The contrasting styles of nationalism and citizenship
Dipankar Gupta Dipankar Gupta | 27 Aug, 2021
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
FROM FEUDAL MINORITY TO NATIONALIST MAJORITY
There was no ‘majority’ population anywhere till nationalism created one from a collection of discrete and separable cultural units. So, when people celebrate Independence Day, the world over, they are felicitating the creation of a novel historical object, namely, the ‘majority’.
Look at all the history books you have on your shelves and nowhere will you find a monarch planning a move to win over a majority of subjects. Colonial rule, too, believed in divide and conquer, and not create majority rule. The idea of a majority is the contribution of nationalism.
This majority came alive because nationalists fused a collective with common memories of wars won and lost, about victories to be cherished and defeats to be avenged. There was also the sacralisation of soil, the motherland and, for the first time, a community became geography.
On the other hand, when democratic countries celebrate the republic (as we do on January 26th) they are now felicitating the individual with ‘rights’, where culture and tradition are secondary. No longer is the ‘majority’ upfront, but the culturally unencumbered ‘rights’ bearing individual.
Therefore, on Independence Day, we remember the past and how we fought oppressors, but on Republic Day, we vision the future, the past is not as relevant. It is ironical that Independence Day is celebrated in India in relative calmness while on Republic Day guns are on full display.
When nationalism created the category called ‘majority’ it was by accreting and accommodating several disaggregated population clusters. The avant-garde, the thinkers, of nationalism were those in business and commerce as they were best equipped to overturn the feudal economy.
Unlike feudalism, nationalism requires that the ways of life and language of the avant-garde be open to all. Those who adopted them, prospered, but those who could not, either because of social handicaps or prejudices, suffered. When the euphoria was over, these people felt left out.
This is why the Welsh, otherwise proud of their language, agreed to be subservient to the English. This is also the reason the languages of Breton and Occitan were trumped by French. It took time, and a certain contingent advantage, even ‘luck’, for a language and lifestyle to come up on top.
The idea of a majority is the contribution of nationalism. This majority came alive because nationalists fused a collective with common memories of wars won and lost, about victories to be cherished and defeats to be avenged. On the other hand, when democratic countries celebrate the republic (as we do on January 26th) they are now felicitating the individual with ‘rights’, where culture and tradition are secondary
This process required a modicum of consensus between once fractious, dissenting groups to weld together a ‘majority’. It might seem so natural today, but it really never was. When the clock started ticking, at nationalism’s start, a consensual majority culture was nowhere in place.
Unlike, feudalism, or colonialism, where privilege was restricted, the spirit of nationalism strove to be culturally inclusive as it only had numbers on its side to beat the monarchs and colonialists with. So, everybody was invited; it’s another matter that some felt awkward at the party.
THE RULING MINORITY OF FEUDALISM
There were many reasons why majority and minority consciousness grew alongside nationalism. The most important being that the ruling class the nationalist displaced was almost always made up of minorities, if not by religion, then by language and etiquette.
Typically, the pre-democratic phase was either characterised by direct monarchy, say, the Bourbons in France, or mediated monarchy, as in Belgian Congo, or colonialism, of which India is probably the best-known example. Medieval India too had its share of ambitious, warring kings.
When nationalism came to these countries, it was against this minority that proudly represented itself, first and foremost. The populace outside this hallowed circle was differentiated according to inherited customs and traditions which, if left to themselves, subdivided further.
Thus, there are so many branches of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and even Sikhism. The idea of ‘majority’ was yet to be born but what was in full flow was the battle over privileges. Naturally, being close to the minority elite and assuming their lifestyle was the way to go.
These minorities in pre-democratic times were like layers of a pyramid where each layer comprised discrete, discontinuous blocks, not a single, continuous plank. When these blocks struggled internally to get closest to the singular block on top, the pyramid had to be readjusted.
The challenge to this minority rule did not come from democracy but from nationalism. Nationalism created a majority out of myriad minorities and this was possible as the singular minority on top was hated by most minorities below. For the first time, numbers began to count.
In nationalism, the majority, cobbled together by the combination of many minorities, topples the ruling minority. Now minority allegiances, in their fractionated form, mattered little. The need of the hour was to forge a majority large enough to oust the hated minority at the top.
Nationalist ideology, however, shared some commonalities with earlier minority identity passions. There was, once again, the emphasis on traditional qualities of inherent superiority and the prejudicial marking of the outsider, except these now took place on a supra-local scale.
In sum, we need to remember that while nationalism creates a majority, all too often, it also creates minorities as a byproduct. This could be because past prejudices hold on, or because the social status of some communities stays poorer than the rest, or a combination of the two.
On Independence Day, we remember the past and how we fought oppressors, but on Republic Day, we vision the future, the past is not as relevant. It is ironical that Independence Day is celebrated in India in relative calmness, while on Republic Day guns are on full display
Nationalist leaders brought together a majority from a collection of communities and interest groups that hitherto led separate discrete lives. Yet, it did not abandon the idea of the minority, even needed it periodically to fire patriotic passions. But democracy marches to a different drum.
FROM MINORITIES TO CITIZENS
Nationalism converts ‘subjects’ of the monarchical/colonial period to ‘people’ whom democracy later turns into ‘citizens’. ‘Subjects’ of the past belonged to culturally bound, introverted communities. Nationalism united them as ‘people’ for they now had a common enemy.
Democracy unsettled this notion of the ‘people’, replacing it with the ‘citizen’, heralding a dramatic turn in politics. The ‘citizen’ is also more novel because it is determinedly future-looking. It daringly blanks out past traditions from the consideration of an individual’s worth.
Now, for the first time, the individual is not part of a collective called people, burdened by the summons of history and culture, but an unencumbered person with ‘rights’ and rights alone. This upsets old political calculations and if they do not, red flags should be out.
Once the citizen is in, to play minority politics is betrayal to a cause. However, in many electoral polities today, power seekers find it easier to win over leaders of purported minorities. Rooting out the source of minority fears on the ground is arduous, hence not quite as attractive.
Citizenship-driven democracy is fundamentally opposed to the idea of a minority. The effort now is to create a majority of unencumbered individuals for whom tradition is purely voluntary, and not compelling. This new majority knows no minority, because it is made up of equal citizens.
Therefore, on August 15th, we in India, celebrate the birth of the ‘people’, the collective, but on January 26th we felicitate ourselves as individual ‘citizens’. Is there a majority now? Yes, but a majority of individual citizens with rights and not of ‘people’ who find meaning in a community.
When democracy comes in, after nationalism, there is still the real or imagined, lingering threat of evil foreign powers. Even so, democracy strives to make minorities an irrelevant category by positioning ‘citizens’ above ‘people’, and creating an undifferentiated, culturally blind majority.
Culture, in its pure form, is thus put in its place and, alongside, the attention is now on universal law: a law that makes sure all are treated equally, especially at the starting point. If nationalism created patriotism to check suspicious minorities, democracy creates citizens with equal ‘rights’.
This makes ‘minority’ an irrelevant category and it is the aim of democracy to end the consciousness and politics that comes with it. As democracy advances, minority consciousness should retreat, leaving behind an ever-growing majority, a single majority, of individual citizens.
MINORITY PROTECTION AND CITIZENSHIP
Minority protection is actually alien to democracy. It is, at best, a special provision if, for some anachronistic, undemocratic reason, a community is discriminated against, denied citizenship and access to the mainstream. This demands immediate correction, not protracted protection.
Such blips should be temporary and democracy must correct them before they begin to fester and create special interest groups. When there are only citizens there can be no minority, only individuals. Logically, there can be no majority either, unless it is a majority of citizens.
Democracy’s task then is to dissolve the majority that nationalism created and put in its place citizens who stand equal and separate, bound only by universal law. Not surprising then that democracy leaves no culture unmolested; they must now all conform to universal law.
It is, therefore, incorrect to believe that what appears to be the cultural ‘majority’ in democracies was always the original condition. This would then leave only currently designated ‘minority’ cultures to alter themselves, adapt to new demands, while others do little to become full citizens.
Here we shall argue differently. The lessons of successful democracies show that the first round of cultural adjustment began with those who, today, are retrospectively grouped as the ‘majority’ community. This is true of all democracies, particularly the more successful ones.
The demands of citizenship do not course down a one-way street where only the minorities mind the rules while the ‘majority’ can cross where it pleases. When democracy takes over from nationalism, it brings about a citizen majority by crafting legal and cultural compromises.
CITIZENSHIP AGAINST TRADITION
In most cases, that community sets the original standard which is already economically ascendant. Even so, it must adjust its ways, mind its manners to attract others and come to a first, rude summation of a majority. Then more compromises happen, till all are in.
It is worth reiterating that no tradition, left to itself and untrained, can be a friend of democracy. If this sounds strange, it is because habit has made us believe that all democracies are governed by dispositions of the extant dominant tradition and culture, forgetting how new they really are.
The chartists and the suffragettes had to fight for universal franchise for decades, actually for nearly a century, but the Indian constitution decreed that from the start. In addition, what it also did, by a supreme stroke of the pen, was to abolish caste-based practices from public life
It is when we ignore these many vital steps necessary to come to the end product that we nurture the unseemly obduracy between majorities and minorities. The truth is that the universal law of citizenship forces all traditions to adjust, not just the ‘minority’ ones. There are no favourites.
If we stay true to the logic of democracy, then it is clear that there are more adjustments in store for a single, big majority of individual citizens. The truth is that citizenship leaves no culture untouched. What is now a majority is on account of compromises and more are waiting.
Likewise, the minorities of today should also be ready to be part of this ever-growing majority. The resistances to this can be lessened across the board once all parties realise that citizenship leaves nobody, and no culture, untouched. There is nothing stellar in being culturally obstinate.
With citizenship comes true democracy and inclusiveness keeps growing with time. This is how Christian majority, later the white majority, in Europe came about. This is also how the Hindu majority emerged in India from a potpourri of diverse cults, inheritance and marriage systems.
As will soon be clear, it was cultural pruning initiated by our Constitution and not cultural swagger ordained by tradition that allowed for a Hindu majority to emerge. A similar process brought about a majority in Europe as well. The so-called ‘original condition’ is, factually, a myth.
THE MAKING OF THE HINDU MAJORITY
India began its democratic career soon after Independence when its Constitution came into effect in 1950, which is, by all accounts, a remarkable document. The transition from ‘people’ to ‘citizen’ happens in the Preamble itself, and this should instantly suggest our Constitution’s intentions.
In this we beat even the self-conscious French Constitution. In the American Constitution the term ‘citizen’ appears well after the first paragraph; in the Italian Constitution, in Article 3; in the Spanish, in Section 9; in the Swedish, in Chapter 2; and in the German, way down in Article 16.
That a traditional, economically backward, ex-colonised country could arrive at a constitution as advanced as this is because of the sagacity of its founding figures. They took full advantage of being latecomers by absorbing lessons from the experiences of earlier, established democracies.
The Chartists and the Suffragettes had to fight for universal franchise for decades, actually for nearly a century, but the Indian Constitution decreed that from the start. In addition, what it also did, by a supreme stroke of the pen, was to abolish caste-based practices from public life.
Soon after India became a republic, it also took on Hindu practices that related to marriage and succession and created a single law, replacing many sectional, sectarian and tribal practices. It was not easy, frustrating even the likes of BT Ambedkar, but finally the Hindu majority was born and it has held good for over 75 years
India did not stop there, but later laws spelt out the punishments reserved for casteist behaviour. Soon after it became a republic, it also took on Hindu practices that related to marriage and succession and created a single law, replacing many sectional, sectarian and tribal practices.
It was in the years 1955-56 that the Hindu Succession Act, the Hindu Marriage Act, the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act were made into law. It was not easy, frustrating even the likes of BR Ambedkar, but finally the Hindu majority was born and it has held good for over 75 years.
Nobody today will support polygamy, as some eminent people did in the mid-1950s, arguing that among Hindus marriage was a sacrament, not a contract. Some of those worthies also said that amending the Constitution in this fashion would also undermine the foundations of a family.
Very recently, two judgments further diminished patriarchy in Hindu practice. In 2015, the Delhi High Court pronounced that a single woman need not disclose the name of her child’s father and yet be eligible to be its guardian. This ruling amended the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act.
In 2016, the Delhi High Court also decreed that a woman can be “karta”, or head, of Hindu Undivided Family property. This is in addition to the 2005 judgment that allowed women to inherit family property, including agricultural land. Studies show this has begun to happen, but needs to pick up pace.
On this count, it must be acknowledged that traditional Christian and Muslim laws were much more even-handed in their dispensation, though far from being dismissive of patriarchy. Unfortunately, the implementation of a uniform civil code is still blocked in political corridors.
It is through these legal changes and the adoption of cultural norms that were in accord with citizenship that the Hindu majority was established and consolidated. Legally now, the term “Hindus” includes Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists as uniformities were created between them.
That this made a real difference is because it pertained to matters of succession, inheritance, maintenance and property. Prior to this, even among Hindus, there were different inheritance laws, most notably the Dayabhaga in eastern India and the Mitakshara elsewhere in the country.
Over and above these two, there was the Mayukha system too in western India, including Konkan and Gujarat. Then there was the specific form of inheritance among the matrilineal Nayars of Kerala. Besides, large tracts of Tribal India had their own, quite distinct inheritance customs.
While we are at it, please note how the law flattened cultural differences between the Dravidian cross-cousin marriage and the ‘kanyadaan’ practice of the north. The divergences between the two once had a range of sociological implications but now these are legally irrelevant.
What some legislators should realise is that a uniform civil code does not deny minorities their culture but blunts only those aspects of tradition that hurt citizenship. It is by making incremental moves of this kind that we eventually create the ever-expanding citizen majority in democracies.
In Goa, the Portuguese Code of Civil Procedure, though advanced in some matters, allows women to inherit 50 per cent of the property but only if they get married the Catholic way in a church. If this were to be modified along the lines of the uniform civil code, that would further bump up the majority.
Despite such advances, the imposition of Hindu dietary taboos on the rest inhibits majority formation and keeps minority fears alive. Minorities must also accept that while beef-eating is not disallowed by Islam, neither is it a necessary aspect of their religious observance.
MAKING A MAJORITY IN EUROPE
Textbook versions suggest that majorities were already in place in Europe and it is this that made nationalism easy to march in. This is a post hoc rationalisation and unmindful of history. Europe did not just have multiple, discrete communities but they were also frequently at war.
There were Germans ruling over English-speaking soil and Spaniards in German kingdoms. Nowhere then, in the original condition of modern nation-states, was there just one single culture or language. The credo of ‘one language, one religion, one nation’ has always been a fiction.
Strife was everywhere when the Austro-Hungarian empire fell; and Italy, it may be recalled, experienced all of this in a near-pure form. Battles raged in 1861-90 as Sardinians clashed against Bourbons who fought the Sicilians and all of this over the idea of Italy.
The transition from ‘people’ to ‘citizen’ happens in the preamble itself, and this should instantly suggest our constitution’s intentions. In this we beat even the self-conscious French Constitution
Till recently, many unthinkable community restrictions applied even in the West. Till 1926, Harvard had curbs on Jewish enrolment. Till 1850, in line with the 17th century Test Acts, Britain disallowed even Methodists and Presbyterians from entering Oxford and Cambridge.
Very recently, in 2013, the Succession to Crown Act underwent a major amendment and it now allows Britain’s constitutional monarch to marry a Catholic. It was not just non-Protestant Christians who were minoritised and persecuted, but even the dissenting Protestant ones.
In France, the Third Republic, after 1870, came down heavily on the hitherto unchallenged Catholic church. In 1905, matters came to a head when France inaugurated its version of secularism, or laïcité, which finally ended all attempts at supremacy by the Catholic hierarchy.
From 1905 on, no Christian symbol, the Holy Cross in particular, could be worn by any French official, including government school teachers. Ernest Renan advised the French to forget the persecution of Huguenots on St Barthomelew’s Day in order to firm up citizenship in France.
As these barriers fell, the Christian majority gradually emerged in Europe and even Jews in North America have now begun to wonder how suddenly they have become ‘white folks’. The bells and whistles of culture could stay but aspects that offended citizenship had to go.
CONCLUSION: MAKING A MAJORITY
Democracy initiated these attacks on iniquitous tradition because citizenship demanded them. It was not the cultural majority but the micro-minority that was now the focus of attention. As TH Marshall presciently argued, citizenship confers equality of status on all as the starting point.
In this process, as we have noticed, traditional customs and practices that supported a cultural majority had no place in their original form. Instead, it was time now to create a majority comprising only citizens. This is a paradox, because the citizen, in essence, is a micro-minority.
Citizens, if they so wished, could stay culturally un-encumbered. Alternatively, they could hold on to their cultural practices so long as they did not harm the premises of democracy and the promises of citizenship. Cultural practices, indeed all cultures, have to submit to this condition.
Today, for many, our prior culturally antagonistic pasts are difficult to recall, which is to the advantage of citizenship. All communities, majority and minority, carried ideological baggage that weighed them down, but citizenship set them free and lightened the load.
That is, in a significant way, a positive outcome because it denotes a satisfying culmination of a difficult process. Every culture had to behave to get here. Multiculturalism today wants us to return to a fractionated past and its appeal must be thwarted if citizenship is to advance.
The direction of democracy, needless to say, should pull us inexorably towards dissolving majority and minority consciousnesses and proclaiming a single citizenship instead.
This is the grand majority that still awaits us: a majority of individual citizens confident of their place in law.
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