Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Opinion | Why we need not be paranoid about nationalism

Like any powerful idea, it can be used by dangerous men, but there are other ways to look at it

Many years before Indians developed an affection for their soldiers, and a very expensive cricketer endorsed military insignia free of cost, there was an earthquake in Gujarat. The 2001 Bhuj quake killed many thousands. In a town called Anjar, I saw a man sitting on top of a cupboard that was resting on the body of his own brother. He was breaking the cupboard with a knife. He said there were jewels, money and perfume bottles inside. He wanted to extract them before the soldiers, who were conducting rescue missions, arrived. The word in the area was that the soldiers were stealing valuables. A jawan would later tell me: “I am sick of some of these people. Once they realize their family is dead, they quickly think of what to do next. Just now a woman asked me to bring an almirah out. She said there is 3,50,000 in there. She also said that she will be watching me."

It was another age when Indians revered dead soldiers, but were not so respectful of the living, whom they treated as their hires. Today, Indians take the armed forces very seriously. They may not trust them with their own jewels, but if they heard someone else being so suspicious of the gallant men, they would be honestly outraged.

At the on-going ICC Cricket World Cup, M.S. Dhoni proudly wore gloves that had the insignia of the special forces, to which he does not belong. It appears most Indians do not think there is anything wrong with that. He is, after all, an Indian gladiator. But Dhoni does not play cricket for India as is commonly believed. He is an employee of a co-operative society called the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which is affiliated to an offshore trust registered in British Virgin Islands called the International Cricket Council. The World Cup is a contest between private clubs. People are not ignorant of such facts, but wish to see themselves in every great story in front of them and they enter the fable, in an expensive way, by lending a team of athletes the identity of their tribe, their nation to a sports team.

Until recently, sports was among the very few areas where Indians expressed their patriotism. This has changed. Nationalism has gone mainstream in modern India. The recent draft of the National Education Policy, for instance, has conveyed that it plans to make national pride an important part of an Indian child’s upbringing. Most people today spring to a willing attention when the national anthem is played in theatres. When this farce began in Mumbai’s cinema halls over 15 years ago, I would keep sitting and some self-righteous simpleton from behind would poke me and I would ask the facile patriot in which language the anthem was written (many said Sanskrit or Hindi, and even at this very moment, I am sure thousands of Chowkidars are Googling the answer). Today, it is dangerous for me to behave in this manner. All three superstar Khans have flaunted their patriotism by singing the anthem on the screen. About four years ago, when word broke that the film-maker Kiran Rao had told her husband Aamir Khan that she wished to quit India because of what she thought was an atmosphere of hatred, Indians erupted in anger, including expat patriots who had actually quit India for a better life.

Even as recently as the early 1980s, Indians made fun of India. In jokes where men of various nationalities entered a bar, the Indian turned out to the dumbest, if there was no Pakistani among them. We had a very low opinion about our nation. At a convocation ceremony at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, the chief guest said “brain drain is better than brain in the drain" and there was a standing ovation. Most of that same audience will not tolerate such a statement today.

But is nationalism evil, as global intellectuals make it out to be? Like any powerful idea, religion for instance, nationalism can be used by dangerous men, but there are other ways to look at it.

The Indian intellectual’s theoretical contempt for it is foolish plagiarism of an old irrelevant European paranoia of nationalism. He has been trying to convey a distinction between “nationalism" and “patriotism". Western intellectuals from the time of George Orwell, too, have tried to do this—to defame nationalism as the malice of bad people and celebrate patriotism as the love of good people. A few months ago, French President Emmanuel Macron deployed beautiful language to make the false distinction: “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By putting our own interests first, with no regard for others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds dearest, and the thing that keeps it alive: Its moral values."

But the fact is that every time intellectuals have tried to explain an idea by splitting hairs over the etymology of words, you can be sure they are confused themselves. Two different words do not create two branches of a powerful human emotion. As a note reads in the film Birdman: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing."

For most people who feel it, nationalism and patriotism are the same thing. And, it is more than a ploy to recruit poor men to die for the nation.

The most underrated quality of national pride is that it is a precursor to national shame. A newly and immensely proud society will soon demonstrate collective shame. For its flaws, its bad air quality, its poor roads, its filth, its corruption and its castes. Nationalism may not make Indians pay their taxes honestly, but it will inspire them to do many other useful things.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’.

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