What We Should Talk About When We Talk About Nationalism to Our Children

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What We Should Talk About When We Talk About Nationalism to Our Children

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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few days ago, while we were watching the final overs of the India vs South Africa World Cup match, my five-year-old niece sensed the excitement in the room and wanted in. “Maasi, who is winning?” she asked me and without giving my answer too much thought, I instantly replied, “India.” What I hadn’t bargained for was her follow-up question, “You mean the ones wearing green?” Before I could respond, she started cheering for the men in green, until I had to clarify that our team was the one in blue. And in a matter of seconds, my niece dutifully changed sides for her cheerleading duties.

At that moment, a realisation – long overdue, perhaps – dawned on me: None of us are born with a sense of nationalism. Instead, it is something that is taught to us, piece by piece, line by line, until it becomes a part of our identity. My niece’s query revealed that the kind of nationalism we want our future generations to imbibe depends completely on us. It’s one of those unspoken, unacknowledged responsibilities that lie squarely on the shoulders of all adults.

It’s a duty that becomes infinitely harder in the hyper-jingoistic, intolerant times that we live in, where nationalism has become an ideology. As this Indian Express essay titled, “Patriot or nationalist? Why I will never be the latter” describes, “A nationalist or rashtravaadi is someone with loyalty and devotion above all to a nation. Her sense of national consciousness exalts one nation over all others and places primary emphasis on its culture and interests — the “national way of life” — as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” It’s why the author admits that he finds himself “at odds with the many definitions of a nationalist”. The challenge in front of us, then is, whether we can begin by identifying when nationalism stops becoming an identifier and starts becoming an ideology.

The conversation with my niece came as a revelation of this very responsibility. It made me recollect the moment when I was introduced to the concept of belonging to a country. Naturally, it was in school when we were asked to recite the pledge at the morning assembly: “India is my country, all Indians are my brothers and sisters, I love my country and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage…” To be honest, I learnt nationalism by rote. I swallowed the idea of nationalism for very many years, before I even thought about questioning the contents of that pledge: What is India? Why are all Indians my brothers and sisters? What do I know of my country’s rich and varied history that I am proud of?

When I tell my niece to cheer for India, I want her to understand it.

It took me years of unlearning to arrive at the conclusion that my nationalism is my own; that it can be different in definition and in practice from the one practised by my neighbour or my sister. And that when we pass down our specific understanding of nationalism to the younger generation, we’re also transferring our personal biases to them, effectively robbing them of the chance to make up their own.

A study conducted by the Cognitive Development Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and New York University echoes the fact that the sense of national identity is sown early in life. “To speculate, it is possible that the nationalist sentiments seen among adults may be partly facilitated by psychological processes that are at work within the first decade of life.” Essentially, if we are even in the slightest, worried about the wave of hypernationalism that is sweeping the country at present, its safe to assume that these adults were given a pre-digested idea of nationalism when they were 10 years old.

And so that day I made a decision. When I tell my niece to cheer for India, I want her to understand it. I don’t want her to just mimic her elders, but I want her to be aware that even though the men in blue are our own, the men in green aren’t so different from us. I want her to realise that sports is just that – a set of games in official clothing – and it should not become a benchmark for anybody’s nationalism. I want her to know she can love the country she belongs to, but that there are things about that country that she may not be proud of. But most importantly, I want her to know that nationalism is, and can be as private as she wants it to be; that there is no need to parade it. So when she hears the national anthem play, I will leave it up to her if she wants to stand or sit.

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