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The Nation Must Take Precedence Over All Other Considerations

When we think of a ‘nation’, we realise it is not a random collection of people. We may never know all our fellow nationals but still there is something that ties us all. This aspect of unity and nationalism is the most visible especially when we have some of our fellow nationals stuck in an odd situation in a foreign country and we, in India, take out rallies, organise Candle March, put pressure on the Ministry of External Affairs to help them.


To some extent, a nation is an ‘imagined’ community held together by the collective beliefs, aspirations and imaginations of its members. The people of a nation may have shared beliefs, history, territory, shared political ideas, common political identity and so on that help them identify themselves with the collective whole.


The theories of nationalism gained momentum in the nineteenth century in Europe when the notion of one culture one state began to gain acceptability. The states were reordered during World War I on this account. The Treaty of Versailles established a number of small, newly independent states. This also led to mass migration of population across state boundaries. The concept of nationalism, at this time, also included the right to national self-determination. This right to national self-determination was asserted by national liberation movements in Asia and Africa when they were struggling against colonial domination.


The idea of citizenship also emerged along with Nationalism. In the contemporary world, citizenship becomes one of the most important parameters that provides a collective political identity to the members of a state as well as certain rights citizenship allows us to think of ourselves as Indians or Japanese or Germans depending on the state to which we belong.


The importance of a nation can be understood if we think of the condition of the thousands of people in the world who have had the bad fortune to be forced to live as refugees or migrants because no nation is willing to accept them as its members.


If we abandon the idea of one culture one state, we need to think of ways by which different cultures can flourish within a country. It is this goal that India pursues by introducing measures for recognising and protecting the identity of cul- marginalised communities. However, despite these measures, there are groups that may continue to demand separate nationhood. This may seem paradoxical when globalisation is also spreading in the world but nationalist aspirations continue to motivate many groups and communities. The world we live in is one that is deeply conscious of the importance of giving recognition to identities. There are many ongoing struggles for the recognition of group identities, many of which employ the language of nationalism. While we need to acknowledge the claims of identity, we need not allow the claims of various ‘nations’ within a nation which would lead to violence and divisions in the society. A person may have identities based on gender, caste, religion, language or region and may be proud of all of them.


So long as each person feels that he/she can freely express the different dimensions of his/her personality, there may not be the need to make claims on the state for political recognition and concessions for any one identity. The national identity of a person should encompass the different identities which a person may have. It is dangerous if intolerant and homogenising forms of identity and nationalism are allowed to develop.


People talk about NSA spying on people. When it comes to national security and the government checking on who is frequently logging on to websites that teach how to make bombs, then it is necessary. The idea that nation should take precedence over all other things includes national supraindividualism—a feeling that one’s nation should take precedence over all the individuals who go to make it up; national unity—a feeling that one’s nation as a whole should take precedence over various possible subsets of that nation, such as regions, religions, ethnic or racial groups, economic classes, or social categories, national supremacy a feeling that one’s own nation is superior to other foreign nations etc. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, nationalism was often invoked and proved itself so effective as an instrument of mobilisation of public opinion towards short-and long-term political and military aims. French Revolution, wars of liberation through the Franco-Prussian War and the two world wars exemplify nationalism that led to formation of new national states in Central Europe and the decline of the Ottoman Empire in Eastern Europe. No wonder that the Germans started wondering that the best way to become better Germans was to study German-German culture, history, literature and language, possess within themselves the remedy for any ills that afflicted modern Germans. This was the state that the Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler wanted to build.


As a cultural ideal, nationalism is the claim that while men and women have many identities, it is the nation that provides them with their primary form of belonging. It justifies the use of violence in the defence of one’s nation against enemies, internal or external. The moral claim that nations are to be defended by force or violence depends on the cultural claim that the needs they satisfy for security and belonging are uniquely important. The political idea that all peoples should struggle for nationhood depends on the cultural claim that only nations can satisfy these needs. All forms of nationalism vest political sovereignty in ‘the people’—indeed, the word ‘nation’ is often a synonym for ‘the people’ which justifies the claim that nation should take precedence over other things.


Civic nationalism maintains that the nation should be composed of all those regardless of race, colour, caste, creed, gender, language or ethnicity who subscribe to the nation’s political creed. This nationalism is called civic because it envisages the nation as a community of equal rights bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values. This is the sort of nationalism that we need to promote. This nationalism is necessarily democratic, since it vests sovereignty in all of the people. By mid-nineteenth century, Britain was a nation-state composed of four nations—the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh and the English—united by a civic rather than an ethnic definition of belonging, i.e., by shared attachment to certain institutions : the Crown, Parliament and the rule of law. But it was not until the French and American revolutions, and the creation of the French and American republics, that civic nationalism set out to conquer the world. As a result of the struggle by the groups who were excluded from citizenship and then from the nation, most western nation-states now define their nationhood in terms of common citizenship and not by common ethnicity except Germany. Most societies are not monoethnic and even when they are, common ethnicity does not of itself obliterate division, because ethnicity is only one of the many claims on an individual’s loyalty. By subscribing to a set of democratic procedures and values like in India, individuals can recon-cile their right to shape their own lives with their need to belong to a community. This in turn assumes that national belonging can be a form of rational attachment.


Without a nation’s protection, everything that an individual values can be rendered worthless. Belonging, on this account, is first and foremost protection from violence. Belonging also means being recognised and being understood. Hence, to live our lives daily without any fear, with protection and in case of encroachment on our safety, the provision of redressal, all of this comes together to make nation more important than all other sorts of identity that we have. Nation grants us citizenship; along with it come rights and hence peace which is the norm of our lives. Violence and war are the abnormal sides of our lives in which we indulge to restore peace.

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