The Define Comedy

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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What unites kitschy nationalists and secular fundamentalists?

DEFINITIONS HAVE A finality about them, particularly so when they are articulated by people who prefer certainties to fluidity, the rigidity of dogma to the elasticity of ideas. When power defines the citizen’s terms of engagement with the state, it sets the limits. It abhors the questioning mind. Definitions then are a call for submission and obligation, and they are set on the assumption that the state knows better than the citizen, that power bestows on its wielder the responsibility of showing the path, the only path. Definitions are then necessary means to control the mass conscience, and they take us back to an old pretence: it is the loftiness of a few that, in the end, redeems the unrefined majority.

That was a totalitarian pretence: ‘Follow me, listen to me, and I’ll make you happy.’ The absolute ruler strives for order, the idyll achieved by an imposed set of values. Ideologies are, after all, a set of definitions that assumes that man is useless without guidance, that perfections are attained through impositions, by closing the windows, by blocking sunlight. Deviation is destruction, the shattering of the idyll. Destiny is written in the Book, and what is written is the first and the last word.

That is why the ideological state is no different from the religious state, where definitions are sacred truths, and where God wields the sword. Scriptures, in both cases, are guidelines, a linear narrative of dos and don’ts. The only difference is that religion, unlike ideology, tells stories, wonderful stories, misread and reduced to moral lessons by the custodians of God. We miss the stories when faith is in power, when we are told to memorise the definitions. As you read this, elsewhere, the bestiality of faith is at play; definitions of state and justice are at war with life’s civilities and liberties. The religious state and the ideological state are united by the power of certainties, by the tyranny of definitions.

India is neither, though both ideology and religion occasionally intrude into our freedoms. The impulses of democracy are so strong that we have consistently contained totalitarian temptations—and defied definitions and diktats. Still, someone, somewhere, keeps trying. Someone keeps telling us that deviation is denigration of the ideal. That Bharat Mata—the Motherland—requires permanent invocation to be alive in our consciousness. That devotion to the land of your origin is a nationalist obligation. Do we need tutoring, in spite of that awkward legislator from Maharashtra?

It is not about the deification of the land, a nationalist tradition we see even in secular states. It is not about the politics of pride, as long as it is practised without the exclusion of others. It is about one embarrassing incident leading to the ferocity of the definition squad. So Indianness suddenly becomes street theatre, and every sundry politician doubles as the engineer of our mind. There is nothing wrong about the arguments on what it takes to be an Indian, and ‘Who Are We?’, the title of Samuel Huntington’s provocative book on America’s identity, is a question any nation is bound to ask in the face of eroding cultural assimilation.

The question continues to be asked here by political parties and cultural organisations. And for them it is a question necessitated by conflicting definitions of being Indian. The question becomes explosive whenever the answer becomes a Hindu narrative, as if the ‘H’ word is a dispute waiting to be resolved with retrospective effect. This H-phobia is not always a response to the crudity with which the question is sometimes asked by nationalist vigilante groups and cultural exclusivists. Invariably, it is the dogmatism of professional secularists that repudiates what Diana L Eck evocatively calls the ‘sacred geography’ of India. A million little traditions that constitute the memory of a religion cannot be erased by dogmatism, even if this ‘ism’ needs to scavenge the ghettos of minority politics for sustenance. Which, of course, does not mean that cultural traditions should be vulgarised by the politics of the sacred.

It is the tutoring class of politics, armed with question-proof definitions, that divides the mind. For so long, we have been told to be secular by a political culture that treated religion and the nation as detriments to progress. That was secular fundamentalism, and, predictably, it was swept aside by the force of the most elemental identities of a people. Today, the nationalist rearmed is committing the mistake of forceful proselytisation. Be-Indian-or-be-damned is the kind of clarion call that empties nationalist politics of its intellectual as well as emotional history. You can still defeat those who will stand up during a recital of the national anthem or participate in the simple niceties of national affinities only if there is a constitutional clause for that without resorting to a definition war.

The finality of definitions diminishes those who have already won the nationalist argument.