Here is how the sight of a wren, the smallest of birds in creation, fighting to protect her little nest from an intruding hawk taught me the difference between patriotism and nationalism.
As she unleashed the fury of her miniscule wings and beak, I heard the wren say the following to the overbearing hawk who had obvious contempt for the little bird seeking to defend so negligible a homestead:
“Dear predator, here is what you need to understand: the same god who made you a hawk made me a wren, gave me a tree into which I could build my nest.My nest is not the greatest of homes, but the only home I know and love, like every other wren in every other part of the earth. Like all other wrens everywhere, I love my nest, just as every hawk on every mountain peak everywhere feels proud of the peak upon which it keeps its offspring safe, regardless of which nation the mountain belongs to.
I make no claim that my nest is the greatest of all nests, or has any magical properties. I defend it because I am used to it and is the only nest I have. I labour in sunshine and sleet to keep it safe, just like wrens in other places value their little nests and defend the same with vigour. And god gives me the strength to fight for its preservation, as wrens in other countries fight for theirs.”
In not claiming that her little nest was anything but a little nest, but one dear to her and her fledglings, the wren was simply proclaiming herself a patriot. And in admitting that her nest was not the greatest abode in the wide world, the wren was disclaiming to be a nationalist.
Many years later, when I was in the United States of America, the memory of the wren became my political inspiration.
Persuaded to stay back and accept a tenure-track teaching job at a reputed university, I declined the kind offer.
Pressed to explain why I was foregoing so exclusive an opportunity, I found myself saying that I would miss home.
On being asked what it is I meant by the term “home,” I found myself pleading that home was something entirely different from a fine house equipped with all the comforts that material advancement makes available. Home evoked the memory of sights, sounds, smells, cadences of social interaction, attitudes to time, space, money, the deep oneness with the languages we wa are born into and in which our imaginations embellish our realities. I remember referring to the charms of the wayside oven (tandoor), now fast vanishing, alas, under press of sophisticated urbanization, where I often stop while traveling to savour a hot-baked bread—a pretty proletarian fetish, but one that filled some deep longing in me. I pleaded that this was a feeling akin to an ordinary American lapping up a bowl of clam showder or beans along an ordinary street; and that just as an ordinary American working man or woman made no claims for American “exceptionalism” on the strength of her quotidian repast, I loved my roadside baked bread without extending that sentiment to claiming that India was the greatest of nations.
Home was simply a cadence of un-selfconscious living that informs everything from our palate to the structure of our interactions with our weltanschuuang. Something that enables us to understand similar feelings in other peoples who live outside the territories that define our geographical nations.
Indeed, the current spectacle of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers trudging to their villages away from the metropolises teaches us that home may not always correspond even to the designated countries of which we are citizens, but recede into hinterland spaces. A migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar may feel as alienated in Mumbai or Bengaluru as a rangy Texan in New York, unimpressed in either case by the superior claims to glitter of the megapolises they leave. In such episodes not only is nationalism a distant thought, but even our patriotism may shrink to pieces of land that speak to our souls.
Thus, were I to echo the sentiment “India first” I would not mean by that India above all, but to express the sentiment of the least inhabitant of my country who might wish her little hutment to be clean and attractive because, simply, it was a space closest to her existence.
I came to realize that such attachment to the concrete conditions of our grooming and lived being constitutes patriotism, whereas projecting that concrete into an unfelt abstraction that has never any basis in fact or reality comprises nationalism. My confluence with my given space and order of living did not, I made clear, in the least cloud my objective recognition that other peoples in other countries have notched up achievements that transcend what India may have to her credit. And, like the wren, I do not covet the mightier claims of the hawk, but simply seek to defend the nest I love.
Patriotism, or our love of our given clime, leaves us free to value a like sentiment among peoples in other climes and countries, and free to find fault with what we may be lacking without letting bravado or false claim distort those realities.
Nationalism, like religious faith, permits no such room. It asks of us that we propagate that we outshine all other peoples, cultures, climes, countries in every sphere of life because of some divine origin or exclusive right to perfection.
Where patriotism denotes love of our country and clime, nationalism denotes a politics of dominace, built on myths and legends that have no discernible or objective reference to who we are and how we subsist in our daily lives.
In that context, I recall a most instructive vignette to which I just happened to be witness.
A political pracharak (propagandist) working with people in a slum area was encouraging little slum children to say “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Obeisance to Mother India). At which a little girl with disheveled and matted hair asked “where is she? Where can we meet her”? The pracharak, rather askance, said “she is everywhere.” The little rag picker then wondered why she never comes to meet them, and why, if she is such a caring mother, are they always hungry and destitute.
In that interaction, I saw a telling debate between the abstract and the concrete, and an innocent but searing refusal of reality to be fibbed off by a great nationalist idea.
Clearly, the abstract idea of a supervening mother did not square with the little girl’s experience of motherhood as she experienced it.
It struck me that the same sentiment afflicts downtrodden peoples in all parts of the world, and nationalist slogans about their particular countries being “first” do not help alleviate the miseries of the marginalized.
The episode of the little slum girl brought to mind another. In my undergraduate class, there used to be an African-American student named Rufus. Over the semester, I found that he was not coming to class. One day along the university street I saw him, discovering to my astonishment that he had acquired a fair-skinned face, rather like the legendary Michael Jackson. When I expressed my astonishment, he simply said: “this country is great only for the whites, and I mean to be great.” Rufus had clearly decided to go over to a prevailing, even if covert, definition of nationalism. Even as his patriotism remained strong enough to disallow him from abandoning the country he was born and grown up in.
It should be obvious that our love of our countries bears no relation to the abstract constructions of their alleged greatness, but only to the concrete fact that we are born there, speak our own dialects, and commiserate with one another in specific forms of cadence. And, the fact that other climes and countries may have lesser or greater claims to national stature makes little difference to our love of our little nests.
Natonalism enjoins upon us to believe that our air is the most salubrious, our water magical, our sunsets and sunrises unique ly blessed, our accumulated histories and legends superior to those of all others, our culture the only worthwhile culture, our religious faiths nearest to god, and our stores of knowledge beyond compare.
Patriotism acknowledges that where I live is my beloved space, warts and all. It makes no claims to exceptionalisms that are thought to be god’s unique gift to us. It rercognises that our streets are shabby, our lanes full of clutter, our habits shoddy, our resistance to rationality often grossly debilitating, our defiance of law a routine habit of mind, our male chauvinism shameful and violent, our casteism or racism or communalism deleterious to the most desirable ideals of human rights and human oneness. Patriotism recognizes that things may be better in other countries and, less so in yet others, and patriots seek to better such conditions and realities without covering them up in sham slogans born of abstraction that have no real existence, or impelled by a gnawing sense of inferiority.
Patriots understand and honour patriots in other nations. Nationalism constructs them as potential enemies.
Patriotism accepts the great reality of diversity; nationalism seeks to obliterate diversity and aims to create the world in its own abstract theology of supremacy.
The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012. Thereafter he wrote two more books, Idea of India Hard to Beat: Republic Resilient and Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters.