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Scholarship in times of populism

The task of a scholar is not only to coin clever sound-bytes. Intellectuals have to bring a historical and comparative perspective to bear upon the present. Their job is to tell us what the historical processes that brought us from ‘there’ to ‘here’ are, identify political problems, and, if possible, help resolve them. But reflection, analysis, critique and conceptualisation need stable political contexts. We must know of what we speak when we speak of categories that allow us to tidy, challenge and remake our worlds. We must be sure of the empirical referents we address.

Threat to civil liberties

Till the first decade of the 21st century, the political context in which scholars theorised was more or less settled. We knew what we spoke of when we spoke of constitutional democracy. Today the political battleground that constitutes our worlds, which is the context for our words, is consolidated by the emergence of right-wing populists across countries. The empirical referrals of analysis, critique, conceptualisation and theory have rapidly changed. Still, we might succeed in understanding where we have come from. What on earth are we headed towards?

I am not suggesting that scholars should not reflect, theorise or critique. All I am suggesting is that our priorities have been set by processes outside our control. The first lesson we learn is that we cannot take anything for granted. For long we believed that civil liberties codified in the Constitution and defended by the civil liberties movement had been secured. We could move on to transforming Directive Principles of State Policy, notably the right to social goods, into fundamental rights. Today our basic civil liberties are threatened. Civil society has been rendered powerless, and state institutions that could make a difference prudently keep away.

Who would have thought that over seven decades after India’s independence we, the legatees of a magnificent freedom struggle, have to prove citizenship? Who could have imagined that one day a democratic government would spend its time and our money into figuring out who is a citizen, and who is not, and build bare detention camps for the latter? These summon up terrible historical parallels. Television images of tin-topped sheds evoke horror and disbelief. They have been designed for our own people, who have mixed their labour with the land they wish to live in.

Appropriation of nationalism

The second lesson we have learnt is that nationalism can be easily appropriated. Nationalism formed the anchor of our freedom struggle. It is also the excuse for some very unpalatable efforts to repress us. The concept has been deployed by governments to target minorities and immigrants, to dismiss dissent as sedition, to justify oppression, and to reduce our status from citizens to subjects. Nationalism has legitimised rhetoric and decisions that would have aroused widespread political protest a few years ago. The vulgarities of a nationalism that prevents debate, let alone dissent, bewilders; it saps energies.

Have scholars underestimated the power of nationalism to push other commitments out? Perhaps. Have we overstated the distinction between civic and ethnic nations and nationalism? Perhaps. We unthinkingly fell into the trap of believing that we had a civic nation, other countries of the postcolonial world had ethnic nationalism. The distinction was a western construct and continues to be so. Writing in the aftermath of the Second World War, Hans Kohn argued that territorially based civic nationalism is infinitely more desirable than cultural or ethnic nationalism. The former is the culmination of a political movement that sought to limit governmental power and secure civic rights in the United Kingdom, the United States and France. The temporal and the spatial contexts for ethnic nationalism, which arose later in central and eastern Europe and in Asia, were different. Consolidated in times of social and economic underdevelopment, ethnic nationalism articulated the belief that a community is held together by ‘blood and belonging’.

Kohn’s distinction between two sets of nationalism set the stage for subsequent discussion on the subject. The difference has by now become an integral part of literature on nationalism. In the 1990s, ethno-cultural nationalism again raised its head in distressingly ugly forms, that of ethnic cleansing and genocide in former Yugoslavia and other countries of Eastern Europe. The duality was reinforced. Scholars continued to believe that the idea of the civic nation was best conceptualised by Ernest Renan and the ideology of the French Revolution. The concept of ethnic nationalism articulated by Johann Gottfried von Herder and German Romanticism arose as a reaction to the Enlightenment and its commitment to reason.

The distinction between the two is overstated. In 1923, V.D. Savarkar, the prime ideologue of the Hindu right, cast the political category of the Indian nation in the mould of the majority religion. The nation is Hindu because the community has a common history, common heroes, a common literature, a common art, a common law, and a common jurisprudence, common fairs and festivals, rites and rituals, ceremonies and sacraments. Others are outsiders. This was not the kind of nation that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru conceptualised and dreamt of, democratic, secular and inclusive. In 1933 Nehru wrote in The Bombay Chronicle: “Whither India? Surely to the great human goals of social and economic equality, to the ending of all exploitation of nation by nation, and class by class, to national freedom within the framework of an international cooperative socialist world federation.”

Different notions

Within a decade we see two incompatible notions of the nation taking shape and shaping each other. Beneath and around civic nationalism marked by citizenship rights, lurked ethnic nationalism that divided and excluded. Today it is precisely ethnic nationalism that has won the battle. Civic nationalism gasps for breath.

The case is not all that different in Europe. In France, England and the U.S., wrote the noted historian Eric Hobsbawm, democratic revolutions produced a populist consciousness, which was hard to distinguish from a national and even a chauvinistic patriotism. Merely by dint of becoming a people, the citizens of a country became citizens of a community seeking for things in common, “places, practices, personages, memories, signs, and symbols”. Today within these societies, norms of democratic, civic nationalism cannot prevent hate against immigrants and suspicion of the outsider. All nationalisms, howsoever moderated they may be by constitutionalism and civic sentiments, show a terrifying tendency to xenophobia.

History has warned us. The concepts and the theories we explore and expand upon might prove provisional. The days when political philosophers dreamt that they had resolved political dilemmas have gone. Politics, we have learnt is chancy, unpredictable, and contingent. How can our theories be neat, confident, and predictive? We no longer know what we speak of when we speak of democracy, or accountability, or the power of citizens to hold their elected government responsible. The terms of the social contract are up for grabs. Life has become much more unpredictable, much more uncertain and much more frightening. Do we have the luxury to conduct intense intellectual debates and charged polemics? We might have to put aside, for the moment at least, some very sophisticated debates that marked academia hardly six years ago. We have to get back to the basics. We have once again to reiterate and defend the basic principles of constitutional democracy.

Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science at Delhi University

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