Nationalism vs Patriotism — A Never Ending Debate?

It was the French intellectual and writer, Albert Camus, who once wrote, “I love my country too much to be a nationalist“. Those words seem to have particular relevance to India’s contemporary political milieu. Nationalism and patriotism are two words which are often confused as one. This is incorrect since there is a world of difference between the two concepts, in spite of a few shared ideals. According to George Orwell, nationalism is a feeling that one’s country is superior to another in all respects, while patriotism is merely a feeling of admiration for a way of life. While patriotism fundamentally means affection for one’s country and willingness to defend it, nationalism is a more extreme, unforgiving form of allegiance to one’s country. As opposed to patriotism, nationalism involves the belief that one’s nation and/or its government is supreme.

Nationalism has been used as a strong instrument for uniting people, especially during wartime. The anti-colonialism struggles in Asia and Africa are excellent examples of this. In India, our freedom fighters led by Mahatma Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose used nationalism to unite our diverse demographics against the British rule. However, it was nationalism driven by religious identity and political misgivings which caused the partition of our country in 1947. It was nationalism that was central to Hitler’s philosophy of fascism too.

The present scenario 

Nationalism has always been a complex and much debated issue in India. This word has been (mis)used by both the Left and the Right in today’s distraught political discourse to advance their own specific ideology. During the National Emergency, the slogan raised was “Indira is India, and India is Indira.” The same has come back now it seems, in the form of “Modi’s India, and Modi is India.” Nation and government have been made synonymous and put on the same level once again, and “anti-national” and “anti-government” is being used interchangeably, with the former often replacing the latter. If we go by the taxonomy established by the current government’s well-wishers, if you and I don’t go on to advocate the achievements of our government, or happen to criticize them for their policies, if you and I do not hate Pakistan, or if we raise our voices for the rights of the marginalized people, you and I are anti-nationals. Apparently, the government is the nation to them. “We, the people,” are not.

Thus, it has chosen to hound intellectuals, students and activists who hold a vision of India that differs from their own, on the ground of upholding nationalism. The recent harassment of student leaders at the Jawaharlal Nehru University are glaring examples. They were accused of organizing an event commemorating the hanging of the 2001 Parliament attacks convict Afzal Guru, where “anti-India slogans” were allegedly raised. The government took recourse in the colonial era sedition law to cow these “dissidents”.
The Supreme Court of India in 2016, through an interim order directed that all cinema halls must play the national anthem before screening of films stating that “it would instill the feeling within one, a sense of patriotism and nationalism”. There was widespread criticism and resistance against that order. Viewers who refused to stand up were arrested rampantly. In January this year, the Court changed its view and held that there is no need of an Indian to “wear his patriotism on his sleeve”. A great relief indeed! Such enforced patriotism just leads to more distress in the country’s democratic space.

Sedition laws 

Section 124-A in the Indian Penal Code on ‘Sedition’ states “whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India” shall be punished with life imprisonment. Thus, a singer could be booked for singing against the government. It could go against writers, actors and cartoonists, students and activists who they think “threaten the peace of our country”, as we witnessed recently. It could be used against anyone who exercises his/her freedom of speech. It is interesting to note that the governments of free India have used this draconian law more than the British did in the colonial era.

It is unfortunate that students are detained for speaking up, educational institutions are blamed for propagating anti-national ideologies, teachers and authors are attacked and even killed– for nurturing liberal and secular values. Human rights activists are jailed for advocating the rights of the marginalized and the exploited ones, and journalists are killed for doing justice to the citizens’ Right to Information. Now the question that arises is who is the ‘nation’? Is the government the nation? Or are the citizens the nation? In a secular and diverse country like India, one specific belief, opinion, or any other socio-cultural or economic identity cannot claim a majority and try to define its idea of nationalism on others. India’s nationalism should have only one basis: Indianness, where no one identity can stake a claim or superiority over another. This is the beauty of Indian democracy, and it should prevail.

Picture Credits : starofmysore.com

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