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I have embarked on writing an article of a subject that I am certain will ‘rock some boats’, ‘ruffle some feathers’ or just plain tick some people off. Patriotism is a topic that I have pondered over many years and have had numerous discussions and debates with people from all walks of life. Having had a multi-cultural upbringing, and having worked with people from different parts of the world, I have had the opportunity to see the bigger picture and in some ways, maybe the pros and cons of various national and cultural aspects; But most importantly, of the aspect of Patriotism itself. Patriotism in simple words is ‘the love of and/or devotion to one’s country’. However its definition has changed dramatically over time and its present meaning varies and is dependent on context, geography and philosophy. But let me state at the outset what Patriotism ‘is not’. In my opinion, Patriotism is NOT mindless loyalty to one’s own nation having no regard for the people or characteristics of that nation or others. And the above is what I have mostly seen of Patriotism displayed in many parts of the world including my own country – India. Greek philosopher Socrates stated “Patriotism does not require one to agree with everything that his country does and would actually promote analytical questioning in a quest to make the country the best it possibly can be.” This view I completely support. What I have seen over the years of ‘conventional’ patriotism is more an over-zealous ‘nationalism’ than it is anything else. And this has on many occasions made me ‘not feel’ patriotic. Let me first state the positive and practical ‘importance’ of Patriotism. I once read a fascinating article that stated the importance of a moderately high blood pressure to a boxer. While that may not be a very helpful analogy, the undertone is that certain fields require you to have a certain aspect in order to perform your designated duties to that field; National Security for example. It is absolutely necessary for every soldier or authority in any wing of the armed forces to have a sense of patriotism. The motive being a higher cause or ideal makes it crucial, in this case, protecting or defending your nation. And this is positive. However, like I said above, the aspect of patriotism is more complicated than that. While the context in which patriotism is exhibited here may be right, there are philosophical problems. Soldiers on both sides of the war may be equally patriotic but therein lays the problem of ‘ethics’. Only one side may have or be the closest to a higher or right ideal. You will immediately see what I mean. But what does it mean to the average civilian? What does it mean to you or me? A few years ago I heard of an Indian astronaut – Kalpana Chawla, who was part of the Columbia Space Shuttle Mission for NASA. When the news broke out of their intended mission, I was thrilled. To have an Indian be a part of a prestigious team for NASA was both a pioneering and proud moment for India. And I could not have felt more proud to be an Indian then. And then tragedy struck. After 16 days in space and on entry into Earth, minutes away from touchdown, Columbia exploded mid-air in a blazing trail of fire that left debris across hundreds of miles over two states. The United States and India were stunned when the first live pictures broke out on live news. In the aftermath of the incident, many days later, I was disgusted with some sentiments that a relative and a friend had to say. They expressed that they were actually ‘happy’ that Kalpana died the way she did because she ‘deserved’ it. Their reasoning was that having been born as an Indian, in India, to Indian parents, and educated in India, she decided to travel abroad and seek a job with NASA and do a mission for them for her own glory and for the glory of the United States! In other words, according to them, it ‘served her right’! I was flabbergasted not to mention seething with rage toward them. Besides the basic humane feeling toward the loss of life, these ‘patriotic’ Indians were actually blinded by their own patriotic, or in my words, nationalistic feelings toward and against, a fellow Indian! Words failed me for the lack of what I felt toward them at that moment. And to my shame and disgust, many such sentiments were felt throughout India by some minorities. I was baffled by the stark contrast as I watched Kalpana’s memorial service in the US, with an American flag-draped casket and a 21 gun salute, while just two channels away, effigies of Kalpana were being burnt and spat on back home in India. A foreign nation honored her while her own motherland spewed hatred against her. And for
what – not for selling our secrets to the enemy, or humiliating national interests for her own, but for dying in the process of realizing a dream that began in a small village somewhere in rural India. But then I even see this in the field of sport. Avid Indian cricket fans hail and praise their team when they’re doing well but absolutely ridicule, abhor and criticize the same team when they run through a bad patch. And yet if I so much as even ‘consider’ a positive aspect of the opposing team, I am immediately pounced on and charged as being ‘unpatriotic’! I even see this in the field of education in India. A few years ago, a lowly student from south India ranked state first in a decisive exam and got her picture in the national newspaper. But that’s about the fame she was going to get. She still had to spend her poor parents’ entire lifetime earnings as a ‘fee’ to get into a prestigious college. Her field of interest was adjudicated based on which ‘caste’ she belonged to and finally she was not given equal or better rights over someone else who has been there for a while simply because she was a woman. When it seemed like all hope was lost, she applied to another university overseas, who acknowledged her achievement, awarded her a scholarship, sponsored her and eventually offered to make her a permanent resident of their own country – an offer she gladly took; And in all honesty, one that I would too. But the moment she did that, she was scorned as an ‘ungrateful dog’ back home by certain political elements; for deserting her home country and running for the spoils of another. Again a foreign nation acknowledged her while her own didn’t. This is our definition of Patriotism! Now I’m really confused! By nature, I tend to lean on the practical side than I do on the sentimental. So when my country does something shameful, I prefer to call it that than defend it in the interests of national fervor. When a fellow Indian ridicules another nation or national, I feel obliged to point out our own national ‘blind spots’ and not be quick to judge another. And this I feel is not wrong. Patriotism has its value and I certainly contend that we must have a sense of national pride. But let me be brutally honest here; at the risk of sounding more brutal than honest! If there is nothing to be proud of, there is no wrong in being ashamed of it. In fact, a lack of shame might be a nation’s first step toward human callousness. It is ‘conviction’ that has lead to the higher ideals of ‘equal rights’ and ‘freedom from slavery’. It is ignorance and arrogance that has lead to two World wars and the Holocaust. Patriotism may be a thin line between national pride and national arrogance.