Why We Need to Understand and Teach Healthy Nationalism

One of my favourite writers Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at the University of California, LA says that asking whether nationalism is good or bad is like asking a person whether self-confidence and ego strength are good or bad. Having too much of it means that you are so full of yourself that you ignore other people. If on the other hand if you lack self-confidence and are too dependent on others for your own self-image, then you will lack the courage, sentiment and identity to deal with your own issues.

A great example of healthy nationalism, he goes on to say, can be seen in Finland.  The Finns speak the Finnish language even though no other country in the world speaks it. It is the root of Finnish national identity. Also, every Finn can recite the Kalevala, a collection of Finnish legends transmitted orally until published in the 19th century, and now regarded as the Finnish national epic.

Similarly, an excessive national identity as espoused by the likes of Hitler in the 1930s would give rise to the discrimination, exploitation and violence that we are well aware of.  Having said that, Germany today is also a great example of a country with a healthy national identity like Finland. Its identity today is not based on going out and conquering the world, dominating the other countries but on recognizing that there are wonderful things about Germany that distinguish it from other countries and that it can take pride in.

Where nationalism goes bad and sour is when the love of one’s own country is based on hatred of others. When nationalism takes up the agenda of brainwashing an entire nation or generation to hate its neighbours, it becomes evil. The list of horrors of unhealthy nationalism is long and includes world wars, holocausts,  pogroms, chauvinism, jingoism and xenophobia, to name a few.

At the social level, it fulfils the essential function of consolidating the group and its identity above and beyond individual needs.

A healthy nationalism does not manufacture hatred for others. It only breeds concern for one’s fellow citizens. The belief that everyone is a member of one nation, fulfils a basic psychological need to belong. It gives people a sense of security and status. At a social level, it helps citizens to endeavour together and value each other’s welfare.  Healthy nationalism can make people less selfish. Like healthy self-interest is good for economic progress at a micro level, healthy nationalism is good for a nation at a macroeconomic level. It is no wonder that countries with higher average nationalism are wealthier today. United States, Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden are to name a few.

India has a rich treasure of culture, traditions, wisdom and values. We have more than enough to take pride in and identify and relate with. So, this brings us to the question of how can we teach healthy nationalism?   Anwer is through developing patriotism. If nationalism is a belief, patriotism is the behaviour that espouses it. Patriotism is the life of your country and the desire to defend it.

And there are four ways to inculcate patriotism in young and old alike:

1. Respect all cultures and traditions and celebrate them in your own capacity: To each his own. The Sanskrit word for religious beliefs is ‘matam’ which literally means opinion. So simply respect another’s an opinion as you are entitled to your own. Celebrating the festivals of the tradition that we identify with is a great way to promote culture. Invite fellow citizens from another community/tradition to participate in it, while respecting their taste and boundaries. Greeting others and participating in the festivals of other traditions and cultures is a great way to show inclusion and solidarity. And when it comes to national festivals- celebrate and contribute together.

A note on handling traditions: treat your tradition as a living organism- have the openness and courage to adapt them to changing times, keep them relevant and yet take pride in identifying with its evolution. Support those that are trying to adapt and transform for good. Learn to appreciate diversity. Remember that the beauty of a garden is in the diversity of its flowers, not its homogeneity.

2. Enlist and expound on values that unite all citizens of the nation. Most of these are universal in nature. Mine these values from the lives and achievements of personalities, from the events, from our nation’s historical past. Remember and cherish them. Let all schools and colleges teach these values to all children and youngsters. Let us support and contribute to these institutions in our capacity. When asked ‘what are the most important values that make us Indian?’, we should be able to answer it easily. We should at least know what we are trying to love and defend.

3. Honour and respect for the armed forces. While most of us love our country, our defence forces, they put this love into action day in and day out. Let’s unconditionally support, have faith in and love for the protectors of our borders.

4. And finally it is important to respect the law of the land. All the values are also typically the founding principles of the constitution and take the shape of the law of the land. And so, living in harmony simply means living as law-abiding citizens. Express support and extend our votes to policies that espouse healthy nationalism.

With healthy patriotism comes healthy nationalism and with healthy nationalism, we can build a healthy nation and a healthy future for our generations to come. I hope these thoughts resonate with you and make you think. Nationalism like politics or religion or food- it is neither good nor evil, neither black nor white. It is how we wield it, how we interpret it, how we impose our biases on it that make it so. And so let us choose to wield it well. Cheers to healthy nationalism!

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