There Are Limits to Defining Indian Nationalism


© Shutterstock

April 14, 2016 23:45 EDT

Those who claim to speak for the state—as well as those who question the state and claim to speak for the rest—remain highly exclusive.

Terms such as “home” and “nation” have different meanings for different people. The transnational links of the Nagas and Mizos in northeastern India or those of people living in western Rajasthan and Kutch, when held to restrictive definitions of “nationalism,” provide challenges to mainland categories.

The last few months have witnessed public discourse in India deteriorate to abysmal levels. Personalities and vested interests have come to limit the possibilities of truth, the idea of which continues to remain elusive. All we know is whether to trust the pursuer of truth, and whether s/he stands to gain to stand from a particular definition of truth. The rest is surrounded by a mist of multiple interpretations.

However, while thinking through the events, something nagged at me from a not-so-distant past.  People I met while working on a monographMemories and Movements: Borders and Communities in Banni, Kutch—pushed their way into my mind, adding “nonsense” to the dominant discussions.

There’s No One Brush

Look at this example from a cattle-breeding family. Fahmida Mutwa (name changed) lives in a village called Dordo, part of a region called Banni in the district of Kutch in Gujarat. Dordo is the last village of Banni. It is on the edge of the vast desert that divides India and Pakistan.

For the last 40 years or so, Fahmida has listened to the radio almost every single day. She tunes in to stations in Sindh, Pakistan, and listens to women’s programs or religious discussions. The world of Bollywood cinema and TV soaps that the rest of India is supposedly watching are unknown to her. She knows nothing about Salman Khan or Aishwarya Rai.

Fahmida is not the only one who is far from symbols and icons that define India as an imagined community. The fact that Fahmida doesn’t watch TV—and would not be allowed to do so because most people in her region consider television to be bad for spiritual health—is only one reason. The fact that this restriction is particularly applicable to women and children is also a separate issue. However, it is common to see the entire region respond to symbols from across the border. Discussions, songs and Sufi discourse from Sindh are part of the day-to-day life in Banni.

To Fahmida, Sindh is far more relevant and immediate than Ahmedabad or Mumbai. It is likely that she would be considered anti-national in the emerging discourse of today, and it is likely that she would be lumped together with many others who hail from universities and political affiliations. As for Fahmida, she has never left the region of Kutch.

A pastoralist from the same region once said to me: “We hardly encounter Gujarat. Leave alone [the] rest of the country.” The distance from the idea of nation in this case is not animated merely by disaffection, but largely by localized experiences of region and cosmopolitanism. “When [we] go on Hajj, we keep remembering that we are from Hindustan,” he added.

Experiential Indianness is often times a response to the interlocutor, not by neatly defined concentric circles in which being Sindhi, Muslim, pastoralist and Indian are organized in sequential ways.

So, we must think of what our discourses look like to people who are far from our minds; to those who do not put forth a strident view for Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) or against it. Is there a world of semantics out there that we are not looking at or even aware of?


Thus, if “nationalism” itself is a discursive category and far from uniform, how can its supposed antithesis be stable? “Nationalism” and its antithesis have been mobilized to mean a specific set of things over the last few months. Dissent, desirable or otherwise, is now associated with “anti-nationalism,” while silence and conformity with the dominant hegemonies of caste and religion is associated with the nationalism of the ruling party.

In discussions, few notice the fact that nationalism and anti-nationalism do not have stable meanings. What many consider as anti-nationalism of the urban, educated, left-leaning stance of some is different from an emotional charge that ordinary and unnoticed people experience with relatives and language and ethos across the border.

In the instances mentioned above and many more unmentioned ones, individuals are not consciously critiquing the Indian state, although their thoughts and expression might seem critical. They ask not for the freedom to express, but the freedom to be left alone.

In the shrillness of our times, we would do well to remember how our “categories”—used both by those who claim to speak for the state as well as those who question the state and claim to speak for the rest—remain highly exclusive, as usual.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Elena Ermakova /

Fair Observer - World News, Politics, Economics, Business and CultureWe bring you perspectives from around the world. Help us to inform and educate. Your donation is tax-deductible. Join over 400 people to become a donor or you could choose to be a sponsor.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member