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Whose Patriotism Is It Anyway?


For some time in India, all political parties and social groups have debated which of them are anti-national or pseudo patriots. Such arguments are easily observable in popular discourses. Strangely, individuals from various socio-political backgrounds value patriotism. Hence, roughly everyone wants to be associated with it. Patriotism is considered almost unanimously a virtue. As an accepted moral virtue, then, it is taught to us since our childhood through the education system, media, and cultural events.

Political thinker Stephen Nathanson says that a patriot has ‘special affection for own country’, ‘a sense of personal identification with [it], ‘special concern for [its] well-being’ and ‘willingness to sacrifice to promote [its] good’[i]. Philosopher Simon Keller adds to this, “To be a patriot is to have a serious loyalty to country, one that is not characterized by the phenomenology of choice, is essentially grounded in the country’s being yours, and involves reference to what are taken to be valuable defining qualities of the country.”[ii] In India, it seems evident that everyone engaged in patriotism debates would describe themselves in such a way. However, there are still many disagreements between people claiming the title for themselves. It is not that there is no ‘true’ patriotism but rather that there is no ‘false’ patriotism. Everyone holds a particular conception of patriotism that might understandably differ from the others'.[iii]

An important phenomenon Keller notices is how people in political debates are eager to present themselves as patriots. This is because, as previously noted, patriotism is considered to be a virtue, including and especially in India. Keller says, “If your claim to patriotism is not disingenuous, you must take your political opinions to match a characterization of your country that is accurate, not just convenient.”[iv] Even in India, political parties and individuals find interpretations of history aligning with their party objectives or personal values. For example, Indian National Congress members appeal to their party’s participation in the Indian independence struggle; Sangha Parivar and those affiliated with it endorse their version of patriotism by suggesting it represents the archetypal Indian culture that was lost due to multiple invasions and colonialism. On the other hand, communist parties in India defend their constitutional patriotism by arguing for pluralistic, democratic and secular values. Every Indian who claims to be a patriot (and under definition given above can be reasonably characterized as such) is likely to find something in “India” that shall illustrate his or her reading of history or the norms believed to be most important. Narratives that are largely incomplete or biased, however, get utilized in reality to defend oneself and one’s beliefs, while denying that the opponent holds any correct interpretation. Most people argue how their values are national values and how holding them is both historically justified and consequentially beneficial. No one says, “Look, I don’t care what’s national/patriotic; I care about what’s right or what’s best.” It’s an almost absent opinion, especially in popular media. Surprisingly, India has produced 20th century’s one of the most well-known cosmopolitans, Rabindranath Tagore who says, “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity.”[v] Ironically, Tagore witnessed and lived through the peak of nationalistic struggle against British colonialism when patriotic opinions had the most impetus to floruish. The idea Tagore endorsed –a negative picture of patriotism– is hard to come by today. Rather, it is strongly condemned. Questioning patriotism and symbols associated with it (anthems and flags) is considered the highest form of evil.

Such debates observed in political spheres are generally futile and are intended primarily to serve political agenda. For common people, display of patriotism generally leads to social acceptance. Passionate rhetoric is then used to justify taking actions. Whatever it may be, these debates –sometimes even fanatical– don’t seem to solve problems. If there is any substance to the arguments posed by different defendants for their versions of patriotism, it ultimately fails to solve national affairs. People mostly simply talk past each other. It is possible to draw a reasonable inference here: we can and should accept that there are various kinds of patriotisms on a large spectrum. We ought to discuss which one (if any) is practically the most useful, rather than the true one. Discourses like these are generally fallacious because they are what might be here called, “No True Patriot”[vi]. Unfortunately, no “true” patriot in India has been able to move beyond that.




[i] Nathanson, Stephen, (1993), Patriotism, Morality, and Peace, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 34-35

[ii] Keller, Simon, (2007), The Limits of Loyalty, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 70

[iii] Of course, there can be cases where someone clearly doesn’t represent anything substantially relevant to patriotism yet claims the title. In such cases, the only thing that can be said is a modification of Orwellian quote: All patriotisms are equal, but some patriotisms are more equal than others.

[iv] Keller, Simon, ‘How Patriots Think and Why It Matters,’ in Aleksandar Pavković and Igor Primoratz (eds.) (2007), Patriotism: Philosophical and Political Perspectives (Aldershot: Ashgate), pp. 63- 74

[v] Letter to A.M. Bose (1908)

[vi] See, No True Scotsman fallacy.



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Written By Paresh Hate

I do social and political criticism of status quo because it has unresolved foundational issues pertaining to ethics and philosophy that call for scrutiny.

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