Notes On Patriotism – OpEd


Most people must be familiar with the distinction that Orwell makes between “nationalism” and “patriotism.” To Orwell, nationalism is “inseparable from the desire for power,” while patriotism is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” Orwell adds that, “Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally,” while the imagined sense of superiority which is an essential feature of nationalism, makes it reactionary, majoritarian and virulent.

Therefore, it’s not wrong for one to have strong feelings for a way of life or for one’s own place of origin. After all, Rumi, Saint Francis and Sri Ramakrishna were devoted to a certain way of life that they had no wish to impose on others. The martyrdom of Saint Joan was as much an act of patriotism as it was of sainthood. The Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh famously said, “At first, patriotism, not yet communism…” The Turkish communist poet Nazim Hikmet, expresses his feelings for his country, in no uncertain terms: “I love my country/ I swung in its lofty trees,/ I lay in its prisons./ Nothing relieves my sadness like the songs and tobacco of my country.” (Hikmet). This is from a man who spent more than a decade in jail on trumped up charges. Whether the Florentine poet, Dante or the Telugu poet, Bammera Pothana, both wrote their epic poems with a strong sense of place in mind.

Patriotism has nothing to do with right or left-wing politics, though often fanatical members of either of these camps tend to portray the other side negatively merely because of their individual lifestyles or ways of life. People tend to deeply feel for the space that they come from or the language that they speak, and feel obliged to recreate that sense of belonging, in memory, writing and through their relations with those around them. Patriotism has something to do with human nature and must have existed in latent forms, long before the arrival of the nation-state. Whether Ulysses in myth, Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta in history, the longing for travel, adventure or trade, more often than not, meant returning home to spend one’s remaining days with one’s own kind or to narrate the story of a journey, before dying. Nationalism, undoubtedly, is a completely different thing when compared to that feeling of affection for something concrete that is natural to patriots.

When politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats wish to appear “patriotic,” I strongly believe that they are being nationalistic, which in Orwell’s sense means, self-interested and eager to preserve the status quo, that acts as a guarantee for their power base. In developing, postcolonial countries like India, nationalism is a product of colonialism. Regional loyalties and loyalties to particular dialects and cultural expression are stronger than national feelings. Although I like Continental food and food from the Middle-East, with no offense to either of them, I personally think that South Indian cuisine is the best in the world. My parameters are much more global with music and poetry, again, selectively, let me add. Of course, food and cultural tastes may not be directly connected to nationalism or patriotism. However, ways of life are built around material things that mean something to individuals. I can confidently say that if we have to get a South Asian to confess, we just need to feed him or her American food for an entire month. The rest will follow. 

Therefore, when we insist on being nationalists, we fail to realize that we are actually dancing to the tune set by colonialism, albeit, a different version of the same principle; in Orwell’s words, “power hunger tempered by self-deception…flagrant dishonesty…unshakeably certain of being in the right.” No wonder that we have a dime a dozen nationalists in every nook and corner who do absolutely nothing to help or assist their country folks in distress. One of the true facets of patriotism is that one plays a role in making a difference to one’s own people, irrespective of other differences, without being condescending, judgmental or aggressive towards them. Something like that is difficult to expect from nationalists, who usually are full of themselves. 

It is not hard to find contexts that tell us the difference between nationalism and patriotism. While blocking links to a BBC documentary, “India: The Modi Question,” the adviser to the government, made a clearly nationalistic statement: 

“Videos sharing @BBCWorld hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage, disguised as ‘documentary,’ on @YouTube and tweets sharing links to the BBC documentary have been blocked under India’s sovereign laws and rules.”

“Accordingly, @BBCWorld’s vile propaganda was found to be undermining the sovereignty and integrity of India…”

Phrases like “anti-India garbage” and “undermining the sovereignty and integrity of India” come threateningly close to dictating the terms and conditions of what constitutes pro-India behavior. If you’re a patriot you’re not supposed to be watching this documentary or agreeing with its contents in any manner. I am not sure if the discourse can get more banal or direct than this. Just because I watch a documentary and form an opinion based on it, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love my country. 

To begin with, who are you to decide for me, what it means to love my country or its past! This just means falling back on the Golden Age of one nation, one civilization, one thinking and one language – the language spoken by power. The historian Sanjay Subrahmaniam rightly notes, “my point is that when people talk of “civilisation” they immediately fall into the trap of constructing a Golden Age from which we have deviated. They become fundamentalists defending that Golden Age”. The Golden Age of nationalism is where there is no opposition to power. One man or a few decide on how things should function and the rest are supposed to take orders. 

In the same spirit of nationalism guiding the above tweet against the BBC documentary, the Adani group responded to allegations made by Hindenburg Research on 24th January, 2023. The report said: “Today we reveal the findings of our 2-year investigation, presenting evidence that the INR 17.8 trillion (U.S. $218 billion) Indian conglomerate Adani Group has engaged in a brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud scheme over the course of decades.” Adani group’s response to Hindenburg’s allegations of corporate fraud came along slightly familiar lines: “This is not merely an unwarranted attack on any specific company but a calculated attack on India, the independence, integrity and quality of Indian institutions, and the growth story and ambition of India.”

The documentary made by the BBC is “anti-India” and the report based on a two-year investigation presenting evidence against the Adani group is also “an attack on India.” How did this strange coincidence occur? Personally I am not inclined to believe that both the BBC and Hindenburg Research have conspired to declare an ideological war against India or the government at the center. In fact, Hindenburg Research responded to the accusations of the organization being against “Indian institutions, and the growth story and ambition of India” in a befitting manner:

“Fraud cannot be obfuscated by nationalism or a bloated response that ignores every key allegation we raised.”

“Adani Group has attempted to conflate its meteoric rise and the wealth of its Chairman, Gautam Adani, with the success of India itself. We disagree. To be clear, we believe India is a vibrant democracy and an emerging superpower with an exciting future.

“We also believe India’s future is being held back by the Adani Group, which has draped itself in the Indian flag while systematically looting the nation.”

The point I wish to restate is simple: if I agree with the Hindenburg Research findings on Adani Group, it doesn’t mean I am anti-Indian. If I see the documentary made by the BBC on a tragic event that could have been prevented with a little political will by those at the helm of affairs, I am not anti-Indian either. My feelings for my country have nothing to do with the BBC or with Hindenburg Research. They do what they do and I am who I am. I am opposed to this kind of diabolical propaganda that uses nationalism as a weapon to control the thoughts and actions of ordinary citizens. In fact, the almost identical responses given by the government adviser and the Adani Group make me believe that there is a subtle collusion of interests between the politicians, bureaucracy and big business. This, anyhow, has always been the case, that elites work together to perpetuate the status quo. 

I don’t intend to make a binary of patriots versus nationalists. But, I certainly don’t like it, when those in power conveniently use the language of patriotism for their own private ends while in fact what they are, is self-serving nationalists. I remember, as a student, being particularly moved, by the passage from India’s Struggle for Independence: 1857-1947 which I am quoting below:

“15th August 1947, dawned revealing the dual reality of independence and Partition. As always, between the two of them, Gandhiji and Nehru mirrored the feelings of the Indian people. Gandhiji prayed in Calcutta for an end to the carnage taking place. His close follower, Mridula Sarabhai, sat consoling a homeless, abducted 15-year-old girl in a room somewhere in Bombay. Gandhiji’s prayers were reflective of the goings on in the dark, the murders, abductions and rapes. Nehru’s eyes were on the light on the horizon, the new dawn, the birth of a free India. ‘At the stroke of the midnight hour when the world sleeps, India shall awake to light and freedom.’ His poetic words, ‘Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny,’ reminded the people that their angry bewilderment today was not the only truth. There was a greater truth — that of a glorious struggle, hard-fought and hard won, in which many fell martyrs and countless others made sacrifices, dreaming of the day India would be free. That day had come. The people of India saw that too, and on 15 August — despite the sorrow in their hearts for the division of their land danced in the streets with abandon and joy.” (512)

Patriotism was the driving force behind the struggles of nameless Indians who sought to put an end to colonialism. Thanks to countless sacrifices made by patriots across different sections of people, India finally became free of British rule after nearly two hundred years. This did not happen because of a few nationalists who use the language of the anti-colonialists, but who do nothing substantial, except appropriate the struggles of the latter, for their personal ends. 

At the end of the day both patriotism and nationalism are just words. It doesn’t matter whether one calls oneself a nationalist or a patriot provided that one lives up to certain obligations that come with claiming that you love or care for your country. If I prefer patriotism to nationalism, it is for the simple reason that a person who considers him or herself a patriot loves their country, not because they wish to use it as an excuse to hate others, but because they wish to give an expression for that love, through sharing and kindness. A patriot does not use his country to defend his personal image or interest. Patriots don’t gain power by stepping on people and then try to convince the world that those people deserved what they got. I’ve not seen patriots who claw their “way to wealth through the souls and bodies of men” and then act as if they have a stake in the lives of common people. 

The unfortunate truth is that across the world, patriots have become a minority and power-hungry nationalists happen to be a majority. In other words, most people are happy to be in love or talk about something that has no expression, but is just a notion in the head. Orwell brilliantly sums it up when he says, “Nationalism, in the extended sense in which I am using the word, includes such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism. It does not necessarily mean loyalty to a government or a country, still less to one’s own country, and it is not even strictly necessary that the units in which it deals should actually exist. To name a few obvious examples, Jewry, Islam, Christendom, the Proletariat and the White Race are all of them objects of passionate nationalistic feeling: but their existence can be seriously questioned, and there is no definition of any one of them that would be universally accepted.” 

This idea that we owe our loyalty to something as abstract as a “nation” with no universally accepted definition or concrete manifestation, is seriously problematic. What is never abstract is real people in flesh and blood; people, not as a group who we can conveniently label as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ which Orwell notes is typical of nationalists, but people as individuals with a body and a mind of their own. It is only when we see people as human beings that it is difficult for a normal person to be blatantly dishonest, aggressive to the point of being violent and be the cause of avoidable pain. Needless to say, that is the extended meaning of patriotism which Orwell had in mind when he saw it as preferable to nationalism.


“Adani Group: How The World’s 3rd Richest Man Is Pulling The Largest Con In Corporate History” (

“Adani Group Refutes Hindenburg Allegations, Calls It “Attack On India””

“Adani-Hindenburg saga continues: Fraud cannot be obfuscated by nationalism, Adani response ignores key questions, says Hindenburg,”

Chandra, Bipan, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, Sucheta Mahajan, K. N. Panikkar, India’s Struggle for Independence: 1857-1947, Penguin Books (1989). 

Hikmet, Nazim. “A Turkish Poet Whose Struggles and Art Touch a Universal Chord,”

Ho Chi Minh, “The Path Which Led Me To Leninism,”

“India blocks ‘hostile’ BBC documentary on PM Modi,”

Orwell, George. “Notes on Nationalism,”

“Too many historians in India have obsessed about who is properly nationalist: Sanjay Subrahmanyam,”

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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