Citizenship versus national identity

Citizenship versus national identity

National identity requires a judicious balance between continuity and change, along with consensus-based inclusiveness. Photo/PTI

National identity is a cluster of tendencies and values.  It is neither fixed nor alterable at will. Often it is redefined in keeping with the changing needs and aspirations. 

India has been going through an intense debate on nationalism and national identity. As a term, identity seems to be self-explanatory and defined in terms of the self vs the other or we vs them. Hence, there is a propensity to get entwined in its objective and subjective dimensions. 

The question is what it means to be a true Indian or American or British. National identity used to be a given which did not have to be spelt out. But that is no longer the case. Perceptions about national identity can vary from country-to-country depending on factors like history, customs, traditions, place of birth, race, language, religion, age and party affiliation. 

Nations the world over these days are constructing a national character which is to be collectively shared and celebrated. By doing so, a distinguishing identity is being emphasised. The question is what constitutes the essence of being French, American or Indian. The debate is not just being perceived philosophically but also in legal terms.

Breuilly in his book `Nationalism and the State’, contends that there is a link between nationalism and culture. This is particularly reflective of right-wing nationalism where there is an appeal to a common culture. 

The pluralised notion of culture is almost dismissed and replaced by a more authoritarian, xenophobic and expansionist notion of nationalism.  

 Some thinkers argue that nationalism is a melting pot. Hence, it depends on notions of citizenship and patriotism, which subsumes ethnic and cultural differences. Nationalism can also be perceived as an ‘imagined community’ as argued by Anderson. Hence, the idea of national identity is constantly evolving, shifting and going through a process of cross-fertilisation. 

Nationalism brings out the intersection of history, ideology, power and language. It reflects historical struggles and experiences, cross-fertilized through a variety of cultures.  It is based on particularisms, distinguished by its own characteristics and ideology.  Histories also have a nationalist purpose. Nationalism is constructed and debated through a variety of discourses, especially narratives on national culture.  Discourse can construct, perpetuate, transform and even dismantle national identities.  

The dominant discourses tend to override in many cases. Nations tend to take the shape of a cultural phenomenon. In the case of Europe many states preceded the nation. It can also be argued that the state produced the nation. Italy from a cultural expression was transformed into an Italian nation-state. 

There are two ways of perceiving national identity. Firstly, national identity is often perceived as a psychological/personal condition where a mass demographic base identifies with national symbols and internalizes them.  Secondly, national identity is what the nation is in terms of cultural and a variety of constitutive elements of nationhood. 

These may include cultural symbols in particular. Perceptions of nationhood tend to largely revolve around such symbols, which are to be cherished at any cost. In France, sharing French customs and traditions are clearly linked to national identity, especially among the new right.  

Hence, all are expected to perceive nationhood in a similar manner. Often times, problems may arise when all are expected to perceive it in an identical way. Fact and myth often gets entangled in very complex ways. 

Legal terms

Traditionally, we did not perceive national identity in legal terms. But today, immigration laws are beginning to define it in these terms.  Citizenship tests seem to be gaining ground the world over and hence to prove one’s Indianness or Britishness, one would need to be familiar with Indian and British history and culture. 

Immigration laws and citizenship tests invariably tend to develop an imagined story of homogeneity and cultural exceptionalism. Often, the idea of nationalism is embodied in one’s own consciousness and genealogy.   In this context, the use of terms like sub-nationalism, supra-nationalism and trans-nationalism can make a major impact.  

Often, nationalism is based on a series of myths. This is where often history gets distorted which results in major contestations.  History cannot be ignored, and at the same time a county cannot be trapped in history. The pursuit of a pure nationalist ideology can often turn out to be divisive.  

Nationalism is a social construction that includes inclusions and exclusions, based on history and notions of national belonging and citizenship. The celebration of cultural diversity seems to be also caught in the fear of cultural differences. The challenge lies in bridging the divide between a nationalist ideology, political rhetoric and the idea of a single hegemonic nation.  

Whether one can hold on to the citizenship of a state without necessarily sharing its national identity, continues to remain an unresolved dilemma. The ultimate objective has to do with the creation of a just, egalitarian and inclusive society.  Exclusive cultural conceptions of the nation will continue to dominate the political discourse. 

National identity requires a judicious balance between continuity and change, along with consensus-based inclusiveness.  

(The writer is Professor and former Dean, (Faculty of Arts) Bangalore University)

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