Since “nationalism” is the word of the week, how does one write about it without repeating the banal comments that have already been made by somebody else? Perhaps, the question to ask is if Indian conceptualisation of nationalism (or patriotism or identity — choose the one you like) is rooted in as territorially organic a tradition as post-18th century European nationalism, or for that matter Chinese or Japanese nationalism.
The question has struck this writer several times over the years. As foreign minister Jaswant Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party politician, often made the point that Indians had no notion of cartographic certainty. The idea of maps and fixed borders was introduced to us by the British Raj and to this day, he complained, the Republic of India had not quite identified its land boundaries and was okay with them being ambiguous.
As a politician, he attributed this to policy laziness and inevitably blamed the Congress governments. Yet, as a thinker, he recognised this was not a political weakness as much as a social and community characteristic. It was, in some confounding manner, written into the Indian DNA.
This has led to Indians being comfortable with open or quasi-open borders in a manner that exasperates both organic nationalists and those with everyday security concerns. Nevertheless, even if attempting to change it, if such a change is feasible, one needs to understand this phenomenon. Where does it come from? Was it innate in India? Did geography and history dictate it? Was it, like so much else in life, a combination of instinct and experience?
If that sounds difficult to digest, consider the antithesis — the Chinese model. The modern Chinese state is obsessed with boundaries and establishing fixed lines in the grass, the snow, the sand and if possible the water to demarcate Chinese territory. This is not just a Chinese Communist Party sentiment; the idea of revanchism — maybe irredentism is the appropriate word — was as strongly rooted in the manifesto of a Chiang Kai-shek, the Right-wing nationalist leader who lost out to Mao Zedong in the post-World War II power struggle.
Going still further back, one sees elements of such identification of “our space” in Chinese history and in the very building of the Great Wall. The Great Wall of China, built, rebuilt, expanded and re-situated as that Chinese sense of “our space” changed, was a device to keep out the “barbarians”.
Over millennia just who comprised those “barbarians” was continually re-defined, whether in ethnic, cultural or religious terms. Even so, the idea of a national identity that was territorially definite and protected by a wall and a settled boundary was salient.
For better or worse, the Indian situation was and has been different. Perhaps, this was a function of the absence of large, pan-Indian empires, except for short periods in several thousand years of history. Perhaps, it was simply a greater comfort with diversity, a diversity dictated by the accident of geography, which made northern India (with or without the Partition of 1947) the base, as it were, of Central Asia and the Eurasian heartland, and southern India, with Bengal and the Northeast as well, the “top” so to speak of Southeast Asia.
If one adds to this the cultural, linguistic and social diversity that was an inadvertent but happy by-product of internal political divisions — despite religious and rites-of-passage commonalities — the result is a bewildering patchwork of multiple notions of nationalism. It can be confusing, and does explain why some prefer a more “fixed” and ordered identity, useful as such “fixing” is no doubt for the logistics of modern commerce and the processes of contemporary governance.
In an absurd and comical extreme, it can lead to the lament, which this writer came across on Twitter a few weeks ago, that ancient Indians should have built a Great Wall on the Khyber Pass, probably a little “after Alexander’s invasion”.
That proposal is, of course, ridiculous but the reason that wall wasn’t built — or perhaps the outcome of it not being built — is worth contemplating. The presence and absence of a wall — real or metaphorical and often a combination of the two — trickles down into popular consciousness and regime impulses even centuries later. Here, an anecdote would be explanatory.
Some years ago, a senior Indian diplomat posted in China visited Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. After a couple of days in Lhasa and tiring of the local sights and food, he drove off into the countryside in the general direction of Uttarakhand. Of course, the Indian state was far, far away, but the diplomat was conscious that the route he was taking — though he was going only a relatively short distance outside Lhasa, given the sheer expanse of Tibet — was part of an ancient trade corridor.
Having driven longer than he had expected, the diplomat stopped at what he described as a “Tibetan dhaba”, hoping to get directions and some conversation. He was greeted by a young man who took one look at him and asked, “Aap India se hain? Parathe khayenge? (Are you from India? Will you have parathas?)”
The diplomat was left stunned. Hungry and greedy for Indian food, he wolfed down aloo parathas in the Tibetan countryside. It turned out his host had lived in Nepal as well as Delhi, where he had learnt the fine art of paratha-making. The diplomat never bothered finding out which passport the paratha chef had or even if he had any, but the encounter was telling.
Such an experience would have Beijing completely paranoid about open borders, free movement of unidentified people and the possibility of Indian and foreign agents infiltrating Tibet and the rest of China.
Such an experience in India would no doubt attract similar concerns in the security and intelligence bureaucracy, but would also be met by a more relaxed understanding of what frontier regions and the porousness and osmosis of natural borders can mean, despite the most determined intentions of political map-makers. In the end, it would point to the wisdom that a love for India and a looser, more enlightened imagining of nation, nationhood and nationalism can go hand in hand.