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How Not to Imagine the National Community

Can a nation be imagined around symbols that are controversial and pit one community against another?

Credit: Reuters (top left), PTI

Credit: Reuters (top left), PTI

While dedicating the country’s longest bridge (the Dhola-Sadia bridge in Assam) to the nation on May 26, Prime  Minister Narendra Modi emphasised the inseparability of developing social infrastructure along with physical infrastructure for good governance. The following day, the ruling BJP organised  three separate one-way interactions with the media to highlight the achievements of the government. However, despite the presence of party president Amit Shah along with many top Union ministers, the issue of social infrastructure was not addressed, in part because the media was just a listener and could not raise questions. The central question of what it means to develop social infrastructure in light of the killing of Mohammed Akhlaq and Pehlu Khan, communal incidents in several places across the country and the recent caste clashes in Saharanpur in UP remained unanswered.

In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argued that nations were built around the common imagination of citizens based on symbols and practices like maps, media and the census: “a nation is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their  fellow–members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” Members hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity, for instance, the identification with other members of their nation when their country participates in a larger event like the Olympics. Anderson emphasised that symbols were developed, co-opted and eulogised as a cementing force for effecting this ‘imagined community’ and thereby nationhood.

While creating or even emphasising this imagined community and making it co-terminus with nationalism, the current architects of this concept in India – namely, the political party in power, its social and religious fronts and even the zealots of the majority community – have never bothered to see that the symbols they have chosen to identify with are fraught with hostility. Gau raksha, the forcible singing of Vande Mataram, love jihad, forcing surya namaskar in schools, asserting ‘mandir waheen banayenge’ on the site of the demolished Babri Masjid are just some of the symbols around which this imagined community is being structured. The architects of this new nation must realise that an imagined community cannot be formed around symbols that are highly incendiary and that militate against the basic concept that every member of a society should have a common feeling of community. The imagined community that is being developed is nothing but a reflection of the ‘Tyranny of Majority’ about which French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville had cautioned his readers way back in the first half of the 19th century.

It is not that Modi is oblivious of the fact that this contradiction will haunt his promise of “good governance”. The backlash against the flogging of Dalits in Una led him to categorically say that the majority of the so-called gau rakshaks were criminals by night and cow protectors during the day. If one goes by his further assertion that social infrastructure is a sine qua non for physical infrastructure, then why has he let loose these criminals to hound a segment of society in the name of controversial symbols? At the very least he has countenanced their vandalism, which is openly supported by several BJP leaders and members of the Sangh Parivar, like Acharya Giriraj Kishore who asserted that the life of a cow was more precious than a human life.

How can good governance be effected if 20 crore Muslims remain in constant fear of some lumpens in the garb of gau rakshaks barging into their house to ascertain whether they have beef or mutton in their fridges or beating cattle transporters to death in a public demonstration of their newly acquired bravado. Moreover, these new symbols are not even common to all Hindus. Do the Hindus of Kerala, West Bengal and Northeast nurture the same feeling about beef? If not, how can a nation be imagined on such fractured foundations?

Gandhi, in his later years, saw the fallacy of the term ‘goraksha’ and instead coined the term ‘goseva’. The former implied an ‘other’ against whom the cow was being protected and had simply become a tool to attack Muslims, while goseva implied caring for the cow. Gandhi realised this fallacy of seeing the cow as a symbol of national consensus even among the Hindus when he visited the Kumbh Mela in Hardwar in 1915. He wrote about this experience on page 358 of his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth:

“Here I saw a cow with five feet. I was astonished but knowing men soon disillusioned me. The poor five-footed cow was a sacrifice to the greed of the wicked. I learnt that the fifth foot was nothing else but a foot cut off from a live calf and grafted upon the shoulder of the cow! The result of this double cruelty was exploited to fleece the ignorant of their money. There was no Hindu but would be attracted by a five-footed cow, and no Hindu but would lavish his charity on such a miraculous cow”.

In Young India, May 6, 1926, Gandhi quotes another authority on the manufacture of a dye esteemed by Indians and exported as well, which was known as peuri: “by feeding the cow only on mango leaves, without other form of feed, nor even water to drink, the animal passes in the form of urine a dye which is sold at high rates in the bazaar. The animal so treated does not last long and dies in agony”.

This was 90 years ago. The Rashtriya Sawayamsewak Sangh (RSS) came into existence almost at the same time. But it failed to recognise the ill-treatment of cows as a prime concern along with other irrational Hindu practices like child marriage or sati. Even today, there is no roadmap for what to do with the millions of cow that have stopped giving milk and have been abandoned by greedy owners, 90% of whom are Hindus, forcing them to die of consumption of plastic material.

This leads us to the basic question. Can an ‘imagined community’ and thereby its logical corollary, nationalism, be created when our symbols are controversial? Have we lost the capacity to create symbols and icons of development, honesty and good governance, brotherhood and peaceful co-existence? If we can’t, the development of mere physical infrastructure accompanied by a free hand to marauding vigilantes will result in the partition of minds and hearts, and the breakdown of the country rather than the construction of a nation.

NK Singh is a senior journalist and General Secretary of the Broadcast Editors’ Association (BEA).