadabhai Naoroji (Poverty and Un-British Rule in India, London, 1901) and R P Dutt (India Today, London, 1940) are good examples.


The periodisation of Indian history into 'Hindu' and 'Muslim', based on the assumption that there were two fundamentally mutually exclusive civilizations in the sub-continent, that of the Hindus and of the Muslims. The terms 'Hindu period' and 'Muslim period' were later changed to the presumably more secular, 'ancient', 'medieval' and 'modern', but the markers of periodisation remained the same.


The acceptance of the argument that society was divided into castes—the four varnas—and these formed a social structure, again unchanging through history.


The thrust of history writing during this period was also to conceptualise cultural nationalism, which involved a frequent representation of several collective identities (for example 'Hindus' and 'Muslims') as unchanging and eternal.


Characterised by what Partha Chatterjee terms a "tidal wave of historical memory about Arya-Hindu-Bharatvarsha", (Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments, p.6) nationalist histories were frequently based on Orientalist "rediscoveries of India's past" and the readings of or translations of texts that generally produced an idea of India and its past within a Sanskritic tradition and colonial political borders. In most parts of colonial India, history writing almost always partially subscribed to this tradition, either by reinforcing it or by presenting it as uniquely able to accommodate and absorb variety.


To conclude this section, it is equally important to recognise that several scholars have also critiqued those who have traced the beginnings of a historical consciousness to colonial India, thus creating the representation of pre-colonial India as pre-scientific, retrograde and irrational. See for example, the following quote from the essay “History's Forgotten Doubles” by Ashis Nandy:


"However odd this may sound to readers… millions of people still live outside “history”. They do have theories of the past; they do believe that the past is important, and shapes the present and the future, but they also recognize, confront, and live with a past that is different from that constructed by historians and historical consciousness. They even have a different way of arriving at that past" (Ashis Nandy, "History’s Forgotten Doubles", p.9).


Click here to read the essay




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