Nationalism – An idea whose time has come…….to go

I like putting out statements during my lectures and elicit reactions from the students. The other day I declared, “Nationalism has been the cause for all wars”.

Sure enough, this was hotly contested and students brought out valid and factual errors in that statement. But the general opinion in class was divided. This has inspired me to think and elaborate here.

Humans are social beings who derive their identity from a sense of belonging to a group. An identified common cause everyone can contribute to helps the leader of a group to harmonise individual efforts and guide the group forward. As was well depicted in the movie Inception, ideas are very strong motivators. So, what better common cause than an ‘idea’ to unite people. Enter Nationalism.

Nationalism – how and why ?

Merriam-Webster defines Nationalism as a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups

Although ideas of a group sharing a common language, heritage or ethnicity being superior to others existed very early in history (Jews believing that they are the ‘chosen people‘), a stronger push for unification under a nation came from Europe in the 19th century. Continuous wars and squabbles between feudal states left Europe stagnant for many years. The idea of nationalism propounded by many European thinkers at the time then helped unify these states into much larger nation-states. Propounding the idea of a motherland/fatherland and a moral obligation to work for the nation’s betterment suppressing individual interests helped these nations progress. But such nationalistic fervour was in conflict with similar nationalistic pride of other countries and these may well be identified as causes for two world wars that Europe was plunged into.

India is a country that was under imperialist rule for close to two centuries. How an island nation barely a quarter million sq. km. in area could control a region 17 times its size can only be explained by the imperialist strategy of ‘Divide and Rule’. Indian nationalists/freedom fighters rightfully identified this and worked on bringing the region together as one nation, one India. Truly, the Indian independence movement was as much a fight for independence as it was about unifying millions under a common shared heritage. Nationalism, thus helped us earn our independence.

Nationalism to me

In school, we are taught lessons of respect to our freedom fighters, national anthem, national symbols etc. I recall being taught, memorising and reciting songs in Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Malayalam for fear of reprimand without the slightest clue what most songs meant. (Later on, I found out these were songs of praise of India, its rich heritage, diversity etc.) I became an Indian first, a Malayalee next and a Christian last. I still take pride in the fact that, this is the order in which I identify myself. But, what never found mention in school was that similar songs praising their respective nations are taught in other countries as well. This lack of a counterview has led to an accidental (or deliberate?) instilling of the idea that an Indian is superior to any other.

Kids are taught of tooth fairies and Santa claus to lessen the physical and emotional pain in the loss of a tooth or as motivation to be well-behaved. As they grow older and wiser, these myths are dispelled but are not despised. In fact, when they become parents, they tell their kids the same stories. Similarly, ‘One India’ is an idea that is essential to keep us together and to govern us. But, being impermeable to the idea that we are different and the notion that regional identity is in some way inferior to national identity is juvenile. Why is it unpatriotic to identify as a ‘Malayalee’ before you identify as an Indian. There is a beautiful imagery given by Shashi Tharoor. He once said, “If America is a melting-pot, then to me India is a thali – a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.”

Nationalism to what end ?

I do not deny the idea of India, but decry the idea of national identity being superior to regional identity or another nation’s identity. Nationalism  helped change ‘you’ & ‘I’ to ‘ ‘them’ & ‘us’. When the world faces shared common enemies like terrorism or climate change, the time is ripe to say ‘we’. If regional identities and sub-national borders are taboo, why aren’t national identities? It is just a question of scale.

Nationalism has always been a mean to an end. One should never eulogise a mean losing sight of the end. If world peace and prosperity is the end, is nationalism the mean? If nationalism is the mean, what end are you aspiring for?


  1. The process of upbringing us make us proud of ‘myself, my family, my village, my taluk, my district, my state, and my country’ but not much about ‘my world’. Should we wait for an alian attack to build better awareness of ‘my world’?

    All of these is good! But always there is a point where we need to abandom these patriotic thoughts. The common sense and the sense of justice and mercy should tell us when to overcome the patriotic blocks. It works and that is why our village is not at war withe next village these days.

    The British wanted to protect their commercial interests in india. Political interest is quite accidental when every little kingdom sought help of the British to take control of its neighbour!!


    • Hmm. This is an interesting spin. That the ‘divide and rule’ of the British played well into the personal interests of Indian kings. Or the personal interests of the kings gave rise to divide and rule?


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