What does nationalism mean for an NRI?

Last Updated: Wed, Aug 06, 2014 15:02 hrs

"A large proportion of Britain's Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It's an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?"

British politician, Norman Tebbit (in 1990)

Nationalism is defined as a political ideology or a belief system that enables an individual to identify with, or form an attachment to, one's nation. At a simplistic level, it is the love that an individual feels for his country and is manifested through various expressions.

However, the relationship between a nation and its citizens changes over time. The evolution of nationalism can be understood by seeing how the concept has evolved in India.

For the generations growing up in British India, nationalism was equated with freedom from a foreign ruler. Nationalism thrives when a common enemy can be easily identified. The British rule in India was the identified 'enemy' and hence anybody who opposed it was a 'nationalist'. Opposition to British laws, goods and culture was eulogised as an admirable act of nationalism. Movements like wearing of 'khadi', burning of English history books and breaking of the salt law united the whole nation in its quest for freedom and were symptomatic of the rising nationalism of its people.

With Independence, India faced multiple challenges. The task for the leadership was to strengthen India's sense of nationhood and develop a roadmap for growth. Rapid investment in utilities and industrialisation was undertaken as part of India's desire to be a socialist republic.

With the advent of liberalisation, and consequent higher exposure, disposable incomes and aspirations has given birth to a new generation of Indians, 'the global Indians'. For the global Indian, it is no longer about 'we Indians' vs. 'those foreigners'. Rather it is more about an inclusive 'us', one that includes people of different nationalities and ideologies. 

This change has been further fuelled by the advent of social media. The socialist India of the 1970s has evolved into a capitalist economy with multinational corporations becoming a key source of employment and value generation.

While the macro environment changes, there are changes that take place within an individual also. These impact the relationship that they have with their nation. The illustration below shows the changing nature of the bond many Indians have with their motherland.

Most kids grow up believing that India is the best. However, as they grow older, they become aware of other lands and the advantages they offer. They want to explore other avenues which would offer them a higher probability of a better life. Many Indians, thus, choose to leave their country of birth and start life anew in a new land.

As they settle down and prosper in their adopted homeland, their links with India become remote. Their visits to their motherland become shorter and infrequent, limited to occasions like weddings.

What does nationalism mean for a Non Resident Indian (NRI)? Ideally, it should be loyalty and allegiance to the adopted land. There are enough and more examples of NRIs contributing immensely to their adopted homelands, A recent example is of the two Indian origin soldiers (Eliyahu Paz and Barak Deghorkar) who sacrificed their lives protecting their adopted land, Israel, in the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

But does this mean that the NRIs have let go of all attachment with India? No. It is not easy to break away from the past totally as emotional bonding stays in one's subconscious forever.

Therefore, the question arises – is it possible to be 'nationalist' towards two countries simultaneously? Most social scientists think so. As nationalism means identifying with and forming an attachment with a nation, it should be possible for a person to be a nationalist towards more than one nation. There is no dichotomy at all. 

Most migrants display similar proclivity. Indians settled in England root for India in an India-Pakistan cricket match while cheering for Britain in a Britain-France Football match. Thus, nationalism morphs into an amoebic and flexible emotion depending upon the variables that are concerned, without any contradictions.

However, problems arise when the variables become complex. A simple example of this confused nationalism is often seen in the game of Cricket. Many Indians were unhappy to see Ravi Bopara playing for England against India in 2013. Similarly, a large number of South African spectators booed Kevin Pietersen for leaving South Africa to play for England. Many branded him as 'anti-national' for daring to play against his native land.

Recently, India defeated Britain for the first time in 28 years at the Lord's in July 2014. Thousands of British citizens (of Indian origin) spontaneously celebrated the Indian win. Despite consciously forsaking their country of birth, why did they still want India to win? They carried British passports and were law abiding citizens of that country. Can their rooting for India be termed 'anti-national' by the British?

No, opine the social psychologists. Cheering for the Indian team is symptomatic of emotional boding with their country of origin. Their loyalty to the adopted country remains uncompromised. Trans-national relocation is akin to migration that commonly happens within a country – people leave their ancestral homes in villages in quest of a better life in the metros. Yet, their affection for the ancestral home stays. Thus the act of migrating, both inter-country and intra-country, does not result in the obliteration of the past attachments. Nostalgia is a human trait and the umbilical link with the country of birth is weakened, but never severed.

Unlike many other developing countries, India has evolved to a level where its citizens are secure about their identity as 'Indians'. They know that this identity cannot be taken away from them; hence they are willing to embrace an additional identity, that of an NRI. Nationalism has given way to 'multi-nationalism': identifying with and having affection for more than one nation.

As regards multinationalism, the European Union makes an interesting case study. National borders have become indistinct. With common currency and a unified travel regime, movement across various countries has become very easy. There are many households where each member has a different country's passport. One wonders as to what nationalism means to such families. For that matter, do they even relate to such a concept?

On the other hand, there are new nations that have got created in recent times. 30 new nations have got created since 1990. The citizens of these countries display their newfound national identity with pride. The youngest of these countries, South Sudan was born as late as 2013. The concept of nationalism for the citizens of South Sudan would be far more in line with the pristine meaning of the term, rather than the diffused notion that most Europeans would subscribe to.

To sum up, there is no single notion of nationalism that is relevant today. Instead it is a function of the life stage of the nation (citizens of mature, stable nations being more likely to embrace multinationalism vs nations with a young, turbulent birth) and the aspirations of its citizens.

Sri Aurobindo once described a nation as 'a living entity, full of consciousness.' If a nation is like a living entity, then nationalism essentially is a relationship between two living entities, viz the nation and the citizens. It is safe to conclude that like any other relationship between two individuals, the relationship between a nation and its citizens too would not remain static and would evolve over time.