What is Patriotism?

Amman Madan
Published in Hindi through Sarvodaya feature service, April 2002.

Today when the burnt heaps in Gujarat are still smoldering, when Ayodhya promises to catch fire any day, it is necessary to examine a central question: what is patriotism? Where do its roots lie?

The structure of patriotism

Every social group has its own notions of loyalty. The institution of family embeds loyalty to the family as a social group. When a son and his wife and children separate from the rest of the family or when brothers divide their property, the neighborhood reacts with sorrow and not glee. Caste associations emphasize the benefits which come from an active participation and cooperation between different members of the same caste. Tribal groups, too, emphasize similar benefits from collaboration.

The notion of patriotism is different from such forms of group loyalty. The difference lies in its close affinity with the state. Patriotism is not based upon kinship or of shared descent like in families, castes and tribes. Patriotism is based upon the idea of a nation and its central institution, the state.

Patriotism in modern India is thus qualitatively different from the love of one's community that was to be seen in ancient and medieval India. Its relation to one's country has changed with the change in the social structure of the state and the nation. To a great extent the pre-modern states and countries were based upon the rule of one or a few social groups. The Gupta period was dominated by the Guptas and their kindred and allies. The Mughals saw the domination of the Mughal biradari, and their supporters who included the Turks, the Iranians and several other groups like the Rajputs. Modern India is based upon the ideology of equality of all. While there continue to be several hangovers of the past to be seen today, the basic character of the state and the nation have changed.

Modern India is based upon the idea that all its citizens are equal and that its rulers represent the will of not just a few, but all of the different communities that make up this country. This nation is based upon different foundations than most of those which went before it. Its legitimacy lies in its being able to satisfy its various component communities that their interests will be safeguarded by the Indian state. Irrespective of the religion, caste, community, sex of the individual, the state is supposed to represent each and every of them. The modern nation has its appeal because of its being able to mediate between and reconcile often conflicting interests. The state is considered legitimate when it speaks with the same voice to all.

It is the coming together of so many diverse groups which lends strength to the country. The strength of India lies in its being able to weld together a large and heterogeneous populace into a common force. Any country in modern times which seeks to progress and develop must find ways of attracting and retaining the loyalty of its constituent groups. In modern nations this is done by everybody voting to select their rulers and the creation of a bureaucracy based on selection through merit.

A modern state, with its universal appeal to its people,  has many advantages over the older kinds of nationhood and statehood, with their sectional support bases. The universalistic modern state is what the most powerful countries of the world have. It is through this social form that resources are used most efficiently and the diverse forces of a country focussed for the benefit of everybody. Patriotism in a modern country cannot be created on the basis of ideas that appeal to only partisan groups or some sections of society. The naked use of force to coerce acceptance of the nation is not a characteristic of a society based on reason and democracy.

The content of patriotism in a modern country

The transformed structure of patriotism leads to a change in the content of what patriotism would mean in everyday practice. Modern patriotism and nationhood is based upon symbols that all can share. By definition this excludes symbols that pit religion against religion.

Patriotism in a modern country must be expressed through universal symbols. These are all around us and yet are ignored. The streets of a neighborhood are a truer symbol of nationhood than a place of worship. They are used by all and paid for by the contributions of all. Yet, they remain filthy while people pool money to build distant places of worship.

When universal symbols are not altogether ignored here, they are attacked by all kinds of distortions. The symbols of the rich are enthroned as the symbols of the entire nation. The tragedy of the many poor who have been thrown out of their homes by big dams does not arouse us. The tragedy of the middle-class Kashmiri Pandits who were forced to leave their homes does. The latter are called refugees in their own homeland. The dispossessed adivasis and rural poor who did not have relatives that they could flee to in Delhi do not attract national sympathy. Nor do the Kashmiri Muslims who had to flee Kashmir, in spite of their outnumbering the Kashmiri Pandits.

Clearly we are still in the process of moving towards modern nationhood. The model of modernity which Indians must aspire towards cannot be the same as that in the West. We are far too heterogeneous to ever become the kind of nation which fascist Germany once aspired to be. And our forms of production are still not capitalistic enough to become the kind of melting pot of identities which the USA was. We must define our own modernity. That universal framework of Indian reason must be the framework through which our nationhood and patriotism must be defined. It must be a patriotism which seeks with Gandhiji the happiness of the poorest of the poor as the index of our national development. It must be a patriotism which sees the freedom of the smallest of the minorities as the index of our social development. It must be a patriotism which comes into action every day, through a conscience that sees lying to customers, exploiting labourers, cheating on tax, paying bribes, adding sand to cement, oppressing the poor, paying obeisance to the powerful, all these daily acts of betrayal of the people as treason.

Every secular space in a modern country teaches a lesson of patriotism. But school education is a special area for our concern. It is here where most young people come together crossing the old boundaries of religion and caste. It is here where the new nation is being constructed. That makes it even more necessary to be cautious about the introduction of religious values in schools. The kind of values which we seek must be in tune with the universal appeal of our country. Where the values being taught emphasize freedom of thought and truths that are shared by all and not just a few. The modern idea of India is about equality and the transcendence of social barriers, not about narrow dividing walls. It is high time that we rethought our school experience to try and create a land where the patriot is she who risks her life to protect an unknown stranger, and where the traitor is he who kills his friend in the name of his god.