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A Nation is a people in conversation

Professor Rajeev Bhargava, Institute for Social Justice and CSDS

This article was originally published by The Hindu

So anyone stopping this conversation, in the name of managing or resolving conflict, is damaging it

What is a nation? Above all, it is a people self-consciously bound together by common or overlapping concerns about their past, present and future. This self-conscious awareness of commonality is not genetically encoded. Nor does it drop from the sky. It grows when people talk and listen to one another and, through oral and written communication, understand each other. This is easy among families and in villages concentrated in a small territory where people meet face-to-face, but how do common concerns develop amongst an entire people, virtual strangers to one another, and spread over a large territory?

The short answer is that without a public culture forged first by print and then an electronic media, there would be no conversation amongst a whole people, no development of common concerns and therefore no nation. So, it is entirely apt to say that a nation exists only as long as there is a continuous conversation among its members about what it was, is, will and should be. A disruption of this conversation is the undoing of a nation.

Matters of common concern

This conversation is also about what the nation should do. This is an unprecedented achievement of our own age. For conversations now are not just passive and contemplative, mere post-facto reflections, but can yield decisions on which a people may act.

A modern nation is a collective agent; its members can together strive to realise goals they have set for themselves. For example, India together must discuss and find ways to reduce unemployment, resolve the conflict in Kashmir and alleviate the distress of its farmers. This was impossible in earlier societies where decisions about the future of society were taken by a small band of elites, notably chieftains and kings, largely to protect their own interests and only secondarily for the people.

To be sure, such conversations and interconnected action could have existed in the past.

Some elites dispersed across large territories may well have had a conversation about things in common. How else does one explain the spread of Bhakti or Vedantic ideas across large swathes of India? Yet, what is new in our time is that in principle any Indian can begin a conversation on any matter and turn it into an issue of common and pervasive concern. An issue of a particular community, say, ‘triple talaq’ adversely affects only Muslim women and is primarily a matter between Muslim men and women, but can be viewed, at least secondarily, as a matter of common concern. Likewise, the exclusion of Hindu women from some temples may not affect non-Hindus but can be raised by them as a matter of more general concern.

The philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, says somewhere that the distinguishing mark of an intellectual is that he sticks his nose into every other person’s business. However, in the age of democracy and modern nations, this trait is widespread; provided he empathetically understands it in all its complexity and nuance, virtually anyone can make another person’s interest a matter of his and common concern.

If this is so, an important implication ensues for the ethics of nationhood: No one should be prevented from turning a particular matter into an issue of common concern, excluded from this conversation, not even those with whom one profoundly disagrees. For having a conversation is not the same as agreement. When a very large group begins a conversation, different voices, interests, ideas about the common good participate in it.

Some of these differences go deep, and surface for the first time only during conversation and cause dissonance. For example, currently, issues pertaining to Kashmir are so fraught that even an academic argument by a professor causes intense heat.

Not surprisingly, the public arenas where such conversations take place are a frequent site of conflict. Both the expression of conflict and its artful management (ensuring that it does not blow up) are crucial for a productive conversation.

If a nation is a people in conversation, then anyone stopping this conversation is damaging it. Such ‘conversation-stoppers’ act in two ways. First, under the illusion that they are managing or resolving conflict, they forcibly remove some groups from the public arena, depriving them of means of expressing their particular concerns and arguments.

Some violent extremists even do so for more pernicious reasons; for instance, it is the avowed aim of terrorists to terminate this conversation. Such suppression of disagreement or conflict undoes a nation.

Second, after allowing differing voices to enter the arena, they adopt disruptive tactics — shout down, abuse, and troll them, making participation so unpleasant and fearful that interlocutors are compelled to give it up. This too contributes to the unravelling of a nation.

For the sake of the nation

One final point: A nation — a people in conversation on common issues —is not the same thing as a state, i.e. public power concentrated in specific institutions such as the parliament, government, judiciary, army, police and bureaucracy.

Nations may exist without states and states without nations. Moreover, the nation is ethically prior to the state; the state exists for the sake of the nation. At no point must the state hijack the conversation, dictate its agenda or control it. It is a part of the conversation, not its permanent leader. Indeed, it is its duty to rein in those who disrupt or block conversation. The nation expects it.

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