The Pettiness of Nationalism

 ‘The Last Lesson’ is a short story written by French writer Alphonse Daudet [1840-1897] about the Franco-German War [1870]. France loses the war and two of its provinces, Alsace and Lorraine, are lost to Bismarck’s Germany. German language and culture are imposed on the people of Alsace and Lorraine.

In the story, M Hamel is a teacher in Alsace who has to leave the school where he has been teaching for 40 years. A German teacher will take over tomorrow. A nine-year-old student, Franz, feels pity for his old teacher and also for himself because he never used M Hamel’s classes for learning his own language. M Hamel teaches his last lesson. There is a palpable sadness in the classroom accentuated by an eerie silence that descends as the students do their writing tasks. A few pigeons sat on the roof of the building cooing soberly. Franz asks himself, “Will they make them sing in German, even the pigeons?”

Imposing a language and culture on a community of people is what nationalism essentially is.

A nation is an imagined political community, as Benedict Anderson said. Some people agree to live together guided by certain rules and regulations for their own welfare, progress, and security. Beyond that welfare and security, people are individuals with their own ideas and convictions about most realities. These individual differences are important too. A nation should not bulldoze over them. But nationalism often does precisely that.

Nationalism is useful only when a nation is faced with political dangers from outside. Indian nationalism was valid as an opposition to the British rule. Once we are a free nation, nationalism has little to do unless one particular community wants to impose its own culture and other concomitants on others. In other words, nationalism is always about fighting against some enemies who are perceived to be outsiders. The British were outsiders. Once they left, some people within are projected as outsiders so that nationalism has its fodder-enemy.

This is a kind of tribal mentality, says Karl Popper, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. Nationalism narrows our thinking to the confines of our own tribe, our own clan, our own noses. Our culture, our language, our religion… A nationalist cannot think beyond those ‘ours’.

Bismarck was a nationalist guided by tribal instincts. He wanted all people of German origins to be one nation (one tribe). The people of Alsace and Lorraine did not want to be separated from France and become parts of Germany. Yet Bismarck took them by force. He wanted to impose his language on the pigeons! That is nationalism in effect.

India has arguably more diversity than any other nation. This diversity is one of its charms. Why would anyone want to destroy it by homogenisation? Why have one language instead of the 2000 languages? Why have one religion if people wish to have their own gods? Why impose your culture on others? [The situation has become so ludicrous that many nationalist states have even enacted rules about who can love whom!]

Petty minds think that their culture, their religion, their language are the best. They erect a whole civilisational edifice consisting of these with its foundation lying in some prehistoric myths. They fight wars in the name of that mythical edifice. They kill. Killing is sacred because it is for a cause projected as noble: nationalism. In plain words, nationalism is just a veneer of sophistication thrown over the violent instincts of people who refused or failed to become civilised enough to accept the otherness of others.

PS. Written for Indispire Edition 354: Yuval Noah Harari referred to nationalism as fiction. A nation is a community held together by people's imagination. Do you agree? #Nationalism

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