The nature and nationalism tradition in India is aptly conceptualised by the theory of ecological nationalism. Two recognised ways of expressing ecological nationalism is either through the metropolitan – secular view that economises and materialises nature or the indigenist or regional opposition to the forms of high-modern and global institutions. Ecological nationalism presupposes a radical change in human relations with the environment, which may imply changes in social and political life. In this sense ecologism contrasts with environmentalism, which seeks to manage externalities brought by contemporary patterns of production and consumption.
Similarly, nationalism can be perceived beyond the strict notions of politics, parties and rallies. Its role in determining social and economic behaviours is larger than recognised. (Anti)consumption practices reflect a political act which are often driven by nationalist ideologies. To put it in other words, the reason behind consumption and resistance to consumption is the association of that product with national symbols and ideologies.
Some of the nationalist ideologies and symbols that heavily determine consumption in India are Swadeshi, Anti-Eastern, Hindu Nationalism, a historically backward looking sense of tradition and its coexistence with technological advancements. A prominent feature of Hindu nationalism is the emphasis on chivalry, strength, masculinity and honour. An advertisement starring Akshay Kumar is set in the pretext of an army camp where the actor asks the soldier’s what is it that they miss the most. The soldiers’ answers provide a range of Indian dishes that their wives or mothers would cook for them at home only to subtly advertise the product which is a cooking oil. ( Image 1)
Another nationalist tool commonly used to attract consumers in India is Ayurveda which is associated with the highest form of purity due to its relation to the Indian mythologies and epics. This is one of the sole reasons behind the success of Patanjali in the market and its soaring consumers. A Patanjali print ad reads – “ Give prominence to Patanjali products in your shops and hearts… Together we can turn the Swadeshi dream of Mahatma Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and Ram Prasad Bismil into reality” The nationalist ideologies and symbols used to market products has become normalised in the Indian context. This does not challenge the consumer to think what exactly is it that is motivating them to consume or not consume a certain product.
While ethical consumerism occasionally finds a common ground with national consumerism, the two are very distinct. There is strong evidence that when political ideology influences consumer behaviour, it does not necessarily make consumers adopt progressive, environmental and inclusive purposes. Moreover, consumers inherently believe that they are being environmentally conscious when their consumption patterns are motivated by nationalist ideologies. Ironically, not only is that not always the case but such (anti)consumption also results in other disputes.
The first example that I will be looking at is the role of Hindu nationalism in the anti-consumption of beef. The political philosophy of Hindu nationalism has been used as a tool for nation building ever since the British colonised India. Born from a deep sense of rootedness, Hindu nationalism labels all communities including the Christians, Muslims, Dalits and the Adivasis as ‘others’. In the current times, we see this ideology being propagated directly or indirectly by the Sangh Parivar, a family of right wing organisations wherein the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) has been the governing body which was displaced from the position in 2004 but reclaimed it from 2014 onwards. Unsurprisingly, Hindu vegetarians though small in population have an upper hand in the discourse of food politics. Non- vegetarians including but not limited to Muslims, Dalits and Christians face backlash for consuming meat on several accounts usually beginning with the discomfort that vegetarians have with the meat due to its ‘bad smell’. In this manner, these small instances of intolerance build up to the victimisation of the other to dominate and humiliate them. The country also saw the beef ban imposed in 2017 which led to communal riots along the same manner.
In an article published earlier on “A glimpse into Vegan India”, I talk about how the vegetarian consumption by upper class Hindus merely draws itself from the national symbol of sacred cows and is not supported by ethical concerns towards the environment and animals. This can be simply understood by the cruel cattle practices that continue even without the cow slaughter. Apart from remaining the largest exporter of beef, India is also the largest producer and consumer of milk contributing to 19% of the world’s total milk production. Practices such as phooka – cow-blowing – where air is blown into the cow’s vagina and khalbaccha – a makeshift calf – which is placed next to the cow by using stuffed dummies made out of dead calves prevail in order to stimulate milk production.
To conclude – “ In India, as long as caste dictates social norms, including what one can or cannot consume, vegetarianism as an enforcement of caste purity will need to give up its pretense of being in a morally superior position of non-violence towards human beings”
The next case study is the consumption of Indian luxury clothes. The horrors of the fashion industry to the labour and environment is not a surprise to anyone. With an increasing light shed on this discourse around the mid 2000s, India saw an immense increase in the number of organic homegrown brands offering ethically sourced and produced clothing products. Described by Tereza Kuldova as the attempt at invoking ethical practices, from Fair Trade to eco-fashion and sustainability while at the same time being deeply economic and profit oriented, “ethical sell” is located precisely between cultural and political.
The textile industry which is the largest employing sector in India represents a cultural heritage which is very important to the nation and its tradition. The acceptance of Khadi as the national pride under Mahatma Gandhi to reject the British produced clothes marks the beginning of clothes being associated with nationalism. Similarly, the Indian luxury clothing is consumed through a sense of Indianness that is a combination of the traditional national pride through artistic nationalism and forward looking India through technological advancements. The backward looking sentiment attached to the prints, weaves and various local designs each rich with its own history of origin instills a sense of unity amongst Indians merely through the clothes they wear.
This is however aggravated when the metropolitan – secular audience capitalises on the indigenous and regional populations in order to promote their economic benefit. More recently, the weavers and tailors are becoming more and more visible in the brand advertisements, social media platforms and even the runways. Anita Dongre, an Indian luxury designer, called upon her grassroot level workers on the Lakme Fashion Week Winter/ Festive 2015 collections while claiming that “ it is high time we respect our own legacy”. While representation matters and must be carried out, there is no concrete landing on how these grassroot level workers are being empowered apart from a fair wage that is paid to them for their skill. Furthermore, designers maintain an air of distinction from their employed labour (that is often indigenous and regional) not just in terms of their profession but also the symbolisation. This is evident in the image 2 attached below – the designers who represent aesthetics and luxury and the weavers who represent the traditional aspects to appeal to the consumers. This then comes across as crass romanticisation and commercialisation of the weavers.
Moreover, I cannot help but raise questions about how such ‘efforts’ of several Indian designers have not resulted in Indigenous women establishing their own clothing lines or becoming fashion designers. Why is it that these designers must launch a separate initiative for their ethical fashion rather than completely shifting to one and eliminating the unsustainable model. Overall, designers are aware of these nationalist ideologies that play out in the consumption of luxury clothing in India. As Tereza Kuldova says– “ In particular the ethical sell is designed to make people feel good about themselves by publicly displaying their concerns for the environment or fair labour conditions, thus showing to the world not only their cultural capital but also their morality and consumer citizenship.”
The politics behind consumerism makes me question the universal nature of sustainable consumption. In what manner are consumers going to adopt it when it is so highly dictated by one’s national understanding and pretext. Economic subsidies and laws have been the focus of the governments and environmentalists in order to convince people to live sustainably but can these overrule the importance that nationalist ideologies play in determining this behaviour?
Vanshika Mittal is an undergraduate at Ashoka University pursuing Economics and Environmental Sciences.