The Fading Memory of Nationalism

18 June 2016
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The social scientist and public intellectual Shiv Visvanathan is best known for his work in the field of science and technology studies—the study of the culture of science and how social factors influence it—and for his prolific writings in publications such as Seminar, The Hindu, The Indian Express, Asian Age, Open magazine and Sunday Mail, which he has been writing for over two decades. His columns, selections from which are compiled in the book Theatres of Democracy, engage with an array of issues such as politics, the media, elections, social movements, and sport, among others. In his introduction to the book, its editor Chandan Gowda describes Visvanathan's columns as marked by a “spoken quality.” Mine is especially an oral imagination, Visvanthan wrote in a 2014 column for the web publication Daily O. Onerecites an event and in reciting an event, in all its sonorous beauty, the narrative unfolds.” His writings, Gowda writes,reveal, at the bottom, a quest to understand modern India.” 

Visvanathan is currently a professor of at Jindal University's school of law. He was earlier a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. In this excerpt from the book, a column originally published in Asian Age in 2011, Visvanathan writes on nationalism, the concept of a nation state, and why he believes the former lives now only as a fragment.

One of the intriguing themes that Anna Hazare’s fast threw up was the question of memory, particularly the memory of nationalism. As one activist explained, he had read about Rajguru and Bhagat Singh while studying for his exam. But it was only now they rang true.

It struck me how distant the national movement was and how simplified and even ridiculous it had become.

One of the things that destroyed nationalism was the arrival of the nation state. The nation state abbreviated the complexity of nationalism by defining the permissible options. It even ordained the permissible options. Its tutorial-college mind loved oppositions between Nehru and Gandhi or between Gandhi and the Left. But deep down, nationalism had a sense of civilisational gossip which the nation state did not. Worse, the Partition and the holocaust that followed, hollowed the nation state and its history. We were now a nation contra Pakistan.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.

Keywords: nationalism citizenship nation state plurality
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