Where is Home in an increasingly Fragile World?

Joseph Mathai and Sandeep Chachra

The longing for home is known to every person who is fond of Hindi film songs. Ask them the song’s name, and they will speak of Manna Dey’s voice, Prem Dhawan’s lyrics, and Balraj Sahni acting as Abdul Rehman Khan in the film based on Rabindranath Tagore’s short story – Kabuliwala or the person from Kabul.

Progressive poetry and literature are suffused with such love. Gummadi Vittal Rao, also known as Gadar, the revolutionary poet and balladeer, sings of the greatness of his land: “Listen to the story of Bharat, our great land / on whose head stands the big Himalayas / where the rivers Ganga, Yamuna, Brahmaputra, Godavari, Krishna flow / which abounds with mines, forests and hills / and from this earth, abounding in greenery, springs forth pearls and gold.”

The revolutionary Punjabi poet Avtar Singh Paash writes: “We thought of our country as something pure – like home, where there is not a hint of heaviness in the air. / Where people flow through the streets like the echoes of intoxicating rain. / And dance in the fields like the swollen ears of wheat / And give meaning to the vastness of the sky. / We thought of our country like the warmth of an embrace, like the headiness of meaningful work, like the loyalty of sacrifice.”

Nabrun Bhattacharya, the Bengali writer, poet and cultural activist, speaks of reclaiming his country: “I will snatch my country back / I will pull the fog-kissed white kans flowers, the crimson dusks and the endless rivers / back into my chest. / With all my body, I shall surround the fireflies, forests burning in ancient hills, / countless crops of hearts, flowers, humans and horses from fairy tales. / I shall name each star after each martyr. / I shall call out to the howling breezes, lights and shadows playing across the fish-eyed lakes of dawn. / And Love – banished to places lightyears away ever since I was born. / I shall call it too, to join the carnival….”

In writing about Bangladesh during the liberation war, Kaifi Azmi, the great progressive Urdu poet, writes as the spirit of nationalism personified: “I am the passion of the obsessed / the deathless dream of the oppressed. / When man bleeds his fellowmen, / when exploitation crosses all limits / and tyranny breaks all bounds / I suddenly appear is some corner / I arise from within some heart.”

Most scholars see nationalism as an outcome of 17th-century processes of constructing autonomous nation-states in Europe and then emerging through the anti-colonial struggles across the global south.

However, in civilizations which have evolved over thousands of years, such as ours, the question of what is construed as nationalism cannot be fully answered from the lens of modern nation-building alone. In its inspiration, nationalism draws from a variety of sources – culture, identity, history, religion, tradition and patriotism. And it is in its appeal to history that one cannot reduce it to arguments that the nation did not exist before nationalism and that consciousness of being common peoples was not prevalent in the popular imagery.

The Indian sub-continent is witness to one of the oldest civilizations – a long march of contributions from many peoples and movements. The sub-continent has contributed to the diversities of world religions, languages, philosophy, science and materials in many ways.

The ancient Indian texts refer to terms such as chakravartin, samrat and sarvabhauma, signifying a ‘universal ruler’ establishing rule across the subcontinent or Jambudvipa – this Sanskrit word means “land of the jamun tree”.

First, the rulers of Magadha, the Mauryas and finally, the Gupta dynasty achieved this in the ancient period. Across the rise and fall of rajyas (dynasties) and ganas or sanghas (oligarchic republics), trade routes and pilgrimage journeys helped to weave a common cultural space and a shared pool of auspicious symbols.

Centuries later, the Sufi and Bhakti movements contributed to the most significant humanist approach to theology. Together these movements represent the most incredible resistance to the many social hierarchies and oppressive cultural traditions shared across the region – especially caste oppression, gender discrimination and social divisions on religion.

As cultural movements that expressed themselves in people’s voices, Sufism and Bhakti also strengthened diversities of language and strengthened what has been called “proto-nationalism” as seen in concepts such as des, watan and nadu – all meaning country in Hindi, Urdu and Tamil. These identities existed, and some historians argue flourished, within the “pax mughlana” that emerged in the latter half of the sixteenth century.

However, the overarching legitimacy of the Mughal empire, especially in most of North and Central India, can be seen as late as May 1857. That was the month when mutinying sepoys urged the reluctant Bahadur Shah Zafar, the “last Mughal”, to accept the leadership of their cause to secure the legitimacy of the First War of Indian Independence.

It was this civilizational and cultural unity, amidst the many diversities, that led to the Indian freedom struggle emerging as a people’s movement from the early twentieth century leading to Independence in 1947. But, of course, Independence did not fulfil all the hopes and aspirations of the freedom struggle.

And in 1950, the Constitution of India affirmed them both as rights guaranteed in the here and as an agenda for action, setting out the task for India to bring about a peaceful social and economic revolution.

As Indians, we can feel proud that the Constitution of India best represents the anti-colonial freedom struggle, a balidano ki rangoli that is part of our shared sacrifice and legacy. This document lays down how our decolonization project should address historically oppressed sections of society and be built on traditions that bring us together rather than divide us into more insular entities.

Internationalism was always a part of the spirit of Indian nationalism. The cultural roots of Indian internationalism can be seen in the phrase “Vasudeva Kutumbukam” from the Maha Upanishad, which means “The world is one family.” Resonations of this phrase can be felt with Mahatma Gandhi when he said: “If I want that freedom for my country, I would not be deserving of that freedom if I did not cherish and treasure the equal right of every other race, weak or strong, to the same freedom.”

This was reflected in India’s leadership within the Non-Aligned Movement and in spreading the Spirit of Bandung. And is today seen in Vaccine Maitri, the humanitarian initiative undertaken by the Government of India to provide COVID-19 vaccines to countries around the world.

However, we need to recognize that both nationalism and internationalism have complex, interlayered meanings, and both have the characteristic of perpetually metamorphosing chimerism.

Nationalism also appears as an angry chauvinism. This led to the assertion of fascism in Italy, Germany and Spain and as significant movements in many other European countries. In its angry form, nationalism encourages the dominant section to stifle all other voices within a nation. And while it may be tempting to see international conspiracies in the emergence of chauvinist forces across the globe today, we need to recognize this as having its roots primarily in the failures rooted realisations of liberal and progressive agendas in every country.

Similar is the case with internationalism. The United Nations is founded on the internationalist agenda of preventing future world wars. The anti-colonial movements of the time have lent the UN energies to take up economic and social development agendas. The Non-Aligned Movement, which emerged in 1961, helped secure the concerns of the majorities of the world on the global agenda. However, with the United States behaving as the “global policeman”, mainly after it emerged triumphant from the Cold War, the promise of internationalism is seen more in its denial.

At the level of technology and economy, we seem to have created one world open for capital flows and another increasingly divided world to stop the free movement of labour. This is most vividly and hypocritically seen in settler colonialists in the United States and Australia closing the gates to refugees and migrants while continuing to deny the rights of indigenous and aboriginal populations in their own lands. The nations of Europe who dragged the world into war defending their rights to colonize Africa are now patrolling the Mediterranean Sea to keep away desperate families seeking to escape conflict and lands ravaged by climate change.

On a planet proving to be increasingly fragile, in a world becoming increasingly hostile to people seeking refuge and within economies that no longer nurture its vast majorities – the question arises: Where is home? What is home?

Joseph Mathai and Sandeep Chachra

The authors of this piece are individuals with different personal trajectories. One is the son of refugees from Pakistan who grew up in central and eastern India. The other is the son of a migrant from Kerala, born and lived all his life in northern India. Home to both of us lies within the word India and the idea of India that is rooted in its histories and the hopes of its people. Hopes that are echoed in the words of the Bhakti poet Raidas, “I want such a rule, where everyone has grain, / big-and-small all live as one, and Raidas remains content.”

It is with the same hope for better futures for all with which we would like to engage with the world in ever-widening circles of solidarity – India, South Asia, the Global South and Planet Earth. Nationalism should embrace the purity of a home in which the cultures of all lands move about as freely as possible. A home from which solidarity extends to others asserting better futures for vulnerable peoples and the fragile planet. A home that welcomes solidarity from others. This would be a relationship where the sovereignty of the national emancipatory process is never compromised.

It is indicative of some universal truth that the sentiments of this piece’s two relatively rootless authors resonate with the assertions of Bhagwan Maaji, the tribal poet from Odisha when he sings, “We will not leave our village; we will not leave the forest. We will not abandon Mother Earth; we will not give up the fight.”

First Published in The Sunday Guardian on April 15, 2023 as Where is home in an increasingly fragile world?

Read more about the author: Towards an Inclusive Imagination of Citizenship