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The Banality Of Nationalism

The nationalism narrative is harnessed to absolve us of any guilt…

11/03/2017 8:01 PM IST | Updated 15/03/2017 8:39 AM IST
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When Hannah Arendt was witnessing the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, the Jews wanted her to portray Eichmann as some sort of a monster, a completely evil sinister man. But with his expositions that he was performing a duty, a mandate expected of him, Arendt resolved that he was not to be otherised as a "monster" or someone who the common person could not relate to. She, of course, was repulsed by Eichmann and considered his acts reprehensible, but at the same time she perfectly understood that he was just a hamster in the wheel, incapable of remorse or guilt. She terms such a phenomenon the banality of evil. That is, evil ought not to be looked at just in the most reprehensible acts, where it is easier (and what Arendt would say convenient) to map out. Instead, is important to understand that evil lives amidst us and is a constantly growing phenomenon. Because as long as we otherise evil and think of it in terms of the dark acts of a "monstrous person" who exists outside of our realm, we are entering into a false sense of immunising evil; in reality it is all around us. That Arendt made this point as a Jew herself is particularly fascinating.

Our sense of nationalism that we consider to be attached unequivocally to our identity of "being Indian" is not allowing us to see the evil amongst us...

In India under the Modi regime, an analysis of Arendt's theory is particularly relevant. Similar to Eichmann's beliefs of duty to the State and the government, our sense of nationalism (which is increasingly becoming inextricable with jingoism) that we consider to be attached inevitably and unequivocally to our identity of being Indian is unfortunately not allowing us to see the evil that is right amongst us, encouraging acts of violence that we seem unwilling to see and analyse.

We have to notice that a certain pattern has been created with the Modi regime. The pattern of using brute force to crush any dissent and irritation to the government and State. This pattern gets all the more clear with the recent sanctioning by the government to use aerial strikes in the Dandakaranya forest to eliminate entire villages to create "Maoist free-zones". But when civil rights activists ask about the innocent villagers and adivasis living in the region, the response is the same narrative of collateral damage that one heard during the recent Kashmir conflagration and during demonetisation. It is this narrative of "collateral damage", which has been seeped, dangerously, into the popular psyche. We need to rethink it critically.

When students and faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University were slapped with sedition charges, most people supported the crackdown without actually engaging with the questions being raised. It was this very same encouragement and support that led to the Modi regime cracking down heavily on civil society activists—the cancellation of Lawyers Collective's license was a mere symptom of this.

The implicit and explicit support of the indiscriminate usage of pellet guns, amongst other weaponry, which blinded, maimed and even killed hundreds in the Kashmir valley, is another instance of our deliberate subscription to violence and evil, although we don't see it that way.

Amidst ample evidence of the hardship the demonetisation has caused, and amidst numerous reports of how the move has been a failure, we are told that we must have hope and support the move for the sake of our country. What kind of a future are we looking at with hundreds losing their employment, thousands losing livelihoods and with having lost their lives? The nationalism narrative, used so extensively in the context of demonetisation, is harnessed to absolve us of any frisson of guilt we might feel.

When you observe contemporary politics objectively, what you are actually observing is the orchestration of a fascist regime.

The banality of nationalism—which makes us not see, or deliberately ignore, obvious injustice and unbridled violence—is a matter of huge concern. When aerial strikes, pellet guns and other weaponry are used indiscriminately, and when this gets assimilated in discourses of nationalism, duty and justice, one sees the notional arguments of Eichmann being bred in our narratives. When the banality of evil underlies the banality of nationalism, and when dissent and critique lead to tags of anti-nationalism, it becomes undoubtedly clear that the current Indian socio-political scenario is the perfect illustration of Arendt's propositions regarding the banality of evil. The brute being engulfed in duty, and the national being engulfed in ignorance—when you observe contemporary politics objectively, what you are actually observing is the orchestration of a fascist regime.

What is scarier is that the latest Assembly election results reflect how the electorate, by and large, reflects and endorses this brand of "nationalism." Indeed the starry-eyed hero worship of the Prime Minister is eerily reminiscent of the adulation that led to the rise of the "Fuhrer." As for what lies ahead... as the Bollywood adage goes, "Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost!"

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