Nationalism and Patriotism: Words of ‘Unstable and Explosive Content’

Patriotism is of its nature defensive — both militarily and culturally — and nationalism is inseparable from the desire for power.

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For a liberal polity, we need a clear understanding of what constitutes patriotism and nationalism in the context of the core values of the Indian Constitution.

We the Peoples of the United Nations live as citizens in nation states (except those under foreign occupation). Citizenship implies national obligations. It necessitates adherence to, and affection for, the nation in all its rich diversity. This is what nationalism means, and should mean, in a global community of nations. Liberal nationalism “requires a state of mind characterised by tolerance and respect of diversity for members of one’s own group and for others”; hence it is “polycentric by definition” and “celebrates the particularity of culture with the universality of human rights, the social and cultural embeddedness of individuals together with their personal autonomy”. On the other hand, “the version of nationalism that places cultural commitments at its core is usually perceived as the most conservative and illiberal form of nationalism. It promotes intolerance and arrogant patriotism.”

Here conceptual clarity is needed. Nationalism is often confused with patriotism and used interchangeably. Both are words of “unstable and explosive content” as was pointed out by George Orwell in his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’. Nationalism means identifying oneself with a single nation, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than of advancing its interests; patriotism, on the other hand, is devotion to a particular place or way of life without wishing to force it on others.

What are, or could be, the implications of nationalism and its variants for pluralism and secularism? It is evident that both would be abridged since both require for their sustenance a climate of opinion and a state practice that eschews intolerance, distances itself from extremist and illiberal nationalism, subscribes in word and deed to the constitution and its Preamble, and ensures that citizenship irrespective of caste, creed or ideological affiliation is the sole determinant of Indianness.

Thus, patriotism is of its nature defensive — both militarily and culturally — and nationalism is inseparable from the desire for power. Decades earlier, Rabindranath Tagore had called nationalism “a great menace” and described it as “one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented”. He had expressed himself against “the idolatry of the nation”, an “ideological poison” that has no hesitation in transcending and transgressing individual rights.

In our plural, secular democracy, therefore, the ‘other’ is to be none other than the ‘self’. Any derogation of it would be detrimental to its core values.

A study of recent Election Manifestos of the BJP is, therefore, instructive. The 2009 manifesto spoke about “the civilisational consciousness of India (that) not only accepts diversity but respects it and even more celebrates it. Hindu or Bharatiya view of life seeks unity in diversity.” The 2014 manifesto spoke of “the civilisational consciousness of India”.

The 2019 Sankalp Patra asserted, “This election is not between two political parties; rather, it is an election to dissipate the negativity that makes us oblivious to our glorious past and our cultural roots and values … The election is to defeat dynasticism, casteism, communalism and corruption so that India’s democracy can be infused with greater strength.” One consequence of it was the much-lauded acts of vandalism presented as “cultural regeneration”. Its result will be to transform our political culture from an open democratic diversity to a narrow formalisation of democracy and openness.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah at the party manifesto release. Photo: PTI

To sum up, the challenge to our liberal polity is both ideological and practical. The latter can be countered by a corrective administered by the electoral process, as has been done from time to time. The former, on the other hand, requires a careful examination of the philosophic backdrop, ideological pronouncements and terminological sophistry of the political hypothesis that succeeded at the polls in 2014 and again in 2019, and which is optimistic about the immediate and foreseeable future. To this end, it puts across a slanted view that while diversity is inherent in the Indian scheme of creation and is the manifestation of a cosmic entity in different forms, its acceptance in the context of the Hindu or Bharatiya view of life requires the exclusion of all alien views that impacted the Indian way of life or left a mark on them. In the process it seeks to erase other influences down the ages, including the existential reality of over a thousand years of Indian history, and to impose an imagined version of cultural homogeneity with all its political connotations, leading to what has been called an ‘ethnic democracy’ whose characteristics have been described by the sociologist Sammy Smooha and more specifically by Indrajit Roy.

The challenge is real; it is also urgent. It has to be met in terms of ideas, practices and day-to-day behaviour.

Excerpted with permission from Challenges to a Liberal Polity: Human Rights, Citizenship & Identity, Viking/Penguin.