Thursday, 20 August 2015

Country as myth : A case against rabid patriotism

Preempting ScoopWhoop by a good decade, my class 8 history book offered me "Top ten things about India that you probably didn't know". One particular "fact" struck me a little odd.

India hasn't invaded any country in the last 10,000 years of her history

Having spent a good part of the previous year memorizing the murderous battles that marked the formation of the MauryanGuptaChalukya and Mughal empires, I couldn't help but wonder if there was even such a thing as "India" at that time (apart from its obvious geographic connotations). The entire area seemed a patchwork of kingdoms big and small, each identifying itself as an independent (and often sovereign) entity, similar to how nations today see each other. Without any consciousness of a single united entity, the concept of an "Indian" invasion seemed, even at that time, an utterly absurd notion.

In fact, even the use of the term "country" for medieval and ancient times is anachronistic. Countries, with their well-defined borders, are a very recent innovation, with empires (with their seemingly endless appetite for gorging new territories) being, by far, the most prevalent system of political organization in the past. Inside an empire, your loyalty and identity extended no further than the current ruler's kingdom (often not more than a few dozen kilometers). You were Indian only in the way an Indian today is also an Asian - a mere geographic identity.

By contrast, all of us today that live inside the area demarcated by international agreements as "India", are united by a single identity, that of an Indian citizen. The only reason this identity exists is because everyone, everywhere in the world has come to believe in the myth of the Indian State, or more generally, the myth of a sovereign independent nation. But wait! Aren't myths supposed to be fictional stories ?

Let's take the example of money. If you think about it, there is no real reason why a person in Andaman should give you a dozen mango crates in exchange for a piece of processed wood pulp (your 1000 Rs note). He can't do anything useful with it - he can't eat it, burn it to keep himself warm, or use it to catch animals. Your note has absolutely no physical or intrinsic value. The only reason that it is valuable to the Andamanese guy is because he knows that everybody else in Andaman also thinks that it has value, and if he takes it to any shop, he can buy some actually useful stuff in exchange for it.

Money is a concept that resides only in the combined imagination of billions of human beings. It works only because everybody has agreed on the same mythical value of that processed piece of wood pulp. Indeed, its one of the most powerful myths that mankind has ever imagined (Yuval Harari : Sapiens)

Far from being a negative thing, myths are the foundations on which the human civilization is based. Our capacity to imagine powerful, completely imaginary stories, and convince others to believe in them, is what enables such large-scale co-operation among human beings - a capacity that no other animal can claim to possess. Just imagine the world without the myth of human rights. It took humans centuries to convince each other of this myth, but in reality, the idea that all human being have some fundamental rights, is something that has absolutely no basis outside the human imagination.

The nation-state is a myth in the same way money is. It works because everybody in the world has come to believe that its a good idea to draw arbitrary boundaries on a map, and tell people living inside those boundaries that they now all "one"; somehow distinct from everybody that lies outside those boundaries. One may argue that there are good reasons for drawing those boundaries, but ultimately, the only place they exist is inside the human mind (A Burmese goat wouldn't know when it entered India, would it ?)

Like every other nation, India too is a myth. The problem is not that it is a myth; the problem is that we have forgotten that it is one. Divinity is ascribed to it and blasphemy laws erected; legitimate criticism is dismissed as anti-national and its proponents branded "marxists", "leftists" and most unfortunate of all, "secularists". (Not all criticism is dismissed though - that of the far-right is by default patriotic) Objection to the words of a song is heresy and the slightest criticism of the army's role in conflict-ridden territories tends to haunt you for life. In India, there are no fake encounters, no false charges; no torture cells and no witness-intimidation. That's what other countries do. When our security agencies capture a terroristof course he's a terrorist. What possible reason can there be to doubt that ? Who could even think of defending him except those "sickulars" and "liberals" ?

This vile industry of rabid patriotism inevitably gives rise to self-appointed "community-leaders" - custodians of national honour and the sole arbiter of what it means to be patriotic. They extend the national myth into a careful construction of a glorious past - a past that is ironed out to remove all inconvenient wrinkles. Of course, in a region as diverse as India, there can be no such single unifying narrative of "glory". Not unless you start creating villains.

Unfortunately, the current grand unified narrative is one in which the villains constitute 15% of India's population - foreign invaders who brought an end to the glorious reign of "Indian" rulers, and pushed the country into what our respected PM called, "1200 years of slavery".

In conclusion, the Indian State (like every other nation) is a piece of political fiction - necessary and useful, but fiction nevertheless. The bigotry arises when we fail to see it as such; when the rights of the nation become more sacred than the rights of its citizens and when our love for it turns us into inveterate apologists.

Love your nation but don't restrict it to imaginary boundaries. Respect the selfless (and often anonymous) sacrifices of our security forces, but don't close yourself to the possibility of their crimes. Be a patriot. Don't be a bigot.

References : 

  • Sapiens : A Brief History of Mankind (Yuval Noah Harari)
  • The Past As Present (Romila Thapar)


  1. Bro..well written piece..way to go..i was feeling connected from the beg till the end..KUDOS

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  2. It is so simple yet so complicated to understand for people with fake glory in their minds. Very well written.