The atmosphere is electric in India at the moment. After some students allegedly raised 'anti-national' slogans in the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, hell has broken lose. Right-wing elements have targetted students, teachers and also the media, verbally and also physically; Leftist students and activists have come out to the streets with equal vigour and the general people have been split into two sides---for and against the nationalist sentiments.
But there is a problem in calling this ongoing fiasco as one that is centred around 'nationalism'. It is rather a negative display of patriotic fervours, which most of us confuse as a 'nationalist' passion.
Nationalism vs patriotism
The two ideas of nationalism and patriotism are different though apparently they both look same as both speak about an individual's relation with his/her country or nation. Nationalism is a far more complex idea and is subject to manipulation by those in power and have influence. It is more about stressing unity on basis of common cultural traits---like language and heritage.
Nationalism is an aggressive idea, patriotism isn't
This passion for one's cultural affinities can at times be a reason of clash with an equivalent passion for another cultural heritage for nationalism has an aggressive edge to assert one's own identity and belief system over another. Nationalism has often been criticised by great minds as something that breeds hatred and violence for its non-conpromising nature and poses threat to peace and co-existence.
We tend to confuse Indian nationalism with an aggressive love for political 'us'
Patriotism, on the other hand, is a more passive idea of love and admiration for one's own country, its identity and values. It is just an opposite feeling which speaks about affection and a competitive improvement, and not rivalry and resentment as the nationalists do. Patriotism has a moderate take on internationalism but nationalism only believes in backing one's own identity as the best.
Not easy to define 'Indianness' as a nation
Now when we apply this to India, this feeling of 'Indianness' and that 'Pakistanis' or 'Westerners' are worse rests on hollowness. The reason: it is very difficult to define Indianness in the first place. India is rather a union of several nations and their nationalist passion that do not conform with each other many a time.
Have we Indians fully accepted somebody from the NE as one of our own?
Thus, when we see a person from north-eastern India getting targetted in New Delhi or Bengaluru, the reason is that person doesn't share a cultural (and hence national) similarity with many other Indians. Their looks, social structure, food habits and other anthropological and cultural traits are more similar to a foreigner residing in South-East or East Asia than a fellow Indian residing in say Chennai or Jaipur.
Similarly, a Bengali from West Bengal has more cultural affinity with a Bangladeshi in Dhaka than say a Coorgi in Karnataka and hence determining his or her nationalist feelings as an Indian is not an easy thing. It was precisely for this reason that East and West Pakistans couldn't stay together and broke apart. Religion isn't really a force that can make up for cultural dissimilarities and the birth of Bangladesh proved that point.
There are, thus, several forms of nationalism co-existing in India---be it Bengali, Bihari, Gujarati, Rajasthani, Punjabi, Tamil or others and although we call them as sub-regional identities, but that is a term which can be used more freely when India's project of nation-building is complete. We, to put it straight, are yet a distance away from accomplishing that task.
Nation-building still a distance away
We have mostly adopted the legacy of our former colonial masters in the process of nation-building but with our economy opening up and political institutions lying in a state of decay, there is an urgent need to rediscover our nation-building effort. May be the right-wing BJP fails to attach significance to this extremely important aspect for our healthy future.
Peaceful co-existence has seen India not going former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia's ways
India has been a multi-national country like the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia but yet unlike them, it hasn't disintegrated because of its socio-cultural cohesion, which has evolved over years. We often say that still after almost 70 years of independence, Indians haven't learnt to love their own nation, unlike in the West. This charge, though seems true, but is not based on logical grounds.
India is not a nation-state but a state-nation
Unlike the West where the countries are mostly mono-nationalistic that are led by states/governments (they are nation-states since the nation preceded the formation of the state or government), India and many other post-colonial states in india are state-nations. It means here, the state was formed first (at Independence in 1947) and thereafter the formal process of nation-building started in a way that is Indian. Although India is a very old civilisation, the idea of politically binding the diversity in it came into force only with Independence.
A Nehruvian political legacy helped this identity called India a much-needed opportunity to consolidate itself through the means of democracy unlike in several other countries in Asia and Africa where dictatorship took over from the very beginning as founders of the new nation turned authoritarian.
Today's calls as 'anti-national' are precisely a feeling of negative patriotism
Today, when we describe somebody as "anti-national", it actually intends to show our love for the identity which is India by taking course to a negative kind of patriotism since the idea of India as a nation-state is yet to mature. What is happening today is the state fuelling up sentiments against a hostile "imagined community" (a term popularised by the late Benedict Anderson) to continue to enjoy its authority, which otherwise may perceive threat on issues like economic slowdown or social security.
Do states play 'nationalist' card to divert attention from real issues?
Using this manufactured nationalism to instigate hatred for another political identity to divert attention from the real issues is a common strategy for all establishments in all ages. Pakistan has done this more often than not but India can't really afford to do it because the latter doesn't have a religious binding like the former and can only survive through the idea of multiculturalism.
And speaking about the common man's anger, he or she has mostly seen themselves confused over the idea of patriotism. They love their country, which is normal, but that country isn't the nation and hence the charges that those JNU students are anti-national do not hold ground.
The common man's love for the country is more justified in sports (cricket in India) where a competition atmosphere sees their adrenaline pump. But that same feeling can prove to be counter-productive in issues like JNU where innocuous patriotism is overshadowed by a ruthless admiration for "us" as a political or religious (but not cultural) being, which is often confused as India.