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Why A Nation Cannot Be Reduced To A Territory

01/03/2016 4:30 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Uniquely roofed slate tiled roofs in the village of Kunwar along the border of Govind National Park in the Himalayan foothills.

Amid the consternation which followed the loss of parts of Jammu & Kashmir to China during the 1962 war, the third schedule of the Indian Constitution--which outlined the oaths sworn by public officials--was amended. Whereas ministers had previously sworn merely to "bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India", they now had to also uphold the country's "sovereignty and integrity".

It is easy to understand why previously colonized countries--and particularly this one, whose birth was also a Partition--might give undue importance to this one unseemly and unproductive feeling: the paranoia of territorial loss. Nehru himself, a liberal in so many other respects, was in this an authoritarian--even an imperialist--who bribed, blackmailed and invaded foreign territories until he had an India to fill the map of his imagination.

[T]he national outline is always susceptible to change, and cannot be a stable basis for national identity.

But the map always remains unstable, no matter how much force is used to back it up. The overproduction of drawings of the Indian national outline--and the immense energy expended combating "incorrect" versions--can still not suppress what we all know: that this outline is a giant accident resulting from nothing more authoritative than the endless riot of conquest. The Constitution is not even able to define the Indian territory except through tautology: it is made up of states which "comprise the territory which immediately before the commencement of this Constitution was comprised in the corresponding Indian State." (The US Constitution, by way of comparison, makes no attempt to define the country through any mention of territory, confining itself to political principles and processes.) Independent India, in other words, has no territorial legitimacy save what it derives from the British, who themselves derived it from previous rulers, and so on in an infinite regress. It's always been arbitrary, and will always remain so.

Partly for this reason, the national outline is always susceptible to change, and cannot be a stable basis for national identity. Did India stop being India when its outline changed in the past--e.g. when Goa, Puducherry or Sikkim joined the union? Will it do so with future territorial acquisitions? Secessions? No: because a nation is not identical with its territory, and to mistake the one for the other is like failing Magritte's rudimentary lesson: Ceci n'est pas une pipe. Whether the territorial accidents of history are still valid today is a standard element of national debate, and there is nothing "anti-national" about raising such questions. For a nation's true essence is located elsewhere: in the immaterial assets built up to civilize and counteract the brute fact of territory. And if territorial paranoia is allowed to displace these immaterial assets--among which we might count the "liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship" with which the Indian Constitution begins--then nothing will eventually remain of the nation except the bloodshed with which that territory was secured in the first place.

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Look, for instance, at the most obvious product of such paranoia, which is the metaphor of the nation-as-body. Many places haunted by the fear that the national territory might break, try to assert its indivisibility by speaking of it as a complete and indestructible body--a body from which any subtraction represents a violent mutilation. Gandhi himself described Partition as the "vivisection" of India, and the cultural life of this country has always featured a certain infantile sentimentalism about the metaphor of the nation's--the "mother's"--body.

Did India stop being India when its outline changed in the past?... No: because a nation is not identical with its territory...

But this metaphor always does the opposite of what it is supposed to. The national body is never free, healthy and luxuriant. It is always--because it is the product of paranoia--threatened and abject. And the pain caused by the imagined dishonouring of this body feeds back all too frequently into violence against real bodies. It is well known that rape is part of the apparatus of those armed forces charged with holding this country together; it is also becoming all too clear that those who question India's territorial integrity will be met with threats of rape, disfigurement and other kinds of bodily assault. Just as in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and in countless other places too, the idea of the nation-as-body leads instantly to paranoiac fantasies of wounds and amputations, and thus to the struggle to assert total mastery over real bodies, especially those of women, thus dragging the national consciousness into degradation and futility.

[T]he pain caused by the imagined dishonouring of this [nation-as-body] feeds back all too frequently into violence against real bodies.

The Indian media accepts with laughable readiness the legitimacy of the phrase "anti-India slogans", as if it really referred to something meaningful. But the category itself is childish--as is demonstrated by its frequent schoolyard justification ("They are friends with our enemy"). It is not simply that debates about territorial issues should be a normal part of national conversation. It is also that the Constitution of India--that document which, more than anything else, defines the nation's essence--explicitly protects these debates and all others, so rendering meaningless the whole hysterical construction of Indians making "anti-Indian" statements. The Constitution, after all, speaks in the name of, and derives its authority from, "We, the People of India" who, in its pages, "give to ourselves" total freedom of thought and belief. And it is precisely this assertion of radical possibility that "constitutes" the nation; that brings India into being. Doesn't this mean that any expression of opinion by an Indian citizen is part of the continual re-affirmation of the nation? Is the category of an Indian whose beliefs are "anti-Indian" not, from the Constitution's perspective, a logical impossibility? Yes. To read the Constitution of India is to understand that the greatest real-world expression of "Indianness" is the near-infinity of thoughts and beliefs that may exist among the nation's 1.3 billion. This is a grandiose idea of national identity (especially in comparison to the other, largely illiberal, collection of nations spun off by European empires) and no one, surely, would be so "anti-Indian" as to censor it--not even that one out of 1.3 billion whom the People of India had temporarily permitted to serve them as Prime Minister?

Is the category of an Indian whose beliefs are "anti-Indian" not, from the Constitution's perspective, a logical impossibility? Yes.

The misleading claim that India invented the zero is a tediously repeated tenet of contemporary Indian triumphalism--though perhaps, in a nihilistic age, this reverence for zero is more revealing than it appears. Precisely because we are in such an age, however, it is far more interesting to reflect on India's unusually rich exploration of the opposite extreme of zero: infinity. "Having taken infinity away from infinity, still what remains is infinity," says the Isha Upanishad. The text reminds us that infinity is really everything--and everything, whether we approve of it or not, upholds infinity. Infinity is not only everything that is; it is also every negation, abuse and parody of what is, and it is everything that is not. There can be no insult to infinity: everything is just another celebration of its infinitude.

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For any leadership which sincerely wished to find in India's long Hindu heritage some image for the 21st-century nation, this might be a place to start. But that is not our situation. What we are witnessing is the most single-minded overhaul of Indian society in a generation, one which extends its hold over institutions of thought, opinion and reform not only by attacking them directly but, much more terrifyingly, by fomenting and unleashing upon them the paranoid forces of violence and censorship which already exist in society's midst. This strategy is fed by the idea of the sickness within--the "anti-national" individual spouting "anti-Indian slogans"--which leads society to turn its weapons on itself. Society threatened by that most dismal of prospects: self-annihilation.

What we are witnessing is the most single-minded overhaul of Indian society in a generation, one which extends its hold over institutions of thought, opinion and reform...

As we have seen in countries as far apart as Chile and Indonesia, Russia and Turkey, neoliberal economic policies often come hand-in-hand with a growing intolerance for ideological dissent. Political and/or religious conformism is one way of producing societies single-minded enough to chase after the targets set by these contemporary economies. But anyone living in India today can see that the production of fear, and the multiplying of "antisocial" targets, goes far beyond what would be required even by such "rational" administrative goals. It goes so far, in fact, that there is no guarantee it can be contained--no guarantee even that society's basic economic functionality might not itself be overwhelmed by the resulting eruption of obscene forces. Why would any administration pursue such a risky strategy?

Martin Buber, a German-Jewish philosopher who watched the Nazi takeover of German society from his position as professor at the University of Frankfurt, and later fled to Israel, explained this gap between rational administrative requirements and actual political action as the "political surplus". Politics, said Buber, always clamped down upon "social vitality" with greater force than was required from the point of view of mere administration. This "political surplus," which was how the political establishment won extraordinary powers for itself, was achieved by manufacturing a permanent state of crisis. What Buber learned from living in Nazi Germany was that this "political surplus" of illegitimate powers could become very large and dangerous indeed, especially during times of great change. The role of society, he said, was to control this inevitable tendency of politics, and to attempt to confine it to its true, administrative function.

The great irony of our current administration... is that they are themselves in the process of eviscerating Indian society in a thoroughly Pakistani way.

Another citizenry which had to learn a similar lesson before India's did is that of Pakistan. The great irony of our current administration, which sees on every side the trace of Islamic subversion--and of its supernaturally influential parent, Pakistan--is that they are themselves in the process of eviscerating Indian society in a thoroughly Pakistani way. Who is the "anti-national", if we must ask such moronic questions: the students and academics who see fit to question political violence, or public officials who seek to unleash Taliban-style vigilantes to stifle India's "thought, expression, belief, faith and worship"?

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