What shapes Indian nationalism and belonging, beyond politics, ideology or identity?

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When talking of nationalism, issues such as identity, ideology and politics come to mind. Less discussed in popular writing is the idea that nationalism is also a source of belonging.

Just like belonging to a family, religion, language or profession, being part of a national community is defined by aspects that inspire pride, attachment and a sense of security and stability. But national belonging simultaneously includes disagreement, disdain, boredom and dislike.

This simultaneity in the kinds of values and experiences that shape nationalism as belonging is important, especially in understanding everyday nationalism. Positive attributes of national belonging, such as pride and security, do not necessarily mean that challenges and disagreement do not coexist. “Negative” ideas do not indicate that one stops belonging to the nation. Belonging is a grey area where one can say “I belong to Delhi and it is the most polluted city in the world.”

Understanding nationalism as belonging and not just in terms of its politically relevant attributes such as identity, ideology or politics helps better explain the seemingly contradictory survey data on Indian nationalism. In a June 2021 report by the Pew Research Center titled “Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation”, respondents said that respecting other religions is an important part of their religious and national identity. Yet, the average Indian prefers to live among those from their own religion.

As an identity, nationalism is about the unique attributes that are common and shared among all nationals. But as belonging, nationalism is about a connection with the national community despite differences. States create a national identity by highlighting shared distinctiveness, but belonging is not about distinctiveness – it is about the usual and casual aspects of existence.

In this series on nationalism and belonging, members of an academic reading group discuss the implications of six important interventions by the Indian state on the meaning of national belonging. With its reach and resources, the state has a dominant place in the life of ordinary Indians – even if they are not actively engaging with it – particularly in shaping the dominant narrative of Indian nationalism.

This series aims to take the discussion on nationalism beyond the current focus on electoral politics, party ideology and national security. State and government interventions shape every day nationalism and its implications are best understood when their impact on national belonging is examined.

This series is based on the research of the authors and the discussions of the Nationalism Reading Group convened by Priyadarshini Singh at the Centre for Policy Research in partnership with the Association for the Study of Nationalism and Ethnicity, at the London School of Economics.

Priyadarshini Singh is the editor of the series on Nationalism and Belonging, and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Read the series here.

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