Nationalism, Class, and a Populist Outlook by

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Dipanjali Roy
Dr. Sandhya Devesan Nambiar
Popular Fiction
7th April, 2014
"The arrival of nationalism in a distinctively modern sense was tied to the political
baptism of the lower classes...although sometimes hostile to democracy; nationalist
movements have been invariably populist in outlook and sought to induct lower classes
into political life."
Explicate this statement with illustrations from the texts in your syllabus.
Nationalism as a political movement is one that is virtually impossible to define, and
is even more complex to unravel in its motivations from a monogamous point of view
afforded to the analyst such as the one provided in the statement above by Scottish political
theorist Tom Nairn in his book The Break-Up of Britaini. There is a paradox to the equation
of nationalism and the intent of nationalist movements that will be discussed in this essay,
starting with the negotiation of the idea that there can ever actually be an ‘essential’ form of
nationalism that leads to an ‘invariable’ anything, as a means of trying to understand what
actually motivates nationalist sentiments in such a manner that they sometimes pose the
behemoth pace of a mental pendulum propelling a singular unifying thought across classes
and gendersii, and then sometimes become so isolated that they fail to resonate with more
than a single minority groupiii. The essay will analyze and evaluate several criticisms – both
positive and negative – of nationalism as a functioning mechanism, and will illustrate these
positions of argument through two main texts: Durgabai and Subhash Vyam's graphic novel,
Bhimayana, exploring the life of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the experiences of
growing up as an untouchable in his own country but being paradoxically treated better in the
'Empire', and through Shyam Selvadurai's debut novel, Funny Boy, which attempts to
understand the sexual and communal politics and criminalisation of the body in 1980s Sri
Lanka through the eyes of his young protagonist – Arjie.
A plethora of divergent and convergent kinds of ideologies have invoked the
‘nationalist claim’ so many times and in so many different circumstances that it becomes
equally difficult to think of nationalism in a theoretic abstract without intersecting into this
one working theory, the lived experiences (Rancier, 19) of specific nationalisms and
demarcating between the progressive and retrograde practices that distinguish them from one
another and within themselves. However, criticism does not in any way symbolize a
dismissal of the sheer force with which nationalist movements of all ilk traverses across the
spaces of class, caste, gender, and race.
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There is a difference between democratic liberalism and a theoretically ‘true’
democracy. The latter, in so far, can only be established by first establishing a system that
doesn’t thrive on hierarchal patterns of economic and cultural development and doesn’t allow
a single position of criticism to ignore the fact that there is an enabling mechanism behind
every position of perspective. Contrary to what nationalism in the Indian subcontinent would
have one believe, liberation and enablement don’t always work in conjunction with
development. This, then, leads to the two points of exploration that form the crux of this
debate – is nationalism in application truly inductive of the lower classes into political life?
For if the ‘state’ and the ‘people’ consciously become the ‘state’ (subject) and ‘its people’
(object), then what is the state mechanism and what does it mean for one to be baptised into
political life?
‘...[An academic position that shoves aside] the narration of materialities as a
‘progressivist modes-of-production narrative’, historical agency itself as a ‘myth
of origins’, classes a simply discursive constructs, and political parties
themselves as fundamentally contaminated with collectivist illusions of a stable
subject position – a theoretical position of that kind, from which no
poststructuralism worth the name can escape, is, in the most accurate sense of
these words, repressive and bourgeoisie.’ (Ahmad, 34)
It restrains the very circumstances of lucidity inside which the elemental realities of
history can be posited to theory. This it accomplishes by privileging the academic over the
physical, where everything inevitably becomes – and therefore can be read as and, more
importantly, ‘negotiated’ – as a text. It creates the Romantic ideal that an ethic of nonattachment is the only way and the only necessary condition of truly understanding any kind
of social phenomenon. It makes the individual’s experience of reading all things as a
narrative the focus of all the meaning one may attach to any kind of theorizing – almost as
self-negating as the poststructuralist scepticism about the existence of rational knowledge
impelling the very same individual to sustain his political, apolitical, and national existence
through an ironic relation with the world and all its theorizing.
The answer may be found through an achieved understanding of the idea that
nationalism by itself is not so much an ‘ism’ as it is a concept that allows for ‘ismic’
divergence. By itself, ‘...nationalism is no unitary thing’ (Ahmad, 7) We are inhabitants of a
country, a nation, an economic system – that, in its economy, also governs public health and
legislature - where there is no difference between the elite, the state, and political influence.
The elite have merged with the state to become a body politic that controls not only through
military force, but also through economic manipulation, so that if one is compromised, the
other may easily take over.
In the two primary texts discussed in this essay, there is also the dominant question
of ‘Third World’ nationalism that more often than not gets hitched to the same cattle that
drive ‘cultural nationalism’. Cultural domination is a key feature of imperialist dominion and
is a major site of struggle however cultural negations within the imperialized configurations
can be so diverse – sometimes along class lines but also in cross-class configurations, as in
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the case of caste forms (religious means of social sanction) – that the entirety of indigenous
ethnicity can in no way be posited as a unified, see-through position of anti-imperialist
resistance. These are identities that have been historically comprised. They have, therefore,
been blessed with an inherent leaning towards ‘civilisational’ singularising. The theory of this
is based unequivocally on this tendency and lends itself in more ways than not to
parochialism and indigenous obscurantism. It becomes also an instrument for the professional
bourgeoisie – not excluding oneself – to represent its own ‘cultural practices’ by
exemplifying them as symbols of an amalgamated national culture. When used in conjunction
with the equally controversial category of ‘Third World’, cultural nationalism resonates
equally frequently with ‘tradition’ instead of with populism, only inverting the tradition
versus modernity twofold of the modernization theorists in an indigenist path. As a result,
‘tradition’ becomes, for the ‘Third World’, forever superior to ‘modernity’, which provides
the space for justification of the most unintelligible locations of argument in the name of
cultural nationalism. There appears to be a pervasive connotation in the philosophy of
cultural nationalism that each ‘nation’ of the ‘Third World’ has a ‘culture’ and a ‘tradition’,
and that to articulate from inside that culture and that tradition is itself an action of antiimperialist confrontation. By contrast, the chief directions of a number of people’s resistance
movements – in the Indian subcontinent and beyond – that have evolved in the imperialist
formations have always resisted against both the equation of nation to cultureiv and the
tradition versus modernity binaryv.
In the post-colonial states where the nationalism of the national bourgeoisie dreamed
of performing social miracles, there was a witnessing of two things: firstly, massive
consolidation of the national bourgeoisie itself, with its capacity to latch onto the NonAligned movement and the North-South dialogue regarding trading terms; secondly, the
stagnation, mounting reliance, dictatorial violence, pious millenarianism and sanctioning, and
broad rupture of polity and the public – notwithstanding, and frequently owing to, imperialist
aid, investment and benefaction. The anti-colonial content had been put into motion; the
remainder of this nationalism seemed either to disperse, or to translate to chaos. It did not
remain a form of political baptism for any form of the lower classes, let alone a phenomenon
that strove to recognize the realities of these cross-class intersections that were fed by
imperialist struggle and a rigid patriarchal control. In that sense, it became (and does become
still) one form of control that replaces the other, but with no less brutality.
The colonial British Raj enforcing the constitutional compartmentalization of the
‘lower castes’ into the Indian legislative system, for one, is a phenomenon that illustrates best
the paradox of nationalism and nationalist uprisings. The concretization into legislature
became both a threat and an advantage, for it demanded an austere controlling of the
insurrection this caused within the lower castes – a part of society that was, and continues to
be, synonymous more often than not to lower classes. Nationalism, in this instance, becomes
not so much a threat to democracy itself as it does to a liberal democracy which ultimately
privileges the elite.
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‘Increasingly, Indian Nationalism has come to mean Hindu Nationalism, which
defines itself not through a respect or regard for itself, but through a hatred of
the Other’ (Roy, 284).
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s backlash to the traditional approaches to anti-imperialist
activism and his take on the ideas departed to the Indian polity through colonialism further
adds to this equation of whether nationalism is a Unitarian force or simply a force of
convenience. The Gandhi-Ambedkar round table debates brought this to light more starkly
than anything else: both leaders with markedly nationalist sentiments yet entirely divergent
philosophies and approaches to the concept of ‘caste’ and its repercussions on the people
labelled as such. One notes in Bhimayana that the issue of caste permeates not only through
class but also through gender and education, to the point where it is a dream for some – in
certain geographical locations – to even conceive a daily, effortless access to the basest of
civic amenities and healthcare, let alone education and legal representation. The degenerative,
performative theatre of caste is one that every politician, every critic, every lawyer, every
constitutionalist is privy to and participates in, no matter what their position in society, no
matter what their take on nationalism and its inevitable linkage to an area of revolutionary
thought that best justifies it under a given set of circumstances. There is a synchronicity
within the chaos of Bhimayana’s graphic textual format that resonates with Dr. Ambedkar’s
role in the ultimate power structure of ‘Indian’ political centralization and the postIndependence administration. Ambedkar’s seminal work remains seminal because his brand
of nationalism was a decidedly non-Republican, non-liberalizing one.
Nationalism as promoting populism, though it can be severely critiqued on all counts,
however, cannot be dismissed. There is an imperative to nationalist movements that creates
mobility towards a cause in a way that no other instrument of populist conduct can achieve.
The lower classes cannot be seen simply as one structure of discursive political
construct rather than a reality that must be faced with an understanding of the intersections it
has with caste and gender in a world which is not privy to cultural studies or social theory.
The populist nature of nationalist movements, then, must be defined in a way that provides
space for the negotiation of its progressivity or regression. Most commonly, and as is seen
through Shyam Selvadurai’s novel, Funny Boy, nationalism is only conducive to populist
polity and politics if it is a nationalism that clubs the indigenous and the minority into two
clearly marked, homogenized groups of the indigenous and the minority, whereby the ‘other’
of both is not an ‘other’ that is too different for the majority to be comfortable tolerating.
Funny Boy, at its core, is a book that negotiates the idea of being different not only
from the majority but also different in a way that is ‘offensive’ to both the minority and the
majority. Arjun, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is well aware of the fact that he is
‘funny’ in a way. His father’s disapproval and the everyday ridicule hurled at him is
incomprehensible to him, and the narrative – tracing Arjie’s bildungsroman – starting from
the first short story, ‘Bride-bride’, follows his slow understanding of the ‘wrong’ that is in
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him and his understanding of his own sexuality in practice, leading first to self-hatred, and
then to a defiance that has strong, difficult repercussions on his personal freedoms and
existence as an individual in possession of (and so demanding to be given) the civic rights
that are offered to every other individual in the nation, be they Tamil or Sinhalese. Arjie’s
bildungsroman itself, in retrospect, provides a violent illustration of the regressive yet
progressive nature of nationalisms in their very manifestations. His development from a child
into an individual that understands his difference from the majority within the minority, and
the difficulty he faces in becoming ‘himself’ while living in the middle of a community that
punishes this ‘self’ is explored in Funny Boy, through the change in Arjie’s tone through the
novel, and through the many politically fraught short stories the reader is witness to across
the text. Not only is he living in a society that is fragmented to the extent that his family is
forced to negotiate their politics with their ethnicity, he is also constantly forced to personally
negotiate his sexuality in combination with the conflict surrounding him. Here, the two
nationalist movements in collision – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam movement, and the
Sinhalese movement – actually collide together and form a collusive force against Arjie’s
existence as an individual, turning his physical body into a criminal site that will not be
tolerated in the creation of the final Sri Lanka.
Tolerance, also, plays a role in the most widespread of nationalist movements. The
anti-imperialist Indian ‘freedom movement’ survived well into the 1980s for the same reason
that it took motion as an amalgamation of thousands of oppressed personal freedoms and
rights: It preached tolerance of one kind, and a lack of tolerance of another kind. There is a
definitive turn in most South-Asian nationalist movements that lean towards the
revolutionary whereby it becomes a question of ‘no longer tolerating’ the invasive force. One
cannot – and must not – dismiss any nationalist movement because of the critique one
harbours towards it, however the criticism is an imperative path towards understanding the
forces that drive certain kinds of populism and step down on certain others. Wendy Brown
speaks of tolerance in terms that elucidate this idea:
‘If you actually look closely at the etymology of tolerance what do you see?
Tolerance is, across every disciplinary field in which it is used, from mining to
minting to engineering to pharmaceutical research to social life, always
tolerance is about the management of some undesirable element or foreign body
invading or taking up residence within the host. That, in fact, one, whether the
one is a scientist or a social theorist or a political actor, one would rather not
have to deal with. Tolerance is always about managing some object of aversion
that is, as you say, different, but also different with a stigma, different as a
problem. The host is neutral, the host is normal, the host is regular and the
tolerated object is always in some ways problematic’ (Brown, podcast).
There is a tendency in the discourse of Sri Lankan nationalism and its communal
conflict to represent it is a conflict of two distinct sides rather than noting that the conflict has
arisen through the culmination of a number of slow-boiling issues in the structure of the
governing body. The most common of them is these: Victimization is painted as a universal
and equal experience in Sri Lanka. This is simply not the case. Hence, the statement ignores
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how nationalism based on a Sinhalese Buddhist identity is built into the Sri Lankan state and
has been systematically benefiting the Sinhalese. Moreover, the generalization that all Tamils
are Tigers is also a prevalent one. It is an interesting question to pose to this representation as
to why the diaspora was forced to migrate in the first place, and what level of conflict could
have been so severe as to see a wave of migration towards a singular part of the geographical
world that is so removed from South Asian politics. Never mind that waves of migration
took place after the disenfranchisement of Indian Tamils, the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy, the
Ethnic Riots of the 1980s and the massive flow of refugees during the peak of the Civil War.
By extension, it is not so much that nationalism is a political baptism for the lower classes as
it is a form of temporary political pacifism and induction into political life in a way that is
morally benevolent for the upper classes or the powers that be.
Conclusively, it may be argued that nationalism in its most basic spirit attempts to be
‘invariably populist in outlook’, however, it is a neglecting ideology to believe that
nationalism is the only determinate, dialectical opposite of imperialism and empire. A
movement that is neither inspirational to nor degrading of new political thought, but is
instead an instrument by itself that inspires one to interrogate it in its various forms – such as
minority nationalisms, religious nationalisms, regional and transnational nationalisms, etc –
must be interrogated as an instrument instead of a power source. Neither is nationalism
cohesively always progressive, nor is it retrograde, and as a result, the ‘political baptism’ of
the lower classes into nationalism – as illustrated through the primary texts under discussion,
Durgabai and Subhash Vyam’s Bhimayana and Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy – is
dependent entirely on the configuration of class forces that lead to a nationalist revolution,
and the socio-political customs which systematize superstructures within which a given
nationalist programme becomes historically effective.
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It is, in fact, a problem that is analyzed in a plenitude of historical placements and contexts
by Nairn himself, especially in his 1997 book, The Faces of Nationalism.
Think here to the Indian Freedom Struggle, the on-going Dalit movement, the on-going
struggle of the Native Americans in the United States of America, the Creole quest for
recognition and identity in Venezuelan politics, etc.
Ideally, one would begin with an attempt to rationalize the creation of minority groups to
explain the resonance of nationalism and lower classes. however, since that would take the
essay a few hundred years back into the chronology of civilization, one regrets not having the
space to discuss the anthropological negotiations of the history of all creation and makes a
parting nod to the construction of imperialism, the nationalist movement beginning with the
concretization of ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, laissez-faire capitalism, liberalism, and
democratic thought.
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Wherein everything indigenous comes under the singular formation presumed to be
necessarily superior to the capitalist culture (which is identified directly with the ‘Western
Wherein each has its own isolated space and only one is allowed to be adopted or cast away.