The patriotism debate has turned a full circle, with recent developments in India and the world over having generated a renewed interest in the subject. On the one hand, communism and globalisation have failed while on the other there’s increasing economic exploitation and concentration of wealth in a few countries and people. Both factors have largely contributed to the creation of the new situation. It isn’t India-specific, though the emergence of the BJP in India as the party of power set the trend in our country. Elsewhere, Brexit, success of Donald Trump in the US, Chinese nationalistic aspirations to emerge as a world power and successes of nationalist leaders in most European countries led a wave of economic protectionism, cultural nationalism and desire to protect identities. Together, they have beaten the concept of globalisation as an ideology. The power of place over the fate of people has become the flavour of the season and humanities are increasingly getting tied to geographical and cultural bonds.
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This is where patriotism comes. How does one define it? Many decades ago, Emil Lengyel wrote a fascinating book, Nationalism: The last Stage of Communism. That was at the high noon of Soviet Union preaching the virtues of international communism that would have crushed all boundaries for mass emancipation. Patriotism for the comrades was the most repellant idea. They promised the union of the world proletariat under the red flag. Yet, S.K. Damodaran, one of the top ideologues of the Communist Party in his memoirs on the travels he undertook in Communist countries, confesses he found patriotism the dominant motivating factor in those countries. He recounts an encounter with Ho Chi Minh, where analysing the failure of Indian communists, the Vietnamese leader said, “Here I am the Gandhi. You failed to identify with national aspirations in India”. These may not be the exact words. But in essence, the Communist leader was told to not work at cross-purposes on national sentiments. But at the time of Chinese aggression, a large segment of that party became Chinese patriots and worked against national sentiment.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Francis Fukuyama wrote his famous thesis, End of History. He declared the celebration of unipolarism and the economic and cultural sweep of America over the universe. All sub-nationalities were to submerge under the overweening sway of the stars and stripes of the US. He had to retract soon enough after the 2008 meltdown, when American authors like Thomas Friedman, a great votary of the flat world, nostalgically wrote That Used to be US. In fact the discourse, largely triggered by the West, particularly the American writers, on the decline and fall of the US world architecture has also contributed to the patriotism debate of late. Most thinkers and political leaders will not openly admit it, may be because of the havoc extreme nationalism played in the 20th-century Europe, but today the sentiment has become the nascent universal political credo.
A book, The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization’s Rough Landscape by Harm De Blij (author of Why Geography Matters) documented the limits of globalisation in the unequal and exploitive world order that the Washington Consensus tried to foster on the globe. But are they invariably agents of access and integration? Are they lowering the barriers to participation or raising the stakes against it? Have their influence and impact overpowered the imperatives of place so that their very mobility symbolises a confirmed irrelevance of location? The author raises these basic questions.
“Here I’m the Gandhi,” said Vietnam leader Ho Chi Minh
Patriotism is about history, geography, culture, shared heritage, shared visions about the future, commonality of interest, common attitudes about friends and enemies, a shared identity and value system and, above all, a willingness to protect them all at any cost. This in a way defines the nationhood of a people. Religion and language may or may not strengthen these bonds, but they are not essential or successful ingredients for cementing the cultural mosaic of patriotism.
In Indian context, patriot saints like Vivekananda and Aurobindo appealed both academically and emotionally for the nationhood of its people. Worship of the Motherland and working for its glory were projected as fundamental to the freedom and well-being of the people. It is this sentiment to which Narendra Modi anchored his successful poll campaign in 2014.
Nationhood is intrinsically linked to patriotism. Every nation at the time of crisis invokes its people’s patriotism. World War II witnessed the competitive invocation of patriotism by nations fighting for supremacy. To dub patriotism as a western concept is wrong. India, when it preached the world ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (the world as a family) had developed healthy, positive formulations for protecting boundaries and preserving cultural purity of the people of India. We had great sense of history, continuity and collective memory, which in many ways astounded and shocked most Western thinkers. That is why some accuse Indians of living in the past. But they ignore the great adaptability and change and renewal Indians are ever open to. We have been reforming and rediscovering ourselves. That is why today we are the oldest surviving civilisation. This is the bedrock of Indian patriotism.
India as a geographical entity and its people as one is not a new idea. The idea of India is etched in granite, ingrained into our prayers, rituals, pilgrimages, festivals and customs and traditions. We have developed a work philosophy, a thought process, a belief system around it. India has from time to time revived this spirit. Our texts, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Kalidasa’s work and Chanakya’s Arthashastra, among many others, describe India geographically, as a civilisation and its cultural moorings. Our nationality is a continuous saga, evolved through hundreds of centuries.
That is why Lokmanya Tilak popularised Ganesh Utsava as part of his mobilisation to fight British. Shivaji and Rana Pratap fought the alien rule and that is why they are still revered national heroes. To inspire Indian fight against British, the message of the Gita was popularised by Tilak, Lajpat Rai, Mahatma Gandhi and Aurobindo. All new methodology in satyagraha by Gandhiji was essentially rooted in the Indian ethos. It is this collective attitude nurtured through centuries by generations of Indians that we call patriotism today.
Rana Pratap, Shivaji and Lokmanya Tilak kindled patriotic spirit to fight against outside threats
Williham Von Pochchmar, in India’s Road to Nationhood and Aurobindo in Foundations of Indian Culture beautifully describe the essence of this patriotism. Guruji Golwalkar has codified the totality of Indian patriotic tradition, in his Bunch of Thoughts, while the same sentiment can be read in the Lectures From Columbo To Almora —invocations of Swami Vivekananda.
When the BJP talks of cultural nationalism, it is about the values that hold the country together. The reference is to ones that shaped its history and destiny. Commitment to them and a willingness to uphold them are neither sectarian nor parochial. It is inclusive. Rather their denial is unnatural and illogical. The great cultural renaissance witnessed during the Ramjanmabhoomi movement and the BJP’s successes and popularity in the aftermath points to the magnetic pull this sentiment has on the Indian psyche. Other parties opposing this sentiment are getting isolated from the public. That is equally instructive.
Boxer rebellion, now in China textbooks; Churchill’s wartime speech
Some lobbies try to paint sacrifice for motherland, emotional bondage to its past glory, and aspiration for a golden age as repulsive. They even think patriotism is a dangerous idea. It can lead to social tension and violence, they argue without any basis. Can a nation live only in the present?
Communist China, after decades of anti-imperialist teachings, is now rewriting textbooks glorifying its past rulers, great dynasties and reinterpreting Boxer revolution and Opium Wars. Soviet Union during Second World War, recalled its czarist past, great resistance to Napoleon and Tolstoy’s patriotic writings. Churchill’s war-time speeches are famous. No ideology so far has been able to erase the popular sensitivity towards nationalist ethos.
Some might dispute my contention that globalisation is not an antidote to patriotism. As the author of Place wrote, “The Earth, physically as well as culturally, still is very rough terrain, and in crucial ways its regional compartments continue to trap billions in circumstances that spell disadvantage. The power of place and the fate of people are linked by many strands ranging from physical area and natural environment to durable culture and local tradition. This book, therefore, views a world in which progress towards convergence is countered by stagnation, even setbacks. Various constituencies of the comparatively prosperous global core are walling off their affluent realms from intrusion by poorer globals, hardening a division between the core and periphery that exacerbates contrasts and stokes conflicts. The near-global diffusion of various forms of English as a first or second language is promoting a cultural convergence, but the radicalisation of religions has the opposite effect. The distribution of health and well-being shows troubling signs of inequity and reversal.”
In The Clash Of Civilizations and the Remarking of World Order, Samuel P. Huntington visualised the Anglo Saxon heritage as American identity. The recent events show Huntington’s theory being largely operationalised.
The evolution of politics in the world today shows a certain trend: revival of nationalist spirit and a fascinating appeal for patriotism. In India, the Congress once occupied the mainstream nationalist space that has been diluted over a period. The emergence of an Italian-born Christian president for almost two decades has, almost entirely, shattered the party’s patriotic profile. Soon, the BJP occupied the space, and today the party is considered the voice of a renascent India. As long as parties win electoral battles, nobody bothers about its ideology. But it is in hard times, the parties need to reinvent themselves. For long time to come, idea of patriotism is likely to dominate political discourse in India.
Dr R. Balashankar, the writer was editor of Organiser and is a member of the BJP national committees on publications