HOME | ABOUT US | Speaker | Americans Together | Videos | www.CenterforPluralism.com | Please note that the blog posts include my own articles plus selected articles critical to India's cohesive functioning. My articles are exclusively published at www.TheGhouseDiary.com You can send an email to: MikeGhouseforIndia@gmail.com
Friday, February 22, 2008
Nationalism: Boon or Curse?
Perspective - Economic & Political Weekly
February 16, 2008
Is Nationalism a Boon or a Curse?
Text of Netaji Lecture given in Kolkata on December 27, 2007.Amartya Sen is at the department of economics, Harvard University,United States.
It would be wrong to see nationalism as either an unmitigated evil or a universal virtue. It can be both, a boon and a curse "depending on the circumstances two sides of the same coin. Nationalism tends to be negative when people confront each other along the lines of national divisions; it can be productive enough when social divisions and hostilities tend to be based on other identities, such as religion, community or ethnicity. Central to understanding the contingent variability of the role of nationalism is the need to see nationality as one identity among many that we all have.
Exactly two years before India's independence, on August 15, 1945, in his last message to the nation, Subhas Chandra Bose wrote: "There is no power on earth that can keep India enslaved. India shall be free and before long".1 That confidence, based on a determined commitment to a great cause of ending imperial domination of India brings out a hugely appealing face of nationalism. It can inspire and motivate the people of a country subjected to the bondage of alien rule and to the internal loss of self-confidence that goes with such rule. Even the rousing statement about the inability of any power on earth to keep India enslaved, which Netaji articulated, can be seen in the context of the need to overcome what Rabindranath Tagore had called "the worst form of bondage" "the bondage of dejection, which keeps men hopelessly chained in loss of faith in themselves".2
I begin with a preliminary question. Nationalistic thought on behalf of a nation into which one is born may be quite powerful, but is this sentiment not inescapably confined and constrained by the accident of one's birth? Is nationalism a non-chosen virtue, if virtue it is? I would argue that there are very strong elements of choice underlying nationalistic thought, and this is important to recognize since the understanding of the role of choice is powerfully relevant for taking a responsible view of one's decisions and priorities. First, the fact that one is born in a country and sees no reason for changing one's nationality does not, in itself, demand that overwhelming importance must be attached to one's inherited nationality. Perhaps no one has been more vocal than Rabindranath Tagore in arguing against nationalism when it goes against one's humanity.
Arguments taking a "cosmopolitan" view have been championed for thousands of years, by philosophers such as Diogenes. If and when a person goes in the direction of nationalistic thought, it is a distinct exercise of choice, even when the urgency of social concerns may make it difficult to see the element of volition in that thought. Second, people can, of course, change their nationalities, and there is clearly a huge role of choice there. Third, a person may be contented enough with his or her nationality, and yet may choose to work for the cause of national independence of another country, or for the dignity and well-being of a foreign nation.
Inspiring Power It is important to see that the positive role of nationalism need not influence only those who happen to be, themselves, victims of foreign domination and of related indignities imposed on a subdued nation. Indeed, the fight against national subjugation need not be restricted only to persons who are born in the suppressed nation. The search for justice against captivity can inspire others who come from elsewhere but who choose to join that struggle, moved by the cause of independence and of regeneration of an overpowered nation, and who come to develop a close bond with that underdog society. Annie Besant and Charles Andrews may not have been natives of India, but their dedication and role in the pursuit of freedom and dignity in India were important for India, and also, I would argue, for them too, since the chosen identifications yielded a strong sense of purpose that enhanced the lives of these outreachers as well.
The inspiring power of a chosen rather than inherited identification is brought out clearly enough by Byron's lament about having to leave Greece after the close bonds he had developed with Greece (along with his chosen commitment to work for its independence):
Maid of Athens, ere we part,
Give, oh give me back my heart!
Because of the possibility of such chosen and not just inherited identification, open to anyone in the world, nationalism need not have the parochial quality that it might otherwise have had because of being locally confined, through birth. There is something of a universalising potential in nationalism, which is particularly relevant when the cause involved is that of the underdogs of the world. People choose to work where they think they might achieve something of value, and from Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa to Mother Teresa in India there are plenty of wonderful examples of chosen identifications that show the possibility of global participation in national or regional causes.
Other Virtues of Nationalism Nationalism can clearly have other virtues as well. Netaji pointed to another role of nationalism in his presidential address at the 51st Session of the Indian National Congress at Haripura in February 1938. He touched on the fact that a sense of national identity can work powerfully against the divisiveness of communal distinctions. Subhas Chandra talked about the attempt by India's British rulers "to separate the different communities and put them into water-tight compartments" .3 This point was particularly apt in India in 1938, when the British raj, in its last days, was still rather involved in emphasising the divisions within India between different religious communities, which was widely seen in India as being exaggerated by the raj as a justification for continued British imperial rule.
The point about the uniting role of nationalism does, however, have a more general and pervasive relevance. No matter how generated, divisiveness among the people of a country can be resisted, in general, with a uniting identity, and nationalism can indeed play that constructive role. Nationalism did rise to that challenge in India in confronting communal tensions that preceded the partition of India (though with uneven success), and indeed it remained relevant also after that, through its contribution to the resistance to the separatism of religions, languages, and regions, thereby helping to keep what remained of India reasonably united. I shall discuss later on in this talk how this uniting and positive role can sometimes be extremely important not just in India, but also in other countries as well. I will illustrate the point with the example of contemporary Britain, since the cultivation of divisiveness in colonial India by the British rulers is now matched, I would argue, by an inadvertent
nurturing of religion-based communal identities within Britain itself.
It is not hard to see that nationalism can indeed be a boon, offering benefits that are significant and substantial. What is, however, equally obvious is that nationalism can also be a source of huge conflicts, hostilities and violence. Subhas Chandra himself pointed to this recognition, in the same presidential address at Haripura, when he argued that a country with a strong sense of nationalism can be a source of adversity for other countries, referring interestingly enough in the light of subsequent events to Japan as being "militant, aggressive and imperialis".4 While he himself would later give priority to Indian nationalism in his chosen actions, particularly in creating and leading the Indian National Army (INA), mainly recruited from captured Indian soldiers in Japanese hands, yet his clear understanding that aggressiveness and imperialism can follow from the extreme nationalism of Japan of that period is not in doubt. Subhas Chandra obviously did have to balance the arguments in different directions, and chose to give priority to the fight for independence of his subjugated nation, even though this inescapably involved his being aligned to a power that was, in his own judgment, aggressive and imperialist (though not present in India in that imperial form).
Attitude to Japanese Nationalism The dual attitude to Japanese nationalism is a widespread feature of Indian thinking over those years. Rabindranath Tagore appreciated and praised the importance of the Japanese experience in economic and social development as something that gave hope and some basis of self-confidence to countries outside the west. There was indeed pervasive admiration in India for Japan for its demonstration that an Asian nation could rival the west in industrial development and economic progress, and Tagore noted with great satisfaction that Japan had "in giant strides left centuries of inaction behind, overtaking the present time in its foremost achievement. "This was inspirational for other nations outside the west, and it "has broken," Tagore said, "the spell under which we lay in torpor for ages, taking it to be the normal condition of certain races living in certain geographical limits".5 In this role the contribution of Japanese nationalism was clearly significant.
However, in the same lecture on "Nationalism in Japan," given in Japan in 1916, Tagore went on to criticise sharply the emergence of aggressive nationalism in Japan and its new role as an imperialist, and as E P Thompson, the historian, has noted, "Tagore's outspoken criticisms did not please Japanese audiences and the welcome given to him on first arrival soon cooled".6 While Tagore's worries and concerns were already strong in 1916, the subsequent events, particularly the Japanese treatment of China, shocked him deeply. Rabindranath wrote to Yone Noguchi, a nationalist Japanese poet, who was a friend of Tagore, in 1938 (as it happens in the same year in which Netaji had pointed to the imperialist nature of the-then Japan): "You know I have a genuine love for the Japanese people and it is sure to hurt me too painfully to go and watch crowds of them being transported by their rulers to neighbouring land to perpetrate acts of inhumanity which will brand their name with a lasting stain in the history of man".7 Subhas Chandra Bose too faced conflicting considerations in forming his view of Japan of that time, and the fact that he did decide eventually to get the help of the Japanese in raising his INA would not have eliminated the conflict of rival considerations in Bose's own assessment. The fact that a person facing a conflict decides to give priority, ultimately, to one argument against an opposing one does not indicate that the opposing argument was without merit, or that the winning argument was the only one that the person saw as important. Since this way of understanding the outcomes of arguments is rather central to the approach of my book The Argumentative Indian, I have had the opportunity to discuss the issue more fully there.8 Subhas Chandra clearly did see the conflicting considerations that would have been relevant for his choice, and in the particular circumstances of India and his own role in helping its independence, gave priority to the argument that took him to the INA, rather than doing nothing or ending up again in British imprisonment.
Nationalism in First World War
The generally conflicting picture of nationalism is indeed clear enough. Nationalism is surely a boon in many contexts, and yet it can also be a terrible curse in other ways. The brutal use of nationalism in the world war of 1914-18 was a decisive event in warning people across the world of the destructive potentials of the appeal to nationalism, when the Germans, the British and the French fought each other with great brutality, fed by the invocation of their respective nationalist identities and commitments.
"All a poet can do today is warn", wrote Wilfred Owen, who told the world of the sadness of human lives caught in violent pursuit of what they took to be their national interest. The tragedy of violence is made even more unbearable by its glorification, which is used so effectively by those who appealed to nationalism, particularly in recruiting foot-soldiers for savagery. In his bitterly visionary poem, 'Dulce et Decorum est,' Owen appealed to reason and humanity to resist Horace's much invoked endorsement of the honour of death for (or allegedly for) one's country:
My friend, you will not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, The old lie: Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori.9
Wilfred Owen's mother, Susan, wrote to Rabindranath Tagore in 1920, describing her son's final departure for the war that would eventually cost him his life. Through the nastiness of the desolation of war, young Wilfred could still see the beauty of nature and civilisation. He went to war "looking towards the sun-glorified sea looking towards France." Susan Owen told Rabindranath that Wilfred said good-bye with "those wonderful words of yours beginning at 'When I go from hence, let this be my parting word'." When the pocket book of her dead son, recovered in the battlefield, was sent to Susan Owen, she found (she wrote to Tagore) "these words written in his dear writing with your name beneath." Wilfred Owen's warning has as much contemporary relevance right now as it had when he himself was facing the horrors of the first world war which would ultimately take his life.
If one of the curses of nationalism is the violence and brutality it could generate, there are other burdens as well. Nationalism can blind one's vision about other societies, and this can play a terrible part especially when one country is unusually powerful vis-à-vis another. To illustrate the point, let me consider the Irish famines of the 1840s. I know of no other famine in the world in which the proportion of people killed was as large as in those Irish famines. Even the Chinese famine of 1958-61, which is the largest in terms of the size of absolute mortality (with statistical estimates ranging between 23 and 30 million deaths), cannot match the Irish famines in terms of the proportion of the population that was killed. The famines of the 1840s also changed the nature of Ireland in a decisive way. It led to a level of emigration even under the most terrible conditions of voyage that has hardly been seen anywhere else in the world.10 The Irish population even today is very substantially smaller than it was more than 160 years ago, in 1845, when the famine began.
Was British more particularly English nationalism involved in the process that led to that sequence of famines in Ireland and to the lack of determined public intervention by the administrators in London who were in charge of Irish governance? That hypothesis has often been advanced in a crude form, and even though the over-simple accusation of motivated genocide could not be defended, the general thesis of the culpable role of English nationalism is not entirely mistaken. In Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, Malone, a rich Irish American, refuses to describe the Irish famines of the 1840s as famines at all. He tells his English daughter-in- law, Violet, that his father "died of starvation in the black 47." When Violet asks, "The famine?", Malone replies: "No, the starvation. When a country is full of food and exporting it, there can be no famine."
There is a significant issue here, even though there are several mistakes in Malone's spiked statement. It is certainly true that food was being exported from famished Ireland to prosperous England, but it is not true that Ireland was full of food. The economic crisis, partly connected with potato blights, did reduce sharply the supply of staple food in Ireland, while also stripping most of the Irish of their normal purchasing power, which is why ship after ship sailed down the river Shannon, laden with fine foods such as dairy products, poultry and meat, for which there were more buyers with adequate purchasing power in Britain than in Ireland (such food export out of a famine-stricken region, guided by market demands, can also be observed elsewhere in a particular class of famines, as I have discussed in my book Poverty and Famines).11 Also, while the expressions "starve" and "starvation" can certainly be taken in their old, proactive sense now largely defunct of making people go without food through intervention, in particular causing their death from hunger, it is hard to deny that there was indeed a famine (as the term is commonly understood) in Ireland at that time, despite Malone's rhetoric to the contrary.
Human Agency in Famine Malone was, in fact, really making a different and extremely important point, in Shaw's wonderful play, but admittedly with some literary licence. The important focal issue concerns the role of human agency in causing and sustaining famines. If the Irish famines were entirely preventable, and in particular, if those in public authority could have prevented them, then the charge of "starving" the Irish would have perspicuity enough. The role of public policy in preventing or not preventing famines, and the political, social and cultural influences that determine public policy, connect closely with the priorities of administration, which are, in turn, influenced by attitudes of the administrators. Underlying Malone's comprehensive censure is an implicit but powerful reference to the attitude of British rulers in London over those ruled in Ireland.
Indeed, as Joel Mokyr, the historian, has noted, "Ireland was considered by Britain as an alien and even hostile nation".12 This estrangement affected many aspects of Irish-British relations. For one thing, it discouraged British capital investment in Ireland, contributing to its underdevelopment. But most relevantly in the present context, there was an astonishing callousness about famines and suffering in Ireland and the absence of any determined attempt made by London to prevent Irish destitution and starvation. Richard Ned Lebow has argued that while poverty in Britain was typically attributed to economic change and fluctuations, Irish poverty was viewed in Britain as being caused by laziness, indifference and ineptitude, so that "Britain's mission" wasnot seen as one "to alleviate Irish distress but to civilise her people and to lead them to feel and act like human beings".13 This may be a somewhat exaggerated view, but it is hard to think that famines like those in Ireland in the 1840s would have been at all allowed to occur in Britain by the administrators in London at that time.
English Attitude to Irish In examining the social and cultural influences that shape public policy and that in this case allowed the famines to occur, it is important to appreciate the sense of dissociation and superiority that characterized the prevailing English attitude to the Irish. The roots of the Irish famines extend, in this sense, at least as far back as Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (published in 1590) and perhaps even earlier. The tendency to blame the victims, plentiful in the Faerie Queene itself, survived through the famines of the 1840s, and the Irish taste for potato was added to the list of the calamities which the natives had, in English view, largely brought on themselves. Charles Edward Trevelyan, the head of the treasury in London during the famines, who had a huge role in the making of public policy in Ireland, even took the liberty of speculating: "There is scarcely a woman of the peasant class in the West of Ireland whose culinary art exceeds the boiling of a potato".14 There, it seems, we see the birth
of a putatively great explanation of a famine â€" people starved because the Irish peasant woman could not cook beyond boiling a potato!
This cultural issue is also deeply political in its fuller sense, and cultural nationalism can create a big divide between the ruler and ruled, thereby making a huge difference to the way a dependent nation is governed. British attitude to Ireland, including the deep scepticism of the Irish character as seen by the administrators in London, is matched by other cases of national prejudice that played a substantial part in colonial mis-governance. Winston Churchill's famous remark that the Bengal famine of 1943 was caused by the tendency of people there to breed like rabbits belongs to this general tradition of blaming the colonial victim. This had a profound effect in crucially delaying famine relief in that disastrous and easily preventable famine. The demands of cultural nationalism merge well with the asymmetry of power and can have quite devastating effects.
If nationalism is both a boon and a curse, then, it might well be asked, what we should see as the "bottom line". It would be hard to get a bottom line that sorts out neatly the relative importance of boons and curses in this case, and our judgment must depend on the context in which nationalism is being assessed. Perhaps the right bottom line is no more than the divided recognition just stated, along with a pointer to the contextual nature of the overall judgment that should emerge. But this synthetic assessment is somewhat unhelpful as a general statement about the merits of nationalism, if it is not followed by some kind of analysis of when nationalism acts mainly as a boon, and when it is largely a curse. We have to go, I would argue, a bit deeper than the two-part bottom line would state.
Plurality of Identities
I have tried to argue elsewhere, particularly in Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, that many of the puzzling and indeed tragic features of social confusion arise from a common tendency of not paying sufficient attention to the fact that any human being belongs to many different groups and thus has many disparate identities, none of which can be taken to be the person's only or only relevant identity. We are all individually involved in various associations and affiliations in different contexts, in our own respective arising from our birth, our background, our social activities, or the company we keep. The same person can, for example, be a British citizen, of Indian origin, a man, a believer in gender equity, a Muslim, a Malayali, a stock-broker, a non-vegetarian, an asthmatic, a linguist, a poet, a pianist, an astrologer, and one who believes that Australians do not really play good cricket but win consistently because of excellent luck in the fields. All these identities can exist together, and there is no contradiction in accepting simultaneously one's membership of each of these disparate groups, some of which are standard while others may be quite eccentric.
The influence of identity on our decisions can be properly seized only after the basic plurality of identities is adequately appreciated and taken on board. Since we do belong to many different groups, we have to decide whether a particular group to which we belong is or is not important for us. This task also demands that we weigh the relative importance of these different identities, and also that the exercise of choice of identity has to come to grips, explicitly or by implication, with this necessary valuational issue. I am very aware that my contentions on the inescapable presence of plurality of identities, and the need for us to choose our relative priorities between them, are in conflict with some approaches to social analysis, in particular "communitarian" thinking.
The communitarian approach points to the fact, plausibly enough, that some special identity, in particular one's community, can be a matter of pure "discovery" not of choice. The problem arises after it is accepted that there are membership categories indeed many of them to which we involuntarily belong and which can be discovered easily enough. From there the communitarian approach, at least in some versions, proceeds to take the identity with one's community as being automatically the most important part of one's social being central to one's self-discovery. There is surely a huge jump in the reasoning here, since we also discover many other things about ourselves, such as our class, our racial features such as skin colour, our gender, our environment, and so on, and what importance we give to them respectively is for us to decide. We may be sometimes goaded by ongoing convention to conform, but at other times we can resist that goading and decide on our priorities in some different way. We could also give some chosen and acquired rather than discovered identification the pride of place, such as one's profession, one's political affiliation, or one's intellectual approach (such as being a leader of a working class movement despite coming from a different class, or being a feminist thinker despite being a man). Human beings are not only capable of discovery, but also of critique, assessment and judgment.15
There is a similar issue concerning the place of class in Marxian analysis, and some have argued, within that tradition, that the priority of class is automatic and ubiquitous. But is it? It is worth recollecting, in this context, that Karl Marx himself subjected such unique and automatic identification to severe criticism in his Critique of Gotha Programme, in 1875, which was his last substantial work. Marx criticised the German Workers Party's proposed plan of action (the "Gotha Programme") on many grounds, among which was his argument against the insistence in that plan to see a worker only in terms of his or her being a worker, "everything else being ignored":
....unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard in so far as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers, and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored.16
Neither the plurality of one's identities and affiliations, nor the role of human decisions in relative priorities can be easily ignored.
In the context of multiple identities, the nationality of a person can clearly be very important in many situations. Nationalism takes the form, in one way or another, of giving priority to that identity in some particular contexts. When Mahatma Gandhi or Subhas Chandra Bose expressed the hope that in the political context Indians of all different religions should have reason enough to give priority to their Indianness over their respective religions, the appeal that they made was towards giving conditional priority to the national identity in the specific context of those political decisions. This does not, however, deny the importance of other identities that the person has, including religion and community and language and literature. Indeed, for Gandhiji his Hindu beliefs and practices established a hugely important identity in contexts that were primarily religious, rather than political. For Subhas Chandra Bose too, while religion did not have that role, there were non-political identities that were important for him as well, when the issue at hand was not one of national politics, but other things, such as Bengali culture and literature.
The curse of nationalism tends to be associated, I would suggest, with a tendency, when it exists, of giving automatic priority to one's national identity in all or nearly all contexts. Perhaps more modestly it can be argued that when a particular identity is a source of division and engineered violence, as in a war or in terrorism, giving unique priority to that specific identity, denying all others, can be peculiarly flammable and dangerous. Let me illustrate the point with an example involving the competing pull of different identities involving nationality, on one hand, and religious community, on the other.
Pull of Different Identities When the Germans, the British and the French tore each other apart during 1914-18 in fighting what was, to a large extent, a war of nationalism, they could have taken more note than they did of the identities they shared with each other, including that of religion (all three were, of course, overwhelmingly Christian countries), or that of their common Europeanness (all three were in Europe), not to mention their shared human identity. It is the single-minded prominence given to nationalism (and related to it, the prioritization of perceived national interests and alleged national priorities), ignoring the bonds of Christianity, Europeanness, or humanity, that made the recruiting of foot soldiers for that nationalistic war a relatively easy job. That was, however, a moment when the combating populations could have fruitfully reflected on their common Europeanness, or their shared Christianity, which would have worked against giving singular priority to national divisions, even though Europeanness and Christianity can also be hugely divisive in other contexts. The recognition of a shared humanity would, of course, have been more uniting in general in a less contingent way, but in the
specific situation of the European wars of 1914-18, even the otherwise divisive identities of religion and regionality could have played a conditionally pacifist role.
We can contrast all this with the situation today, when the battle lines of terrorism and violence often go along divisions according to religious communities, not of nationality. Here a national identity, rather than one of religious community, can have a contingently constructive role. Despite the political error indeed inanity of the Iraq war waged by the so-called "Coalition of the Willing" led by the United States, the quest for some kind of order in that troubled post-intervention land could be much easier if Iraqi nationalism, or for that matter Arab nationalism, were an important force. Iraqi nationalism could do something to overcome the existing divisiveness of religion and ethnicity, which split up even the Muslim population of Iraq into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish groups, with some hostilities between them. What was a big curse in Europe during the days of the first world war, to wit nationalism, would be a big boon in post-intervention Iraq, to wit again nationalism.
Classificatory Confinement Even though I admire greatly the way post-colonial Britain has, by and large, succeeded in giving cultural freedom to people of different backgrounds and origins who are now resident in the country, it is not easy to avoid misgivings about the official moves in recent years in the United Kingdom towards classifying people by religious categories only, such as "British Muslims", "British Hindus", "British Sikhs", etc, in addition to the old Judeo-Christian Brits. A Bangladeshi
Muslim is now mainly described in official categorisation as a "British Muslim" not differentiable from a Moroccan or Pakistani or Malaysian Muslim even though language and literature are hugely important for the identities of most Bangladeshis (and they did even fight a war for separation, not on grounds of religion, but on that oflanguage and culture and secular politics).
This classificatory confinement has been combined in Britain in recent years with extending state-supported, faith-based schools. Rather than reducing the existing state-financed faith-based schools (which are mostly Christian), actually adding others to them Muslim schools, Hindu schools and Sikh schools to pre- existing Christian ones sharply enhances the importance of religious identities, and reduces the help that children get from their schooling about how to make reasoned choices, including about beliefs and faiths. Also, not only do some of these new schools have difficulty in maintaining standards of non-religious education (like maths and grammar and speech), but also they typically fail to acquaint students with the necessity of reasoning and choice in human life, including the need to decide for themselves how the various components of their identities (related respectively to nationality, language, literature, religious and cultural history, scientific interests, etc) should receive attention. They tend to give pre- determined priority mainly to loyalty to inherited religious communities, through the construction and composition of these schools and also their chosen curriculum.
The odd view of the British nation as something of a "federation" of religious communities has gained much ground in Britain, not least in official circles. There are indeed many signs of enhanced political divisiveness in contemporary Britain, fostered and nurtured along religious or communal lines. This is a context very similar to the one in India that Subhas Chandra talked about in his Haripura presidential address, and indeed elsewhere. It is sad that Britain, which was often accused of nurturing communal divisiveness in India for the purpose of continuing the raj, now has done a fair amount to promote divisiveness within Britain itself, along similar lines. The cultivation of a British national identity that is not parasitic on identities of religious communities, can be very important at this time, for reasons that Netaji talked about in the context of India, as did Mahatma
Gandhi, particularly in his presentations in the so-called "Indian Roundtable Conference" in London, hosted by the British prime minister in 1931.17
I must conclude here. Nationalism is both a curse and a boon. I have discussed the distinct ways in which the two different types of effects of nationalism may work. Our national identity is one of the many identities that we have, and nationalism operates mainly through giving special priority to our national identity over other demands on
our affiliative attention. Nationalism would tend to be least productive indeed thoroughly counterproductive when the main confrontations are along the lines of national divisions themselves (as was the case in Europe during the first world war), since greater nationalism would add fuel to fire. On the other hand, nationalism can be productive enough in many contexts, especially when the social divisions and hostilities, within a country or across the world, tend to be based on other identities, such as religion or community or ethnicity (as it is, to a great extent, right now). The curse and the boon are, in this sense, two sides of the same coin, and depending on the circumstances involved, they can have strongly negative or hugely positive effects.
Two Sides of Nationalism We have reason to resist the tendency, common in some circles, of seeing nationalism as an unmitigated evil, and also the tendency, prevalent in other circles, of considering nationalism to be a universal virtue. More affirmatively, I have argued, first, that nationalism can be either a boon or a curse, depending on the actual circumstances. Second, I have also argued that central to understanding the contingent variability of the role of nationalism is the need to see nationality as one identity among many that we all have, on the relative importance of which we have to decide, if only implicitly. Third, if the choice of priorities is to be made through reasoning, for which I have also argued, then we have to examine whether an emphasis on national identity would add to the divisiveness of a country or the world, or help to reduce it by providing an alternative way of understanding human beings, different from other distinctions, for example of religious community or ethnicity, that might be contributing to divisions and possibly violence. The contingency here involves examining whether focusing on national divisions would sharpen hostilities, or alleviate them. We do know something about the circumstances that would make nationalism a terrible curse, and also about other circumstances that would make it a great boon. There is no mystery in the variability and contingency of the effects of nationalism. But there certainly is a firm invitation here to think and reason and scrutinise, before we decide what to do.
1. 'India Shall Be Free' in The Essential Writings of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Sisir K Bose and Sugata Bose (eds),Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997.
2. Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism, Macmillan, London, 1917; republished with an Introduction by E P Thompson, Papermac, London, 1991, p 17.
3. The Essential Writings of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, p 199.
4. The Essential Writings of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, p 200.
5. Tagore, Nationalism, pp 17-8.
6. E P Thompson, 'Introduction' to Tagore's Nationalism, p 10.
7. Published later in Tagore for All, Visva-Bharati, Calcutta, enlarged edition, 1984, pp 134-37.
8. The Argumentative Indian, Penguin, London and Delhi, 2005.
9. The poem is included in a collection of poetry for the charitable organisation CRY (this particular one was selected by Shashi Tharoor), and in the Foreword to the book (Poems for CRY, Penguin 2006), I have discussed its lasting relevance.
10. On this, see Robert James Scally, The End of Hidden Ireland, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995.
11. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1981.
12. Joel Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved: A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850, Allen & Unwin, London, 1983, p 291.
13. See Mokyr's balanced assessment of this line of diagnosis in Why Ireland Starved, op cit, pp 291-92.
14. Quoted in Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-49, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1962, p 76.
15. I have discussed these issues in my book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, Norton, New York and Penguin, London and Delhi, 2006.
16. Karl Marx, Critique of Gotha Programme, 1875; English translation in K Marx and F Engels, International Publishers, New York, 1938, pp 21-23.
17. I have discussed and drawn on Gandhiji's arguments in Identity and Violence, Chapter 8.