Friday, October 18, 2013

Nationalism vs. Fanaticism: Discussion @ Oxford, 9 October, 2013

The newly opened Oxford book store in Connaught Place in Delhi organized a discussion around my book The Ekkos Clan on 9th October. Omair Ahmed, the acclaimed author of the book Jimmy the Terrorist had agreed to be in the panel. Shrey Goyal, the Editor-in-Chief of Mensa was in conversation with me and Omair. Though the attendance was not that great, 9th being a weekday, the discussion was one of the best I've had in any such event. After the customary introduction about my book and the motivation to choose such a topic - ancient Indian history - the discussion moved towards very serious topics.

A strong underlying theme of The Ekkos Clan is actually the futility of racial supremacy. It talks about Nazism, as an outcome of the belief in the supremacy of the Aryan race. The Germans manipulated history to claim that they were the true progenitor of the Aryan race - the term Aryan was wrongly used to actually refer to the ancient Indo-European peoples whose original language is believed to be the mother of Sanskrit, Greek, Persian, Latin, German, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi-Urdu, Bengali and many other major languages of the world. The idea behind the claim of being the true progenitor of the Indo-European peoples is indirectly claiming that the Germans are in fact the forefathers of the great civilizations in Greece, Rome, Persia and India, and hence a superior race whose progeny comprise almost half the world. This feeling of superiority metamorphosed into Nazism, which was perhaps one of the worst forms of cultural or racial fanaticism.

Now the question arises, is this feeling of superiority always a vice? Nationalism, someone in the audience pointed out, is fueled by a sense of superiority. Unless I feel proud of my country, my culture, my language, unless I have a feeling that my culture is a superior one, I won't feel the fervor of patriotism, the fire of nationalism within me. Very logically the cultural renaissance that happened during the Indian Independence Movement was a major force behind instilling patriotism into the minds of millions of Indians subjugated by the British rule for centuries. The self esteem of the Indians was at its nadir, thanks to the centuries of humiliation and the well crafted propaganda by the British machinery against anything Indian.

"Charles Grant remarked that a man of real integrity in Bengal was an unusual phenomenon. James Mill wrote a pathetic book, The History of British India, ridiculing Indian culture, history, religions and languages and it was made mandatory for the East India Company officials to read that nonsene before they came to India. Alexander Duff founded a good institution like the Scottish Church College but was very vocal about his dislike for Indians and Indian culture. He ranted that Indians had no liberty, will and conscience of their own. Macaulay wanted to introduce English education in India because he felt that all the Arabic and Sanskrit literature of any value could fit on a single shelf. Isaac Taylor’s The Origin of the Aryans and W. W. Hunter’s The Annals of Rural Bengal were replete with ridiculous assertions about the inferiority of the Indian race and culture."

Under this circumstance, the first and foremost thing needed to inspire the Indians was to make them feel superior. That's where the cultural renaissance played a great role, without which it was impossible to arouse a subjugated nation, unite a fragmented nation. Lot of people wrote about the history and heritage of our country. The idea of looking back was actually to remind the Indians about her glorious past and feel superior.

But then, the same feeling of superiority was also at play behind Nazism. So where is the line between the sense of superiority that instills nationalism and that gives rise to Nazism? I don't think there's a proper line. It's a very thin line that separates nationalism from fanaticism. The Germans were no doubt patriotic. So were the Indians who fought for freedom, strongly feeling that a great nation like India couldn't be but free. But then what differentiated the Germans from the Indians. Perhaps, the Indians were proud of their culture and believed that they belonged to a superior civilization, but they were not envious of an equally superior civilization in their vicinity - that of the Persians.

At this point Omair brought in a very interesting perspective. He said that superiority, when becomes an absolute thought or feeling, leads to decline. What's now superior may not be superior forever, and the moment one realizes this thought, she would always strive to be superior. But when one believes that her superiority is an absolute truth, she stagnates, and that's why, perhaps, both Latin and Sanskrit died, despite having royal patronage. Latin and Sanskrit were no doubt superior languages sometime in the past, but they failed to evolve, grow, because people felt that they were absolute superior languages without any need to grow or evolve.

A very interesting analogy can be drawn from the corporate world. In the recent past Kodak, the company that had invented digital photography and that had been synonymous to photography for hundred years suddenly died. Nokia, which once had 80% market share in mobile phones also died - Microsoft bought them. Blackberry, which had the most secured mailing service for smartphones, is also at the verge of death. In all these three cases, the companies were superior at some point of time, but still died, because, perhaps, they failed to maintain their superiority, which is not an absolute thing. Once superior, doesn't mean always superior.

Now coming back to fanaticism I pointed out the case of linguistic fanaticism rampant in various forms throughout India. Major literary big shots were on roads in Bangalore, few years back, to demand classical language tag for Kannada, as Tamil and Telugu were already classical languages. The people who were fighting for a 'classical language' tag for Kannada, did feel that their language was superior, but at the same time they were envious about Tamil and Telugu. Bengali, my mother tongue, is one of the youngest languages and it's far from being tagged ever as a classical language. But do I've any sense of inferiority for this. On the contrary, I feel that Bengali is one of the best languages. My sense of superiority is irrespective of the status of any other language around. I don't care if Tamil is a much older language than Bengali.

People who were demanding the classical language tag for Kannada were border line fanatics, but of course not me.

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