Can India's Patriotism Be Built on Accepting Differences?

Rudolf C Heredia ( is at the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi.
20 July 2018

There are many avatars of nationalism premised on very different understandings of “the idea of India.” This demands a patriotism premised on an inclusive love of all our peoples, a commitment to their integral welfare, and faith in an idea of India with its multicultural, pluri-religious society as less a nation state than a multi-nation-state in the making. The jury is still out on whether this will be a failed experiment or a prophetic sign of the future for a world still struggling to cope with diversity, not quite able to accept the different “other” and the legitimacy of the difference.

There is an obvious contradiction between nationalism and internationalism, and yet they prevail together: national chauvinism at home and international globalism abroad.  Any response to such anomalies, particularly in a rapidly changing situation, must be critically assessed lest we pour new wine that cannot be contained in “old wine skins” and so burst the skins and spill the wine. 

Some Issues and Clarifications

Nationalism and patriotism: Nationalism as devotion to one’s country easily becomes exclusive: my country first, right or wrong. When national interests clash with those of others, nationalism inevitably becomes antagonistic and hostile to other countries and results in violence and war on the world stage, rather than dialogue and tolerance, leading to a compromise for the greater common good and peace. Such a chauvinist nationalism thrives on finding or creating national enemies, whether without or within the country. However, patriotism as a non-exclusive love of one’s country must be premised on self-confidence and openness to other countries without fears and suspicions. This is a far better and more constructive basis for an inclusive society, both national and international, than jingoist exclusiveness. 

An intensification of trade and finance, facilitated by media and migration, results in an imploding globalising world. The consequent rapid and radical change brings back uprooted people who seek lost roots in localisation. 

Political leaders often find it convenient, even profitable to confuse nationalism and patriotism so as to mobilise people on the basis of a politics of hate, masquerading as nationalism, rather than painstakingly cultivating patriotism as a love for one’s people that reaches out to other peoples as well. Such patriotism is a far more viable basis for a national community in pursuit of the common good, rather than the social contract of Thomas Hobbes (1985) which grounds our politics today in the self-interest in individual or group, national or international community. This is what plagues communities in our country and nations at the United Nations, despite so much pious rhetoric.

Imagining a nation: Nationalism is the ideology that drives this process of nation-building: “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness; it invents nations where they do not exist”. (Gellner 1964: 169) It was a powerful idea but one that imposed a uniformity (cultural, religious, and economic) with a brutal aggression subsuming lesser communities into the dominant one. The last century has witnessed horrendous clashes of aggressive nationalisms in Europe, engulfing the world in two great wars. However, we have not as yet managed to exorcise such nationalisms from our world. 

Moreover, when religion is used to construct this national identity, then religion is politicised into an “ideology” and vice versa and nationalism is sacralised into a “religion”—in other words, a nationalised religion and a sacred nationalism. This entanglement of religion and politics inevitably becomes explosive, as religion becomes fundamentalist and exclusive; and politics becomes extremist and violent. No religious tradition has been an exception to such political manipulation, even those purported to be tolerant and non-violent. Only the expression of the violence varies.

When there are many imagined communities in a single polity, we have the multi-nation state, very different and far more problematic than the original European nation state. Moreover, a pluri-religious, multicultural society demands a correspondingly adequate ideological construct—a pluralism for a multicultural, pluri-religious multi-nation federal state, not the nationalism of the unitary nation state. But first, it must be a civil state before becoming political one. 

Unhealed, wounded histories: In the states of the Indian republic, everyone belongs to some minority, depending on which way the cake is cut. Religious differences are foregrounded to proxy for the far more corrosive inequities of status, between castes and classes, and the hegemony of elites over the masses. At present there is a deliberate polarisation that pitches religious communities against each other only to the advantage of their instigating leaders. This is what the freedom struggle tirelessly strove to contain and resolve, and it seemed to have succeeded for a while in the aftermath of the trauma of partition and the murder of Mahatma Gandhi by Hindutvavadi fanatics. Fanaticism readily overtakes religious nationalism and precipitates a world of terror and counterterror by state and non-state actors. 

Ashis Nandy (1994) distinguishes all such nationalism from a patriotism founded on humanism and universalism. Negative emotions and intellectual prejudice can be powerful mass mobilisers against powerless scapegoats but they are always very bad counsellors. It can eventually only bring strife and struggle not just between nations but within a national community as well. The human price for such a dangerous folly is incalculable, and the Indian subcontinent is a shocking witness to this. 

Unity in diversity: The challenge of unity in diversity is to recognise and guarantee both equal dignity, founded on human rights and committed to enforcing equitable rights for all individuals and unique identity for every individual person and each human community, premised on collective rights and responsibility for ensuring the cultural identity of each group (Heredia 2007). Indeed, 

“The national movement fully recognized the multifaceted diversity of the Indian people. That India was not yet a developed or structured nation, but a nation-in-the-making, was accepted and made the basis of political and ideological work and agitation.” (Chandra et al 1988: 555)

Negating the identity and dignity of a subordinate group sets off a backlash and in return provokes a response from the dominant group, trapping both in a rising spiral of violence. This is an alarming reality in this subcontinent. 

The Freedom Movement 

Perspectives on Indian nationalism: There was an inherent ideological tension in the freedom struggle: between a vision of an idealised ancient past prioritising religious and cultural revivalism, and a dream of a new future centred on social transformation and concern. Gandhi’s swaraj privileged even the most marginalised Indian but is now an ideal served more in the breach than in fact. The dominant Nehruvian consensus of the early independence era was premised on the dream of a new future, but it never could quite contain or defuse the lure of the first. Already, then, in the freedom struggle Indian nationalism had been contested by opposing constituencies with their antagonistic ideologies, seeking to co-opt it for their own partisan purposes. 

Hindu nationalism has had a subterranean existence even when it has been marginalised in national politics. The rejection of the Hindu Code Bill in 1954 in spite of Nehru’s support by a Congress dominated Parliament (which precipitated the resignation of Ambedkar) is evidence of this. A modified form of the bill was accepted later in 1955. 

Rabindranath Tagore rejected a narrow aggressive nationalism, for a broad inclusive patriotism. Under Gandhi’s leadership, the Indian freedom movement struggled to convert divisive debates into integrating dialogues, to transform exclusive identities into inclusive ones, to change hostile controversy into empathetic consensus. Both Muslim and Hindu nationalism on the subcontinent betrayed this ideal in 1947, and after the murder of Gandhi by a member of a Hindu nationalist organisation, Hindu nationalism was convincingly rejected, at least for a while. In the years after independence, Congress itself in effect abandoned Gandhi’s ideals, and compromised the democratic institutions that Nehru had nurtured, thus opening the door for a Hindu nationalist authoritarian revival which now occupies a majoritarian space. 

Caste and class hegemonies: Antonio Gramsci (1996) has shown how nationalism can also become a hegemony of the dominant classes over subordinate ones. Dominant religious groups too use nationalism to suppress or assimilate other groups. Such religious nationalisms are inevitably resisted by secular and other minority religious groups, and the confrontation often spins out of control. Pankaj Mishra correctly traces the rise of Hindutva (Savarkar 1989) to Giuseppe Mazzini’s nationalism, premised on a selective historical memory, for a restoration of the glory that had been destroyed by barbarian invasions. 

“an acute consciousness of the defeat and humiliation of ancestors, an awakening to historical pain, and a resolve to rectify the wrongs of the past with superhuman efforts at power and glory in the present and future. The latter include self-sacrifice for the greater cause of the nation, as Modi has repeatedly exhorted after unleashing demonetisation. An intellectual genealogy of Hindu nationalism, however, reveals that there is nothing uniquely ‘Hindu’ about it.” (Mishra 2017)

This is the Hindutva that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has adopted as its commanding ideology, but without the militant rationalism of Savarkar.   

It is important to distinguish Hindutva as a political ideology from Hinduism as a religious faith tradition. However, this distinction has more validity for a liberal reformist Hinduism, which identifies itself as a religious faith, embodied in a religio-cultural tradition, not extremist Hindutva that politicises it for partisan purposes. 

Once we begin to deconstruct and situate these traditions in their social context, we find a substantial continuity in the hegemonic project of the modern Hindutva agenda and the traditional savarna sensitivities—the former becomes very much a radicalised and politicised extension of the latter. 

Ascendant Hindu nationalism: We need an effective and real equity that allows for diversity without inequity, whether sociocultural or politico-economic. This demands a negation of the idea of a unilinear social evolution within a single national tradition in which all communities are co-opted and merged. However, subaltern and minority quests for equality and justice must not sacrifice social identity and human dignity, least it be co-opted and subverted. This is precisely the dominant group’s agenda to retain their hegemony: divide and rule.

But for this we need first to break out of the prison of our present consciousness and transcend the categories that constrain us there. We need to imagine another kind of community and invent a newer set of traditions. It is not as if subaltern alternatives have all the answers for such an enterprise, but they do represent a challenging horizon of revolt and revolution, which can fuse with others to construct the identities and the ideologies for this brave new world. 

Someday, people may be able collectively to remake our founding myth into one more adequate to our new world view. For liberation seekers, history can be made to follow myth (Nandy 1983: 63).

Idea of India 

Common consciousness: In the Indian subcontinent there was no real consciousness of a common national identity or a quest for nationhood, until the nationalist movement created such an awareness. It was a nationhood premised on an overarching civilisational commonality in pursuit of their shared tryst with destiny. The dominant inspiration of our freedom struggle was against the colonial Raj. However, independence as a nation was to celebrate an inclusive political unity in our rich cultural diversity and our religious pluralism. The freedom movement had constructed a new idea of India for both governance and civil society.

Tagore’s concerns: Tagore’s (1935) idea of India was distinctly syncretic. He imagined a civilisation “embedded in the tolerance encoded in various traditional ways of life in a highly diverse plural society” (Nandy 1994: x–xi), welcoming all peoples and cultures. 

Tagore was keenly aware of dangers of nationalist chauvinism and sharply critical of how European nationalism had turned 20th century Europe into a “civilisation of power” (Tagore 1996: 425). After encountering it in Japan, he was apprehensive of the militant nationalism in India and the freedom movement. However, he remained a critical participant yet always a much valued and respected one. The genius of India he elaborated in terms of a spirit of cooperation: “Let our civilisation take its firm stand upon its basis of social cooperation and not upon that of economic exploitation and conflict” (Tagore 1996: 465).

Gandhi’s swaraj: "Civilisation is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty” (Gandhi 1909). The basis of his swaraj then could not be just rights, it had to be duties as well. It had to be a person’s rule over one’s self in this path of duty, before it could be the collective rule over one’s country. His idea of India is bold and challenging, a utopia as a reference point to serve as a critique of contemporary society. He incisively rejects Western civilisation built on colonial imperialism, industrial capitalism, and rationalist materialism and then presents his alternative for India: 

swaraj: beginning with the individual ruling oneself in responsible freedom, as the foundation for a people governing themselves as a society; 
swadesh: the local neighbourhood community, as the node in a network of oceanic circles that over-lapped and spread out in its ever widening embrace; 
satya: as the many-sided (anekantavad) experiential (not speculative) truth pursued with ahimsa and operationalised in satyagraha. 

Gandhi was a patriot who wanted “Indian nationalism to be non-violent, anti-militaristic and therefore a variant of universalism” (Nandy 1995:14). He wrote: “By patriotism I mean the welfare of the whole people.” (Gandhi 1909) Later he would affirm: “my patriotism is for me a stage on my journey to the land of freedom and peace,” which was always inclusive (Gandhi 1924: 112). Indeed, Gandhi was an internationalist and patriot, not a narrow nationalist and chauvinist.

He feared India might succeed in getting independence (swatantrata) from the British for the political and other elites  and fail in achieving freedom (swaraj) or rather integral self-rule (purna swaraj). In Gandhian terms, nationalism meant going the distance from swatantra to swaraj: to fulfil one’s duties not merely affirm one’s rights. This was true freedom that finally led to moksha via ahimsa and the seva-marg. This was not just an economic–political agenda, but a sociocultural one for a civilisational revolution. Today we find his fears have proven all too prescient. 

Nehru’s discovery: Nehru saw India not in exclusive terms, but rather as a multicultural and pluri-religious civilisation that was to be the defining basis for its national identity (Nehru 1946). 

Nehru traces this right back to the meeting between the Aryans and the Dravidians, and later between the settlers and the Iranians, Greeks, Parthians, Bactrians, Scythians, Huns, Turks (before Islam), early Christians, Jews (and) Zoroastrians. (Bhattacharjee 2015: 21) 

The basis of such a synthesis was the “astonishing inclusive capacity of Hinduism” (Nehru 1946: 74). This “discovery of India” that Nehru, the enlighted rationalist, made was not bound by religious roots or defined by specific practices (Nehru 1946).

Ambedkar’s republic: For Ambedkar, Buddhism originally defined India, but through the ages, Buddhism was displaced by a Hinduism that was corrupted beyond redemption by Brahminism. He hoped that his neo-Buddhist Navayana would restore the original Buddhist ideal and be the foundation of the newly constituted Republic of India.

The constituent assembly debates, over which Ambedkar presided, hammered out the compact expressed in the Constitution of India. This represented the broad consensus of the movement led by the Indian National Congress. Despite differences and disagreements, this was not a pragmatic political compromise lacking conviction and commitment, but a compact based on mutual trust to allow for various underlying approaches and perspectives that were to be sorted out with sensitivity and understanding. 

The constituent assembly left a fertile ground for conflict between the political compulsions of the government and the constitutional propriety of the courts. This area of constitutional propriety and political demands for rights has increasingly become a tug-of-war between the legislature and the judiciary. 

Contesting the idea of India: The idea of India in our Constitution cannot be forced into a sectarian, communal interpretation without inflicting violence upon its basic structure. The earlier governments failed to do what they were elected to do—protect and promote the constitutional rights of citizens and implement the constitutional agenda on the integral development of society and progress for all its citizens. Inevitably, this has precipitated the present crisis.

However, today, this idea of India is being contested and contradicted as never before, to the point of threatening a reversal, by saffron-clad politicians, brown sahibs, neo-liberals, and free-marketeers. The 2014 general election was an alarming warning of the real and present danger of our republic being hijacked by an aggressive Hindu majoritarianism and populism. The 2019 general election may well be our last chance to reverse this. 

Constitutional Propriety

Constitutional democracy: A critical and alert citizenry can best protect constitutional democracy from lapsing into populist democracy (Béteille 1999). This is an enormous challenge. Formal statutory rights are made justiciable, not the Directive Principles of State Policy, which mandate the pursuit of social and economic democracy. This means countering the entrenched institutions of caste and community, of patriarchy and landlordism, and to do this within the democratic framework of the Constitution.

Such divisions undermine a fraternal community, which “without fraternity, equality, and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint” (Béteille 1999: 339) and society becomes divided into “beasts of burden” and “beasts of prey.” (Béteille 1999: 340) The backlash from the liberal democracies of the West is a witness to this, with the ethnocentric politics of exclusion overtaking a precarious liberalism. This is surely happening in India as well.

Populist democracy: In contrast to a constitutional democracy, a populist one has little patience with constitutional restraints of checks and balances or due process. For “populist politics is often constructed from a blend of nativism, bigotry, grandiosity, and coarse speech” (Coll 2017). It depends on a charismatic leader mobilising a mass movement for populist interests. Electoral democracies, if not committed to constitutional propriety and morality, do produce such “democratic dictatorships.” 

The majority is privileged, while minorities are marginalised. Dissenters become non-people, and the poor and underprivileged are deprived of voice and choice; they become invisible. This is a prescription for disaster and eventually, after much drift and obfuscation, leads to the strong leader syndrome. Such leaders undermine democratic institutions and eventually exit leaving a trail of broken promises and belied hopes.  

In stark contrast, a constitutional democracy pursues constitutionally defined political goals and ideals within a regime of rights, with due process and constitutional propriety. This is the real challenge for our democracy—to follow through and complete the social revolution begun with the freedom struggle, promulgated in the Constitution, and contextualised in the Directive Principles. 

Nation without Nationalisms

Neoliberalism and saffronisation: The crisis of neo-liberalism is world wide, thanks to economic, political, neo-liberal globalisation. Thomas Piketty challenges the conventional wisdom of neo-liberal economists to demonstrate how the system reproduces and increases inequalities (Piketty 2014). Class strata are thus increasingly inherited and ascribed rather than merited, as with caste. In India, this is reinforced by the traditional caste hierarchy to produce an upper class/caste hegemony. There is clearly a connection between “saffronisation and liberalisation” (Ahmad 1996: 1329) and the predatory capitalism that the latter has spawned (Lele 1995: 38) The conservative free-market rightists and “saffron neo-liberalism” (Teltumbde 2014) make willing bedfellows. 

Today caste, gender, ethnicity, and region have become fault lines. But most acutely, it is the religious divide of the majority–minority that is being aggressively exploited to consolidate vote banks for electoral gains, while communal polarisation consolidates extremist leadership. Despite all the pious talk to the contrary from all sides, collective violence still periodically rips apart the fabric of our society, leaving wounded people in broken communities, crying out for relief and justice that is mostly, if not often, denied.  

Shockingly, while the government projects India as a rising global power, the World Economic Forum (2017) says that "India with a score of only 3.38, ranks 60th among the 79 developing economies on the Inclusive Development Index, despite the fact that its growth in GDP per capita is among the top 10 and labour productivity growth has been strong." Further, in the list of the least trusted institutions in 28 countries, the media in India ranks second after Rupert Murdoch’s Australia![1] Nationalism has become the battle cry to neuter all opposition and all dissenters. Many see this as an undeclared Emergency. 

Without a media watchdog, there can be no government accountability. Without a right to free speech and public dissent, there can be no substantive democracy. Without a shared solidarity, there can be no nation. We are now experiencing the debilitating contradiction in terms of a “nationalism without a nation in India” (Aloysius 1997) from which only scoundrels benefit! Hindu Rashtra is patently the subtext in the present context. This is surely a betrayal of the national freedom movement.  

Future challenges: There is an urgent need for people of goodwill to come together; not just on minority rights of one’s own community, but on the common ground of our human rights, statutorily affirmed as fundamental rights in the Constitution. However, to be credible we must, at the same time, emphasise our fundamental duties as affirmed in the same Constitution. Here, the role of family and fiduciary institutions is crucial. 

Today, this is being challenged by the neo-liberalism unleashed by a global free market that promises liberty and equality but results in upper-class dominance and lower-class subordination. Further, with saffronisation, caste hierarchy and class stratification become mutually reinforcing of such subordinations and inequalities. Majoritarianism pretends to pursue democratic ideals, but marginalises the minorities and oppresses the underprivileged across the board. Nationalism is the ideology used to legitimise this hegemony, and to co-opt diverse and unequal communities and classes into a majoritarian cultural–political uniformity. 

India’s Democratic Saga 

Projecting possibilities: There has been a continuing advance of an aggressive, majoritarian, religious right, as also of a defensive, minority, religious fundamentalism among both the majority and the minorities in this land. These are but mirror images of each other. They feed on each other and spill over into violence. 

We need to recapture the open spaces that we have lost to communal polarisation and partisanship. This is the common ground we must recover so we can move together to a higher ground together. For this, civic activism must transcend identity politics, whether of caste or religion, and reach beyond to all other disadvantaged groups, whatever the grounds of their discrimination may be. It must be a process that begins at the grass roots, and but is scaled up. But it must also be accompanied with a top–down facilitation as much as it needs a bottom–up activation. 

Culture of terror: Minority rights for a community must be compatible with fundamental rights in the Constitution. This requires a negotiation between national representatives and community ones. The grass roots and neighbourhood committees are a viable place to start. But when the representatives themselves become stridently extremist, they silence the very voices within their respective communities that might make for a sustainable social compact. A viable context for this requires an understanding of “human rights in popular consciousness” (Anderson  and Guha 1998: 5), as also a sensitivity to minority cultures and their vulnerabilities. 

Our constitutional vision is now under strain. We must draw on our tradition of public reasoning to rescue our democracy. The only remedy for a failing democracy is a more effective democracy. 

We must build a civil society supportive of our constitutional vision—one that is decent and just, fair and egalitarian, participative and inclusive—beginning with our personal lives first, and building local communities that spread their ripple effect like Gandhi’s oceanic circles. We need a patriotism that will make Indians a happy people, not a nationalism that pretends to great power status. In other words, an India for all Indians, especially the last and the least, the marginalised and the outcaste.

Neo-liberal globalisation sits comfortably with religious nationalisms except when their violence disrupts free markets. It sharpens inequalities in a diverse but imploding world and then attempts to contain the violent spill over with counter-violence, where leaders profit and people lose. We need a new social ethic, an inclusive religious vision, and an open spirituality. 

There are many avatars of nationalism premised on very different understandings of “the idea of India.” But not all can comprehend and embrace the tryst with destiny we made years ago in our struggle for freedom. This demands a patriotism premised on an open-ended, inclusive love of all our peoples, a commitment to their integral welfare, and faith in an idea of India with its multicultural, pluri-religious society. The jury is still out on whether this will be a failed endeavour or a prophetic experiment for the future for a world still struggling to cope with diversity, not quite able to accept the different “other” and the legitimacy of the difference. 

If this idea of India falters, it may well prejudice the viability of a multicultural, pluri-religious society in a nation state for the rest of the world’s community of nations.

This is an abridged version of the keynote address given at St Andrew’s College, Mumbai on 11 February 2017.

Rudolf C Heredia ( is at the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi.
20 July 2018