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Shashi Tharoor writes: Patriotism doesn’t demand perfection, not does it require to be consummated in the state

Who is a patriot and who a nationalist? As India enters her 75th year of independence, re-examining ideas of belonging

Written by Shashi Tharoor |
Updated: August 16, 2021 1:19:57 pm
Colours of the land: In Kolkata, an elderly man stitching national flags in his shop. (Partha Paul)

Independent India marks the start of its 75th year of freedom divided between advocates of “Hindu nationalism” and those who cling to an increasingly derided secular pluralism. In the new Hindutva dispensation, dissent against the transformation of the state is denounced not merely as negative but as anti-national and unpatriotic. Who, then, is a patriot, and who a nationalist?

In many Indian languages the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is expressed through terms derived from Sanskrit; in both Hindi and Malayalam, nationalism is “rashtrabhakti”, devotion to the state or polity, whereas patriotism is “deshbhakti”, connoting love of homeland. A patriot celebrates what he is born to, not as something inherently superior to other places or forms of being, but as right for him because it is his.

Patriotism can be seen in things like the pang of nostalgia for one’s own patch of land, the space closest to one’s own sense of being, singing of the national anthem at international sporting events, the pride in your country’s athletes winning medals at the Olympic Games, the celebration of a country’s Independence Day, or similar national occasions, growing misty-eyed over a familiar old song, a garment worn, or a typical dish served, and in the admiration expressed for servicemen and women for their courage, dedication and heroism in keeping a country and its residents safe.

Patriotism is far less ideologically-driven than nationalism, takes the successes of others in its stride and does not involve the same destructive devotion that nationalism does. A patriot loves his country as he loves his mother — because he belongs to it, and it belongs to him. Patriotism doesn’t demand perfection, not does it require to be consummated in the state. Indeed, as the writer Badri Raina puts it in an article published in Mainstream Weekly in June last year, patriotism leaves us free to value other peoples’ love for their own countries, “and free to find fault with what we may be lacking without letting bravado or false claims distort those realities.

Nationalism, like religious faith, permits no such room. It asks of us that we propagate that we outshine all other peoples, cultures, climes, countries in every sphere of life because of some divine origin or exclusive right to perfection… Patriotism accepts the great reality of diversity; nationalism seeks to obliterate diversity and aims to create the world in its own abstract theology of supremacy.” Patriotism, the older of the two words, dates back to the 17th century. It has long impelled passionate behaviour in defence of national ideas, which has led some to confuse it with nationalism; after all, patriotism has prompted tens of thousands of people to accept untold sacrifices, even give up their lives, for their country. But while a patriot is prepared to die for his country, the nationalist is willing to kill for his state.

Walking into tomorrow: Mahatma Gandhi statue at the Income Tax circle, Ahmedabad, Gujarat. (NIRMAL HARINDRAN)

Whereas nationalists believe that their nation and what it represents is unchallengeable, patriots love their country not out of misplaced vanity but out of love, not just because of its attractiveness but in spite of its flaws. Patriots can acknowledge their countries’ failings and strive to correct them; nationalists believe there are none, and refuse to accept any that are laid out before them. As Raina writes, “Patriotism acknowledges that where I live is my beloved space, warts and all. …It recognises that our streets are shabby, our lanes full of clutter, our habits shoddy, our resistance to rationality often grossly debilitating, our defiance of law a routine habit of mind, our male chauvinism shameful and violent, our casteism or racism or communalism deleterious to the most desirable ideals of human rights and human oneness….Patriotism recognises that things may be better in other countries”, and yet, patriots love their land with all its imperfections and work to remedy them.

George Orwell, the English writer, articulated the difference between patriotism and nationalism most effectively in his celebrated 1945 essay on nationalism: “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

In the context of India, the difference is striking. Indian nationalism, in precept and practice, had acquired a significantly identifiable character in the decades after the country won freedom, but is being pressed to undergo fundamental change today. During the anti-colonial struggle against the British, the nationalist movement had many of the classic characteristics of nationalism — the Indian people, harking back to their ancient civilisation, fighting for self-determination against the foreign oppressor. Upon Independence, and with the writing of a secular and liberal democratic Constitution, India’s became a form of civic nationalism, anchored in democratic institutions and freedoms.

Today, with the ascent of a “Hindi-Hindu[tva]-Hindustan” sentiment in the ruling circles of the country, India’s nationalism is being forced to change into a combination of religious, linguistic, and cultural nationalism, its liberal-democratic trappings increasingly discarded in the pursuit of a loyal conformity —which alone, in the eyes of the dominant establishment, is acceptable as truly nationalist. We need to take back the idea of Indian nationalism from those who, in the name of “authentic” Indian culture narrowly interpreted, would reduce it to the petty bigotry of the Hindutvawadis.

Our nationalist heroes created a nation built on an ideal of pluralism and freedom: we have given passports to their
dreams. This Independence Day, let us affirm our determination to fight for an idea of Indian nationalism that embraces diversity, accepts difference and celebrates plurality. Only that kind of inclusive nationalism will allow every single Indian, of every faith, region or mother tongue, the freedom to be a proud patriot.

Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament, represents Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala

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