Why India Does Not Fear Patriotism And Nationalism (Unlike The West)

Why India Does Not Fear Patriotism And Nationalism (Unlike The West)The Indian flag. Photo credit: ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images
Snapshot
  • Taken away from its Western imperialist urges, Indian patriotism is a sehnsucht, a yearning for home more deeply personal than any sense of conquest.

There aren’t too many people who remember the 18th century English essayist Samuel Johnson, especially outside his country, England. But his famous declaration, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, is repeated again and again. James Boswell who became famous himself by writing a biography of Johnson reminded us that Johnson was talking about fake patriots and not real ones when he made his observations in April 1775.

These days, this quote of Johnson is bandied about without context or caveat and it is particularly ironical when the quote is thrown around in India. Consider what is happening in England and India in that year. In 1775, England’s greatest colony, before India, is in full revolt. In February of 1775, the British Parliament declares that Massachusetts is rebelling against the Crown; by April, when Johnson makes his statement, the American War of Independence has begun. In contrast, in India, the British East India Company is fighting the First Anglo-Maratha War, a war that would end by establishing, without doubt, that the British are the rising force in the subcontinent.

It is perhaps fitting that Johnson, a citizen of a country whose malevolent imperialism and colonialism is being challenged from its oldest colony to its about-to-become Jewel in the Crown, is complaining about patriotism (irrespective of true or false).

But it is entirely ludicrous for Johnson’s statement to be repeated in modern day India by people who live in an independent country only because of the sacrifice of their patriotic ancestors.

It is time to question not just why Johnson’s words can be used unquestioningly today but also whether it is useful for citizens of former colonies to view patriotism — the sole reason for their existence — to force fit a suspicion that former colonialists have towards patriotism and nationalism.

There is a reason why nationalism got a bad name in the Western world. That reason is imperialism. In the West, love for the country has almost always gone hand-in-hand with attempting to, by force, expand its borders. Europe’s borders were written and rewritten with blood and the spirit of nationalism — and it must be remembered, all too often, the spirit of proselytizing by the sword. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648), the progenitor of the modern nation state, brought an end to the Thirty Years War in Europe. But how did the war start? It began in 1618 when the Austrian Habsburgs attempted to force Roman Catholicism on their Protestant subjects in Bohemia. It is a combination of patriotism and religious zeal (Christian Reformation and the battle between the Catholics and the Protestants) that created the most deadly conflict in the history of Europe. And that’s not all. The rise of the fascists in Germany, Italy and Austria, the concentration camps of the Nazis, the bombing of London, Japanese imperialism and the bombing of Pearl Habour, and then Hiroshima and Nagasaki — this is the spectre that emerges in the eyes of the West with words like nationalism, patriotism, especially if combined with religion. In the recent past, this has been further fuelled by American imperialism and wars that never seem to end around the world — from Iraq to Afghanistan.

India has a different history and indeed a different cultural context to patriotism and the fusion of religion in its nationalist discourse. The critical difference to understand here is that India is not a classic modern nation state. It is a civilisation state. A civilisation is a much wider framework of history and socio-cultural canvas than a nation. The Chinese scholar Zhang Weiwei has described China as a civilisation state where cultural (this includes religious) unity of philosophy, thought and doctrine creates the idea of the state and not just political decrees. He argues that Communism could not destroy the ancient Chinese civilisation and the religious philosophies of its truth-seekers like Confucius, which lived through the murderous Cultural Revolution and The Great Leap Forward of Mao hidden away in secret rituals of the common people — and today the Communist Party is back to celebrating Confucius and Chinese civilisation around the world. Chinese patriotism has thus been fused with a sense of civilisation which is now propagated even by the Communist Party — never mind Marx and his “religion is the opium of the masses”. Today, following the vision of Premier Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party holds lessons for its leaders in embracing its 5,000-year-old culture.

What China is struggling to achieve ought to be effortless for India — the only civilisation in the world which has an unbroken history of ritual and practice, a collective memory of shared knowledge that constitutes a living culture, a culture that survived a thousand years of invasion, conversion and colonialism. As perhaps the only true civilisation state, a sense of pride for the land and culture is inevitable in India. Not only are our epics linked to geography (there is in our memory an Ayodhaya, a Dwarka, a Kashi, a Mathura; now we could argue indefinitely about the exact location but that these places have existed from the time the Ramayana and Mahabharata were written is undeniable) — but we also won our freedom with blood from colonialism. For a former colony, patriotism is the lifeblood of the nation state; for a civilisation state, it is the raison d’être.

Our ancestors — from Khudiram Bose to Prafulla Chaki, from Vasudeo Balwant Phadke to Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose — paid with their life for freedom. As the revolutionary-sage Aurobindo wrote in June 1907, what we have is “legitimate patriotism”. He said:

“If it is patriotic for an Englishman to say, as their greatest poet has said, that this England never did nor shall lie at the proud feet of a conqueror, why should it be unpatriotic and seditious for an Indian to give expression to a similar sentiment? If it is highly patriotic for a Roman ‘to die in defence of his father’s ashes and the temples of his gods’, why should it be madness and senseless folly for an Indian to be stirred by a similar impulse? If ‘self-defence is the bulwark of all rights’, as Lord Byron has said, why should an Indian journalist be charged with an attempt to incite violence when he asks his countrymen of East Bengal to defend the honour of their women at any cost? If Campbell is right in saying that virtue is the spouse of liberty, why should an Indian be exposed to the menace of siege-guns when entering on a legitimate and lawful struggle for the recovery of his lost freedom? If each noble aim repressed by long control expires at last or feebly mans the soul, why should not our countrymen benefit by the advice of Goldsmith and begin to chafe at the attempt to prolong this alien control? If Tennyson is justified in taking pride in his country which freemen till, which sober-suited Freedom chose, where girt with friends or foes, a man may speak the thing he will, where freedom slowly broadens down from precedent to precedent, why should it be criminal on the part of an Indian to imagine a similar future for the land of his birth?”

It is this sense of legitimate patriotism that every honest Indian patriot defends. The Western fear of patriotism is derived from an entirely exogenous understanding of the context in which nationalism and patriotism is understood in India. A K Ramanujan’s 1989 essay, Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?, begins by pondering on the emphasis in that line:

Is there an Indian way of thinking?

Is there an Indian way of thinking?

Is there an Indian way of thinking?

Is there an Indian way of thinking?”

There is a difference of both context and emphasis in the way India and the West perceives patriotism. The Indian way of looking at patriotism is almost metonymic — love for the country assumes the shape of idols, temples, shrines, holy spots. The mother is invoked — from the mother at home to Bharat Mata (Mother India). This submerging of the external in the internal (or is it the other way around?) is referred to by Ramanujan with a portion from E M Foster’s A Passage to India. The character Mrs Moore is about to hang her cloak.

“Going to hang up her cloak she found that the tip of the peg was occupied by a small wasp. She had known this wasp or his relatives by day; they were not as English wasps, but had long yellow legs which hung down behind when they flew. Perhaps he mistook the peg for a branch — no Indian animal has any sense of an interior. Bats, rats, birds, insects will as soon nest inside a house as out; it is to them a normal growth of the eternal jungle, which alternately produces houses trees, houses trees. There he clung, asleep, while jackals in the plain bayed their desires and mingled with the percussion of drums.”

The Western sense of patriotism is entirely exterior. The Indian, having in a sense no distinction between the interior and the exterior, considers patriotism as much to do with the interior as with the exterior. Taken away from its Western imperialist urges, Indian patriotism is a sehnsucht, a yearning for home more deeply personal than any sense of conquest.

To deprive India of patriotism would be taking away that which held its civilisation alive for more than 5,000 (some would say 10,000) years.

This essay was first published on the author's blog on Medium.com.

Hindol Sengupta is Editor-at-Large, Fortune India.
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