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In India, protesters are singing the national anthem and waving the flag. Here’s why that matters.

They’re challenging the BJP’s attempts to narrow the national identity.

- January 19, 2020

Recently, masked intruders wielding iron rods and sticks attacked and seriously injured students and faculty members at one of India’s most prestigious universities, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. These intruders have been linked to the student wing of the BJP, the right-wing Hindu nationalist party that is in power and is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Critics say this is the latest in the Modi government’s attempts to crush the protests that have roiled Indian cities in recent weeks.

Hundreds of thousands of Indians have poured into the streets to oppose the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the National Registry of Citizens. To quell the protests, authorities have deployed heavily armed security forces, who have been beating up unarmed individuals, firing tear gas, blasting water cannons and shooting at people. They have barricaded roads, imposed curfews and restricted public transportation to dissuade protesters. What’s more, the government has repeatedly shut down the Internet, more frequently than any other country in the past year.

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Nevertheless, protests continue. And here’s an interesting detail: Protesters are waving Indian flags, singing the national anthem and carrying placards quoting from the Indian constitution. This matters. Here’s why.

Protesters are challenging the BJP’s attempts to define the national identity.

As I’ll explain more fully below, nationalism — by which I mean identification with a national community — is a sentiment independent of political affiliation, something that can be felt by citizens anywhere on the political spectrum. Yet in recent years, the political right has claimed the language and symbols of nationalism in many countries.

In the United States, on stages festooned with stars and stripes, President Trump has declared himself a “nationalist” and called upon his supporters to do the same. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has missed no opportunity to marshal the Union Jack in his mission to “take back” Britain from the European Union.

In India, the BJP government regularly invokes the interests and honor of the nation in campaign rhetoric and policy pronouncements. Modi frequently opens his speeches by leading the gathered crowds in a salutation to India personified as a mother goddess: “Bharat Mata ki Jai.” The government has defended the Citizenship Amendment Bill as in the national interest and attacked the opposition as “anti-national.”

The protesters are also breaking from a common liberal response of rejecting national pride.

Albert Einstein famously condemned nationalism as the “measles of mankind,” an infantile disease that humanity would outgrow. The dogged persistence of nationalism has been described as “the starkest political shame of the twentieth century.” Many, if not most, liberals want to replace nationalism with a spirit of universalism and cosmopolitanism.

This is unrealistic. Despite globalization, many people remain powerfully attached to their national identities. But as I’ve argued before, not all nationalism is bad. The political scientist Benedict Anderson famously conceptualized nationalism as an imagined community that rests on love and camaraderie and generates a spirit of unity and fraternity. Today and in the past, nationalism has been associated with xenophobia, racism, chauvinism and conflict. Yet my research finds that it can also be a unifying, constructive force.

In an online survey experiment of 918 individuals recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, my co-authors and I found that prompting Indian Hindus to think about their Indian national identity led them to be more generous toward Indian Muslims. In other research, I have shown how strong national identities can promote social welfare. Political scientists Maya Tudor and Dan Slater have found that an inclusive national identity can lay the groundwork for establishing democracies.

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The problem is not nationalism; it’s the way the boundaries of the nation are defined. In particular, who does and can belong to the nation — and who does and cannot?

This is why the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the National Registry of Citizens are so explosive. They are only the latest in a string of recently enacted BJP policies that restrict national belonging, including revoking the autonomous status of Indian-administered Kashmir, a disputed Muslim-majority region; accompanied by an ongoing military siege; rewriting textbooks to promote the BJP’s political program and ideology; and condoning violence against Muslims.

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Together, these policies constitute a systematic BJP project to violently redraw the boundaries of national belonging to include only the ethnic- majority Hindus and to exclude ethnic minorities, notably Muslims. This rejects the secular, multicultural principles upon which India was founded and which are embodied in the flag, the anthem and, most explicitly, the constitution.

By invoking these symbols, the protesters in India are drawing on this historic, inclusive vision of their country.

It matters that Muslim protesters are embracing India’s national symbols.

The protesters in Indian cities come from many communities. Because the BJP’s policies are so explicitly anti-Muslim, Muslims are prominently involved, notably including women.

National symbols are potent tools in these Muslims protesters’ fight against the BJP’s demonization of them as “un-Indian.” While Hindu nationalists have told Muslims to “return home,” Muslims on Indian streets are carrying the flag and singing the national anthem, insisting: This is our home, too, and we are proud of it.

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The Muslim protesters have also used national symbols to resist the regime’s attempt to characterize their protests as anti-India. Controversially, Modi claimed that the protesters could be identified by their dress. Yet some of the most powerful images of the protests have been Muslim women wearing headscarves and burqas while holding aloft pictures of B.R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution, and Muslim men wearing skullcaps and draped in the Indian tricolor, kneeling in prayer, often within a protective circle of protesters from other faiths.

By doing this, protesters are making a political statement that people can hold multiple, nested identities that are complementary and even mutually reinforcing, as research has found. Pious Muslims can be patriotic Indians. Peaceful protests can be patriotic. After all, it is upon such nonviolent civil disobedience that India won its independence.

Prerna Singh (@Prof_PSingh) is Mahatma Gandhi Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Brown University, a fellow of the Boundaries, Membership and Belonging program of the Canadian Institute of Advanced Research, and author of “How Solidarity Works for Welfare” (Cambridge University Press, 2015).