Interviews and Opinions

Thinking Beyond the Nation in South Asia

(This interview by Asif Bin Ali was initially published in the Dhaka, Bangladesh-based, The Daily Observer on Thursday, 28 March, 2019. It took as its point of departure the publication of the book, Against the Nation: Thinking Like South Asians by Sasanka Perera, Dev Nath Pathak and Ravi Kumar (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), and discusses issues of nationalism, the place of the nation in local politics and ways of moving beyond the nation to think of a broader sense of South Asia. It is presented in TAP Interviews courtesy of Asif Bin Ali)

Asif Bin Ali: In present time, in South Asia the idea of the nation has become a divisive tool of populist and violent politics within national borders as well as in relations with other nations. Do you think that, a call for dismantling of nationhood or nationality within academia would be welcomed in the traditional academic practice of South Asia?

Ravi Kumar: I would like to begin with this correction that the idea of the nation carried within itself seeds of divisive politics. Hence, it should not be taken as unexpected or as something new. Historically, we have seen nation states evolving and going through different phases depending on the balance of class forces within those nations. Borders were created and they are reaffirmed as well as in recent case of India-Pakistan tensions but then there are also efforts to bridge the gaps created by the borders.

When the ruling class seeks expansion of their markets the borders do not matter but when it comes to the possibility of people getting together then suddenly borders, as symbols of nationalism, become significant. If the ruling class of a nation is confronted with crisis inside or when it wants to consolidate itself one of the ideas that comes handy is that of nation. And what can be a better way to invoke this idea than through also constructing an enemy, the other.

I understand that nation and nationalism is the new opium that is being injected into the veins of masses so that they forget about the issues of their everyday existence – hunger, poverty, precariousness or marginalization of different kinds. Political forces across South Asia are geared towards this and there is an overwhelming orientation among political parties towards.

Everybody plays his or her politics on the turf that renders nation as sacrosanct. This needs to be questioned but the difficulties arise because the intellectuals are also under the influence of this opium. So, I would say that this proposition of doing away with national borders would not go well with the academics and academia in general. I get astounded why sensible and progressive intellectuals in physical vicissitudes of South Asian University are also acting as if they are oblivious about what I and a few of my colleagues are talking. They are not ignorant, the fact is that they do not want to get out of their comfort zones defined by the national borders.

Breaching borders is essential and I would say that we need to really work on conceptual categories that would define and analyse the South Asian societies. When capital is globalized, when it does not believe in borders then why is it that sociologists, anthropologists and others find it so difficult to understand that the breached borders are also revealing through the holes possibilities of studying societies impacted alike by the rule of capital. Entry needs to be made through these holes. This is only one instance, there can be many only if academics make an effort to go beyond the conceptual commodity called South Asia merely because it may lead them to success.

Asif Bin Ali: Ashish Nandy has referred South Asian States, for instance India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as ‘garrison states’ in where most states prefer to define themselves, “not by what they are, but by what they are not”.  How your academic endeavour my help to overcome the limited imagination of the nation?

Ravi Kumar: Nandy is talking about the nature of states in the region. He also mentions somewhere how these states also fully centralized and dissent-free.

The need is to create a counter-narrative to how state/s work. It is also about a sensibility among intellectuals towards understanding that the states and nations will work in a particular way and for certain goals, which are nothing but the expressions of the ruling classes that are represented by these states and nations. Some thinkers might also argue that it is useless to talk of a counter-narrative in reference with the state because the fear is to get replicated as the state itself, which might be true in a certain sense. Academics need to be independent and autonomous from the state (which also means from the politics of the ruling class), which is sadly not the case.

Unless there is autonomy one cannot think beyond the given and drawn boundaries and then my academic endeavour to undo the boundaries of the nation state will not work. I must also emphasise that there is a difference between circumventing the boundaries and undoing the boundaries. While the former believes in coexistence (letting the borders remain) the latter asks for its dissolution. Unfortunately, majority of academia is not even ready for the former and the reason is their myopia to look at phenomenon such as globalization of capital in a myopic form. In other words, they do not understand that while capital moves around borders freely and creates problems and crisis alike in different nations scholars do not think of even moving freely intellectually across borders. What stops sociologists from looking at the impact of neoliberal capitalism in Bangladesh and India, for instance is something I could not understand. They seldom look at it even within their own courtyards but there is a possibility. Development induced displacement, rising inequality, death of social movements, repression of labour, increasing populism or death of liberal bourgeois democracy are only a few of themes that they could have worked on.

Hence, unless the academia develops a perspective that looks beyond nation states and starts to understand how capital is working within South Asia they will not buy into what I am saying and that is why they are not buying into it right now despite being very open-minded, liberal and progressive.

Asif Bin Ali: In the context of South Asia, the comfort was ensured for academics by restricting scholarly attentions to everything predefined, such as territories, nationality, thematic issues of enquiry, and methodology. Accepting this could ensure national funding also. Then why you are engaging yourselves in an approach which aims to understand to read South Asia beyond the limitations of the category of ‘nation?

Ravi Kumar: I want to look beyond nation because nations were creations of particular moments in history, particular historical circumstances. I might have momentarily gone with the category of nation when fight against colonialism was going on but the historical circumstances have altered. We are no longer contesting colonialism of early 20th century. We are today confronted with a situation wherein nations are nothing but tools at the hands of the ruling economic and political class across South Asia to manipulate public opinion.

And this usage of the category of nation creates permanent divisions across all fields. So, take the example of a recent film called Kesari released in India, which celebrates the efforts of 21 Sikhs who repelled the ‘invaders’ in Afghanistan. Now the film crew in India is asking for the battle of Saragarhi to be included in textbooks. I asked my Afghan students in class whether those Afghans in the battle of Saragarhi were invaders and their answer was in negative. In other words, people appearing as invaders for this nationalist film crew were fighters against British colonialism for the people of Afghanistan. The Indians today also seem happy to co-opt the soldiers who were fighting for British colonial powers as nationalists and this is something which appears an extreme aberration of nation-lism for me. Such manipulated history furthers the divide in minds of people across borders. When you are in grips of such a chauvinistic wave, which is to ensure that people do not recognize the basic problems of poverty, inequality, diminishing access to health and education facilities and so on, my research on limitations of nation will not have much takers. That is sad for academia.

Asif Bin Ali:  How your approach will challenge the conventional and familiar issues of enquiry by opening new frontiers and pushing the disciplinary boundaries for instance sociology or IR? In addition with that, how it could influence non-Indian academia in South Asia?

Ravi Kumar: My research is not about Indian academics only or what I have said above is not only about Indian academia. The same is true of other South Asian academia. Sociology needs to broaden its horizon and so does IR. I am fed up of the rhetorics that they engage in – such as that of being ‘critical’. Is being ‘critical’ mean simply saying something against the grain or does it have a deeper meaning. To me, it has a deeper meaning. It must locate the politics of knowledge production in the deeper socio-economic structures. Fancy liberal ideas of allowing everyone space is nothing but playing into the hands of the dominant hegemonic ideas (which are ideas of a certain class).

One needs to define what are their ideas, how they subvert the existing frame of knowledge and how they would alter the ways of thinking. With so many ‘critical’ academics situation does not seem to alter. Knowledge production is a political battlefield. How are we going to define our curriculum, pedagogy, writings and researches; by taking what sides is important. Disciplinary boundaries have killed the appetite for knowledge and they have fragmented our vision of the world. Academics is more about suing fashionable, correct terminologies, more incomprehensible the better intellectual you are.

I always think of thinkers like Maulana Bhasani and Swami Sahjanand Saraswati, who were not products of universities like ours, who talked in people’s language and were much better thinkers than us. Why can’t we breach disciplinary borders looking at such thinkers? Unfortunately, even if we look at them we reify them, make them one more item in the large academic palate, killing their thought and meaning like what academia did to Karl Marx. A lot needs to be done on the front of knowledge production.




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