Thoughts on nationalism and culture (in response to KN Panikkar)

The most recent issue of Frontline has a very interesting reprint of a lecture by K.N. Panikkar, a scholar whose work I very much admire.  (Incidentally, his father was also quite an important historian).  The lecture (“Role of Culture and Language in the Making of a Nation”) was given at the University of Mumbai , and I suppose that accounts for the general tone of the piece which is directed at making a criticism of religious nationalism (i.e. Hindutva-style chauvinism).   There is also a critique of “modernist” nationalism in the piece, by which I’m assuming Pannikar means Congress-style nationalism, in which the demands of ethnic minorities and the low caste were not taken seriously.

Because I work on theories of nationalism and on much of the same material that Panikkar covers I found the essay interesting, but there are some problems with it as there are with most left-wing defenses of nationalism.  Here’s the problem as I see it: no matter how you slice it, nationalism has both progressive and reactionary content that cannot be willed away; the progressive content opens the door to the more chauvinist content in periods of economic hardship or political demobilization.  The nation-state similarly has both a progressive and reactionary use: it is a useful demand in the fight against colonialism and empire, but also an effective tool for the consolidation of national capital and the disciplining of a labor force.  Culture is the primary way that the progressive credentials of the nation-state are shored up so that the reactionary project can continue (sometimes openly, sometimes quietly).

So when Panikkar defends a particular variety of cultural nationalism (secular, composite, progressive) you want to be on board.  In fact, it’s hard not to subscribe to many of the claims that he makes in the face of the ideological rot that is allowed to pass for culture in much of India.  Here are the concluding parts of the lecture:

In the making of the nation, culture affords multiple possibilities. A popular and revivalist tendency is to romanticise the past and attribute to it a religious character, which in turn opens the doors to a supremacist ideology. An alternative view would recognise the culturally plural character of society as evolved through complex historical experience. More ideally, it could lead to a multicultural society by accepting the equality of all constituent cultures of the nation. All these possibilities are inherent in the relationship between culture and nation. As Ernest Gellner observed, “Nations as a natural, god-given way of classifying men, as an inherent though long-delayed political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures: that is reality, for better or worse, and in general, an inescapable one.”  India is not yet a nation; it is a nation in the making, as Surendranath Banerjea, an early nationalist leader, observed almost 200 years ago. Even when all objective conditions are met, a nation like India can achieve nationhood, even if inadequately, only when cultural equality is established.

This view is elegant, and it has all of the hallmarks of much of Indian secularism over the last 60 years, but it also has some of its main contradictions.  For instance, the more you want to talk about the composite culture of India, the more you find yourself doing weird things like defending feudalism and certain “good” kings or valorizing certain literary texts, even when they were composed by people deeply embedded in class and religious chauvinism.  Yes, I love Tagore, but you can’t take the landlord out of the poetry no matter how hard you try.  So the process of equality that Panikkar is describing is based on the occlusion of class differentiation that persists in and through cultural “tradition” and not merely picking one, more egalitarian version of nationalism over another.

But it’s the place where he ends that gives me the most trouble, because the implicit assumption is that the nation-state is here to stay (if you read the rest of the essay, you get the sense that Panikkar prefers the nation-state as a bulwark against the ravages of global capitalism, a title it has yet to earn in any serious way).  I think that nation-states are engines of capitalist accumulation, and even in the fight against imperialism, they become the demand of a developing bourgeoisie that needs a different state form in order to accumulate successfully.  But in order to do that, the bourgeoisie needs the “nation” to get behind its demands and so it is willing to enter into a compromise with the more radical section of the middle-class (these are the cultural figures that Panikkar references) to develop a story about the nation that is compelling.  And the middle-class of course does this happily.  They chafe at the racism of empire as well as the restrictions of religion, the problems of sexism, and the oppressions of all marginalized sections of society and they try to unite all of them together into as large a unit as possible.  I’ll characterize it like this: the most capacious and effective bond of solidarity that any middle-class can imagine is cultural.  That is both its strength and its weakness.

About the problems of this kind of capacious solidarity, Panikkar provides a helpful description:

The attempts to relate culture and nationalism during the colonial period betrayed two general tendencies. The first was homogenisation and the second was exclusion. As a part of the first, a national culture was invented which invariably comprised the practices of the upper castes. The revival of Hindu classical tradition, be it in music or dance, privileged an Indian culture which was earlier the preserve of the upper castes. What is national, therefore, came to be equated with the Brahminical. In the process, the cultural practices of the lower castes were excluded from the national. Nationalism by definition is inclusive, but Indian nationalism did not develop an inclusive character based on equality. Secondly, the cultural perspective was very elitist, as a result of which culture was defined in terms of either mental refinement or the creative. Everyday practices and the creative elements within them were not reckoned as culture. As a result, the symbolic representation of the nation was confined to the achievements of the privileged, and the life of ordinary people did not figure in the nationalist pantheon. While Koodiyattam, Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Carnatic music and several other upper-caste forms were accorded national status, the dances of tribal people and Dalit music did not receive the same consideration.

The idea that nationalism could “develop an inclusive character based on equality” is a non-starter, though.  Nationalism attempts to build a provisional unity precisely by masking diverging aspirations in anticolonial struggles.  This is both what makes it elegant and dangerous – it is simultaneously a necessary tool in fighting against empire and an intellectual dead-end for solving problems of inequality and oppression in the nation-state.  In other places, I’ve preferred to talk about this problem as a specific problem of class and the confidence that certain sections of the middle class have in thinking about the ability of class struggle to alter radically social and political structures in the present.

If you look at what is developing in Egypt, for instance, you can also see what was developing in India in the late colonial period.  As the struggle for political change heats up, the debates between various visions of the future open up.  Nationalists try as hard as they can to paper over these differences, but it’s hard to pretend that they don’t exist or that they all share something in common that can be called “nationalism.”  Gramsci’s essays on Italian reunification are perhaps the most useful for me in thinking about this problem, where the middle-class radicals essentially fail to see in the nation-state the conditions for the reversing of all their radical aspirations, and the goal for Gramsci and others, was the creation of an organized collective that understood both the need for the nation-state and the impending betrayal by the bourgeoisie so that it could fight against both.

In the end, Panikkar’s essay is a product of the pessimism that seeped into middle-class radicals in the 1980s and 1990s in India when nationalism meant aggressive neoliberalism and cultural/religious chauvinism, neither of which could be effectively resisted.  And so intellectuals retreated into the domain of culture to find resistance there.  The idea that there could be more durable bonds of solidarity that were imagined not in isolated cultural artifacts but in the kinds of collaborative actions on the shop-floor, in urban slums, in the forests, etc. in which new kinds of culture were being forged, too, seems never to enter Panikkar’s thinking, since for him nationalism is still necessary as a way for him to relate to the broader masses in India and imagine that they all have the same interests.

The problem is that they do and they don’t – or rather, that they won’t until they manufacture it for themselves, piecing things together from the past and understanding them anew.  It might involve Odissi dance and Kumarasambhava or it might not – but it will involve a common resistance to the state and national capital, both of which are also good at using the cultural past to preserve their vision of the present.  Without a dialectical understanding of the relationship between culture and the nation, anti-imperialists become liberals, hoping that ideas can change the nation.

I imagine, too, that part of Panikkar’s complaint is also rooted in the ways that contemporary India increasingly appears to be discarding its interest in culture.  Take this piece in DNA India describing the difference between Indian and UK education:

Knowledge just for the sake of knowledge? Na, not anymore. Ask David Levinson, senior careers adviser in the Newcastle University, he would say: As everywhere else, education is witnessing a sea change in the UK as well. “Gone are the days of narrow mindedness and traditional thinking, now, educational institutions are changing to teach students how to apply the knowledge acquired and are preparing them for careers.” Levinson explains: “Earlier, it used to be like, people study English literature and become clerks, politicians or whatever they want to. That trend is waning.”

It’s true – one used to study English to get a job in the IAS or ICS in India but then you felt absolutely destroyed by the banality of the position you got (read Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August to get a sense of that).  And part of Panikkar’s plea seems to be connected to the fact that most people in India no longer take either history or literature seriously any more.  I don’t think they ever did (education and literacy have never been really directed at the kinds of liberal humanism that Panikkar imagines) so bemoaning it doesn’t really help.

And I came across this piece, too, about farmer suicides in India:

In Maharashtra’s Gondia district, 25,000 tonnes of rice procured by cooperative societies are lying in the open. “It’s difficult to carry on,” a distraught Harne, a postgraduate in Marathi literature, scribbled in his signed parting note. “I have unpaid loans.” Harne was meticulous in keeping records. His ledger showed he had suffered losses of about Rs 10,000 for each of the six acres he cultivated —- Rs 60,000 in all. Together with his outstanding loans of around Rs 2.5 lakh, the going had looked tough.

Postgraduates in literature are massively indebted.  The conditions in India look not dissimilar from the ones that produced the conflicts in Egypt and Tunisia.  They will produce explosive political movements – the aim of which needs to be the abolition of the state form and free flourishing of culture, nationalist or otherwise.