The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

What counts for patriotism or nationalism?

By Raj Shekhar Sen 

It was another February almost a century ago. To be more precise, it was the 5th day of this very month in 1922. In Chauri Chaura, Gorakhpur district of the United Provinces, British India, a large group of protesters participating in the non-cooperation movement, initiated by Mahatma Gandhi, turned violent. Actually, the police had first opened fire. In retaliation, the demonstrators attacked and set the police station on fire, killing all of its occupants. The incident led to the deaths of three civilians and 22 or 23 policemen. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, fondly called Mahatma, decided to stop the nationwide protest at once. Further, he went on a five-day fast to cleanse his body spiritually because of what he saw as his own culpability in these deaths. The police station was under the control of the British colonial authorities and it was they who started the fire. Technically, one could justify the demonstrators because they were responding to the provocations of the enemy.

Almost 93 years later, in another February, we seemed to have travelled a long way when it comes to dealing with our supposed enemies. That is what I feel when I look at what conspired in Patiala House on Monday (February 15). Some would say that our OP Sharmas of today are braver and, dare I say, more patriotic than Bapu could ever be, at least when it comes to crushing enemies.

What’s Patriotism or Nationalism?

Patriotism is an amazing word. Merriam-Webster defines it as love that people feel for their own country. As words go, this has to be one of the most harmless words in the English language. But as an idea or more importantly philosophical argument, patriotism can often turn into chauvinism or jingoism. Modest patriotism can, of course, often help people contribute towards society but then it can also be as easily manipulated by political masters to create a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

My first brush with innocuous  patriotism was during my fourth grade, when on the day of a cricket match with Pakistan, many of my 10-year-old classmates started shouting, ‘Pakistan haaye haaye’ in the school playground. I don’t know who taught them these slogans but it certainly gave me a giddy, warm feeling.

I have thought about it a lot since and I do almost understand how patriotism as a novel idea affects people. Most of us would live, have a modest, often mediocre, career and then die. In these rigmaroles of usual life, we need an anchor that makes us feel good about ourselves by virtue of our common connection with others. It can range from race pride, ethnic pride, nationalistic fervor and even religious pride. There is a common thread running through them; they allow us to feel better about ourselves without really demanding much effort from our side.

Russian novelist and thinker, Leo Tolstoy, found patriotism both stupid and immoral. It is stupid because every patriot holds his own country to be the best, which obviously negates all other countries.  It is immoral because it enjoins us to promote our country’s interests at the expense of all other countries, employing any means, including war. It is thus at odds with the most basic rule of morality, which tells us not to do to others what we would not want them to do to us (Tolstoy). Tolstoy’s critique of patriotism may come as a surprise to many, but he most surely was not alone. In fact, most modern thinkers, from Tagore to Russell, have been critical of patriotism in some way or the other. I must mention that there have been thinkers such as Oldenquist who believed that morality can only emanate from humans through various forms of loyalties.

However, it is my sincere belief that patriotism of a personal nature, which does not impede on the personal and physical liberties of another, is not only welcome but perhaps somewhat needed. But that does leave us with an important question: isn’t adherence to a more humane code of life much better than mere nationalistic patriotism?

The National Socialist (Nazi) party’s second in command, Hermann Göring’s views are particularly apt in light of our home-grown beloved soft-fascism. He states, “Naturally the common people don’t want war: neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or fascist dictatorship, or a parliament or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

Why don’t we consider other atrocities as anti-national?

Even in light of the above arguments, we find a strange method in the workings of patriotism or nationalism (many writers have used these concepts interchangeably). Most notably, how allegiance to a certain idea is considered patriotism which leaves very little wiggle room for any other ideology to be accepted as even remotely national. A look at what we have started to define as ‘anti-national’ may make for a much better understanding of what we consider as nationalistic.  For example, eating beef is anti-national, so is screening certain  documentaries, opining that caste exists or critique of  capital punishment, demanding proper judicial trial for everybody or speaking out in support of a  disabled professor, against a draconian martial law, and speaking  against a specific party line, etc. All these ideas are considered anti-national now.

However, what does not make us angry or anti-national though is reducing the funding on Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) by 60%, while malnourishment rates in many Indian states are similar to sub-Saharan Africa; an overall reduction in health spending including tobacco-induced cancer and AIDS research; reduction in corporate tax rates; color-based segregation of foreign nationals; proposed changes in pharma laws to allow multinational pharma to charge their prices; and any instance of crony capitalism. Our pride does not suffer a mini aneurysm with Khairlanji or Bathani Tola or Manorama Devi or Konan Poshpora or Kilvenmani or mass graves in Bastar or Shopian and Mubina Gani, and Mrs. Ahanjaobi.

It is almost like our state is functioning as a farcical stage adaption of Stalin’s USSR.

After almost 20 months of the current macho establishment in power and multiple instances of their questionable approach towards human rights, we still have a core middle-class that is almost in reverence of the benevolent ruler. We still wait for the black money to fill up our personal coffers, Mr. Vadra to undergo a judicial hearing, and rupee to become an equal brother of the dollar.

More importantly, in the days of such loud, often crass, patriotism, we miss the fact that we have reduced Kashmiri Pandits to a mere ‘But what about?’ question, while Muslims in the Valley become more alienated. We often miss that although our primary threat of sending dissenters to Pakistan isn’t happening, we ourselves are becoming a satirical version of the nation we are supposed to hate the most. Our bravado still ensures that NJ 9842 still takes away many precious young lives every year and we immolate them on the altar of patriotism to replenish the chalice of our pride.

According to the National Crime Bureau for the year 2000 (the last year for which data is available), at least two Dalits were assaulted each hour in India.  From 2006-11 in North-East India, about 7,000 rape case accusations and more than 11,000 kidnapping cases accusations were made against the Indian Army. But this is where we draw the line for our patriotism.

For those of us who know how things have worked in the past, the sedition charge on JNUSU President, Kanhaiya Kumar, isn’t new. In 2006 in Ahmedabad, two journalists and a photographer from the Times of India, along with the Ahmedabad edition of the newspaper, had sedition charges labeled on them.

A bleak future steeped in state tyranny

As we observe the farcical happenings in India, let us turn for a moment to Darjeeling born, dystopian word genius, George Orwell, who tells us, “Until they became conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” Perhaps we have all learned to love the big brother.

Let me go back to 1922 before I end. Not long after Chauri Chaura, as was almost customary, Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned by the British again. He was incarcerated for ‘plotting against the government’ and the sedition law was applied against him. It is the same colonial sedition law that we use with pride today against our professors and writers and students. Gandhi’s crime was an article that he wrote in his magazine, Young India. Gandhi wrote: “No empire intoxicated with the red wine of power and plunder of weaker races has yet lived long in this world, and this ‘British Empire’ which is based upon organised exploitation of physically weaker races of the earth, and upon a continuous exhibition of brute force, cannot live, if there is a just God ruling the universe.”

Is it just me or Orwell, too, telling you that if you want to see a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face?

Raj Shekhar Sen is based out of San Francisco, California, having lived the majority of his life scattered around cities in Central India before renegading to the US of A. He considers writing to be primarily a hobby but has been fortunate enough to be published in a few journals, including Nivasini and Aquirelle. His day job is internet surfing and sometimes business consulting.

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