Vol. XLIII No. 24 June 16, 2019
Array

New Constructs of Nationalism and the Media

The following is the text of the N Ramachandran Memorial Lecture delivered by Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) general secretary in Thiruvananthapuram on June 28, 2016. The lecture was organised on the occasion of presentation of N Ramachandran Award.

I

NATIONALISM is a concept that, with its central features of fellowship, establishing a sense of community, was the basis of the national movement – where many streams flowed, but aimed eventually to overthrow foreign imperial rule and allow a hundred flowers to bloom in the garden called India. Indian nationhood did not allow itself to become a Hindutva Pakistan, but instead dared to dream and realise in 1950, what even modern Europe is struggling to do today! That is, draw in multiple ethnicities, languages, religions, classes and regions into One India.

However, nationalism has also been invoked to promote exclusivity, in place of inclusiveness to serve the interests of the ruling classes by whipping up passions around it for mobilising popular support.  History of human civilisation is replete with such instances.  We, in India, are currently being subjected to such an onslaught by the communal forces and their concept of nationalism, which they see as the unfinished business of 1947, when the national movement resoundingly rejected it.

In the current times, political battles often find reflection in the evocation of various constructs of nationalism.  A recourse that is often taken to by the ruling classes in different countries to consolidate their class rule by repressing the struggles of the oppressed classes is to invoke popular mythology specific to that particular country through a specific construct of nationalism.  (This linkage between neo-liberalism’s economic reform trajectory in India under imperialist globalisation and the RSS/BJP’s concept of `nationalism’ is excellently analysed by Prabhat Patnaik in Nationalism, Hindutva and the Assault on Thought, The Marxist, January-March 2016).

In the evolution of human civilisation, the dividing line between mythology and history and between theology and philosophy always remains thin. The ease with which myths are passed off as real historical facts has, indeed, laid the foundation for many constructs of nationalism. Amongst many examples is the case of David’s city and temple at Jerusalem which continues to remain one of the foundational pillars for the existence of the modern State of Israel.  “The only history that Israel can use to justify itself is history that is at least two thousand years old.  Everything else that has happened in the meantime is glossed over, as it does not justify the foundation of Israel and the wars which that state has fought.  The fact that the Temple has been located in Jerusalem was transformed into a modern political fact, in order to argue that Jerusalem had always been the center of the Jewish religion, and therefore the capital of the Jewish people (besides, it makes little sense to talk about capitals in a period previous to the Roman Empire, but that is another question).  In any case, it has been used by many Jews to justify not only the foundation of their state, but the establishment of Jerusalem as their capital”.  (The New Century, Eric Hobsbawm, Little, Brown and Company, 1999). 

Hobsbawm further says: “National myths do not arise spontaneously from people’s actual experiences. They are something which people acquire from someone else, from books, from historians, from films, and now from people who make television. They are not generally part of the historical memory or a living tradition, with the exception of some special cases in which what was eventually to become a national myth was a product of religion. There is the case of the Jews, in whom the idea of expulsion from the land of Israel and the certain return to it is part of the religious practice and literature. Within certain limitations, this is also true of the Serbs, because the loss of the Serbian state in the Middle Ages became part of Orthodox religious services and nearly all the Serbian princes became symbols of the Orthodox faith. A special case. But here again, it is not a question of the people constantly remembering: they remember because someone is constantly reminding them”. (Emphasis added.)

One specific construct of nationalism was Nazi nationalism, authored and popularised by Hitler during the rise of fascism in Germany. Hitler conceived Germany as a gigantic "national organism" consisting of people as cells of this body. Hitler's efforts to unify or unite the German people, therefore, reflected his desire to fuse together the cells of the German nation into a cohesive body (politic). National Socialism grew out of Hitler's assertion that Germany was disintegrating. His struggle (Mein Kampf) reflected his desire to create a German body politic that was so cohesive – so powerful – that it would not succumb to this internal force that threatened to cause it to disintegrate.

How was this to be done? Hitler describes, in his own words, in Mein Kampf his fascistic concept of nationalism:  “This urge for maintenance of the unmixed breed, which is a phenomenon that prevails throughout the whole of the natural world, results not only in the sharply defined outward distinction between one species and another. The struggle for daily livelihood leaves behind in the ruck everything that is weak or diseased or wavering. And this struggle is a means of furthering the health and powers of resistance in the species. Thus it is one of the causes underlying the process of development towards a higher quality of being”.

“If the case were different, the progressive process would cease, and even retrogression might set in. Since the inferior always outnumber the superior, the former would always increase more rapidly if they possessed the same capacity for survival and for the procreation of their kind; and the final consequence would be that the best in quality would be forced to recede in the background.  Therefore a corrective measure in favour of better quality must intervene.”

Thus followed the persecution of the Jews, the holocaust and the worst crimes against humanity.  The world had to rise in a horrendous World War to defeat and eliminate this inhuman pernicious construct of nationalism.

Consider how the RSS/BJP, in the Indian context, seek to establish the rule of the `superior’ with corrective measures against the `inferior’ (Muslims, Christians, other religious minorities, Dalits, Women and of course, Communists). They oppose anybody who does not fit into their idea of the dominant groups, wielding political power and social control.

The RSS construct of nationalism is its ideological-theoretical justification for the establishment of its “Hindu Rashtra” (which is very far from Hinduism and should actually be called the ‘Hindutva Rashtra’.  This is premised on an assertion that “Hindus have been in undisputed and undisturbed possession of this land for over eight or even ten thousand years before the land was invaded by any foreign race”.  And, therefore, this land, “came to be known as Hindustan, the land of the Hindus” (We or Our Nationhood Defined - M S Golwalkar, 1939, p 6).

Hindutva supremacists, having thus "established" that the Hindus were always and continue to remain a nation on the basis of such an unscientific and a historical analysis, RSS proceeds to assert the intolerant, theocratic content of such a Hindutva nation: 

"...The conclusion is unquestionably forced upon us that... in Hindusthan exists and must need exist the ancient Hindu nation and nought else but the Hindu Nation.  All those not belonging to the national ie, Hindu race, religion, culture and language naturally fall out of the pale of real `national' life.

“Consequently only those movements are truly `national' as aim at re-building, re-vitalising and emancipating from its present stupor, the Hindu nation.  Those only are nationalist patriots, who, with the aspiration to glorify the Hindu race and nation next to their heart, are prompted into activity and strive to achieve that goal.  All others are either traitors and enemies to the national cause, or, to take a charitable view, idiots" (Golwalkar, 1939, pp. 43-44). 

They attempt to talk of ‘nationalism’ as a monotone, one-everything, which we saw in the formulation of their slogan ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’, which India continues to reject.

“As for the non-Hindus, it is said that there can have no place in the national life, unless they abandon their differences, adopt the religion, culture and language of the nation and completely merge themselves in the national race.  So long, however, as they maintain their racial, religious and cultural differences, they cannot but be only foreigners" (Golwalkar, 1939, p 45).

"There is, at least should be, no other course for them to adopt.  We are an old nation; let us deal, as old nations ought to and do deal, with the foreign races, who have chosen to live in our country" (Golwalkar, 1939, pp 47-48). 

And how should such `old nations' deal?  The adulation of fascist Germany could not have been more naked.  "The ancient race spirit, which prompted the Germanic tribes to over-run the whole of Europe, has re-risen in modern Germany, with the result that the nation perforce follows aspirations, predetermined by the traditions left by its depredatory ancestors.  Even so with us: our race spirit has once again roused itself as is evidenced by the race of spiritual giants we have produced, and who today stalk the world in serene majesty" (Golwalkar, 1939, p 32). 

Further: "To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races - the Jews.  Race pride at its highest has been manifested here.  Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by" (Golwalkar, 1939, p 35). 

The RSS construct of Hindutva nationalism follows from this that only those are true nationalists who glorify the Hindu race and all others are “either traitors or enemies to the national cause”.  What we see around us today on the insistence of chanting the slogan of Bharat Mata ki Jai (recollect that our armed forces and other security personnel usually greet each other with `Jai Hind’ – a slogan raised by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and the INA.  In every cricket match, the Indian team is encouraged by the crowd, particularly when playing against Pakistan, with shouts of `Hindustan Zindabad’. These, however, are not considered as expressions of nationalism or patriotism by the RSS).

Such `nationalism’ has recently manifested itself sharply in the attack mounted against Jawaharlal Nehru University JNU and its student leaders.  On the basis of fabricated evidence and doctored video footage, the student leaders were arrested under charges of `sedition’ and for promoting `anti-nationalism’. While these matters are now subjects of judicial scrutiny, the manner in which today, very loosely all the political opponents of the RSS-BJP are being drubbed as `anti-national’ is the part of a larger political project. This larger political project is the RSS’s efforts to convert the secular democratic republican character of India as established by our constitution into their conception of a rabidly intolerant fascistic “Hindutva rashtra”. 

The very existence in the future of the Republic of India, as established and as familiar to all of us, is now under a severe threat.  Buttressing this threat is the RSS-BJP concept of nationalism which seeks to replace Indian nationhood with Hindu nationalism.  (In inaugural address to the EMS Smrithi at Thrissur recently, I have detailed the evolution of `Idea of India’ and the consciousness generated by this that united peoples of tremendous diversity and linguistic nationalities into one whole embracing the concept of Indian nationhood.)  The Indian people transcended all their multiple identities – caste, religion, ethnic, linguistic, cultural etc etc – to arrive at a unified consciousness of Indian nationhood.  This is in peril today.

II

How is the media responding to this challenge?  First of all, is it considering this as a challenge?  The Fourth Estate, as the media has been seen under democracies was to act as a mediator between the people and the executive authority, ie, the government.  In the process, the media’s role was not merely to inform but also unify our people in the upholding of our accepted constitutional values and strengthen the spirit of Indian nationhood. 

However, displaying an attitude of being `more loyal than the King’, sections of the media conducted a jingoistic war decrying the JNU/HCU students and buttressing the ideological content and campaign of the current variant of nationalism propagated by the BJP central government.

As noted media personality, Sashi Kumar, says, “Our understanding of a strong state is not a weak or vulnerable citizenry. Our understanding of strong journalism should be that which empowers the citizen against the power of the state, not one that adds to the clout of the state and paves the way for transgressions on the liberties of the citizen.”

But can this be possible in a world where media itself becomes an enterprise whose driving motivation is the maximisation of profits? We are, as a media personality commented, in the midst “of a new era of merchandising journalism”.  A predominantly advertisement revenue dependent news media confronting the global economic slowdown is increasingly taking recourse to the promotion through an embedded form of the new story itself.  The `paid news’ phenomenon that has roused indignation and outrage recently is a byproduct of these times.  A debate in parliament finally ended on a benign suggestion that the media impose on itself a code for `self regulation’.  The world has seen the results of `self regulation’ of global finance in the 2008 financial meltdown!

In this context, it would be useful to recollect the observations made by a respected journalist of international repute, the winner of many of the highest awards for journalism awarded by different countries and the United Nations, John Pilger.  He has authored the thought provoking, well-acclaimed international best seller, “Hidden Agendas”.

In a public lecture on `War by media and the triumph of propaganda’ on December 5, 2014, he made important observations which are relevant to our current situation in India. 

“Why are young journalists not taught to understand media agendas and to challenge the high claims and low purpose of fake objectivity? And why are they not taught that the essence of so much of what's called the mainstream media is not information, but power?

“The times we live in are so dangerous and so distorted in public perception that propaganda is no longer, as Edward Bernays called it, an "invisible government". It is the government. It rules directly without fear of contradiction and its principal aim is the conquest of us: our sense of the world, our ability to separate truth from lies.

“The information age is actually a media age. We have war by media; censorship by media; demonology by media; retribution by media; diversion by media - a surreal assembly line of obedient clichés and false assumptions.”

On what ought to be the role of journalists and the media, he narrates an incident rather than sermonizing. 

“In 2003, I filmed an interview in Washington with Charles Lewis, the distinguished American investigative journalist. We discussed the invasion of Iraq a few months earlier. I asked him, "What if the freest media in the world had seriously challenged George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and investigated their claims, instead of channeling what turned out to be crude propaganda?"

“He replied that if we journalists had done our job "there is a very, very good chance we would have not gone to war in Iraq."

“That's a shocking statement, and one supported by other famous journalists to whom I put the same question. Dan Rather, formerly of CBS, gave me the same answer.  David Rose of the Observer and senior journalists and producers in the BBC, who wished to remain anonymous, gave me the same answer.”

In other words, had journalists done their job, had they questioned and investigated the propaganda instead of amplifying it, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children might be alive today; and millions might not have fled their homes; the sectarian war between Sunni and Shia might not have ignited, and the infamous Islamic State might not now exist.

How do governments manage the media and the journalists, apart from the obvious manipulation of releasing advertisement revenue, to “manufacture consent”?  The following narration gives us many insights into the working of our Central government under PM Modi today. 

Speaking about a senior British official responsible for sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s - a medieval siege that caused the deaths of half a million children under the age of five, reported by UNICEF, John Pilger says, “The official's name is Carne Ross. In the Foreign Office in London, he was known as "Mr. Iraq". Today, he is a truth-teller of how governments deceive and how journalists willingly spread the deception. "We would feed journalists factoids of sanitised intelligence," he told me, "or we'd freeze them out."

Pilger recounts another incident regarding whistleblower Denis Halliday. Then Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and the senior UN official in Iraq, Halliday resigned rather than implement policies he described as genocidal. He estimates that sanctions killed more than a million Iraqis.

“What then happened to Halliday was instructive. He was airbrushed. Or he was vilified. On the BBC's Newsnight programme, the presenter Jeremy Paxman shouted at him: "Aren't you just an apologist for Saddam Hussein?" The Guardian recently described this as one of Paxman's "memorable moments". Last week, Paxman signed a £1 million book deal.”

Surely, this will sound very familiar for most of us accustomed to the prime-time TV anchors’ jingoistic war cries.

In 1977, Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, revealed that more than 400 journalists and news executives worked for the CIA. They included journalists from the New York Times, Time and the TV networks. In 1991, Richard Norton Taylor of the Guardian revealed something similar in (Britain).

“None of this is necessary today. I doubt that anyone paid the Washington Post and many other media outlets to accuse Edward Snowden of aiding terrorism. I doubt that anyone pays those who routinely smear Julian Assange - though other rewards can be plentiful.

“In the 18th century, Edmund Burke described the role of the press as a Fourth Estate checking the powerful. Was that ever true? It certainly doesn't wash any more. What we need is a Fifth Estate: a journalism that monitors, deconstructs and counters propaganda and teaches the young to be agents of people, not power - an insurrection of subjugated knowledge. I would call it real journalism.

“It's 100 years since the First World War. Reporters then were rewarded and knighted for their silence and collusion. At the height of the slaughter, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George confided in C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian: "If people really knew [the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow, but of course they don't know and can't know."

“It's time they knew.”

III

I rest my case. 

We are all proud of some of the finest minds in Indian journalism.  They need to come forward to establish what Pilger calls the Fifth Estate or something of that nature.

The media must stop buttressing the ideological foundations of such pernicious concepts of nationalism that undermine the Indian people’s social consciousness of Indian nationhood and, instead, they must promote genuine pan-Indian consciousness.  This needs to be urgently undertaken in order to stop the current metamorphosis of India – a secular democratic Constitutional Republic into a rabidly intolerant fascistic `Hindutva Rashtra’.