Exclusive: Shashi Tharoor hits out at ethno-religious nationalism in India
In his new book, the Indian politician and author examines the roots of nationalism and why its ethno-religious interpretation is at odds with the idea of India.
Shashi Tharoor’s engagement with evolution of ideas and ideologies that have come to shape our political landscape make for insightful reading. In his new book, The Battle of Belonging, Tharoor not only maps the evolution of nationalism, but also spotlights the dangers of ethno-religious nationalism. In an interview with Khaleej Times, he talks about why inclusionary politics is the need of the hour. Excerpts:
Could you describe the process that went into writing this book?
It’s the classic process – read, research, write – but with a couple of important differences. First, the book is in many ways the culmination of a lifetime’s thought, reading and argument on issues of nationalism and patriotism that, as I explain in the text, are not just theoretical or academic for me, but intensely personal too. Second, when I decided to write it, I had a shorter volume in mind, but I felt it would be unwise to write about nationalism without delving deeply into the rather vast scholarly literature that exists on the subject, even if I was writing for lay people and not for scholars. So I took advantage of the pandemic and the associated lockdowns not just to read (or, in many cases, re-read) classic works on nationalism, but for the first time in my writing career of 22 books, I actually sent my first draft to four scholars I know and respect to seek their learned comments, and benefited greatly from their responses. So, I hope the book, as a result, has a solidity that might ensure it endures.
In what way did the setbacks of globalisation pave the way for return of nationalism?
In the book, I argue that a globalist viewpoint, which encompasses broader support for globalisation, has become unfashionable because of the growing phenomenon of hyper-nationalism, which is, by definition, exclusionary and restrictive. It asserts that one’s country must be supreme over others, and that interaction with any foreign country is a zero-sum game. The globalist sensibility I speak of is one that seeks to bring countries together in pursuit of the common good. It may sound idealistic to some, but that is the very mission that drives the United Nations, where I worked for 29 years, to do its indispensable work.
It is important, however, to recognise that globalisation has led to winners and losers, and to resentment among the losers. We must work to ensure a more equitable form of globalisation, but developing an inward-looking, isolationist mindset is not the way to do so. We have seen much of that attitude on display, from Brexit to the American withdrawal from the WHO and other international agreements. Ugly xenophobia has, unfortunately, risen in the wake of such decisions. The Covid pandemic era seems to have inaugurated an era of “de-globalisation”. This will not help create a fairer and more interconnected world.
Nationalism, historically, has enabled important political change. And yet, many liberals today view it with suspicion. Do we often tend to be less ambiguous about nationalism?
In the book I quote the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari, who views nationalism as a great “fiction”, developed to help human societies integrate. This sort of view goes back to the idea of the nation as an “imagined community” — and anything you can imagine is, of course, a sort of fiction. However, this would overlook the significant effects that the idea of the nation has on our lives, and the very tangible fervour that nationalism arouses in so many people. Liberals are suspicious about any ideology that seems to promote hostility to others, especially when nationalism leads people to fight and kill in its name.
As I write in the book, patriotism and nationalism are different — a patriot is prepared to die for his country, whereas a nationalist is ready to kill for his state. As a liberal, I believe in “civic nationalism”, a nationalism anchored not in identity (religion, ethnicity, language and other immutable markers you are born into), but in constitutions and institutions, where all citizens are treated equally, irrespective of identity, and their differences are accepted and respected. That is the nationalism that I argue for in the book.
You also make a case for patriotism as being less toxic than nationalism.
A patriotic nationalism was what inspired the long struggle for independence, with a manner of thinking rooted in India’s time-honoured civilizational traditions of inclusivity, social justice, religious tolerance, and the desire to forge a society that allowed individuals to flourish without barriers thrown up from birth. This worldview has been distorted with time, with a new dominant narrative that thrives on exclusionary, aggressive, sectarian Hindutva nationalism. We must continue to fight against this idea of ethno-religious nationalism, and assert that love and inclusivity remain at the heart of what it means to be a patriot. To my mind, “patriotism” is about loving your country because it is yours, because you belong to it and it belongs to you, the way you would love your mother, without claiming she is perfect. Whereas the nationalism being promoted in India today is a totalising vision that excludes those who don’t subscribe to it, that demands allegiance and brooks no dissent. Plenty of Indians are fighting to reclaim the inclusive view of nationalism and patriotism I describe in the book.
Speaking of civic nationalism, how and when did that idea, which was at the core of institutions in India, failed to resonate? And how can it be reclaimed?
Civic nationalism is the nationalism that derives from the consent of citizens to participate in a free and democratic society. It is based around the core tenets of representative democracy, freedom of expression, constitutionalism, and liberal democratic institutions. Crucially, it emerges from a voluntary participation in civic society. In India, it is this sort of nationalism that is guaranteed by our proudly secular constitution, which outlines the fundamental role of representative democracy and liberal institutions in Indian society. I argue in my book that it’s crucial that this brand of nationalism, which best safeguards individual rights, is promoted and protected above all others.
One thing that is key for all parties to remember about this sort of nationalism is that it is, by its very definition, an inclusive, all-encompassing ideology, and stands in total opposition to a political mindset that seeks to exclude people based on any immutable aspect of their identity (religion, colour, caste, language and so on). The ethno-religious nationalism of Hindutva would end up denying India to many Indians – a situation no patriot could ever accept.
You write how historical revisionism has hurt the idea of India. What can be the possible redressal for this erosion?
Yes, revisionism is incredibly harmful, pushing false narratives of the past to disguise failures of the present. As I have written in the book, Hindu nationalists’ reinvention of history is not anchored in a reverence for the past, but in their desire to shape the present by reinventing the past. Much of this cultural war has been played out through educational textbooks, which have, shamefully, become tools of political indoctrination. Challenging the partisan reworking of educational curricula would be one step to combating the spreading of disinformation in schools, creating generations of critically-thinking adults for the future.
You maintain that the Indian soul has not been partitioned yet. What keeps you hopeful?
There is no lack of trying on the part of the BJP, which has consistently attempted to instigate that very partition over the course of the last six years. Its worst excesses, however, have been met with derision and strong backlash: most notably, the Citizenship Amendment Act, which, it is clear, is loathed by a huge portion of Indians, crossing boundaries of religion. Don’t forget that last year the BJP won only 37% of the vote, so it’s not as if a majority of Indians stands behind its ideas! There are a large number of Indians working today to oppose the forces of division, and I have no doubt that our efforts will succeed.