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Here the barbed wires grow

  • Published at 12:03 am September 18th, 2019
File photo of Rohingya mass migration to Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh Mahmud Hossain Opu

Let’s not invent enemies where there aren’t any

Oh, here the barbed wires grow

Here is the dumpster of the great geography

 -- Artcell, Oniket Prantor

Once, there used to be a serene village on the foothills of the Himalayas. A diverse people used to live there. They primarily passed their days through agriculture. They took part in each others’ woes and happinesses. The Hindus would join in the Muslim festivals and the Muslims would do the same. They never knew that they were supposed to be separate. They did not know that the two-nation theory had already been pronounced. Frankly, they did not know what nations were.

But then came Partition, and the people were told that they were not one people, but two nations. Their village was not within one landscape, it was divvied up between two states. They were not a single commune, they were two communities. And they were supposed to hate, and even kill the other. Thus, nationalism, again, showed its fangs, and the village of Turtuk, with all its emotions, was dissected.

This is a story of the weaponization of patriotism and history. This is the story of glorifying death and violence. This is the story of nationalism.

The very history of nationalism is the story of exclusion. In his book The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion, and Nationalism, Adrian Hastings argues that England’s Anglo-Saxon kings were the first to claim their dominions as nations when they mobilized to repel Norse invasions. Therefore, at the origin, the purpose of nationalism is to mobilize popular support for war, and is galvanized through a claim for establishing security for the people.

However, the age of wars has waned, although the ideology of war (ie nationalism) still remains. Even though many believe that the phenomenon of war has declined because of the anti-war activism and consciousness generated by the counterculture movement or the “Better Angels of Our Nature,” I would argue that wars have actually declined because war is bad for capital. In the current day, war still plagues the states where it is a necessary tool for the extraction of resources.

Therefore, the countries that are rich in petroleum and minerals often experience wars.

However, overall, the phenomenon of war has become scarce and the security justification for nationalism is now all but absent for the most part. Therefore, new justifications for nationalistic rhetoric are trumped up by identitarian politicians to play the politics of exclusion all the time. 

They invent security risks in places where no such risk exists. The American right has chosen to vilify the immigrants coming into the country and strengthening the economy on the basis of identitarianism and pronounced them a security risk for the common Americans. (Who can forget Trump’s famous speech about how Mexican migrants are drug-peddlers, criminals, and rapists?)

Of course, the claim that the immigrants in America are “bad hombres” is false, as they are found to be much less criminal than Americans by the Cato Institute, an organization often seen as closely allied with the Republican Party. At the same time, the immigrants do not steal American jobs, but they enhance the economy by taking jobs that Americans would rather not do.

In the same fashion of the American right, the Indian right has recently chosen to otherize its Muslim populations. Trumping up another security risk, also sometimes spun as a risk to the culture and livelihood, they have attacked the way of life of their minorities. They have banned the consumption of beef, and also have recently excluded more than 19,000 people from the structures of citizenship.

These actions of otherization are possible in the name of the national flag, because the very idea of nationalism glorifies exclusion. In order to solidify the idea of a nation, it needs to paint a detailed picture of who is a national and who is not. This is done through distinctions of religion, language, ethnicity, religion, and other identitarian brands. 

But as the establishment of a nation develops a strongly-knit idea of an “us,” it also creates a broadly defined “them.” Anybody who does not fall into the national identity built by nationalism gets shoved to the margin and gets exposed to the risk of disenfranchisement and fanaticism. And because modern-day states are built around the ideas of nations (ergo nation-states), disenfranchisement and discrimination are often felt by those who do not necessarily fit into the ideation of their national identity. 

The US, although not explicitly, was founded under the national identity of rich, white males. As such, those who fall outside of that image have had a hard time accessing the structures of citizenship there -- a struggle that continues to this day. Following the same pattern, the indigenous population in Bangladesh are still struggling to get the rights to their land, language, heritage, and culture, as they were excluded from the grand image of Bangali nationalism.

And when the idea of nationalism is taken as a tenet of a state and a group gets a monopoly on firepower, others subgroups develop within the group, and they plot to reach the top of the chain of violence. This phenomenon is further fuelled by majoritarian democracy, which requires the manipulation of communities into smaller vote banks that can be exploited for votes with the promise of a transfer of prominence (ergo power).

Therefore, the nation splits into sub-nations. If the original nationhood was established on language, they divide themselves by religion, then by caste, then by ethnicity, and the cycle goes on.

What happens due to this vicious cycle is that a people is dissected into small identitarian groups and everyone becomes a minority of one and solidarity withers. A Balkanization of identities is an inevitable result of a weaponization of identity, aka nationalism.

This is how all the good things die. Nationalism is the death of patriotism. Nations are the death of communities. States are the death of communities. Borders are the death of freedom. When can we outgrow this outmoded weapon of dread and build a new method of solidarity that is not fuelled by violence and exclusion? 

Anupam Debashis Roy is a columnist and sub-editor for Dhaka Tribune. He can be reached at [email protected]