Today when the burnt heaps in
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
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
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
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.