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The Lookalike ‘National Patriotism’

Mathew John Mathew John
22 May 2023
Nationalism has almost unfailingly meant an unquestioning deference to the government and its prescribed rule of law.

“Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.” Arthur Schopenhauer

Let me straightaway explain the conjoining of nationalism and patriotism in the heading to describe devotion to the nation. At a time when these terms were used interchangeably, H G Wells condemned nationalism as “a monstrous cant which has darkened all human affairs”. He added that our true nationality is mankind. Today, in the never-ending splitting of hairs on nationalism versus patriotism, the key distinction drawn between these terms is in the emotive quality of loyalty to the nation. Nationalism incites aggressive assertion and a lust for power whereas patriotism is tolerant, measured and defensive.

The nationalist is blindly supportive of everything his country does – the “my country, right or wrong” syndrome – whereas the patriot is a little more selective in his endorsement.  Striking an altogether different note, Rabindranath Tagore who was no great devotee of the constrictive tendencies associated with attachment to the nation, which he viewed as “holding up gigantic selfishness as the one universal religion”, saw no difference and combined these lookalike terms to give us “national patriotism”. 

This is not to suggest that nationalism (or patriotism) -- generally considered to be the most powerful political force for good and evil -- is a spurious passion. In fact, it is considered the vital glue that binds people together in a common fraternal bond that is not just about geographical boundaries. Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that the empathy, solicitude and communal attachments invoked by nationalism, are high-minded emotions that are intense precisely on account of being limited by boundaries of common interests and fellowship, and that such feelings diminish and weaken if dispersed across the world. According to this view, nationhood inspires far greater loyalty and concern than does the embrace of a fanciful but nebulous global world view. 

Significantly, for a time, the world had hoped that the fusion of nationalism and globalization, underwritten by a liberal ethic based on personal autonomy, tolerance, freedom and equality would engender a truly universal cosmopolitan spirit – ‘the end of history’ milieu -- but that has not happened. On the contrary, the inequality generated by the avarice and rapacity of neoliberalism has been further amplified by a parochial, mono-cultural nationalism.

It is an irony that the man who gave us our rousing National Anthem was deeply distrustful of nationalist sentiments as being inimical to the “moral culture of brotherhood”. Gurudev Tagore warned against idolizing the nation as such veneration led to the profane thinking that “a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.” Howard Zinn went even further in branding nationalism as one of the great evils of our time along with racism and religious hatred. Nationalism is now something of an ignoble pejorative embodying an anti-cosmopolitan tribalism that is intolerant, populist and divisive.

Nationalism has almost unfailingly meant an unquestioning deference to the government and its prescribed rule of law. Way back, even before Christ (BC), the world’s greatest philosopher, Socrates, indicted on the ludicrous charge of corrupting the youth of Athens, refused Crito’s offer of escape from an unjust punishment and instead, went to his death, arguing that irrespective of the fact that justice was on his side, he was duty-bound to comply with the law of the land. The death of Socrates was a tragic example of the rule of law being manipulated by the State to legitimize injustice.

Nationalism as fetishistic devotion to a flag, an anthem and a boundary, invokes the thoughtless fervour that one’s own motherland is always right, never wrong. The nationalist’s blind faith inevitably extends to support for whatever the government does, a dubious alignment that Mark Twain derided as “monarchical patriotism (the king can do no wrong)”, founded on the absurd premise that the government has the best interests of its citizens at heart. Such ill-founded nationalism has been a destructive force that has caused much death and suffering throughout history.

This brings me to the virulent nationalism that we are up against in our country today that is defined by religious identity and goes by the name of Hindutva.  The nativized political ideology of the Sangh Parivar, it provides the cultural justification for Hindu nationalism and for promoting “Hindu interests”. Hindutva is a complete negation of the sanathan dharma practiced by Mahatma Gandhi, who proudly asserted his faith in a “Hinduism which is all-inclusive and tolerant” (Harijan: Nov 30, 1947). He used religion as a moral force to bring people together, not as a destructive instrument to seize power and target “the other”. This visceral disjunction between two renditions of a great faith, also explains why all three attempts on the Mahatma’s life were made by Hindu nationalists.

Fascism as extreme nationalism exploits the fears and prejudice of the majority. There is an eerie correspondence between the German experience of fascism in the 1930s and what’s playing out in our country today. The most obvious parallel is the Nazi doctrine of nationhood based on an exclusive ethnic German-Aryan homogeneity and rabid antisemitism vis-à-vis our indigenous fascist mobilization based on religion and a morbid hatred of the Muslim. Analogous to the Nazi method, the bigotry receives sustenance from the top echelons of power. And just as Hitler expanded his enemy list of Jews and communists to include liberals, Catholics and anybody who hinted at dissent, the current regime has gone way beyond targeting Muslims and Christians as the archetypal ‘other’, to branding all dissenters as the “anti-national, tukde-tukde gang”.

Hindutva is this authoritarian regime’s creed of governance and the catalyst for bringing Hindus together to establish a Hindu Rashtra. At a public event a few days back, the Minister of State (Law and Justice) pulled no punches in blithely asserting that the basic structure of the nation is Hindu Rashtra. He lashed out at Muslim rule, lamenting that Muslim communalism and disproportionate increase in their population were the country’s biggest problems. In a nutshell, this worthy had expounded the ethnocentric Hindutva worldview that is downright majoritarian. Even more disgraceful was the Vishwaguru’s sectarian pitch during the election campaigning in Karnataka. The PM of the “Mother of Democracy” whipped up divisive, religious passions by publicly announcing his patronage of Bajrang Dal, even committing the blasphemy of identifying them with Lord Hanuman and urging voters to chant “Jai Bajrang Bali” when casting their vote!  

In the last few months, our chest-thumping nationalists have given a demonstration of their perverse version of nationalism. The BBC documentary on the horrendous carnage in Gujarat in 2002 was banned on the grounds that it was smear propaganda against India and a democratically elected government. Rahul Gandhi’s comments in the UK in early March about India’s flailing democracy drew the ire of the ruling BJP who accused Rahul of being a part of an “anti-national toolkit that was strengthening traitors”. 

The most outrageous exposition of spurious nationalist sentiment was that hustler Adani’s response to the Hindenburg expose. Only a close buddy of the most powerful man in India could have summoned the gall to call it “a calculated attack on India, the independence and integrity of Indian institutions, and the growth story and ambition of India.” For me though, P.T. Usha, the current IOA President, takes the cake for toady nationalism and craven subservience to the powers that be. Instead of empathizing with the young female wrestlers who have been agitating against the president of IWF for alleged sexual assault, Usha has accused them of tarnishing the image of the country. Phew!

What’s happening in Manipur is another tragic manifestation of the havoc caused to our multicultural ethos by Hindutva’s majoritarian nationalism. The Meiteis, Hindus and the majority, are at war with the hill tribes – Naga and Kuki – mostly Christian who fear for their land and their culture. As part of a carefully orchestrated communal agenda, eviction of tribals and demolition of churches reportedly built on public land have happened, undermining the historical protection of tribal land rights. 

The last nail in the coffin was the recent Manipur High Court order directing the government to consider granting ST status to the Meitei majority community with the clear intent of dispossessing tribals of hitherto assured seats in the legislature, in educational institutions, government employment, etc. Even the horrendous riots early this month had the stock-in-trade hallmarks of official partisanship, meticulous targeting and active abetment of the State police. Predictably, commentators have drawn parallels with Gujarat 2002, but the outrage is muted in mainstream India for whom the happenings in the North-eastern region are of marginal consequence, a mere sideshow! At a future date, we may pay a huge price for our indifference to this ticking time bomb! 

This analysis of nationalism would be incomplete without reference to the nationalists’ obsession with history. George Orwell who had studied the innards of nationalism and its extreme manifestation -- fascism -- concluded that the nationalist “was haunted by the belief that the past can be altered”, and rewrote history that was “plain forgery”. Our present nationalist regime, adopting the crudest and laziest form of falsification, has hived off chapters on centuries of Muslim rule in the subcontinent from school textbooks, apart from removing references to the contribution of Muslims in the country’s freedom struggle. This blatant vandalism of historical truth is now authorized history for our school children. 

A bizarre thought in conclusion! If Hitler was operating in today’s world and restricted his horrendous, depraved criminality only within his own country, would he have been forced into an ignoble exit due to international pressure? Given the cynical reality that attachment to one’s country is matched by indifference to what happens elsewhere, I suspect he would be left unmolested. Every country has to work out its own destiny. If we are to rid ourselves of the fascist nationalism stalking our land, the rest of us will have to do what the Kannadigas did last week! 

(The writer is a former civil servant. The views are personal)

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