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Independence Day quiz: Are you a patriot or a nationalist?
It was a rare afternoon in Delhi’s August. The rain had stopped and an occasional nimbus cloud punctuated the astonishingly blue sky. A quiet breeze sent me on a walk into Lodhi Gardens on the way to meet an old friend in Khan Market. Our conversation over chai was halting and uneasy and we kept returning to the ill-fated rise of nationalism in the world. We wished for a world with more patriots and less nationalists like Donald Trump. Both of us had grown up on this distinction, made by one of our school heroes, George Orwell. He wrote, “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…Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power and prestige,” and (I might add) wishes to impose one’s ideas on others.
Tomorrow is the day of our independence, and a good time to reflect on Orwell’s words. The past year has challenged our old understanding of what it means to be Indian. I was born just before Independence when the air we breathed was the air of patriotism. India was born in the shadows of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and was created by saints (as Andre Malraux put it). Those saints taught us that our patriotism could only be Indian, not Hindu or Muslim — hence, Partition was such a tragedy. Compared to the nationalism of Hitler, Stalin and Mao, which brought killing and death, our patriots brought us freedom without shedding an ounce of blood.
Since Orwell’s time, we have tended to use both words, nationalism and patriotism, vaguely and interchangeably, and we forget that they reflect opposing ideas. Confusion between the two may have brought about the surprising exit of Britain from the European Union and has also marred America’s election campaign for the presidency. In India, a similar confusion resulted in Kanhaiya Kumar’s troubles in February at Jawaharlal Nehru University, followed by a muddled debate over sedition. Both patriots and nationalists wish for a successful India but the patriot wants all Indians to succeed, especially its minorities, while the nationalist is mainly concerned with the whole. A nationalist places his country over everything; a patriot is likely to choose justice over his country.
Indian patriots and nationalists were both happy a few weeks ago, on the historic Wednesday night of August 3 when the momentous goods and services tax passed in the Rajya Sabha. The nationalist was happy because it would make for a stronger, more prosperous, more powerful nation; the patriot was cheerful because it would also help the poorest Indian.
The nationalist tends to shout slogans to proclaim his country’s greatness; the patriot is quietly confident, aware of his nation’s strengths and weaknesses. In wanting to holler, the nationalist reflects insecurity, low self-esteem, even a feeling of inferiority; the patriot is comfortable in his skin. “Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered,” wrote Orwell. Donald Trump in America and the nationalists in Britain who voted to leave the European Union are both driven by the utopian vision of a pure past when they ruled the world and their countries were not beset with irritating immigrants. The Hindu nationalist also dreams of a pure Aryan past — he wants his history to prove the glory of ancient India and its later decline under Muslim rule; he seeks “a simple narrative of Hindus having been the original inhabitants of a land later known as British India and…the creation of a Hindu state is projected as a legitimate return to a rightful inheritance,” writes the historian, Romila Thapar, in a recent slim and elegant volume of essays, On Nationalism. Thus, nationalist history is driven by power and hatred for the Other.
You may have guessed — I am a patriot, not a nationalist. But I do feel sad that there is no meaningful dialogue between the two, and this is responsible for the terrible polarization in most democracies today. As for me, I cherish my country’s natural beauty, its man-made achievements, and its history. While I love my country, I don’t want that love to oppress others. I even wonder why my love has to stop at the border. In the end, I regard all wars as civil wars because we are first human beings and only second, citizens of nations.
Gurcharan Das, September 9th 2016