Patriot or nationalist?

Indian women carry Indian flags during the Beating Retreat ceremony at the India Pakistan Wagah border post some 35 kms from Amritsar on August 10, 2019. (Photo by NARINDER NANU / AFP)

On our 73nd Independence Day celebrations, most educational institutions today will hoist the national flag and, hopefully, deliberate on what it means to be free and independent. On such occasions, it is easy to get confused between ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’ and thereby give convoluted messages to our students.

While both these words generally mean love for one’s country, patriotism is the older of the two words and dates back to the 17th century. Till the 19th century, both nationalism and patriotism meant the same thing but since then they have grown apart. It was patriotism that has led thousands of people to give up their lives to fight for freedom and protect nations’ boundaries. This love for country, however, does not prohibit the individual from accepting some of the mistakes made and trying to correct them.

Nationalism is different because in the individual’s eyes, the country and what it represents can do no wrong. Nationalism means to give more importance to unity by way of the cultural background, which includes language, heritage and religion. Patriotism pertains to the love for a nation, with more emphasis on its values.

George Orwell wrote, “While nationalism can unite people, it must be noted that it unites people against other people.”

Rabindranath Tagore, who authored the national anthems of two countries --India and Bangladesh -- and gave the score for the national anthem of Sri Lanka and for the national song, ‘Vande Mataram’, has a record that is not easy to break. Today, when we sing the national anthem that he wrote, we must remember that Tagore disapproved of the idea of "national history". He said "There is only one history -- the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one. And we are content in India to suffer for such a cause."  

In his 1917 essay on ‘Nationalism in India’, Tagore highlighted the challenges of India in “developing a national self-consciousness as well as the need for that consciousness to be grounded in Indian cultural sensibilities.” One can, therefore, question our preoccupation with changing the perspectives of history in the school curriculum, depending on the reigning political ideology of the day. History is as much a presentation of facts rather than just the interpretation of it. We should not confuse our students in schools with changing figures and events. This causes mistrust and apathy amongst the youth who are anyway constantly questioning the veracity of the truth.

In our school education system, there has been so much of rote learning over the years that even patriotism has become kind of rote. Till rote learning in school persists, politicians from all parties will continue to treat the electorate like herds of sheep, and citizens will continue to behave like one. Teachers in schools will continue to want “obedient and quiet children” and students will never learn to analyse, think and question. Till teachers do not treat their students with the respect and dignity they deserve, however young they may be, they will never be able to resolve conflicts with dialogue and reasoning. Till the teachers actually address the students as independent individuals, the students will never learn to do things in a compassionate way. To our students, Independence Day will be just a flurry of dance and song and hoisting of flags. The real significance of freedom of the mind will be entirely lost to them. They will not be able to recognize where the world has “been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.”

There is much talk of recreating the India of the past. Why is there any need for that? What we need to recreate are systems and processes that foster honesty and honour that reflect true patriotism. When schools and colleges discourage cheating during examinations rather than helping them, then the same students as citizens will not disrespect government property, will not avoid paying taxes and instead work for the general good. Pride for the nation will not be confined to cricket matches alone but in wanting to keep our streets clean and maintaining law and order. Tagore said, “My countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

It is important for us to listen to the youth of India. They are not as callous as they are made out to be. They are a bit disillusioned. Who is to be blamed for that? However, it is not difficult to resurrect their pride for the country when there is a coexistence of culture with rationality, belief with reality, unity with diversity, and progress with rootedness.

The youth of India can be taught that the India that we celebrate today is the product of many invasions and many cultural influences. We need not be ashamed or angry about our history, because India has survived, has grown, and has influenced the rest of the world through all this. Today’s India has antiquity, continuity, and diversity, and our patriotism should protect all of that.

A few days ago, I was invited to speak in a well-known college on the National Education Policy. I sensed a great deal of fear and anger about the policy in the other members of the panel just because it will be administered by a political regime that they do not support. They had specific concerns that the NEP had replaced the word “secular” with the word “plural”. I was reminded of Shashi Tharoor’s “Pluralism is a reality that emerges from the very nature of the country; it is a choice made inevitable by India's geography and reaffirmed by its history”. True patriotism is to keep aside personal preferences and evaluate an issue keeping the general populace in mind.

Working towards that idea of India is patriotism and not nationalism. As Mark Twain once put it, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”

(The writer is Founder-CEO, Parikrma Humanity Foundation)

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