The paradox of nationalism

Nationalism aims to build and maintain a single national identity based on shared social characteristics and promote national unity and solidarity

The paradox  of nationalism

The nineteenth-century witnessed a turmoil of human emotions. Showing love for one's own country and keeping it above every other interest became a way of life for people. Soon, it engulfed big European nations and later took the entire world in its purview. Sociologists coined a new term 'Nationalism' to explain this vast phenomenon. This strong feeling of patriotism, allegiance and loyalty to one's country promoted unity and brought people together across class, colour, creed and gender.

French Revolution paved the way for new thinking and showed the world the power of unity of common people. The concept of sovereignty of a nation soon became a strong pillar for building neo-nations and democracy. Language, attire, symbols, flag, songs everything played a pivotal role in nationalism and soon became tools for its promotion. It became a common feeling which binds every human being and gave them a sense of pride irrespective of the differences. The concept of the nation-state was so glorified and it became the new Utopia. It flowed to the then USSR and came to India as well. This very idea of nation-state fascinates classes and masses. In the modern times, Nationalism is a political, social, and economic ideology for the promotion of interests of a nation, especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining the nation's sovereignty over its homeland. It strongly advocates that each nation should govern itself, free from outside interference. It further aims to build and maintain a single national identity based on shared social characteristics such as culture, language, religion, politics, and belief in a shared singular history and to promote national unity and solidarity.

Sociologists often opine that nationalism is passé in all developed countries, it has faded away in the twenty-first century. Post-World-War II, Germany, France and the UK, (who were the torchbearers of the concept of nationalism), are no longer seemed to be fascinated by nationalism because they are no longer at war. Neither these countries are facing any kind of tension nor any turmoil both externally and internally. So, they have things to indulge in and relax. New and unique concepts allure them as they have ample resources and time to put into. These nations are too used to peace that they no longer think about war and valour on their own soil.

However, a sudden eruption of nationalism can be seen whenever something disturbs their long-cherished peace. The facts say it all, 9/11 unified America despite numerous prevailing differences within the nation. When the then President of USA, George W Bush in his famous call to the world said, 'You are either with us or you are against us in the fight against terror', he exemplifies himself as a true nationalist leader. This erupted dormant nationalism amongst Americans. The infamous UK recession of 2008 witnessed various philanthropic measures both from corporate houses and media barons. Paris terrorist attack in 2015 unified France overnight against a particular religion despite being a liberal society. The recent example of Brexit showed the eruption of sudden dormant nationalism of the Britishers. When Scotland asks for a fresh referendum on Brexit, all the Englishmen wake up from their hibernation and call for unification and strengthening of UK. This is nationalism in its new avatar.

Renowned psychologist Vikas Attry explains this phenomenon: Nationalism is like a roller coaster. It may seem to subside, but it cannot be nullified as it's a natural human urge which is essential for existence. Nationalism takes care of many human urges at a micro level and gives a collective satisfying urge to society as a whole on a larger scale. Identification plays a vital role in the process of existence and merging into non-identification is nearly impossible. With a lot of money or greater educational accomplishment (as in the case of developed nations), it's more satisfying to be identified to micro-groups or classes rather than to the whole country or continent, hence an impression of a decline of nationalism is being created to the outside world. Out of various human attributes which need manifestation, there is anger and frustration, and one single attribute which provides a way out to these is nationalism and related feelings thereafter. Hence, it is more visible in the developing countries which are still struggling to come up to the ladder of success.

Attry studies nationalism in accordance with Durkheim's theory. Nationalism is not an anomie but sui generis. Nationalism needs to be studied in a context, consider, if we are not focussing on the outside (macro), then we would be focussing on the inner self (micro) which is full of guilt, anger, assertiveness, frustration and hatred, which is highly toxic for any individual. It is somewhat like if we are not finding an enemy outside, we are finding an enemy within. This inner focus of finding an enemy within will kill any individual or will lead to civil riots. In the absence of non-identification with a macro institution like a nation, the world will not become peaceful, rather on a micro-level, things will get from bad to worse. Micro emotions like arrogance and frustration are difficult to cope with and the society may collapse. Hence, nationalism provides citizens with a common platform to vent out their collective guilt, anger, assertiveness, arrogance, frustration and hatred to the outside agency like an enemy country or government/establishment. Nationalism keeps peace evident at the micro level and gives collective emotions a way out. Nationalism pacifies this collective arrogance. Identification is impossible to be done away with and if identification prevails then nationalism is the best option as it helps in many ways especially for a pluralistic society like India. This collective identification known as nationalism helps the people to come out of their individual guilt and frustration, it kills their inferiority complex and gives them a sense of pride.

Psychologist Attry puts society in three broad categories, namely average constituting a majority of people in the world, superior constituting the remaining significant number, and a minuscule percentage of saints. An average mind identifies with the self and the intellect identifies with something else externally. Identification gives security and adds to assimilation. A superior mind having academic accomplishments or abundance of wealth gives the impression of generic indifference to things but at the same level identifies to a particular class. It's not due to the selflessness of the mind that nationalism doesn't make sense but due to selfishness towards one's own intellect. On the contrary, a saint identifies with nothing but the un-manifested and hence liberation takes prominence over any other identifications.

In a pluralistic country like India which has geographical, cultural, religious, regional, caste and ethnic difference, nationalism is a boon as predominantly it's very difficult to bind the country into one. If over a billion population acts on the micro level then they will start identifying themselves on the basis of caste, religion, ethnicity and regional basis. There is no denying the fact that these identifications still exist, but nationalism acts as an umbrella identification which supersedes any of the former patterns of identification. Therefore, nationalism, no matter how irrelevant a concept it may seem, is important for a country like India. It's like a common medicine given to over a billion people at the same time which nobody can administer on individual levels. A country like India faces constant conflicts both internally and externally. War-like condition on the Western border with Pakistan and tension of Chinese hegemony on the northeastern border. Internal challenges like religious polarisation, communal disharmony and separatist movements prevailing in certain states. Hence, nationalism comes visible too often.

Nationalism also finds its relevance in Karl Marx's theory of Base and Superstructure, where base constitutes the mode of production and nationalism is the superstructure. Visibility of the superstructure depends on the vulnerability of the base. Hence, it gets validated that nationalism as a feature and emotion that can never subside but could just remain dormant for some time. It's so natural for a country to flaunt its nationalism and feel proud.

(The author is an educationalist. The views expressed are strictly personal)

Jagdeep S. More

Jagdeep S. More

Our contributor helps bringing the latest updates to you

Share it