Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 30, 2020
It is more pertinent to begin by questioning whether we are stuck in a time machine that does not move beyond the Medieval Ages.
Reflections on Indian neo-nationalism and exceptionalism

The growing escalation of tensions between India and China in the Galwan Valley resulting in the loss of human lives is a matter of deep concern. It is a time for deeper reflection and a more diverse conversation not only about the immediate causality of events at the border or the shift in foreign policy from non-alignment to a search for new alliances. It might not even be enough to talk about the fungibility of power given the state of India’s economic collapse in response to the pandemic and its ability to bear the cost of a war. These traditional, dominant, rhetorical approaches in exploring security archives might not suffice for India at present.

It is more pertinent to begin by questioning whether we are stuck in a time machine that does not move beyond the Medieval Ages. Is it only by reiterating particular chapters of medieval history that we have polarised our own religiously and culturally diverse society? Such rhetorical reiterations that excite fear and anxiety are exploited by political parties seeking their own religion-vote based constituencies. As if these practices are not enough to mobilise a population and bring about a change in power, to further secure maintenance of power in office, even the historical collective efforts of freedom fighters and their legacies are exploited to divide a population between the Left and the Right. Thus making a mockery of a united India despite the rhetoric of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas.’

Is it only by reiterating particular chapters of medieval history that we have polarised our own religiously and culturally diverse society?

In pursuing these practices of divisive polarisation are we running the risk of imitating the US a society deeply divided since the period of its own Civil War? Do we grasp the Janus-faced status of US polity even as we seek to imitate it? The US is a two-party democracy run by rich oligarchs that often fuel foundations, think tanks and exercise more power than the average American voter. A presidential democracy where with change in office of presidency a reset button is issued to foreign powers. A country confident in asserting its exceptionalism and struggling to acknowledge its practices of white supremacism, imperialism and militarism both at home and overseas as demonstrated with recent race riots at home and military interventions overseas.

The US is a country where expression of dissent often results in contestation and suppression through expensive legal cases. The rhetoric of free press, or rather privately owned media, generates news broadcasts that are sometimes so polarised as to make it a farcical parody played between fake news and real news. A country that is so ruthlessly committed to an archaic interpretation of capitalism and individual responsibility that has long ceased to be practiced by its own Western allies that have invested in better education, health and social security measures. A country driven by ideological contestations on a global scale even as its own people suffer from unspeakable income inequalities and impoverishment.

The rhetoric of free press, or rather privately owned media, generates news broadcasts that are sometimes so polarised as to make it a farcical parody played between fake news and real news.

While the ‘myth of America’ is slowly unraveling and becoming more acutely visible under the presidency of Donald Trump, some might still consider an alliance with the US attractive given its marketing of itself as the only superpower, democracy, leader in technology, threats in the neighbourhood and so on. But the question remains whether alliances with the US have benefitted developing countries? Israel, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia have long been allies of the US but have their economies prospered and their political systems democratised? If not is this the fault only of the corrupt elites within these countries or are their territories being reduced to nothing more than military bases from where the superpower can engage in practices of power projection to threaten other countries? The US with its military and economic clout can probably afford to gift a foreign policy reset button to its competitors, just like a wealthy American changing the decorations in their home with change of season.

But can India afford to reset its relations with every periodic change in administration? Will India’s neighbours be willing to erase historical memories and can Indian tempt them enough with economic and military aid to maneuver its relationship with veiled threats, arm twisting tactics and outright confrontation? At a time of grave economic crisis and pandemic the government has decided to invite 74 percent foreign direct investment in the defence sector without debate in the parliament and without proper oversight. Are these measures of corporatisation aka privatisation and attraction of foreign investment in the defence sector just a step in the direction of making India an arms exporter? It is urgent and imperative that we address these questions with careful study as we observe an incremental militarisation of the Indian society in the guise of imitating US practices of displaying national flag, singing national anthem, excessive jingoistic valorisation of the military, super-hero comic books of Indian avatars and epic depictions of bigoted and militaristic interpretations of Indian history via cinema.

At a time of grave economic crisis and pandemic the government has decided to invite 74 percent foreign direct investment in the defence sector without debate in the parliament and without proper oversight.

The effort here is not to deny historical grievances against complicity in rewriting the history of postcolonial India or the practices of exclusion that deprived alternative voices from representing their vision of India. But to question whether we have spent enough time in learning about our own history based on experiences of colonialism, nationalism and racialism. Are we willing to confront the anti-intellectual culture within our own political parties? Are we willing to nurture a relationship of trust between Indian intellectuals and the political class? Are we willing to forego the lessons learned by our freedom fighters and nationalists that carefully and diligently crafted a foreign policy of ‘non-alignment’ and ‘Look East’ to help India build relationships based on dialogue and cooperation? It is this willingness to pause and question ourselves, be creative instead of imitative, is the need of the hour for Indian neo-nationalists.


The views expressed here are independent of the author’s institutional affiliation.

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