Nationalism and projects based on it are paraded a lot like toys — mine is better than yours. The only reason for mine being better than yours is, of course, that it happened to be mine to begin with. There are perhaps objective measures for assessing how developed a particular nationalism project or a nation state is. But there is no way of objectively gauging which nation state deserves greater allegiance from a human being. A nation state’s commitment to or departure from objectively noble ideals (if there is such a thing) are hardly any help in determining the amount of fidelity that it commands or deserves.
Some people think of nationalism in the same vein as patriotism — others call it “love for my country”. I am, of course, a product of this system. Punjab Textbook Board and its monstrously distorted curriculum played no small part in shaping my belief that a line in the sand somehow makes ‘us’ superior to ‘them’. As long as you are on this side you are fine but if you cross a man-made line, you are on the wrong side. Your status as a human being is secondary, what matters most is the colour of your passport or which side of the border you happened to be born.
It is baffling in some ways. The nation state where I am from was not around 500 years ago. It may not be around 500 years later. It happens. Human beings will probably still be around though. So which ideal, if any, is less transient and deserves more fidelity? That is something to think about.
Growing up, one learns different versions of love: love of and from your parents, siblings, country, sport, nature et al. Perhaps the most insecure of all these versions of love is the one we claim to profess in terms of nationalism or patriotism. And that is what sets it apart from all other kinds of love. It has now reached a point where I often ask myself, “am I over patriotism?” I am neither ashamed nor proud that I ask myself that. Scandalising myself with my own thoughts can be an interesting exercise. However, I would much rather profess fellow feeling towards another person because he is a human being rather than because we hold the same passport or because our grandparents (for one reason or another) bought into an idea to cross a line. This is not meant to show disrespect for political ideas (or grandparents) but merely to question which worldview allows us to be a more humane individual.
This insecurity and I mean constant insecurity that is characteristic of patriotism is not just an obvious feature — but perhaps a necessary condition — to keep all superiority related myths alive. There is always a threat that needs to be fought off; or so we are told. One day it is a film (Phantom) and the top court in the province feels compelled to ensure that a fictional depiction of a cross-border raid is not allowed to insult us.
Our love, honour and self-esteem is apparently shaped by films in a theatre. Watching a story that someone imagined and enacted will somehow rob us of the ability to respect our country.
In fact, we are told, the film itself is allegedly defamatory of Pakistan. I can well understand if a citizen of Pakistan wants to sue that particular material is defamatory of his person — he is well within his rights to seek an injunction and claim damages. You may or may not think that there would be a strong case for defamation but at least the argument would be comprehensible.
But that is not what happened.
A film’s depiction of a Pakistani citizen was equated with the honour of Pakistan. Since a nation-state cannot rise up and speak for itself, individuals claim to represent what the nation wants. That is how pompous, arrogant and insecure nationalism can be.
Furthermore, rampant nationalism lacks a sense of humour — and therefore I am increasingly wary of it.
Then there are dangers from within. Political dissent or stinging criticism is to be nipped in the bud. Altaf Hussain’s speeches are the latest to suffer. It was perhaps not a coincidence that courts in Lahore (and not Karachi) were moved to have his speeches banned and courts are almost always smart enough to know this. Therefore, the citizenry expects courts to make more balanced choices.
Instead of restraint, the court chose to gag speech that does not fit into the strait-jacket of pre-existing, ‘we live in dangerous times’ notions of love or respect for the country. What states often forget is that speech banned does not make the thought or dissent disappear — it breeds resentment, becomes suppurate, eating away at the flesh of the project till a limb falls apart.
This has happened to us before. The insecurity, allegedly a result of love for the country, is perhaps a good sign that this is not love at all — but a burning desire to mould the country in a way that admits of no dissent.
Is it power? Desperation? A desire to be relevant?
Political actors in a state, especially dissidents, are not children who can be made to cower by telling them to shut up. Banning and gagging speech is impossible to ensure in today’s world of digital and social media. Of course there is the age-old method of killing and dumping people but that too runs into problems since it cannot be done too frequently — only to the point where it does not upset the project.
None of this is meant to suggest that one should not love his/her country. Nature and nurture will cause some fellow-feeling but when the so-called love for an abstract idea (i.e. a nation state) trumps concerns for fellow human beings (within and across borders), there is reason to worry. Equally disturbing is the certitude that makes one feel superior to other human beings (whether in the name of nationalism or religion).
It has always amused me to notice how so many Muslims in Pakistan love using Islam to argue that one race is not superior over another — yet we have no qualms feeling that one nationality is somehow superior or plainly better than the other. There is the argument that we, as a nation state, are the ‘chosen one’. The only problem is that, at some level, at least 195 other states in the world think the same. Taiwan is trying to convince everyone that the number is 196.
There are a whole host of theories explaining why we buy into the whole superiority myth — be it based on a religious identity, divine sanction, roots in or promise of a particular land etc. I am not sure where I stand on those but what I do realise is my own insignificance. My passport, religion, country, ethnicity, even education are all accidents of birth. If that makes me think I am superior to another human being then there is something awry.
No version of love ought to be characterised by an insecurity that makes one want to constantly control thought and language of others. Or even feel regularly insulted by another’s thoughts. Love ought to breed security, respect but never certitude or servility. Loving Pakistan is fine but need it be based on belittling others? Are we going to constantly look around as to whether the other citizens are professing enough love for this country? If they do not, do we shut them up or force them to love more?
Even God does not demand that. But then again, we say the same thing about God as nationalism: mine is better than yours.