Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Problem with Nationalism: And how it limits our imagination…

A number of readers of this column must wonder about the column’s obsession with nationalism. What is so wrong with some patriotism and love for one’s country they may ask? For these good souls, the following anecdote would provide one more illustration of the manner in which nationalism distracts attention from the real issues, and perverts good intentions for banal and pointless ends.

A couple of days ago I received an email in my inbox asking me if I had heard the name of Narayanan Krishnan. If I had not, this message informed me, it was a result of ‘a collective failure’ his being ‘one of the most incredible stories of personal commitment.’ Narayanan Krishnan, this email informed, was currently 29 years old, doing ‘what he was professionally trained to do as a chef. Feed people.’ Unlike others however, ‘Krishnan does not do this in the swanky confines of a 5-star hotel. Every day, he wakes up at 4 am, cooks a simple hot meal and then, along with his team, loads it in a van and travels about 200 km feeding the homeless in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.’ The message continued to indicate that Krishnan often feeds upto 400 destitute a day, often throwing in a haircut for those who need one. The inspiration for this endeavour the message contined dates back “eight years ago,(when) this award-winning chef with a five-star hotel chain was all set to go to Switzerland for a high-profile posting. On a visit to a Madurai temple, he came across a homeless, old man eating his own human waste. That stark sight changed Krishnan's life.”

There should be no problem thus far. In fact what Krishnan has done is laudatory. But this is where the email started to go horribly, horribly wrong. ‘Krishnan is the only Indian in a list of 10 heroes that CNN has picked worldwide to honor. One of them will be chosen CNN Hero of the Year, selected by the public through an online poll. If many Indians get together to vote for this inspiring man, he can win by a long mile. If Krishnan wins he will get $100,000 in addition to the $ 25,000 that he gets for being shortlisted for the Top 10. Akshaya Trust needs all the monetary support it can get to build on Krishnan’s dream. Let’s help him get there.’

It was at this point that I saw red, and with alarm bells going off by the dozen in my head, I flipped. I simply lost it.

The first problem that I had was with the opening line of the offensive paragraph, “Krishnan is the only Indian…” How, is his nationality even relevant? Is there a suggestion implicit in that identification of nationality that that if there had been no Indians there would have been no reason to reach out to the other causes that CNN is highlighting? That these other causes are somehow less relevant or worse still capable of being ignored? What this appeal has done, in identifying Krishnan’s nationality and appealing to our patriotism is to distract us from the humanitarian cause that Krishnan is serving. It distracts us from the emotions of compassion and solidarity and asserts that it is in fact nationality that is is worth supporting. Forget the efforts in Haiti, in Mexico, in Nepal. They are irrelevant, focus on ‘our’ India. The petition suggests that Krishnan being Indian is sufficient reason for us to suspend our independent thinking and blindly vote for him. But this is what nationalism and patriotism does, it forces us to suspend independent thinking and be another robot.This petition then does great injustice both to Krishnan and other humanitarian causes.

Secondly, ‘if many Indians get together...he can win by a long mile’. This is the most perverse use I have seen of India's so-called population problem. Since we cannot compete in terms of quality, let us use collective weight to bludgeon our way to the top. Indeed it is demonstrative of the larger way in which we see our population. Normally seen as the dead-weight burden that drags us to the bottom of the global race, the only time we see the Indian population as an advantage is when we use it to attract works from abroad. This formula necessarily involves the lowering of labour standards, wage rates and the like. But once again though nationalism rears its ugly head, in that thanks to nationalism, it is not the working conditions of thousands of Indians that is at stake, but the greater glory of the nation. This glory as we known translates only into extra rupees in the pockets of a select few.

My third problem with the appeal is that, thanks to this nationalist sentiment, it makes the case of support for Krishnan one of winning alone. ‘If Krishnan wins he will get $100, 000 in addition to the $ 25,000 that he gets for being shortlisted for the Top 10. Akshaya Trust needs all the monetary support it can get to build on Krishnan’s dream. Let’s help him get there’.

Rather than suggesting that we should contribute to Krishnan’s largely humanitarian cause, the petition directs us to get recognition for India. In doing this, not only is it not suggesting that we contribute to winning a competition ‘for India’, but is also hiding a rather important fact. India's poverty is not a result of a lack of internal resources. It is a lack of the will to see an equitable distribution of the plentitude of resources that the country enjoys. In urging us to vote for Krishnan so that he wins the CNN money, the author of the petition falls back into a long tradition of garnering foreign funds, rather than addressing the disparity in access to resources within the country. This also follows the other strategy we have commonly adopted. Make symbolic gestures alone, and not address the structural reasons for the continuation of poverty. But then nationalism is eminently about symbolism, and fooling people into believing things will change.

These are just some of the reasons why nationalism is a problem. It prevents us from seeing the world as our home and having solidarity with issues outside of the national space. It forces us to think of the nation alone, and justifies the unnecessary deprivations thousands have to face every day. It hides the fact that internal problems are the result of internal decisions, not internal lack of resources.

Eventually, in fighting nationalism, we effectively fight for a better society and a better world.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 27 Oct 2010)


Kumar Narasimha said...

Any thing can be put to bad use, and that includes nationalism, as also, a mother's love for her children.The anecdote given here is actually nationalism put to good use.Also, identity is a social thingy, man being a social animal and all that.I could be a global citizen and don't care for my country mother tongue or my ancestors' cultural consciousness, but I may end up rooting for my city's cricket or football club.Or feel proud about studying at a particular university.

To associate one's identity with a nation/mother land/father land could therefore be a force for good, and bad.To associate one self with a philosophical ideal (Sanatan Dharma, Western Welfare state, a green planet and so on), is probably a slightly better thing to do -as the risk for doing evil is reduced.

So, identity politics do evolve. Can any human be without any kind of identity?

Praveen said...

Thanks for sharing your opinion on this. One issue is danger of Nationalism, but there is another issue of people blindly forwarding mails of this kind. Some of them are based on nationalism/patriotism and there are other kind of things which appeal to emotions like fear (threatening consequences for not forwarding such mails etc), religious faith. I really wonder if people really are that scared.

Any kind of effort at creating us and others are dangerous. Many times it is foreigners and many times it is religious. This kind of nationalism is most of the time, softer version of us versus other.

Another similar trend is to inflate anything Indian, when the actual contribution does not have much impact. Case in point is about the much celebrated Indian Browser, when it was actually just a remix of Mozilla Firefox.