Is Nationalism a Real Thing?

With globalization the idea of ‘nation’ becomes pretty ‘liquid’. Dual passports are an example. What nationality are Green Card holders?

A colleague and I were once arguing about nationalism. A point came up, “What would be the nationality of the child of a couple from Azad Kashmir and Tibet”? Pakistani or Chinese? Does nationality flow from the father or the mother or the country one is born in? Is it like ‘mother’ tongue? Why do we say Tibetan refugees or Tibetan Government in Exile, when according to the Government of India the Dalai Lama should be Chinese? There was no clear answer.

We then talked about caste, the defining and ultimate arbiter of ‘who are you?”, at least in India. If an American Muslim and a Rajput woman had a son, what would his caste be? Since the father has no caste, the son would have to be a Rajput, especially if he was considering ‘Ghar Wapsi’. It sounded quite absurd.

Is India an ethno-nation or a state of many nations? I am sure historians would have one hell of a time debating that! So when I tell another Indian in England that I am from India, he is sure to ask ten more questions to be able to figure out where (in the country) I am from. When Nehru wrote The Discovery of India, there was neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh. Yet nationalism and its more vicious brother Patriotism have the three of us siblings at each other’s throats for the last half a century.


With globalization the idea of ‘nation’ becomes pretty ‘liquid’. Dual passports are an example. What nationality are Green Card holders? So for millions remitting dollars and dinars every month to Kerala or wherever, shouting “Bharat Mata ki Jai” out of nationalistic fervor in ‘nations’ where they earn their mullah, won’t be a very bright idea; no matter how strongly the BJP feels about it.

Our unemployed youth, millions of them, are paying through their parent’s (usually father’s) nose (and sometimes their life) to get smuggled into the ‘West’ or West Asia, by boat or raft or on camels. Are they clever, daring entrepreneurs or foolhardy economic refugees faced with a dead end in their own country? At the other end of our nationalistic continuum, are those whose next generation must be anchored well in the US or Europe and preferably with access to good moolah in Swiss banks, which came in the first place from not paying taxes. This pervasive mindset of the somewhat poor and the rich alike, to somehow clear out of the country, quite old now, earlier called ‘brain drain’ till the blue collars overtook the white collars, somewhere belies our pride in genuine nationalism. For most emigrants from India, it would be interesting to know their thinking and feeling about ‘nationalism’? Now lakhs of our students are going abroad with the hope of never coming back.

Are ‘country’ and ‘nation’ the same thing? I would suspect that people are attached to their ‘country’, like someone from Gujarat would not miss the North East in willful exile. The land, the people, specific cultures, the history, they come from and belong to. Like ‘Watan’. To mix up ‘country’ with ‘nation’ seems to be at the bottom of our violent patriotism; the sort of feeling that prompts one to claim that you are either with us or against us. Hence everyone needs to think like a ‘patriot’. And what is patriotism, is for the RSS to define and its various cultural organizations (like the Bajrang Dal and the ABVP) to implement. The way nationalism is being interpreted, it would not be surprising if people start getting beaten up for speaking in English. JNU-ites, watch out!

What is the difference between Nationalism and Patriotism? The dictionary seems to use both words interchangeably. Both are invoked justifiably maybe in a state of war. But we have been at war amongst ourselves for centuries now. It is difficult to believe that the Brahmanic idea and content of nationalism will have much in common with that of a lower castes and minorities, unless it is viewed through Western precepts.

The latest benchmark to qualify as an Indian one must uninhibitedly be able to shout, “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. Otherwise you can get kicked out even as an MLA for being anti-national. Is this the idea of nationalism, we are screaming about so much? Or have we now begun to equate nationalism with one’s religion?

Mera ilhaad* to ek lanat tha so hai ab tak (*apostasy, atheism)

Magar is aalam-e-vahshat men imanon pe kya guzri

Sahir Ludhianvi

Meanwhile, what happens to the Idea of India? It is becoming clear (and dangerous) that the ongoing, ill informed pseudo-nationalistic rhetoric diminishes the Idea of India even though it suits the ruling elites and their electoral prospects.

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  1. says: Anubhuti

    Many many years ago I had a conversation about ‘patriotism’ or ‘feeling proud of ones country’ with a friend. My friend saw it as an ideal which united people through love and a shared sense of belonging. I saw it as the very opposite.

    People seem to overlook the fact that behind the word “united” is the expression “united against something”. And when you change your perspective by zooming out, you find that the “feeling of belonging” is actually based on differentiation and separation from all non-members. Also, are we saying we are better than other? What objective criteria do we have to make that claim?

    What’s more, it seems absurd to feel “pride” at belonging to a country. As if being born in a geographic location was an achievement of ours. Yes there have been many amazing achievements, spread over hundreds of years. But they are still the achievements of others – many of whom lived at a time when even the concept of the nation as it is understood today didn’t exist. I have less in common with them than any living human being on the planet right now. I do feel gratitude for what they did and am awed by their talent, their will, their humanity. But I feel those things for all persons whose life makes mine better. What I’m incapable of feeling is “pride” (as if what they did was a shared experience!)
    It’s scary to think that this makes it ok for a section to label me an anti-national in my own country. The narrowing definitions and the forced labeling of things as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – these aren’t just views/trends but threats to creativity and harmony.

    (Pride: a high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct, etc)

  2. says: Avay Shukla

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Nodnat. India is actually a concatenation of 7331 nations, which is the official figure of different major castes and communities according to the 2011-12 Census. Each has its own agenda, politics, rituals and loyalties- this is what our politicians have reduced this country to. And this is the critical fact that the BJP and RSS are ignoring in trying to push through their aggressive, overtly hostile and unilateral idea of nationalism.
    Their version of nationalisn belongs to the era of Genghis Khan, Hitler and Queen Victoria, which is not surprising, since most of their dogmas are pre-historic. The concept of nationalism is becoming increasingly irrelevant in a globalised world where national interests and international obligations are increasingly overlapping: the fight against terrorism,measures to counter global warming, human rights,nuclear non-proliferation,economic inter dependence-these are issues which are bringing nation states together. The BJP’s insular version has no place in the 21st. century and can only take us to the path trodden by nations such as North Korea, Pakistan and Iran. Nationalism is an abstract idea and means different things to different people, and is also expressed differently. To try to reduce it to slogans such as ” Ghar Wapsi” or ” Beef ban” or ” Bharat Mata ki jai” not only limits it scope and strength, it is also extremely dangerous in a fractured society like ours. One only hopes that better sense dawns on the powers that be, but cannot see.

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