Nationalism and patriotism

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NOT so long ago The Times of India carried a piece of mine. ‘I am neither a Christian nor a patriot’, the article began. The words were somehow relevant to the topic I wrote on. The local padre expressed his appreciation of the article, ‘all except for the first sentence.’ He left me wondering: Was it my doubtful loyalty to the country or to the church that had upset him? He had long known of my alienation from the church, which may have been to him a matter of indifference. (What’s one soul less here or there?) My public avowal of that alienation was what really disturbed him, I suspect. Or, less probably, could it be his concern over my lack of patriotism?

Surely, everyone has to be a patriot, or must at least profess patriotism. Patriotism, nationalism if you prefer the word, is as sacrosanct as motherhood. So we have our political masters asserting their nationalism with great ardour, vowing to fight to the last man to defend every inch of Indian territory – provided that last man is someone else’s son. The other vocal pretenders to ardent patriotism are most of our NRIs, whose love for their motherland rises with their distance from it. The latest expression of that love has come from the patriot whom the Government of India has chosen as our NRI ambassador, with large funds (your money and mine) to spend lavishly. However, he can’t bear to part with his green card, lest, after his dubious diplomatic assignment is over, the US government eventually pack him off to the motherland of which he is so fond.

Who are our leading nationalists, our prominent patriots, whose devotion to the nation should inspire us? Shortly before he died, Madhu Limaye published a glittering list of beneficiaries of the Jain philanthropy, patriots all, whose names came to light in what is called the CBI’s Jain hawala investigation. Rajiv Gandhi (Rs 200 lakh), the CBI’s Vijay Karan (90 lakh), L.K. Advani (60 lakh), K. Padmanabaiah, IAS (58 lakh), R.K. Dhawan (50 lakh), N.D. Tiwari (25.8 lakh), Yashwant Sinha (21 lakh) and Kamal Nath (17 lakh) – these were some of the names that adorned the list. I gather they all got away for lack of corroboration, although a CBI source tells me there was evidence to corroborate the Jain diaries. But the police can manipulate prosecutions to ensure that they fail. More recently, the Tehelka tapes have added Jaya Jaitly and Bangaru Laxman to the patriots’ roll of honour. And you will remember Laloo, Jayalalithaa and Narasimha Rao, all ardent patriots, all wondering when their misdeeds will catch up with them.

What about the party that promised us a government with a difference? Surely it is bursting with patriots. Look at M.G. Vaidya, for instance, the RSS spokesman. He piously told Tavleen Singh that ‘his son had chosen to live in a village, on a monthly income of Rs 2500.’ ‘He could earn more,’ he added, ‘but he is happy, and so is his family.’ ‘Imagine then my surprise,’ writes Singh, ‘when in the first list of names in the petrol pump scam, I should find the name of Vaidya’s son…’ That was Vaidya, of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh. Petrol pumps fetch an income of Rs 50000 per month. Slightly more extravagant than Vaidya Jr. is poor but Honourable(?) Minister Pramod Mahajan, who declared his monthly income as Rs 5000.

Add to all these the vast cohorts of large-scale tax dodgers, every one of whom would bristle if you attacked their evasions as unpatriotic. Are these great people an inspiration to patriotism?

Or would you hail as patriots the freedom fighters who, we are told, won our independence from alien rule? Our own Nelson Mandela, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, for instance, who wrote in 1913 to the British government from prison: ‘… if the government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English Government which is the foremost condition of that progress. … The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the government?’ Was Savarkar then a patriot, as we have been taught to believe?

Today, patriotism seems to need an enemy. In India it has come to be equated with aggressiveness, with hysterical hostility to Pakistan. A reciprocal equation animates public opinion across the border. On both sides, you are not a patriot unless you are raring to send your armed forces to destroy the enemy. In India at least, it is unpatriotic heresy to suggest that the chief cause of continuing friction, the Kashmir issue, can be resolved by resort to our own plebiscite promise, or, failing that, to international mediation. It is treason to shrink from claiming every inch of Kashmir territory for India.

Curiously enough, the glory of patriotism doesn’t colour our relations with our neighbour to the North, which has swallowed not inches but hundreds of square miles of our land, about 20% of the area of Kashmir itself. But China is too powerful; Pakistan is so much easier for our patriots to bully.

Even if you were to divorce nationalism from its obsession with a territory and attach it to the people who live there, how would you define that nation? Rather, what makes a nation? Simply a collection of human beings who think they are one people? Or, as H.G. Wells suggested, is not a nation ‘…in effect any assembly, mixture or confusion of people which is either afflicted by or wishes to be afflicted by a foreign office of its own, in order that it should behave collectively as if its needs, desires and vanities were beyond comparison more important than the general welfare of humanity? … Throughout the 19th century … there has been a great working up of this nationalism in the world. All men are by nature partisans and patriots, but the natural tribalism of men in the 19th century was unnaturally exaggerated, it was fretted and over- stimulated and inflamed and forced into the nationalist mould.

‘Nationalism was taught in schools, emphasized by newspapers, preached and mocked and sung into men. It became a monstrous cant which darkened all human affairs. Men were brought to feel that they were as improper without a nationality as without their clothes in a crowded assembly. … India, a galaxy of contrasted races, religions and cultures, Dravidian, Mongolian and Aryan, became a "nation"… The essential idea of 19th century nationalism was the "legitimate claim" of every nation to complete sovereignty, the claim of every nation to manage all its affairs within its own territory, regardless of any other nation. …A world of independent sovereign nations means therefore a world of perpetual injuries, a world of states constantly preparing for or waging war.’

And that is exactly what patriotism has done to the world: set one lot of people against another, both under a delusion that they are divinely inspired to outdo or dominate their neighbours. So history is a chronicle of wars. We ourselves have fought a series of wars with Pakistan, accomplishing nearly nothing for ourselves except perhaps the break-up of Pakistan in 1971, and requiring both countries to arm themselves at a cost that neither can afford. Who bears that cost? In India it is the hundreds of millions who huddle beneath the poverty line, wondering from where their next meal will come, or whether there will be one at all; it is the 140 million people who have no potable water to drink; the 400 million who stay illiterate – these are the ones whose sacrifices support our massive, costly armour. They are the true martyrs. In this grand democracy of which we are so proud, did anyone ask those miserable people about our aggressive patriotism?

Before 1947, nationalism taught us to believe in swadeshi, and in the boycott of British goods. It was a sensible way to counter an alien repression. But we have let the swadeshi shibboleth survive for half a century after 1947, to serve our patriotic industrialists. Again at the cost of the ordinary Indian consumer, for whom a dose of foreign competition would have brought down the prices and improved the quality of indigenous goods. The survival in India of the Ambassador car through all these decades of protectionism is a prime example of this.

So we let an unreasoning faith in nationalism override our economic sense, and worse still our moral sense, specially in our relations with other nations. In war time this faith turns into fanatical jingoism; a challenge to it is persecuted as treasonous. And yet there have been laudable exceptions. The British government’s military misadventure in Suez in 1956 drew strong public protest in Great Britain itself. It brought down Prime Minister Eden. In the 1970s, America’s war in Vietnam aroused widespread criticism within the USA. It eventually forced an ignominious withdrawal of US forces from Indo-China. But these were very unusual rebuttals of patriotic chauvinism.

By and large, jingoism triumphs, as does most hypocrisy, even when it produces disastrous results. As I read in the Economic and Political Weekly last May, ‘the problem, as Rabindranath Tagore saw way back in 1917, lies in nationalism and patriotism themselves, with their built-in exclusivism and supremacism. "The nation with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns, its blasphemous prayers in the churches and the literary mock thunders of its patriotic bragging, cannot hide the fact that [it] has thriven long upon mutilated humanity".’

Patriotism, then, is a wonderful, respectable cover for cant. In the 18th century Samuel Johnson put it more succinctly: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’

J.B. D’Souza