OPINION Nationalism and the BJP’s imagined community

NEW DELHI (The Statesman/ANN) Prime Minister Narendra Modi has advocated the creation of social infrastucure with physical infrastucture for good governance 

While dedicating the country's longest bridge (Dhola-Sadia bridge in Assam) to the nation the other day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised the inseparability of development of social infrastructure alongside creation of physical infrastructure for good governance. The following day the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party organised  three separate one-way intereactions with the media highlighting achievements of the government.  However, in these interactions the issue of development of social infrastructure remained wanting. 

Since the media was just a listener, this matter was not discussed the way it should have been. The moot question - how social infrastructure could be developed in the light of killing of Akhlaq and Pahloo Khan, communal incidents in several places across the country and recent caste clashes in Saharanpur (UP)  - had remained unanswered although party president Amit Shah along with many top ministers of the Union Cabinet was present at these interactions.

Benedict Anderson in his book “Imagined Communities” propounded a new theory saying “a nation is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their  fellow-members , meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. He said members of the community probably will never know each of the other members face to face. However; they may have similar interests or identity as a part of the same nation.  

Members hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity: for example the nationhood felt with other members of your nation when your “imagined community” participates in a larger event such as the Olympic Games. Anderson emphasised that symbols are developed, co-opted and eulogized as a cementing force for effecting this “imagined community” and thereby nationhood.

While identifying, creating or even emphasising this imagined community and making it co-terminus with  nationalism, the architects of this concept in India, the political party in power, its social and religious adjuncts and/or even the zealots of the majority community have never bothered to see that the symbols they have chosen to buttress this concept are fraught with hostility. Gau Raksha  (from whom?) and not Gau Seva, Vande mataram (and not Madar-e-watan), Love Jehad, forcing Surya Namaskar in schools, Mandir Waheen Banayenge are some of the symbols around which this imagined community is being structured.

These architects have never realised that an imagined community cannot be formed around symbols which are highly incendiary and which militate against the basic concept that every member of society should have a common feeling of community. The “imagined community” that is being developed is nothing but a reflection of “Tyranny of Majority” about which French political philosopher Tocqueville had cautioned way back in the first half of  the 19th century.

Not that Modi is oblivious of this vulnerability that will haunt “good governance” . He had categorically said that a majority of these so-called cow vigilantes committed crimes in the night and in day time wore the mantle of “gau rakshaks”. If one goes by his assertion that for good governance the development of social infrastructure is a sine qua non with development of physical infrastructure, then is it not to the detriment of good governance when we have let loose criminals to hound a segment of the society in the name of controversial symbols?

How can good governance be effected if 20 crore Muslims remain in constant fear of some lumpens in  the garb of gau rakshaks barging into any Akhlaq’s house to ascertain whether he had consumed beef or mutton or beating Pahloo Khan to death in a public demonstration of their newly acquired 
“bravado” .

Besides, another question that raises doubts about the purity of the purpose in selecting the symbols is: Are these symbols sans controversy? Do the Hindus of Kerala, West Bengal and North-East nurture the same feeling about beef? If not, how can nationalism be structured on the fractured foundation of Anderson's “imagined community”?

Gandhi In his later years saw the fallacy of the term “gau rakshak” and instead coined “gau seva” (service to the cow). Gandhi realised this fallacy of “cow as a symbol of national consensus even among the Hindus” when he visited the Kumbh Mela in Hardwar in 1915. He wrote about this experience in  his autobiography (page no 358, Navjivan Trust) :

“Here I saw a cow with five feet. I was astonished but knowing men soon disillusioned me. The poor five-footed cow was a sacrifice to the greed of the wicked. I learnt that the fifth foot was nothing else but a foot cut off from a live calf and grafted upon the shoulder of the cow! The result of this double cruelty was exploited to fleece the ignorant of their money. There was no Hindu but would be attracted by a five-footed cow, and no Hindu but would lavish his charity on such a miraculous cow”.

In Young India, 6 May 1926, Gandhi quoted another authority on the manufacture of a dye esteemed by Indians and known as “peuri”  and was exported too. He says “by feeding the cow only on mango leaves, without other form of feed, nor even water to drink, the animal passes in the form of urine a dye which is sold at high rates in the bazaar. The animal so treated does not last long and dies in agony”.

This was 90 years ago. The Rashtriya Sawayamsewak Sangh (RSS) came into existence almost at the same time. But it failed to recognize this as a prime concern along with other irrational Hindu practices like child marriage and sati. Even today, there is no road map on what is to be done with the millions of cows which have stopped giving milk and have been abandoned by greedy owners (90 per cent of whom are Hindu) forcing them to die after consumption of plastic material.

This leads us to the basic question. Can an “imagined community” and thereby its logical corollary, nationalism, be created when our symbols are controversial? Have we lost the capacity to create symbols and icons of development, honesty and good governance, an icon of brotherhood and peaceful co-existence? If we can’t , the development of mere physical infrastructure will result in mushrooming of “marauding cow vigilantes and resultant deaths of Akhlaq and Pahloo Khan and clashes like the one between Thakurs and Dalits in Saharanpur.

The writer is a senior journalist and General Secretary, Broadcast Editors' Association.


  • OPINION Nationalism and the BJP’s imagined community


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