Nationalism is very much the zeitgeist of the times as in the age of strong men in global politics, anchoring of identity politics has become mainstream in everyday governance. 

Nationalism is the register of belonging to an idea. In the words of Indonesianist Benedict Anderson, ‘a nation is an imagined community where various diverse groups of citizens pledge allegiance to an idea of a nation’. 

Asia’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, referred to nationalism as the last refuge of the scoundrel. As a universalist, he imagined the world as a borderless entity, much in contradiction to everyday realpolitik of the security apparatus. The practice of nationalism is ingrained in the bureaucratic paperwork in our passports, voter ids and the biopolitics of the Aadhar card. Nationalism of the Indian genre is internalised, articulated and practiced from various ideological vantage points. It is the notion of a shared heritage and might be subject to a reductionist understanding as a result of being open to varied interpretations.

It is paradoxical, but the idea of belonging to the nation is often conceptualised from being the outsider or being the ‘other’. I grew up in the Sultanate of Oman, where my parents were educators. My sense of being Indian was carved early in life at passport controls, where I was often asked curtly by the immigration office, why did I want to travel alone at such an early age? This was in the mid- 1990s, and overseas travel to the Gulf was not perceived as emancipatory vis-a-vis travel to the West.

At passport control in the Gulf, I saw the indigo blue passport not being held in high esteem, although this has dramatically evolved in the Modi era, with increasing close relations with the Sheikhs, Emirs and Sultans of the GCC. These experiences shape one’s nationalism in a forked manner; either it makes one more aware of the sense of being the outsider and strengthens one’s national identity or it makes one run for a passport with greater travelling power. 

The sense of being Indian was ingrained in me every time I faced racist or discriminatory taunts and this ‘othering’ reinforced my commitment towards maintaining my indigo blue passport, even though I have lived overseas in the Gulf and South East Asia for most of my life. I happened to also line up for two days, first to get my ticket and then for the main address, when Prime Minister Modi visited and addressed the Indian diaspora in Muscat, on February 11th, 2018. 

The performance and practice of long-distance nationalism is channelized through remittances and culture. The Indian growing up outside the country engages with his/her Indian-ness at the Indian School, where the morning assembly starts with the National Anthem and by celebrating Indian festivals, playing Dandiya during Navratri on Falguni Pathak’s tracks and the occasional temple visit in the historic Al Fahidi in Bur Dubai or the Shiva Temple in Old Muscat. 

Post-colonial India’s engagement with the diaspora was poor as priority was placed on securing independence for those in Africa and Asia. Also, especially in East Africa, the diaspora then was largely of imperial collaborators. The genealogical nationalism of Indian-ness for the diaspora has been cultural and internalised in the face of severe paucity, due to the lack of marginalized support from the Indian state. 

The current dispensation, however, has broadened the envelope for partaking in an inclusive nationalism in two ways. For the affluent diaspora, it is the Overseas Citizen of India scheme. For people who have faced religious persecution, such as Hindus from Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is the recent amendments to the Citizenship Act.

This is in line with the Chinese concept of the motherland, which the Community Party follows to engage the Chinese diaspora. China has a diaspora as prosperous as India. However, Chinese experience with its diaspora is under the scanner due to its influence-peddling schemes in countries such as Singapore and Australia. The US-China trade war does not help much either. On the contrary, Indians are seen to be model minorities with an excellent track record. 

Indian communities which reside in the Gulf hold Indian passports, and with no pathways to citizenship in the region, they are more invested back home; for instance, they watch India TV on their mobile screens during election time. Nationalism in their case is thus an organic emotion. 

The Indian Independence Movement had substantial intellectual and financial support from Indian communities residing in Britain, United States and Malaya. The Indian National Army of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was mobilised in Singapore, in then British Malaya and funded by Chettiars across South East Asia. In more recent history, funds were mobilised by Gujarati NRIs post the Bhuj Earthquake in 2001 and Gulf NRIs pitched in post the Kerala floods in 2018 as well. 

In conclusion, in this digital and post-truth era, it is the diaspora that often promotes the nationalist narrative. A non-resident Indian searching for super pricey ragda patties on the weekend at the community restaurant so that he/she can experience home is only one of the countless moments that touch upon our lives.

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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