By Mimi Mondal
Jun 03, 2019
As I start writing as a new government begins its term, I find myself overwhelmed. I’m not a news reporter or political analyst. I am only a citizen of India, gazing at my nation from half a world away. I’m also someone who has lost many old friendships over increasingly polarised political disagreement in the past five or six years. Why has India become such a divided nation in our time?
Those like me, who are in their thirties and older, have lived through a few cycles of Congress- and BJP-led governments. Each of those governments had their failings, but recent years have brought a surge in political conversation like we have never seen before. We have all observed friends who never had firm political opinions before vocally consolidate to stands. Something has changed in India, greater than the rising and falling prices of everyday things, or the occasional bad news that we used to largely take in our stride.
What has changed is the idea of the nation. There aren’t many Indians today who personally remember participating in the Independence movements; the few senior citizens who were born before 1947 were children when the nation changed. Most of us have lived our entire lives in independent India. Every government we’ve seen was a government of independent India, their differences contained within that larger, unchallenged idea of India.
This is what is slowly passing from our living memory: A nation is an idea spun upon a land. It is not the land itself, though we call a land by the name of the nation currently existing upon it. The word “India” does not exist in any Indian language; it’s a mispronunciation by Greek travellers of the 4th century BCE for the regions by the river called Sindhu, which returned with the British colonisers. “Bharat” refers to an equally ancient kingdom that existed over some regions of the Gangetic plains; “Hindustan” was coined by Muslim travellers as early as 500 BCE and returned with the Mughal rulers. None of these terms in their original connotation represents the nation of today. India the nation only started existing from 1947.
A nation is not any of the several nations that existed upon the same land in the past; if anything, it is a rejection of them. If it would be seditious to India to call for a return to the British or the Mughal Empire, it is equally seditious to call for Ram Rajya or any mythical Hindu nation of the past. Those nations — whether they existed historically or not — are not India. India exists in its current geographical location because those nations do not.
Nationalism is the movement to replace an existing nation with a different one on the same land, while patriotism is allegiance to the existing nation to which one belongs. The last major nationalist movements of India existed before Independence, precisely because it was the drive to replace one nation, the British Indian Empire, with another, an independent India. This is why Hindutva nationalism is unsettling: It is not merely proclaiming pride in Hinduism as a religion; it threatens to unmake India and replace it with a different nation.
The noncommittal voter who elects whichever party’s policies currently sounds good to them is more of a patriot of India than the hardliner who would follow their ideology no matter what. In our disloyalty to party lines in the past, we used to be truer Indians; that was what held us together with the friends who voted differently from us.
The rise of hardline Hindutva nationalism feels like those people no longer even want to be part of the same nation as us. When someone who opposes the Hindutva nationalist line is brazenly labelled “anti-national” or ordered to leave the country, that is not empty rhetoric: Hindutva nationalists truly don’t consider them part of their nation. The proclaimed “anti-national” may not be opposed to the nation of India, but they’re opposed to the other nation that Hindutva nationalists are projecting.
India has always been a somewhat dissatisfying nation, as any nation built on a delicate but precarious balance of hundreds of communities must be. A massive tilt of that scale towards any particular ideology does not improve India; it only threatens to collapse the balance that defines our nation.
When the sight of thousands of Indians joyously dancing in the streets because their leaders have won makes thousands of other Indians anxious for their lives, we cannot deny we have tilted too far off that balance. As patriots of India, this destabilising nationalism is not what we need today. We need progress, jobs, less corruption, a stronger economy, but we need to build those things within India, equally accessible to others who are Indians too. We don’t need to be threatened into leaving our nation, or demand that another citizen leaves. I hope no hardline nationalist who doesn’t believe in India manages to convince us otherwise.
Mimi Mondal is a speculative fiction writer and editor, and the first Hugo Award nominee from India