In fact, some very insightful criticism of nationalism in India has emerged precisely at the intersection between the idea of the nation and its relation to traditions. It has been recognised, particularly in the work of Ashis Nandy, that Indian nationalism feeds off a sense of disenfranchisement felt by different communities, but simultaneously undercuts the capacity of these communities to handle questions that beset them using their own repertoire of conceptual resources. At one level, this essay can also be read as an attempt to clarify and elaborate upon the criticism inherent in these thinkers without necessarily depending upon the ethical assumptions they need in order to make their case.
Tradition and Nation-Building
What is the place of tradition and custom in the project of nation-building? In asking this question, I am neither attempting to advocate any particular version of tradition, nor even proposing to argue that customs and traditions are needed in the task of nation-building. Instead, I am simply assuming that many people share a sentiment that inherited traditions are a legitimate and valuable source of meaning in envisaging a community. Assuming that such a sentiment is worthy of attention this paper attempts to make sense of it with as much seriousness as possible.
The British conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton, makes a persuasive case for the importance of custom in fostering enduring desires, the variety of desires which are more than merely fleeting and therefore significant for a person’s self-understanding. This, he argues, is an important corrective to – and not a negation of – the notion of freedom and rights as envisaged in liberal political thinking. Nationalism, for him, is one such unproblematic source of custom among others. While Scruton is largely correct, I contend that there is a matter of detail, a significant one, which requires us to ask whether the nation (projected onto the people living under a nation-state) is indeed an instance of such a community, or whether nationalism distorts something important in the life of communities.
A community can be seen at two different levels: at the object-level, as habits, inclinations and associations that we engage with and learn from, and, at the meta-level, as a corporate body attempting to articulate these habits and inclinations from time to time. Written into this distinction is the understanding that the corporate-body picture of the community, that is, a meta-level apprehension, is a particular kind of articulation of the object-level, that is, the different learning situations we encounter as part of living in a community. Consequently, the corporate body of the community functions by taking for granted the identity of the specific community. (In general terms, all meta-level talk proceeds by fixing the points of reference dealt with in the object-level talk). In such instances of meta-level talk, the focus is not on community building per se, but on talking about the community in the register appropriate for an informative discourse. In contrast, in situations of community building, that is, when newer generations are initiated into the ways of a community, or when a community finds itself responding to situations that it has to deal with, or tastes and judgments it has to inculcate, then, the object-level talk takes primacy over the meta-level talk. While there is no need to claim that one variety of talk is more authentic than the other, it must be borne in mind that the meta-level talk is parasitic on the object-level talk for its intelligibility, and not the other way round.
A legitimate task for a nationalist politics is to explore the question of how to bring the enduring concerns of different communities to inform the task of nation building. The task is more than just giving communities a voice in public decisions. More important is the task of articulating their substantive concerns and bringing them to the realm of public debate; in our terms, it is the task of rendering the object-level talk into a faithful meta-level register. My claim is that nationalism, as an ideology, has been historically incapable of fulfilling this task in India because it is predicated on an understanding of community which is incongruent with making sense of the very traditions it claims to represent. Rather than translate the object-level talk of communities into a faithful meta-level register, nationalism in India has inherited a meta-level talk about the corporate nature of the community and it has tried, and still tries, to squeeze the prevalent object-level talk into this inherited mode of meta-level discourse.
Communities and Foundational Beliefs
In order to understand the way nationalism operates in relation to communities, we need to trace the history of how communities got conceptualized in the recent past. Suppose we begin with a relatively neutral notion of ‘human associations’, then, it is conspicuous that the family, the community as also the state are involuntary associations as compared to voluntary ones such as a football club. Among such involuntary associations the family and the state have easily identifiable markers such as blood relationships, in the case of the family, and laws, in the case of the state. In the case of the community, however, there are no such easily discernible markers. It is a long-held anthropological theory that communities inculcate or embody a set of fundamental beliefs in its members, and people are members of a community insofar as they subscribe to a particular belief-set, or are formed by a particular attitude, instilled by the community. However, the paradox is that, while this theory encourages us to identify the beliefs and attitudes supposedly instilled by a community, anthropological scholarship is full of the suggestion that such an effort is frustrated because no such sharply delineable and stable set of beliefs and attitudes is to be found in the members of communities investigated hitherto.