The Compulsion of Patriotism | Sudipta Purkayastha

Nationalism, under the garb of patriotism, has single-handedly altered the rules of the game of modern day politics. Patriotism is the ready arrow in the quiver– and it is deftly aimed at the masses that base their value systems on it. Starting from Modi’s election to power to Trump’s winning slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’ – to arguably even Brexit – everything boils down to this one emotion of utterly irrational devotion for one’s country.

Now, patriotism could signify very different values, depending on which end of the rope you’re tugging at. For some, it may reflect a sense of identity linked to culture, that is necessary to retain – and sometimes is forced to be retained – in order to rise as a powerful nation. For some others, it may reflect the value system of doing anything necessary to protect the (already superior) interests of the nation, even if doing so trumps those of another.

Dworkin rightly argued, soon after the passing of the USA Patriot Act, that patriotism should not be used to defend the most lawless of acts which are only relegated to the sphere of totalitarian dictatorships, and which would otherwise evoke cries of human rights violation if carried out by a foreign (usually less economically developed) government. Indeed, the politics of today cleverly masquerades extreme ideas of nationalism as patriotism in order to cash in on votes of the easily swayed, emotional section of the society that mistakes self-interest for love for the nation. After all, wouldn’t you rather vote for someone who avows to put the nation’s interest as paramount over all else, than someone with a more neutral outlook encompassing interests of the international community? Nationalist and patriotic propaganda is the most powerful of political emotions – and also the easiest to manipulate, being directed at the very identity of the people.

But before this article manages to rankle any more patriotic nerves than it already has, let me pose a simple question underlying any discussion on the irrationality of patriotism: Why is one patriotic at all? Where does the unchallengeable, unquestionable and rather unyielding feeling of loyal devotion to one’s nation evolve from? Is it perhaps passed onto us, travelling through ancestral blood lines, just like the other genetic material we sometimes, and in equal measure, both lament and take pride over; or is it a culmination of the various nationalistic symbols and fervent assertions of love for our country that we have been exposed to all our lives?

I doubt it would be the former, since that would imply that generations of immigrants would still be patriotic about their original ancestral country, even without any links being retained with it. It has to then be the latter, with two further questions mushrooming out: Is being patriotic an exercise of choice, arrived at after having carefully analysed our nation’s vices and virtues; or are we willed to be so, owing merely- and automatically- to our chance birth in the country we proceed to grow up in?
On the face of it, patriotism is simple to understand – What, my love, can you not understand about it? It is the easiest, most natural feeling of love, devotion and gratefulness to the country that has borne the pain of your weight on its back. Has it not witnessed great calamity and suffering in its history, all so that you may live in peace today? One must be prepared to face retribution for questioning a concept as pure as that of patriotism, it is a given.

That is understandable to an extent, of course, and as an Indian, I can see how this sentiment came to be. Our history textbooks have had no minor role to play in lighting the incense of nationalism within us. Did we not grit our teeth with anger to read of the unjust slavery of our nation’s past? Have we not realised the significance of our National Anthem? Do our voices not become solemn and do they not tremble with subtle joy while singing it? Actually, not always. Do I always keep in mind Bhagat Singh’s valour, Subhash Bose’s defiance and Mahatma Gandhi’s resilience while singing Jana GanaMana? Absolutely not. .

It is true that on the days that I do wake up early on Republic Day to watch the parade, the sight of the myriad fighter planes, marching bands and state tableaux have me feeling dizzy – indeed, they make me think, “Ah, my country! There is truly none better.” Should it not fill me with pride to see how my country has come so far ahead of its ravaged past? And yet, amongst the politicians who negotiated our independence relentlessly, the leaders who fasted endlessly, and the soldiers who gave up their lives fearlessly – where am I?

Am I anchoring my love for my country almost entirely on how others have suffered for it in the past? Certainly, my ancestors figuratively struggled, starved, revolted and even died for me. Should that mean that my patriotism finds its roots in the suffering of my ancestors primarily? Could it then be possible that my patriotism would have found itself diluted had my country not been enslaved by another for approximately a hundred years? Does that go on to imply that my patriotism is truer and more intense than that of a similar being across the globe, whose country has never suffered like mine has?

My doubts about the intensity can be easily addressed. Displays of patriotism at an England-Germany football match is no different from those at an India-Pakistan cricket match. The level of patriotism – at its maniacal heights as well at its passive lows – tends to remain the same everywhere. Touching upon the purity of patriotism, however, would open a can of worms. If it is a long history of culture and growth of a nation that adds value to patriotism, would the patriotism displayed by the citizens of a (potential) new state of Catalonia then be inferior to that of any other nation? It could then be claimed that Americans would have much less reason to be patriotic than Iraqis, being mere children when compared to the descendants of the cradle of civilization itself! [Yet we do ironically find American nationalist interests being placed over those of Iraq!]

If it is the amount of suffering a country has witnessed, on the other hand – seeing how the English, instead of suffering,flourished from the exploitation of their slave-like colonies, do their descendants have no right to be patriotic at all?Or even if that right exists, should it be less true than those of their former colonies? Of course not! That would be entirely fallacious –in fact, it may just be victim politics. Vicarious virtue should in no manner give way to false superiority. The Indians may very well be patriotic, but the English hold no less passion for their country.

[Although George Orwell did proclaim England to be “the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality”, in his famous work, The Lion and the Unicorn. He also went on to note: “It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during God save the King than of stealing from a poor box.” I feel Mr. Orwell would be forced to rescind his belief after one small trip with the overtly energetic Barmy Army to an Ashes match Down Under!]

I would argue that a patriot needs no real reason to be so – it is only rarely so, that being presented with irrefutable evidence of one’s country’s follies and misdeeds, would one be compelled to denounce their love for it. What does this individual then hold pride for? Possibly not much, but that should hardly deter them!

One cannot possibly be questioned for hearing of a compatriot winning an Olympic medal or a Noble Prize, and immediately identifying it as their own personal glory- as if it were their face that had dominated the front pages of newspapers. During that split second of celebration, I doubt that one’s happiness is evoked by the rich history and culture of their nation. Instead, I suspect it arises more from an understanding that the winner is akin to a family member; it somehow reflects on one’s own ability to achieve similar results, being from the same family, and evokes a sense of extreme pride.

This brings me to the only logical conclusion I am able to reach for now – Patriotism, as fervent or deep as it may evolve into as a sentiment, may not be a result of our country’s history and its resultant culture. We are perhaps too far removed from the plight of our ancestors to feel the emotional connect required to fuel nationalism. Our present circumstances do have tremendously to do with the past, however, our respect for our ancestors cannot be seen as the foundation of our love for our nation.

Perhaps ‘patriotism’ is another word we have given to the comfort and familiarity our country bestows on us. The feeling of being ‘home’ is, as they say, greater than any other, and irrespective of how my ancestors suffered, my love for the streets I grew up in and the people I have found (and to continue to find) on them, translates into my feeling of loyalty and devotion for my country. My chance and rather fortunate birth in this country is all that was required for me to acquire my sense of loyalty. Recognition of the culture, history and values associated with my country were only secondary considerations – mere after-thoughts. My patriotism, then, evolves simply from the familiarity that my geographical location I have found myself at gives me. For everything in our life, after all, boils down to familiarity – we seek out comfort in our partners; we identify more with those who speak the same language; we even prefer our old over-worn, almost-torn jeans over our new trousers. Is it not natural, then, that our familiarity should give way to intense love for our country – for our patriotism?

The only question that remains to be asked, then, is: should a simple emotion like familiarity be reason enough to display the vilest, falsely superior sides of ourselves against someone we relegate to the category of “the other”? It’s worth a thought.


Sudipta Purkayastha is an LLM candidate at the University of Cambridge, previously having completed her law studies from Gujarat National Law University.

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