What happens to us as individuals happens to nations also. ‘Make in India’ was already a saleable slogan. Trump had further legitimized such slogans through his own version of ‘Make in America’. Make in became a new slogan of legitimate nationalism. The pandemic, as much as it shone a spotlight on the social dependency of individuals, also made nations realize how much they depended on other nations. The global was always a lot like the social—it was not really based on notions of friendship, ideas of kinship or a sensitivity to the common humanity but was more utilitarian and driven by dependencies. Suddenly we realized that in the great story of Indian pharma producing cheap drugs, there was another story of dependence on China for a major part of the raw material for these drugs. The finance sector is anyway so globally wired that the very idea of strengthening the nation like strengthening the individual would be a non-starter. The market economy drives so much of the idea of the global that in spite of market crashes few are worried as they all realize that the world we have created is not possible if the market dependencies are over.
However, as I argued earlier, the pandemic also revived more strongly the spirit of individual self-reliance as against individualism as a social practice. This recognition of the possibility of individual strength is also a model for the revival of the strength of a nation. And the most powerful example of the strength of the nation—in the model of the individual—lies in the ‘self-reliance’ of a country.
But what is the meaning of the self here? Why invoke the idea of self-reliance of a nation when the very idea of the self of an individual is itself so complicated? What task does the term ‘self’ perform in these articulations?
We can begin with the reasons why the self is invoked in the context of the individual. What role does the ‘self’ perform in the case of individuals? Why do we even invoke this term? I will not enter into a debate on whether we should make an ontological commitment to the self but only discuss the reasons why we tend to invoke the notion of the self. The self helps us make sense of some of the experiences we have such as the feeling that experiences happen to ‘me’. The use of the notions of me, mine and myself are indicators of the action of a self. Thus, self marks the basic identity that one has of who they are. But there are also other important reasons for our naive invocation of the self: unity of the senses that is presupposed in the belief that different experiences (such as seeing, hearing, touching, etc.,) all happen to the ‘same me’, that all experiences over time (from the time we are born) happen to the ‘same me’ and so on (Bhatt 1962). The self generates a notion of the unity of the experiences that are part of our lives and gives us a sense of identity. It gives us a sense of ‘ownership’ over our experiences (Guru and Sarukkai 2012). It helps us to understand the nature of human action and human agency, such as the question ‘who’ is acting. We could go to the extent of saying that the basic notions of the unity presupposed in an object is one that is modelled on the self. An object is nothing more than a collection of different qualities, such as colour, shape, size and taste. So, what is the object other than these qualities? How do these qualities all belong to ‘one’ object? This cognitive inclination to unify diverse qualities in one is common to our basic recognition of objects (and therefore the world) and the self.
We talk about the social in pretty much the same way (Guru and Sarukkai 2019). We use terms like ‘we’ and the ‘we-self’ just like we talk about I and the I-self. We belong to a social in ways similar to that in which different experiences belong to the same individual. The very idea of a nation with concomitant ideas such as ‘belonging to the nation’ is based on these beliefs about the self. So, it is not a surprise when the nation repeatedly invokes ideas of self-rule and self-reliance for these are all assertions of the self.
There is an important characteristic of the sense of unity which is an essential element of the notion of the self. An individual has a wide variety of experiences. This diversity of experiences, some of which may be pleasant but some undesirable like experiences of sickness or sadness, are all unified, however diverse they are. The unification that is the core of the idea of the self is not a unification based on reducing all the experiences to an idea of sameness. Rather, the unity is one that is based on the idea of the self as the substratum of all experiences. All experiences that we have are unified not because these senses have common elements but because they are all ‘located in oneself’. This idea of unity is extremely important when we talk about the self of the nation.
The nation is most fundamentally defined by a sense of unity and identity. The nation borrows its vocabulary of belongingness from the notions of a self. But this is of a social self and not the individual self. A social self adds an important component to a forgotten aspect of the individual self. This is the aspect of responsibility to others who are part of the social self. For traditions which have engaged deeply with the question of the individual self, there is a sense of self-responsibility which is extremely important. The individual self experiences but also regulates itself. (This can be contrasted to the culture of ‘me and mine’ that is a particular understanding of the self where there are no questions of self-responsibility.) In the case of a social self like the nation, the regulatory aspect becomes most problematical since it raises a question of who is going to regulate the actions made on behalf of the nation, the socialized self.
The concept of the nation has always had a parasitic dependence on the notion of the self. In the independence movement, it is most prevalent in the debate on self-rule. The idea of self-rule is self-explanatory: in both these terms which use the word self, the meaning of the self is in opposition to the outside(r). Self-explanatory means that there are no external requirements to understand an expression and self-rule is about the capacity to rule one selves without the assistance of the outsider. (It is important not to conflate the outsider and the other in this context.) The idea of self-rule is an essential component of any notion of the nation since the nation, by definition, gets defined with respect to the insider–outsider dichotomy.
Gandhi’s understanding of self-rule illustrates the need for invoking the idea of self in the context of the nation. One of his most influential works, Hind Swaraj, is a handbook for self-rule as indicated in the title itself. The list of terms that work around the idea of the self become defining elements of the independence movement: terms such as swaraj, swadeshi, swabhiman. The reason that self or the prefix swa is so important to these articulations is because within the idea of self there is a notion of both freedom and governance. The self is an excellent example of responsibility with freedom since the self will indulge in what it wants but has a core of survival within it—what we refer to as self-preservation. The fight against the British is not captured merely by the word ‘independence’. The Indian language connotations for this word include swatantra and swavalamban, both of which have an explicit grounding in the self. This necessary connection with swa locates the principal idea of independence within the self first and thus all invocations of swaraj by Gandhi and other leaders have to be understood not just as liberation from the British but as an essential practice related to freedom and responsibility of the self.
An important addition to this debate comes through the tension between Gandhi and Ambedkar. Nagaraj (2012) captures this tension through the invocation of two terms derived from the self: self-rule versus self-respect. The distinction between these two terms has a significant impact on the very definition of freedom and its relation to the self. Self-reliance (and the expressions of make-in) in the context of the nation has elements both of self-rule and a strong dose of self-respect. Much of India’s rhetoric on self-reliance (especially the Make in India kind) is a call for self-respect within a hierarchy where India is placed low in the order. Self-reliance in this context is not self-rule but only about assertions of self-respect.
Self-reliance is closely related to the ideas of swaraj. It is a reaffirmation of the idea that ruling itself has to be from within and by oneself. One is free and accountable to that freedom at the same time. Much depends on what we mean by the self here. For Gandhi, ruling oneself meant disciplining the self and that includes the responsibility of the (individual) self. Being self-reliant does not mean asociality but only the responsibility of oneself for oneself. But how is it possible to be self-reliant? What are we supposed to be self-reliant about? These questions become important in the context of the self-reliance of a nation. We can glimpse the contours of this question in the philosopher K. C. Bhattarcharyya’s (KCB) essay ‘Swaraj in ideas’ (Bhattacharya 1984). This was an essay which has been understood in different ways but the fundamental question that Bhattacharya poses is the possibility of thinking about our society in ways that do not draw upon the ‘outsider’. He suggests that the foreigner cannot understand the Indian society like ‘we’ do and that drawing upon the resources of the society might offer a better understanding of the society. As Raju (2017) points out, KCB should be seen as responding to the crisis of organic thinking and organic solutions to the problems of our society. Independence is not limited to political independence but also needs the independence of the mind. The independence of the mind can only be supported by a self that is self-confident, that can feel secure in the foundations of its philosophies and experiences. There can be no swaraj without swaraj in ideas, in worldviews, in projecting the future which we want and not based on the interest of ‘outsiders’. It is as much a question of self-articulation of who we are and what our vision of the world will be. While there are many points which may be debated in this view, it is nevertheless an important theme that will arise in any claim of self-reliance. Perhaps the most important point in this idea of self-articulation is the problem of articulating on behalf of others who constitute the ‘us’ and ‘we’. Who is going to speak on behalf of a group, a community, a society, a nation? What kind of a social self will be allowed by the individuals to speak on their behalf? Nation is one of the most powerful illustration of the action of a social self and thus the meaning of a nation becomes as complex as that of the individual and social self.