If recent incidents are anything to go by, there can be just one version of nationalism. Anti-nationalism, as its corollary, is its treasonous unpatriotic counterpart.

But this really couldn’t be farther from the truth. There are many theories relating to nationalism, all sternly defended by argument and fact (unlike its present champions, who seem to do so by force). Nationalism has been variously called “old” or even a comparatively recent “imagined” construct, and Tony Judt, in a memorable essay on the rise of the Slavic states in the New York Review of Books (1993) wrote of a “new old nationalism”.

Broadly, of course, nationalism could be construed as an adherence or faith in a single “territorial” entity, but it is always what defines this nation or who does so that is contentious. The other debate on nationalism asks if it grew out of ideas from the Enlightenment and the French revolution, or if these were an imposition. For, as Johann Gottfried Herder argued, there are more organic links between people that naturally create kinship.

Nationalism in a postcolonial world also invites the question of whether it is a western import and/or a response to this, or even a natural construct.

Anti-nationalism, for its part, rather than constituting treason or unpatriotic behaviour, constitutes a broad spectrum of ideas and ideals. These range from the theories of radical Marxists, who call for a broad union of the oppressed and underprivileged, to an idealism calling for a broad universal humanism and includes even anarchism (as different from lawlessness).

Literary works, especially the novel that saw its birth in the modern world, have served the cause of nationalism well. As Benedict Anderson suggested in Imagined Communities, “It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny and this magic finds a precise analogue in the novel”.

Writers and nationalism, however, have a contrapuntal relationship. This is only a partial use of Edward Said’s definition of the term when he suggested reading the nuances of a text to understand its colonial underpinnings, for writers have idealised the building of a nationalist identity; some have helped in the creation of a literary nationalism, even as they have been critical of it.

There have also been dissenters to the very idea of nationalism. Then again, as the work of several postcolonial writers have shown, their criticisms of the new nationalisms have earned them the tag of being anti-national.

Early critics of nationalism

Though nationalism has been traced back to some of Shakespeare’s works – Macbeth, for instance, with its reference to the reign of king James 1, has also been read as a work hinting at early Scottish nationalism – it was from the 19th century onward that writers saw themselves as engaging with the world, and the driving concerns of the time: imperialism, militarism, colonialism and individualism, all entwined with emergent nationalism.

In 1945, George Orwell, who was born in Bihar, and who worked variously as a police officer, journalist and social activist, and also fought against Fascism in Spain, wrote his Notes to Nationalism, where he derided nationalism for its assumption that human beings could be “classified like insects” or that “entire communities of people could be labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad ’”. Patriotism, however, he saw in a different light.

“By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

Tagore’s criticism of nationalism

Rabindranath Tagore, regarded universally as a “nationalist poet”, actually had contentious views on nationalism, as it was broadly defined then. He was also critical of swadeshi (1905 onward) and maintained a considered distance from Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha and the non-cooperation movement.

A closer reading, especially of the essay he wrote in 1918, Nationalism, would reveal that his interactions and exchanges with writers and figures in the West stemmed from his desire to understand India’s own historical development of the idea of nationalism, and his sense of building a critique of the modern western notions of it. Tagore stressed the difference between nation and the civil society, and the importance of the latter.

The nation state, according to Tagore, glorified territorial control and boundaries, the army and bureaucracy, all of which limit human life. Societies, on the other hand, are more organic and rooted entities. Regardless of whom they oppose, individuals also have to work toward an ideal community, one undivided in any way, to reach for universal notions of humanism as embodied in the Upanishads.

Tagore also had guarded praise for Japan’s own nationalism (which would take ominous signs a decade later), for it had not simply adapted western notions, but had instead amalgamated the old with the new. The Gandhi-Tagore debates, in the letters they exchanged, also make for interesting reading on what they considered “nationalism” and how they argued over the means and ends of true freedom. To Tagore, modernism meant freedom of the mind from age-old restrictions.

An “Englishness” that opposed nationalism

For writers like Virginia Woolf (almost a contemporary of Tagore), the rise of nationalism mirrored the loss of what she saw as an essential “Englishness”. In her novels, it was a theme that underscored the changing conditions around her. Mirroring the rise of German and American industrial power, and as cities became contested spaces, with their tarmac roads and suburban estates, Woolf’s works descriptive of seaside holidays, or set in the countryside – with its manor houses and stretches of greenery – almost seemed to be evoking an old idealism.

EM Forster wrote eloquently on how writers and intellectuals had a duty to “oppose an Englishness that admires itself while ignoring the rest of mankind”. As the literary critic John Lucas has written, Forster’s Howard’s End (1910), was an attempt to offer a vision of “England and Germany connected through cultural values rather than divided by jingoistic nationalism”.

The past was once an idealised place, as even the unfairly forgotten writer of supernatural fiction, Vernon Lee (real name: Violet Page) acknowledged, but even the past and history, she wrote, had been put to use by nationalism. She wrote of how “the past had been placed in service of war (the first world war). History had been used to pander to one’s dramatic instincts, to look for causes and responsibilities. To use the past as a toy to justify the present while forgetting that no two events are ever alike.” She was critical of patriotism, and its inflamed passions that was “in part responsible for the war itself”.

Contestations of “other” nationalisms

The Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote the first volume of his Buru quartet while imprisoned by the Dutch authorities in the 1940s (on the island of Buru). The books follow the life and demise of Minke, the protagonist and narrator of the first three volumes, while his bête noire, Pangemanan, the senior native bureaucrat of the Dutch colonial regime, narrates the final instalment.

In these novels and also in his writings, Ananta Toer delved into Indonesian history, evoking a “historical spirit” that naturally spoke of resistance and freedom, to elucidate the need for nationalism – how language and literature, and even religion (though he spoke consistently against religion) – had to be necessarily harnessed to its cause.

Indonesian history, he said, had its own trajectory that could create its own essential nationalism. National consciousness or the awareness of belonging to a homeland, Pramoedya suggested, was also distinct from mere territorial consciousness.

Ironically, his very espousal of notions such as equality and rights for every Indonesian, especially during his editorship of an influential leftist journal, led to his imprisonment again during the crackdown and vicious massacre of Communists in the mid 1960s. Ananta Toer’s disillusionment with the new regime is best enunciated when Pangemanan makes the following observation in the last book of the Buru quartet, House of Glass: “The government needs their illusions, it does not need people who have no illusions such as you.”

It was a comment that also offers some insight on the new postcolonial African states that emerged following a long nationalist struggle against colonialist powers. In October 1986, the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote his novel in Gikuyu, Matigari ma Njirungi (A Patriot Who Has Survived Bullets). Matigari, a man of peace, returns from the forests, and begins asking unsettling questions of the people, all relating to truth and justice. As he realises, the postcolonial condition does not seem very different from the colonial era, and thus there is the need for a new liberation struggle led by the oppressed.

This novel was later translated into English, but in his Gikuyu version Ngugi used the traditional elements of oral narrative and satire, so that the book and its message could be actually experienced by its readers.

Changing arcs of nationalism

The differing arcs of nationalism, or how these are shaped by history itself, seem evident in the works and lives of two Japanese novelists separated from each other by half a century. The celebrated writer, Yukio Mishima believed in the cult of the warrior (“bushido”) and in the divine essence of the emperor who embodied, Mishima believed, the very spirit of Japan.

Japan’s surrender and the emperor Hirohito’s subsequent disavowal of his divinity dismayed Mishima, who, in the years thereafter, set about urging the formation of self-defence units, launching his own and then, in 1970, organising a coup d’état to restore glory to the emperor. The failure of this effort led him to commit suicide in a ritualistic samurai manner.

In 2012, Haruki Murakami, considered one of the most significant Japanese novelists of his time, found himself in an unlikely situation. His novel, 1Q84, had just come out but this book, along with works of other Japanese writers, was “removed” from Chinese bookstores as the two countries were locked for control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the South China Sea.

Murakami has long been critical of the “noxious effects of nationalism”, writing: “Nationalism’s cheap liquor only leaves its consumer with a bad headache and nothing much later.” Writing, on its part, Murakami had suggested at the time, was important for cultural exchanges, to “bring about an understanding that we are all human beings who share emotions and understandings, even if we speak different languages”.

He is part of a group of Japanese writers who have consistently advocated the need for Japan to look and reassess its own postwar history, for the three neighbouring countries, Japan, China and South Korea have to live in peace together.

Insulting nationalism

Turkey’s Nobel Winning writer, Orhan Pamuk, earned the ire of Turkish nationalists a decade ago when he openly spoke about the Armenian genocide of 1915 and Turkey’s long military campaigns against the Kurds. The genocide is unmentioned in Turkey’s history texts, Pamuk has said, constituting an act of deliberate forgetting. Though the case against him was dismissed in 2006, there were others who paid a price: the journalist, Hrank Dink, was killed in 2007 by Turkish nationalists, and Dink’s son Arat received a year’s suspended sentence the same year for “hurting Turkish sentiments”, a prosecution possible under Turkey’s laws.

Writers as dissenters

As these examples (and there are more) indicate, writers understand that nationalism comes with several conditions attached. It can create unity between people, one even false and temporary, but such unity has to be consistently evaluated, and its exclusionary tendencies and its often one-sided use of history and the past clearly understood.

As if presciently aware that what nationalism brings into being would always be short of an ideal, or perhaps that the nationalist project always had to be worked on, the American novelist Washington Irving, always cited as an early figure in the rise of American literary nationalism, wrote the story, Rip Van Winkle in 1819. In the story, Rip is a man who somehow falls asleep and wakes up 20 years later, when the declaration of American independence (1776) is already a fact. But as Rip soon realises, the changing political events don’t really matter, for daily life remains as much – or even more – of a struggle, with all its disagreements and misunderstandings intact.