Guneet Singh Sidhu
In the essay, Nation Impossible, M S S Pandian discusses the idea of nation-form as being a utopian contraption which helps “nations mask their arbitrariness and recover them as authentic”. In support of his argument, Pandian puts forth the illustrations of India and Sri-Lanka which surmise nation-form as a source of perpetual anxiety and violence.
Having lived in India since the last two decades, I can say that the notion of acknowledging difference as a fundamental social reality is spectral. The quest for uniformity as the source of national unity has rendered useless innumerable ideas which could positively affect our social scenario. Furthermore, in its pursuit of achieving absolute uniformity, nation-form ignores the interests of the “non-uniform” which results in a sense of alienation for minority communities.
The illustration of the Tamil-Sinhalese issue in Sri-Lanka captures the violent aspect of this pursuit of homogeneity. However, as is rightly pointed out by Pandian, even violence was unable to achieve the utopian desire for homogeneity. Nation-form goes as far as shoving these undesirable events “under the carpet” only to find them returning to challenge the “constructed homogeneity” which causes a perennial anxiety surrounding the concept of nation-form.
Although, Pandian does not discuss about the historical origins of nation-form, I am convinced by Benedict Anderson that terms such as nationalism, nation-form and nation operate at the level of ideas. Deducing from Anderson’s argument and drawing inspiration from Roland Barthes’ essay, (“the birth of the reader is the death of the author”) I think that these notions, at best, are a figment of the “shared” imagination of the political community which have manifestations in the material word. An example of this manifestation would be the Committee on Emotional Integration, set up in 1960 by the newly independent India, which, in effect, invented a nation which didn’t yet exist.
Through the process of naturalising beliefs, which are congenial to nation-form, so as to render them inevitable and excluding rival forms of thought along with denigrating ideas which might challenge it, this committee seems to be saying with the Athenians to the people of Melos during the Peloponnesian war:
“You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
Étienne Balibar is of the opinion that “the imagined singularity of national formations is constructed daily by moving back from the present into the past”. Although, I agree with Balibar’s opinion, I feel inclined to add that this statement seems more cogent in light of Pandian’s argument that nation-form is based on “silencing alternative interpretations of the past”.
In other words, the imagined singularity that nation form seeks is not constructed daily by moving back from the present into the past, but by moving back from the present into a reconstructed past. As abominable as this argument may appear, even at school, I recall reading the result of the Sino-Indian war as a ‘great war in which Indian soldiers fought bravely’.
Pandian claims that for both Tagore and Periyar, the primary concern was of how nations address the question of difference and India, like Sri-Lanka, had fallen into the trap of “homogenising humanism”. The burden of proving the concept of Nationalism as violent and exclusivist was also shared by both of them.
While Periyar aspired for the contestation of minority communities in Indian politics, Rabindranath Tagore sought ideals of humanity (much like the Melians’ paltry of 500 against the Athenian warships during the Peloponnesian war) in a ‘dog-eat-dog world represented by Machiavellian men of realpolitik’. In my opinion, Tagore’s premise to reimagine politics by focusing on the ideals of humanity is a philosophical extension of Plato’s analogy between the city and the soul. In effect, Tagore appears to be saying that we must focus on the ideals of our soul to reimagine politics of the future.
One could argue that such a result is inconceivable because in modern political systems, the individuals may be individually desiring one outcome but due to their role or other constraints, they would be unable to implement it. In other words, our constitutional design which advocates for separation of powers, aspires to harness people in the government machinery towards collective ends. In this process, even if some individuals aspire to seek results which are consistent with the ‘ideals of humanity’, it becomes nearly impossible to implement them given the nature of our political processes.
Being appreciative of the fact that in public discourse, a number of personal interests become inadmissible, Tagore’s argument is much more jurisprudential in nature than polemic or revolutionary. His proposition for reimagining politics is that of critiquing the very morality of the collective ends towards which we are moving and this can only be done by looking at political and intellectual resources that cut across national boundaries so as to plausibly accept “spirit of the West” and reject “Nation of the West”.
In conclusion, the views of Tagore, Pandian and Periyar help readers reach an Archimedean vantage point from where the ideals imposed by nation-form can be critiqued. Perhaps, nation-form could have been more dangerous if it could successfully impose upon us its ideals without leaving a trace of its pre-established model but for the arguments advanced by the aforementioned persons. Through retrospectively projecting Pandian’s views on my past experiences, I feel convinced by the hypothesis that the permanency sought by nation-form is discordant with the change that democracy seeks and therefore, the blend of “democratic nation-form” is a recipe for disaster.
- Rabindranath Tagore, “Nationalism in India” (1917)
- Blackburn, Simon. (2006). Plato’s republic : a biography. Crows Nest, N.S.W : Allen & Unwin, pp 32-33
- Balibar, Etienne. “The Nation Form: History and Ideology.” Review (Fernand Braudel Center), vol. 13, no. 3, 1990, pp. 329–361., http://www.jstor.org/stable/40241159.
- Blackburn, Simon. (2006). Plato’s republic : a biography. Crows Nest, N.S.W : Allen & Unwin, pp 130-133
- Pandian, (2009): ”Nation Impossible”, (Economic & Political Weekly, VOL XLIV NO 10), pp 65
- Anderson, Benedict R. O. G. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991. Print
- Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author“
- Pandian, (2009): ”Nation Impossible”, (Economic & Political Weekly, VOL XLIV NO 10), pp 65-66
Guneet Singh Sidhu is a third year law student and Jindal Global University.
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