Towards liberal nationalism

Issue 14 - Apr 2008

Liberals, culture and nationalism

Ravikiran S Rao

There is still a case for an inclusive, non-elitist cultural nationalism that transcends, but does not displace other cultures.

The original contender for a national culture was the one that relied on the ideals of the freedom movement. It was a strong contender, with potent symbols and a stirring history. It fired up the imagination of the middle-class immediately after independence. But the awful performance of the Indian State has discredited this ideal. The legacy of the freedom movement was recklessly squandered.

As a challenge to this, we have Hindu nationalism. Most critics of Hindu nationalism tend to focus on the “Hindu” aspect, neglecting the fact that the movement, at its core, is an attempt at nationalism, rather than an attempt to establish a Hindu theocracy. The attempt involves using the symbols of Hinduism to act as the basis of nationhood. If this were not so, there would be no other way to explain how Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, an atheist, could start the Hindu Mahasabha.

Unfortunately, this variant of cultural nationalism serves not to unite, but to divide the country. Instead of inclusive tolerance, it seeks to exclude large groups of people and seeks to implement highly sectarian policies. Worse still, the movement is not an assertion of a rising India, but more of a continuation of the same whine. Instead of the sight of a confident people taking charge of the country, what we see is a movement feeding further on the same politics of victimhood.

The challenge for liberals then, is to move beyond the sterility of policy responses and construct a secular nationalism using as raw material uncontroversial things that we all can share. Whether it is cricket, films, or festivals, the challenge is to  construct an inclusive, liberal, cultural nationalism.

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