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The concept of Nation

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In the face of the JNU debate becoming increasingly complex, two JNU professors attempt to demystify the popular notions

By Tithi Mukherjee

As the auto skidded to a stop a few yards away from the main gate, I looked at my brown loafers and thought if it would have been tactical to wear my sturdy sneakers today. The familiar, wrought iron gate was flagged by people bearing national flags. They fervidly screamed for their nation.

As I approached the crowd and thought of a way of getting inside the university gates, I looked their stares. They looked enraged, as if personally hurt by whatever the wrought iron gates were shielding. Inside however, the scenario at the Administrative Block was that of rhetoric and peace. Since the past one week, professors at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) had decided to give a series of lectures, as a reaction to the JNU authorities’ orders against their involvement in the students’ movement. As the president of their Students Union was arrested amidst allegations of being an “anti-nationalist”, the teachers decided to do what they are best at.

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Nivedita Menon

And so they spoke. G Arunima, professor at the Women’s Studies Department, and Nivedita Menon, professor of political thought, spoke about how important it was to understand the concept of “nation” before one started screaming for one.

 Professor Arunima, dressed in a smart, maroon kurta and sturdy shoes, was encircled by a throng of people who listened to her in rapt attention, hanging on to her every word. She commenced the lecture by going back to her student days when people were not so violently passionate about the “nation”. She talked about being a “nation agnostic” and said she not find the need to wake up every morning and swear allegiance to the country.

Nation as a concept is a recent social form. It is merely a couple of centuries old, as opposed to feudalism that spanned many centuries. She pondered on the things that force one to constantly talk about the nation, which are not merely political issues but also impact our lives. Histories of nations vary. The histories of countries that have experienced colonialism are different from the birth stories of European countries. Ideas about nationalism also differ in the colonial context as opposed to those in the European counterparts. She pointed out that although there isn’t just a single story of a nation, for India however, the freedom movement does take centre stage and remains the single most dominant narrative.

Language and region

 Professor Menon proceeded to open her lecture in Hindi, by commenting on what the “nation” primarily is not. She said that a nation is not a natural entity. It is born at a specific historical moment and when a nation is freed from the shackles of colonialism, we are forced to stop asking questions. The moment the nation is born, it has been purified off all its vices and the interrogation of its judiciary or attributes must stop. The pure state must not be tarnished by the mind’s many queries.

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Nivedita Menon

Professor Arunima then proceeded to questions about “region” that fall under the umbrella term of a “nation”. She said that in order to understand the difference, it is important to look at regional identification. She explained the perspective of the region with respect to the nation, through the “South Indian question”. She talked of an afternoon many years back when she walked into the canteen of Lady Sri Ram College and looked at the menu. There were two separate rows for “Indian” and “South Indian” food. This difference comes from the isolation created by differences in culture and language. The unification of various cultures and languages is the only way to make the question of “region” fit peacefully in the larger scheme of a unified nation.

She went on to talk about the social activist, EV Ramaswamy, commonly known as Periyar, who started the Dravidian movement against the exploitation and marginalization of the non-Brahmin Dravidian people of South India and the imposition of what he considered Indo-Aryan India. Professor Menon also talked about BR Ambedkar who went to meet the Simon Commission because he wanted the society to be free from the shackles of Brahmanism that has relegated the dalits and lower castes to the fringes of the society for years. By that logic, both Periyar and Ambedkar thus, fall comfortably under the recent definition of “anti-nationalists”.

The idea of ‘difference’

They warn against the issue of homogenization. Professor Arunima said it’s a frightening prospect because it wants to transform individuals from what they are into something that the dominant power thinks everyone should be. The idea of “difference” is not just about pluralism but also about political and social power differences. Thus, until and unless we address the question of difference, frontally, we will not be able to think of either equality or social change.

The idea of ‘nation’

The audience chuckled when Professor mentioned that she was not a very confident speaker of Hindi. And yet, she went on to simplify what the idea of a nation should ideally mean to everyone, with a natural flair. She questioned the need for a unified nation to have one particular language. When the question of choosing a single entity that represents the country arises, more often than not, the decision of the ruling party is considered to be dominant. In India, a consensus comes from the idea of “language”. The hindibhashis (Hindi speakers) consider themselves to be the cultural upholders of the country. Language becomes a common ground for unification because it is considered a shared property, accessible to all.  Professor Menon said that in parliamentary debates, if a non-Hindi speaking MP dissents from a popular notion, he is immediately accused of having “non-Indian” opinions not fit for the country.

Amidst resounding claps, she added that according to the Census, 20 percent of the population of the country have Hindi as their mother tongue but it becomes 50 percent by amalgamating within it vernaculars like Bhojpuri and Maithili that have lost their individual identities. Section 24A of the IPC terms the students as anti-nationals for raising questions against their country, but this law has never even been revised in the 150 years since Independence. Only some archaic words have only been removed—Her Majesty, the Crown Representative, British India and British Burma. It is a mere cosmetic change. Democracy is a continuing process but nationalism, the self-imposed protectors of the nation say, should be finite.


During Independence, there was an attempt to cleanse the Hindi language off its Urdu attributes. This bleached version is what India proudly calls her mother tongue. A similar exercise happened in Pakistan, where Urdu was “purified”. This, Professor Menon said, is a “masculinist judgment of purity”.

Borders and the concept of the nation are not something one learns from the womb. These are learned through education and through the very act of raising questions that titillate our minds and are important for the continuation of social transformation.

The lectures leave certain questions for us to think about. One, what does the question of “diversity” force us to think about? Is it simply the idea of “difference” and not just “diversity”? While diversity is a positive and in fact strengthening factor in any country, difference alienates people, consequently weakening the society.  Two, the question of “we” and the way in which one conceives the idea of “we”. Professor Menon added that not everyone has the privilege of using the word “hum” (we). The word empowers the already powerful and strips off the oppressed, of their very identities as Indians. Nationalism excludes as much as it includes. Those who consider the nation before its people, ostracize those who do not conform to their norms.

As I walked out of the gate on my way home and spotted the raging nationalists again, I realized that the gates divided the arena into two halves; inside, a quest to alter the pre-conceived notions of a nation; outside, pre-conceived notions tearing the nation apart.

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