The troubling invention of a singular national identity

PM Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech highlighted the idea of  “one nation and one constitution”. (AFP Photo)

The language of a crowd is as significant as that of those who address it. On August 15 this year, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the Independence Day speech, the camera panned to a listless gathering fanning itself with whatever was at hand, chatting among itself (apparently oblivious to the vision of a New India being outlined) and, in several instances, engaged in phone conversations.

It isn’t as if the crowd was expressing disapproval through indifference to visions of the past and future presented by Mr Modi. Rather, it basked in the comfort of knowing that what was being said had been said many times before and that it had become a kind of ambient music. Ambient sound is intended to provide relaxation and the crowd was at ease. It was the ease of indifference to a significant transition in the life of the Republic.

The transition that the crowd was acquiescing to – and silently applauding – is the one from constitutional norms of governance to social ones and from procedural democracy to a personalised and performative one. The last time a transition such as this was attempted was during the Emergency imposed by the Indira Gandhi government. However, that exercise in autocracy did not target the cultural and social norms of national life through seeking to manufacture different kinds of publics. It was an autocratic exercise that targeted all publics equally.

The current transition is different in as much as it builds upon a social mood characterised by the idea that not everyone within Indian society is to be treated equally. That there are to be different publics, some more equal than others. A political party can only dare to go against constitutional ideas of right and wrong if there are no votes to be lost: that is, if it clearly understands that the social mood is such that it will nevertheless be voted back into power. Constitutional norms are, usually, protection against the whimsy of public moods and biases.

There was a great deal in the prime minister’s speech that one should expect in a speech such as this: The importance of water conservation and reducing chemical fertilisers in farming; the dangers of plastic shopping bags; domestic tourism as a nationalist activity; and honouring the memory of Mahatma Gandhi and the sacrifices made by freedom fighters. Mr Modi is a powerful speaker and his style is particularly suited to an audience that is used to the heroic mode of declamation. And, it is precisely this heroic mode that can allow a speaker such as the PM to convince his audience that just as good governance and infrastructure should be considered common sense, so should ideas about community and identity.

The hero – through his heroic persona – flattens the complexities of contexts through the idea that he can not but be talking about the common good since ‘goodness’ is the most fundamental attribute of the heroic personality. The recent episode of ‘Man Vs Wild’ on the National Geographical channel was, of course, a well-timed epistle in the emerging narrative of the national leader as a hero.

It is precisely this aspect that, then, allowed the prime minister to cast ‘New India’ in the seemingly unproblematic language of ancient India. “Our capacities’, he noted, “are as deep as the Indian ocean, our strivings are as pure and unceasing as the flow of the Ganga and, most significantly, our values are based on those of an ancient civilisation and the austerities practised by our sages.” However, that which is “ancient” about this land and its culture is only one part of Indian culture. And, even the ancient is not available to us in a ‘pure’ form: Hindus (such as the home minister) carry surnames that clearly have non-Hindu origins and it almost impossible to trace a straightforward lineage of that most fundamental of human substances – food – to an ‘untainted’ ancient past. But the heroic mode – because its style of address draws upon the mythical – is able to overcome the inconveniences of history.

The New India, according to the speech will be characterised by “one nation and one constitution”. Under previous political dispensations, the prime minister went on to say, “....people asked what did the government give for such and such community… and this was acceptable”. However, “....now the question is: How do we combine as one in order to advance the interests of the country? This is the demand of our times.” The call to “unite” as “one people” to advance the national interest is not an unusual one and we hear it often in different parts of the world, particularly from populist leaders who speak of cultural homogeneity as a crucial ingredient of social stability and good governance.

However, the language of “equal rights” – for Muslim “sisters” and “mothers”, and for Kashmiris who will now “truly” be part of India – cannot mask the grounds upon which this equality is to be granted. It is the equality that must derive from agreeing to be part of a singular national identity whose cultural core cannot be in dispute or be treated as having derived from multiple sources. This, quite simply put, is the great transformation from constitutional ideals of national life that is nurtured by multiple cultural springs, to the ocean of long-standing social attitudes that seek to extinguish such flows. In a society such as ours, there may be short-term ways of suppressing the different ways of being, however, in the long run it can only lead to social dysfunctionality and political turbulence.

(Sanjay Srivastava is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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