By Dr. Shah Alam Khan
14 May, 2010
Across the length and breath of human history there are instances when a person can get away with murder but being an anti-national (as defined by popular sentiment) is a crime of the highest order. In Hollywood or in Bollywood, treason is the ultimate epitome of a villainous character. Arundhati Roy’s recent essay on Maoists of Dhantewada has more or less opened a Pandora’s Box. More than the debate on subject, the conventional and the alternative media (read internet) is busy in pronouncing her guilty of treason, a charge not easy to prove or refute. In wake of what I consider as one of the most poignant pieces of honest evaluation, Ms. Roy has come under significant attack from both the right and left ends of political and intellectual class. Many have written her off as an anti-national about whom India and Indians should not worry. She has been labeled as a fanatic bohemian. She has been disregarded as an author who has a habit to describe the problem emotively without offering a solution. In a nutshell she has been criticized, spited and even threatened. Of all the comments on her platter, her being labeled as a rabid, anti-national is the one which makes interesting read.
George Orwell had once said, “by ‘nationalism’ I mean the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad’”. Good or bad? Nationalist or Anti-national? The vernacular sounds familiar. As a young boy growing in a Muslim ghetto, I had heard this vocabulary on more than a single occasion. Growing up in a middle class, “secular” Muslim Indian household, my sensitivity to nationalism had been nurtured and grown into a robust beast, ready to devour any signs of sedition, treason and subversion. It was very late in life when I realized that nationalism does not necessarily mean accepting all that the state says, commands and orders. Nationalism also means asking the correct questions at the correct time even if this compromises the state’s own interests.
We all practice what can safely be labeled as “insulated nationalism”. A kind of nationalism which is kept free from external influences and affections. Pure and unadulterated. Insulated nationalism carries the smell of blood. It attracts beasts of all kinds. Human history is full of disastrous effects of insulated, thoughtless nationalism. Nationalism gave birth to Hitler. In the early nineties, it was nationalism cooked with a pinch of Hindu religion which saw the rise of right wing fascist parties in our country. Taliban and their machinery of jihadism is the end product of nationalism mixed with tenants of Islam. Jingoism post 9/11 incited the American people not only to re-elect an incumbent and incompetent George W Bush but also to support his so called war against terror. Insulated nationalism is one of the most perfect weapons of mass destruction human mind has ever discovered. A missile which can be fired without any payload; from any distance. It’s an unmanned drone which causes unprecedented destruction in its wake.
The rhetoric of insulated Nationalism can be most dangerous when the people fed on it are half literate, half hungry, half clothed and all in all half human. This half human does not realize that even his nationalism is half baked in the fire of vested interests. Day in and day out his mind is controlled by the jingoism which appears on television, radio, newspapers and other sources of state outlet. The ability to ask questions, the power to raise a finger, the insight to evaluate a plot, are all burnt in the fire of this insulated nationalism. The story doesn’t end here. The insulation of nationalism is further fortified by straps of religion, caste, and region. So, if you are a Muslim you cannot question the violation of human rights in Kashmir. If you are a dalit you cannot condemn the government’s credibility on reservation policies. A Christian cannot raise the issue of Orissa carnage on an International Human Rights forum. And on similar lines, an Arundhati Roy cannot raise a voice against the misfortune of adivasis and the tribal of Dhantewada without being labeled anti-national.
Nationalism is an innate trait which we acquire growing up in a society. The components of nationalism cannot be forced but felt. Nationalism means assimilation and integration of people on a common social stage. What kind of nationalism can we expect from the dalit survivors of Kherlenji massacre or the lucky ones from the Gujarat and Delhi (1984) pogroms? None. Their perception of nationalism and the concept of nationhood have been blurred (or should we say clarified) by their experiences of the microenvironment they lived in. The insulation from their nationalism has been ripped apart, exposing the rawness to factors around them. In fact it would be outright ridiculous to expect quantum of nationalist packages coming out from such underprivileged and downtrodden sections of the society which has been denied justice in cold blood. Strangely it would not be surprising if we see the perpetrators of these crimes berate nationalist slogans from roof tops. Insulated nationalism is surely a strange weapon.
As for the likes of Arundhati Roy, who could be more nationalist than the one who has the ability and courage to raise voice against injustice, inequality and discrimination of her own people? Who could be more patriotic than the one who fights for the rights of those whom we consider inconvenient road blocks in the agenda of OUR progress. It is frightening to see the “insect” definition of George Orwell being applied with impunity. Nationalism with insulation is like fire without warmth, like a bird without wings. It is time that we remove the insulation from our nationalism so that our raw nerves could be exposed to what is happening around us and with us. The mist of breath and the warmth of blood spilled next door can only be felt if we have this raw nerve.
Dr. Shah Alam Khan
AIIMS, New Delhi