The Fading Memory of Nationalism

18 June, 2016

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.

Nationalism lives now only as a fragment. Yet nationalism as an imagination did not merely create imagined communities as the glibness of Benedict Anderson proclaimed. Our nationalism also dealt with the inventiveness and imagination of communities.

Just consider a single issue: science and technology. Let me describe the variety of debates that took place. Our nationalism was unique because it was always open to the dissenting British imagination. We saw the West as plural and saw some of these Wests as part of us. Our nationalism allowed for the other side of the Raj, a place for dissenters like Patrick Geddes, Alfred Wallace, C.F. Andrews, Annie Besant who helped shape a different West in India. India was not anti-West, it was anti-colonial.

Consider one paradigmatic figure: Captain Srinivasa Murti. He was an authority on traditional medicine, head of the Adyar Library, secretary to the committee that debated the future of indigenous medicine in 1923. He also translated Merchant of Venice into Telugu and was John Barrymore’s doctor when the actor became an alcoholic. He warned about the dangers of nuclear energy in the 1920s and stressed the importance of mothers feeding their babies. He was a cosmopolitan.

Rabindranath Tagore was another such cosmopolitan. A cosmopolitan does not deny his identity. He only refuses to make a fetish of it. Tagore built Santiniketan as a university to dialogue with the Western university. He was sceptical of nationalism and yet felt we must be open to the West. Tagore was not an internationalist; he was a cosmopolitan seeking unities beyond the national. Tagore, along with Patrick Geddes, created a summer school for science in Darjeeling. He even attempted a textbook on science.

What I want to emphasise is that nationalism before the nation state guaranteed pluralism, demanded the availability of eccentricity. The question I then wish to ask is how this forest of imaginations turned into a flat land called the nation state. Where have all the memories gone?

I want to suggest nationalism had both an imagination and an imaginary. An imagination is a standard list of possibilities.

An imaginary is a horizon that adds the impossible, the improbable and the probable to the possible. Our nationalisms were a collection of possibilities. Our nation state was an acceptance that the amnesia had begun.

In fact, I want to argue that the nation state as a law and order theory of memory destroyed the future and uprooted memories that could have been the beginning of other possibilities. Communalism is an erasure of memory or a heightening of the artificiality of some memories against others. It is this selective memory of the nation state that makes it genocidal. What begins as amnesia culminates as erasure or genocide.

Consider just the idea of citizenship. The idea of citizenship has no place for the tribe, the nomad, for marginal groups of any kind. Citizenship becomes an authoritarian stencil that erases people who do not fit a standard pattern. Secession, protest and rebellion have to be seen as mnemonic devices reminding the nation state of the worlds it has forgotten.

It is the simplified time of the nation state that creates a form of authoritarianism. I am not saying memory is all about erasure. Memory is also about forgetting. Indian democracy could allow Laldenga to be yesterday’s insurgent and then, chief minister of Mizoram. But the memories of today do not know how to forgive. Forgiveness remembers before it claims to forget. Forgiveness never defies justice. It only asks for more than justice.

If you look at the recent adjectives that define us, we tend to associate India with the new, with youth, with innovation. I am not making an argument for tradition but I want to point out that these are signals of erasure. Innovation also creates obsolescence, progress demands amnesia. What we need is a language that allows for a sense of mnemonics, a vocabulary of plurality, heritage, myth, diversity that sees truth as plural and demands that memory need not be one-sided.

There are other forms of erasure present in development. Remember mining is a way of erasing memory. It erases the memory of a landscape. It denies that nature can renew itself. When you strip-mine an ecology, you destroy its ability to remember, to renew itself. Sustainability can never be complete without a theory of remembering.

This leads me to my last point. The Indian state as a knowledge system emphasizes history, information and science as the three primary modes of learning. But this makes a new generation illiterate, or at least one-sided, in terms of learning. Information is disembedded memory.

It carries no meta-narrative or contexts. History as written memory has little sense of the oral or of myth. Our science follows codes of linearity and progress that have little place for defeated knowledge. The tragedy of the nation state and its sense of history and science is its sense of memory. It is flawed and simplistic. Our sense of civilization, our world of folklore, our multiplicity of dialects as alternative memories must invent a way out of this impasse.

This an excerpt from Theatres of Democracy, by Shiv Visvanathan, published by HarperCollins.