- Mar 3, 2014
The razor's edge between patriotism and nationalism
Imposing a 'national' culture on a diverse land takes the Indianness out of India, writes Devi Kar
Imposing a 'national' culture on a diverse land takes the Indianness out of India, writes Devi Kar
The razor's edge between patriotism and nationalismWhy is it that as a people we have a penchant for giving up our natural advantages? Instead of surging forward, we keep regressing. For example, for years we had been using articles that were recyclable, bio-degradable and inexpensive, such as jute bags, newspaper packets, sal or banana leaf plates and earthenware tea cups. And just as developed countries were beginning to discard plastic we decided to abandon our traditional ware and began switching over to 'trendy' plastic. Why, when we have our own rich history and style, do we have to turn Calcutta into a cheap imitation of London with a ridiculous replica of Big Ben?And why on earth do we have to suddenly sacrifice our rich fabric of multiple cultures and start promoting an artificial national one?
India had its culture of 'unity in diversity' firmly in place long before globalization, while post globalization, nations are having to grapple with the tensions that were born out of the spawning of multiple diasporas, the invasion of different cultures and the delicate equations between groups of people. Indeed, they have to fashion new policies and draw new roadmaps towards integrating their people afresh. In this sphere, India has a definite edge over other countries. So why dowe want to regress by upsetting our existing multi-cultural mix by promoting one culture over the others?
Associated with the drive to introduce a national culture is the agenda of teaching nationalism or patriotism in school. Before we are handed over a brand new patriotic curriculum, we need to ask the question, "Is it really possible to teach anybody to love his or her country?" There is a strong doubt that one can teach a person even to respect or honour one's country, although the outward tokens can be easily exacted. As someone has said, you can teach a monkey to wave a flag but that does not mean that it is patriotic. So any attempt to mould the school curriculum with the express purpose of developing patriotic citizens is somewhat pointless. It is a different matter altogether if the purpose of reforming a curriculum is to bring it in line with a specific ideology. It would then be perceived as a blatant strategy to indoctrinate the young - certainly an unsettling thought. In any case, the common ploy of using school textbooks as tools for propaganda isquite deplorable, as areattempts - surreptitious or overt - to create a "uniform cultural nationalism". It is particularly objectionablein a pluralist, democratic setting. Should not a culture evolve and not be imposed? How then should patriotism be instilled in school students?
All over the world children observe national days with joy and pride. In India, children participate in the colourful Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations every year. It is indeed uplifting to watch the country's achievements being showcased in ceremonial parades and to remember its struggle for freedom on these occasions. At the same time, every Republic Day, I keep wondering why we have to show off our military might in terms of guns and missiles. Surely we do not wish to promote nationalism of a militaristic kind? According to George Orwell, nationalism is a feeling that one's country is superior to another in all respects, while patriotism is merely a feeling of admiration for a way of life. With this distinction in mind he asserted that nationalism was one of the worst enemies of peace. Charles de Gaulle made a similar observation when he said that patriotism was the love of your own people coming first and nationalism was hate for people other than your own coming first. Probably it was this version of nationalism rather than patriotism that Rabindranath Tagore had in mind when he said that he would "never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity" as long as he lived. Similarly Albert Einstein harboured an intense hatred of the brand of patriotism labelled 'nationalism' by Orwell and de Gaulle: "Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism - how passionately I hate them!" he announced.
Nobody could have any objection to instilling in children patriotism of the gentler kind that has been explained above. Tagore's many swadeshi songs generate the deepest of love for our country, India, and indeed for Bengal. But this does not require the whitewashing of history or exaggerated glorification of the motherland. Such attempts to distort history involving the suppression of truth and sometimes the generation of falsehoods can lead to chauvinism of the worst kind.
There is this case of a little girl who had to move temporarily from her home in Calcutta to Singapore. Calcutta was at the time going through a particularly dark and troubled patch with acute power shortage, lockouts, labour unrest and a general exodus of industry. But Singapore with all its glitter could not win the little girl over. Asked to talk about her city in school one day, she held forth saying that the people of Calcutta were very friendly, its streets were alive with noise and crowds and its changing seasons made life exciting. "It is a beautiful city," she concluded. The teacher could not help exclaiming, "Calcutta! Beautiful?" And the little girl responded without any hesitation, "Yes, I think it is beautiful." It is only natural for young children to love their family, their neighbourhood, their city, state and country. There is absolutely no need to hide the truth or manipulate facts to make children patriotic.A genuine love of one's country means devotion to it in spite of knowing the darkest secrets of its past and its present shortcomings.
Americans are well known for their patriotic fervour, but recently the teachers and students of a school near Denver strongly protested against the move of their Board to promote "the positive aspects of history" and downplay the negative aspects, which included civil unrest. One school student declared, "The negative parts of American history aren't necessarily unpatriotic. We need to know those things so we don't repeat them in future." Distortion of history leads to a faulty understanding of contemporary issues. Politicians aggravate this by using history in their rhetoric - making certain times in the past seem more golden than they were and painting others black or blanking them out altogether. Research studies by historians must be respected and accurately presented. Recently, the Prince of Wales had claimed that King Henry VIII was responsible for the first green legislation. But a research fellow at St John's College, Oxford pointed out that the king had created a forest just to be able to hunt deer. Forests in Britain were protected by law in medieval times for hunting and not for environmental concerns. I wish our leaders would consult credible historians before they make all kinds of outlandish claims about our heritage.
Patriotic love of one's country should certainly not be confused with chauvinism, which blinds one to all its faults. Trying to teach patriotism involves many dangers. Martha Nussbaum (Chicago University) in her book, Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom, warns us that students would be "dragooned into patriotic performances in violation of their conscience". On the other hand, she admits that patriotism is required "to transcend self-interest". So how do we teachers resolve this problem wherein we nurture patriotic feelings in our students while keeping their critical faculties alive?
Meanwhile, the irony is that schools are vying with one another to 'go international'. Indeed you will find 'global', 'world' and 'international' institutions sprouting all over the country. So while we parade the glorious feats of our ancient civilization and teach our students about 'the wonder that was India', we are also expected to teach our children to become global citizens and appreciate other cultures.
Perhaps a simple solution would be to try and teach students to be responsible citizens of their country and of the world. Citizenship, as distinct from civics,is studied as a subject in schools in the United Kingdom and some other countries. If taught properly, young people will know of their rights and duties, the value of voting,the working of the legal system and the importance of obeying the laws of the land. They would also know how to engage sensibly with the media, debate local and national issues andprotest when necessary without resorting to senseless vandalism.Most important, they would care about the outcomes of their actions. Imagine an India where people form orderly queues and wait for their turn, where they do not switch on loudspeakers at full blast for worship or entertainment, where they do not drive one another mad with their perennial honking on the streets and where they keep their environment clean and pretty. As global citizens they would be aware of human rights, international issues and current challenges to peace.
The 'Incredible India' slogan is not just about the country's magnificently contrasting landscapes that are displayed in advertisements to attract tourists. It is also about varying cultures, different communities and religions. Our students love learning about the amazing diversity in their wondrous land.Imposing a uniform national culturewith a 'national book' and other 'national' trappings would not only generate intense resentment but would take the Indianness out of India. Teaching an 'engineered history' of India would be a soul-killing task for many teachers and a deadly boring one for most. I doubt that this would produce patriotic fervour - we would just be regressing yet again.
The author is director, Modern High School for Girls, Calcutta