While so much of the debate surrounding nationalism is happening around whether it is good or bad in moral terms and as if we have already agreed on what the terms mean, the central issue is how we define a nation and what parameters we attribute to a nationalist attitude or way of thinking. These things cannot be spoken at an abstract level and need specific instances to show how "imagined communities," as Benedict Anderson called nations in his path-breaking book, operate in practice.
What kind of an imagination ought to go into the making of a nation is certainly something that must be urgently probed. As a nation we need to collectively imagine and arrive at a sense of nationhood that more or less includes all the groups living within the borders of what we are used to calling as India. A. K. Coomaraswamy famously said in The Dance of Shiva (1918) that the "essential contribution of India, then, is simply her Indianness." Is that Indianness a natural characteristic or an imagined one is a rhetorical question!
Once we accept that Indianness or an Indian sensibility is forged through time using the materials of history and culture and is not something intrinsic to everyone who inhabits this piece of land from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, then, we are able to grasp the fact that whatever we mean by Indianness is fundamentally not different from Pakistanness or Nepalness or Americanness. Each group of people imagines a characteristic or a set of traits that they feel intrinsically defines who they are. This is not genetically coded behavior but conscious feelings depending on where you are.
We have to imagine in order for us to exist as members of a community. I imagine, therefore I am Indian. Even Saint Joan, in G. B. Shaw's play, is not averse to the idea of imagining a country to which the French have a natural claim as their space as opposed to those of the English. "God made them (the English) just like us; but He gave them their own country and their own language; and it is not His will that they should come into our country and try to speak our language." Those who think that being nationalistic is merely jingoism might be missing the point of the role imagination plays in making communities or what we call as "nation-states."
If we have little choice except to imagine we are Indians, we could exercise the choice not to do so provided there is a specific political context such as a grievance of an entire group of people coming in the way of the imagining. Questions related to social and economic justice might transcend the need to merely belong in an emotional way. My sense of belonging will in fact depend on what my opportunities are to make it within this social order. If the order comes in the way of my progress as an individual or a group I have every right to seek to alter the rules of the game to an extent where my argument is accommodated and the interests of my group are brought into focus.
If I have to speak of justice I must also acknowledge that I am a part of the nation-state. If I don't participate in the phenomena or state of being called "Indianness," my rights to challenge whatever is the "status quo" are limited to the option of fighting to overthrow the nation-state. In simpler words, we are talking of an armed revolution and the Maoists are the best example of a group that refuses to imagine being part of a national community where there is no equality or justice in the ideal sense of the term.
The bottom-line is simple: there are nationalisms just as there are people who are willing to imagine communities to which they belong. A Kashmiri is entitled to feel Kashmiriness as long as it does not come into direct conflict with Indianness. This applies to people living in any part of the Indian state. When the conflict arises it has to be within a framework established for the purposes of resolving, mostly nonviolently, to what extent Kashmiriness can coexist with Indianness, though needless to say the latter is a broader term than the former since it is meant to include a staggering diversity of communities caught in the process of imagining who they are.
The danger in a country like India is not that we are losing our multicultural platform -- the much celebrated and overstated unity in diversity. Through a great part of history we have been multicultural and it is not something under threat in any significant manner. Multiculturalism however is a restricted concept when it comes to understanding Indian complexity.
The idea that while you eat bread and jam we eat idli and sambar and yet we are one and the same is childish and borders the ridiculous. Multiculturalism operates under the assumption that all of us are equals and the only differences we have are cultural. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our differences operating along social and political fault lines can be as intensive as those that unite us as a nation.
The real danger to India as a nation-state comes from the sub-nationalists. India is a country with innumerable sub-nations within it. To what extent can we ensure that they participate in an overarching sense of Indianness is the real issue. Sub-nationalists enjoy enormous power within their own contexts and are not very different from the fiefdoms of medieval Europe in how they could function as autonomous entities.
Whether based on parameters of language, dialect, caste, region or religion, it is the subscribers to sub-nationalisms that call the shots in India owing to electoral politics. Therefore, ethnocultural nationalism is something that the state needs to grapple with through a discourse of class, gender and region-based justice that can be interlinked with the idea of Indianness.
The intelligent response to ethnocultural nationalism is civic nationalism which is based, in the words of David Brown, the author of Contemporary Nationalism Civic, ethnocultural and multicultural politics, on "a sense of community which is focused on the belief that residence in a common territorial homeland, and commitment to its state and civil society institutions, generate a distinctive national character and civic culture, such that all citizens, irrespective of their diverse ancestry, comprise a community in progress, with a common destiny."
If civic nationalism is rightfully seen as antidote to the excesses of ethnocultural nationalism, the reasons are more than one. When we look at the Jat quota protests and the loss of human life, honour in the alleged rapes and property amounting to Rs. 34,000 crores in a poor country like India, we can only bow our heads in shame and disgust. Ethnocultural nationalists, from the forward castes or from oppressed communities, in different ways are refusing to play by the rules of what constitutes the making of a nation-state and instead resorting to unethical means to assert their presence. By broadening the term "political" to include whatever means available at their disposal, these groups make it impossible for us to forge the idea of one nation and one people.
Alternative paradigms based on civic nationalism need to be critically arrived at through debate and dialogue. That will happen only when we give up the narrow agenda of politicians and the naïve if not mediocre thinking of teachers and students in the universities bereft of basic responsibility to the idea of the nation as a whole.