People are not born with an inherent sense of nationhood: watch Professor Nivedita Menon's open lecture on nationalism at JNU
The idea of a sacrosanct nation stands at odds with democracy.
At the Jawaharlal Nehru University teach-in, Professor Nivedita Menon, a leading political scientist and feminist scholar, delivered the fifth lecture in the series on nationalism, titled "Rashtra Ek Rozaana Raishumari: Rashtravaad par kuch khayal" ("The Nation is a daily plebiscite: Thoughts on nationalism).
In a short half-hour long lecture, Menon speaking in Hindi, speaks about how a nation is not a natural occurrence, that it is a political entity that has to be constructed. People are not born with an inherent sense of nationhood.
The idea of nation states is a relatively new one, she says, emerging in Europe in the 18th century and in India in the 19th. Democratisation is an ongoing process, and not one that is finished – never to be spoken of or questioned again. Citing Tagore, Ambedkar, Gandhi and Periyar, Menon points out they were all suspicious of the all-powerful nation state.
Section 124A, which the JNU students have been charged under, is a law from the colonial era. Barring the deletion of references to the Queen of England, the British crown, and Burma, it has not been changed at all. A law used by the colonial masters is now being used by a democratically elected government, Menon points out.
There is an implicit conflict between a democracy and the nation state. The state puts out opposing voices, on the excuse of it being in national interest.
She narrates three stories to support her argument, including one on why school textbooks don't teach us the history of Kashmir's accession, instead of the "Kashmir is an integral part of India" refrain.
During the time India was negotiating for its independence, several smaller states were independently negotiating with the British for their independence. So Manipur and Nagaland, which had been left as territories independent from India by the British rulers, were immediately captured by the Indian state. The people of these states often don't consider themselves a part of India, while the Indian state insists on owning that territory with little regard for the voices of the people.
"The land is ours, the people go to Pakistan," she jokes.
The list of anti-nationals is ever increasing, Menon says satirically, encompassing all of the North East; Kashmir since they are Muslims; Christians; Ambedkarites; all of Tamil Nadu because they won't speak Hindi; the adivasis who speak against land acquisition in Chattisgarh and Orissa; women who wear jeans and drink alcohol; homosexuals. That leaves some 23 or 24 people who qualify as "nationalists".
Edited February 24, 2016: Professor Menon has written to point out the following:
When I listened to the video I realized two errors have crept in because of the fact that unlike a written text in which one can correct errors before publication, spoken lectures can be corrected only after they are listened to.
The two errors that I spotted are
a) Muktabai's letter to Dyanoday was in 1855 of course, not 1955.
b) the Indian state bombed the civilian population of Aizawl in Mizoram, not Nagaland. This was in 1966 and, of course, Mizoram has a similar troubled history with the Indian nation-state as Nagaland and Manipur.
In an earlier impromptu speech Menon gave after the first day of Kanhaiya Kumar's court hearing when journalists, professors, and students came under attack from lawyers at the Patiala House Court, she had explained the idea of the nation being a daily plebiscite:
"I can't say it better than Kanhaiya who said we do not love some kind of an abstract thing and say Kashmir hamaaraa hai lekin Kashmiri hamaare nahii hain (Kashmir is ours, but the Kashmiris aren't). We don't want the Siachen glacier. We don't want the land of Nagaland. We want people who will want to be together and if they do not want it, it is our responsibility to make it so that people wish to stay within it. And if people wish to leave, it is the responsibility of the state and the people of this country to look inside and ask: What is wrong?
"We do not think that a nation pre-exists its people. It is not a piece of land. A nation is created daily. A nation is a daily plebiscite. It is a daily plebiscite – every single day. It is up to us to reaffirm that the nation is just, that the nation is equitable, that the nation's resources are not swallowed up by corporates. That is the nationalism we teach. All of us: students teach us and we teach them. This is JNU. This is why they fear us. And this is why this is our joint struggle – this is not a struggle where teachers are standing by students. It is a struggle for the soul of India."