The Costs of Narrow Nationalism
India's first Prime Minister warns us about what is lost when a nation succumbs to myopic nationalism
After taking charge in August 1947 as India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, began writing fortnightly letters to the chief ministers of the Indian Union. In these communiqués—at times persuasive, at others brimming with command—Nehru discusses the emerging blueprint for a young republic. Here is an edited excerpt of one such ‘special’ missive dated 20 September 1953.
My dear Chief Ministers,
I want to share with you a certain apprehension growing within me. I feel that in many ways the position relating to minority groups in India is deteriorating. Our Constitution is good and we do not make any distinction in our laws. But, in effect, changes creep in because of administrative practices or officers. Often these changes are not deliberate, sometimes they are so. In the Services, generally speaking, the representation of the minority communities is lessening. In some cases, it is very poor indeed. It is all very well for us to say that we shall not pay any attention to communal and like considerations in appointments. I am no lover of communalism and its works. Indeed, I think it is the most dangerous tendency in India and has to be combated. But, at the same time, we have to realize that in a mixed country like India we must produce a sense of balance and assurance of a square deal in all parts of the country and in all communities of India. If the tendency is to upset any balance or to emphasize one aspect at the cost of another, the result is a lack of equilibrium, dissatisfaction and frustration.
We have to create a sense of partnership in every group and individual in the country, a sense of being a full sharer in the benefits and opportunities that are offered. It is only then that we produce the right attitude of mind. Nothing seems to me so unbecoming as to preach loyalty to others—meaning by that word ‘loyalty’ that everyone should fall in step with us. This is very much like the approach of the Communists in some parts of the world and of the Americans in other parts of the world, each of whom demand uniformity and submission to their way of thinking and life. That brings conflicts in the international sphere, and a like approach in the national sphere must inevitably lead to conflict also, apart from being intrinsically wrong.
We have always to remember India as composite in many ways, in religion, in customs, in languages, in ways of life, etc. An attempt by the majority to impose itself on others can only lead to inner conflicts, which are as bad as outer conflicts. The basic problem for us today in India is to build up a united India in the real and inner sense of the word, that is, a psychological integration of our people.
The feeling of nationalism is an enlarging and widening experience for the individual or the nation. When a country is under foreign domination, nationalism is a unifying force. But a stage arrives when it might have a narrowing influence. Sometimes, as in Europe, it becomes aggressive and chauvinistic and wants to impose itself on other countries and other people. Every people suffer from the strange delusion that they are the elect and better than all others. But, a more insidious form of nationalism is the narrowness of mind that it develops within a country, when a majority thinks itself as the entire nation and in its attempt to absorb the minority actually separates them even more. We, in India, have to be particularly careful of this because of our tradition of caste and separatism. We have a tendency to fall into separate groups and to forget the larger unity.
Communal organizations are the clearest examples of extreme narrowness of outlook, strutting about in the guise of nationalism. In the name of unity, they separate and destroy. In social terms they represent reaction of the worst type. We may condemn these communal organizations, but there are many others who are not free from this narrow influence. Oddly enough, the very largeness of India, which is a world in itself, tends to make the people living in it complacent; rather ignorant of the rest of the world and narrow-minded. We have to contend against these forces.