Home / Opinion / Columns /  How India's middle-class came to be so patriotic

As a boy growing up in India, I did not know any dead Indian who was not a patriot, or a living Indian who was one. It was as though patriotism was something that happened only to men who were long gone, like sepia.

I don’t know about India in its early years after independence, but I can tell you that in the 1980s, most Indians I came across were not patriots. People felt stronger about their religion, language and their castes, if they belonged to upper-caste communities, than about their Indianness. In fact, in all the jokes that involved men of various nationalities walking into a bar, the Indian was the biggest fool, unless there was a Pakistani.

We did not think very highly of ourselves. We were expected to ‘love’ India, somehow, and also flee India. It is not that we felt nothing. No doubt we wanted India to win a cricket match (though in Madras, you could not be sure of this when India played West Indies). On my part, I spent hours going through the pages of Encyclopaedia Britannica searching for a complimentary mention of India, or something more appealing than our antiquity.

One day, sometime in the 80s, during the convocation ceremony at the Indian Institute of Technology, the chief guest said, “Brain drain is better than brain in the drain." The joke spread across Madras at the speed of sound, making us shake with laughter, pincode after pincode. Some of those guys who laughed then do not laugh at such jokes anymore. They have become patriots, who are probably people who do not laugh at themselves anymore. Today, most Indians across all classes are patriots.

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How did this happen? It is not as though India became impressive in any special way. In fact, since the 80s, even though India has progressed, the Asian developing world has left us far behind. India continues to be a difficult place. The best thing money and success can buy is still a golden visa out of here. So what made us patriotic?

We can understand the process through four people all of us know.

One: that new non-resident Indian (NRI).

Two: that urban villager.

Three: that anti-Left guy.

Four: that defeated intellectual.

The first wave of modern Indian patriotism that was not a farce had emanated from the US in the late 90s. People of my generation felt this through their former classmates who had moved to America for education and had just started work there. Our first reaction was surprise, because these new patriots had shown no signs in school or college that they so loved their nation. The new NRI, we found out, had grown fiercely in love with his nation, religion, culture and language. He was radicalized in America by a society that did not deem him a member of its upper crust. Back in India, even though he was not rich, he had to just emerge from a certain home and he was guaranteed a degree of respect. But in the West, there was no such guarantee; there were days when he felt socially inferior to waiters and shop workers. This is the unsung force behind not only NRI nationalism, but also the migrant middle-class elite of many developing nations.

All this came to the surface during the Pokhran nuclear test of 1998—the way my peers in America reacted at first confused me. Guys who had never read a newspaper when they were in India spoke of the “strategic advantages" of a nuclear state, and girls who used to read J. Krishnamurthy and send postcards to villagers affected by the Narmada dam, rejoiced the manly power of a nuclear India.

Many of their peers who had stayed back in India, or who had returned to India to work for their families, did not feel so strongly—at least in 1998.

But that too changed soon with the rise of the urban villager. By this I mean a person who has the trappings of a big-city flaneur, who uses that daft expression ‘cosmopolitan’ for social diversity in urban spaces, but is in reality someone who finds comfort in social order, tradition, hierarchies, sects, home and also in contempt for formidable people who are different from him. In some ways, the second wave of patriotism was a middle-class Hindu response to a collective middle-class fear of Islam and its followers.

This force was widespread, but did not consume everyone. Even in 2003, when the Maharashtra government made it mandatory to play the National Anthem in cinema halls, one could sit in defiance as the sacred song played and not be assaulted by the public. The fever of patriotism was yet to infect all. But then, what Hindu nationalism could not complete was achieved by suave sanctimonious intellectuals, who sought to lament its power but ended up driving many who despised them to be their exact opposite. An unsung analysis of the modern world is that people tend to take the opposite positions of the public figures they despise. And so it has come to be that patriotism is today the virtue of Indians who are not very posh.

But the refined, too, have become patriotic today. They were the last to join. Some days, they even overcompensate by claiming some offence at something or claiming great joy at some feat.

The first time I met a person who truly loved his nation was a Sri Lankan refugee. This was in the 1980s, when his nation was being destroyed by a civil war. Maybe you have to lose your nation to love it somewhat. Or maybe patriotism was always only a form of mourning that the world misunderstood as adoration.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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