Patriotism confers upon nations a degree of protection against attack by indoctrinating citizens into defending their country even at a risk to themselves. As such, it has its uses, since we crave the security afforded by a stable nation state. In certain circumstances, though, nationalism behaves like a hyperimmune condition, treating benign phenomena as hostile attacks. At that point, patriotism becomes a threat to the nation’s health rather than a guarantor of security.

Hyperimmune responses fall into two categories, allergies and autoimmune disorders, and excessive nationalism can also be divided along similar lines. In the case of an allergy, harmless material that enters the body, say a bit of pollen, is treated as toxic. Donald Trump’s scapegoating of illegal immigrants from Mexico is an example of allergic nationalism. If he actually becomes President of the United States and follows through on his pledges, it will cause pain not just to his targets but also to sectors of the US economy that depend substantially on the services of hardworking illegals.

Autoimmune disorders involve an attack on tissues within the body, and tend to be more dangerous than allergies. Under Narendra Modi, recent events in the University of Hyderabad and in Jawaharlal Nehru University demonstrate, India is transiting to a form of autoimmune nationalism. The targeting of dissent in universities is only the tip of the iceberg, visible because the institutions are prestigious and housed in major cities and therefore of interest to the media. Organs of the Sangh Parivar are present in small towns and villages across the country and everywhere they are organising against misconstrued threats to India.

'In' and 'out' groups

All phenomena that depend on group identification base themselves on an irrational asymmetry, and nationalism is no different. There is the “in” group with which an individual identifies, and various “out” groups, towards which relations might be friendly, neutral or hostile, and can change from one state to another. The reason this arrangement is irrational is that members of the “in” group and “out” group are held to different moral standards. Indians feel more outrage about the beating of ethnic Indians abroad than they do about assaults on foreigners in India. If Pakistan beheads Indian troops it is a sign of that nation’s barbarism, while instances of Indian soldiers cutting off the heads of Pakistanis and nailing them to posts (as happened during the Kargil war) are either quietly forgotten or condoned.

It is conventional wisdom that trust in elected officials is lower today than at any time in the past and citizens of democracies feel angry and betrayed by the establishment. Yet, even the angriest citizens are likely to trust the voice of their own leaders over that of politicians of other nations. This is as true of the United States and Britain as it is of Brazil, Turkey and India. Anger against the establishment is rarely profound enough to strike at the roots of nationalism, unless it involves an alliance with another group with a similarly skewed moral compass. Those who chanted slogans about Kashmir’s independence within the precincts of Jawaharlal Nehru University owe allegiance to a different group than the ABVP activists who reported them, but the idea of nationhood enunciated by the two groups is similar.

Definition of the nation

It is a historical fact that most freedom movements during the process of decolonisation, including the one in India, were led by centrists and leftists. India is lucky to have inherited the intellectual and legislative legacy of Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar, who in different ways perceived the limits and limitations of nationalism. Nevertheless, the very idea of nationalism as I have described it, involving as it does a moral double standard, lends itself to a right-wing interpretation. This leads to a definition of the nation that is narrower than the diversity of its population, engendering debates about authenticity and accusations of anti-nationalism.

The only solution is to distance oneself from the idea of nationalism and patriotism while trying to hold on to their pragmatic benefits. This is never going to be an easy sell, but one would expect the intellectual groundwork for it to have been laid by liberals and the Left. Unfortunately, the Left’s analysis of the contemporary world identifies the primary geopolitical threat as a new form of imperialism rather than allergic and autoimmune nationalism.

I have in past columns addressed the issue of nationalism and imperialism in different contexts. I used the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the collapse of oil prices of the past eighteen months to argue against theories of neo-imperialism. When Maggi noodles were banned for supposedly having high lead concentrations, I asked why we had a double standard with respect to the heavy metal content in Ayurvedic medicines. When Nestle was cleared by Indian courts, I pointed to our short-sightedness and hypocrisy in defending Indian pharmaceutical companies suspected of malpractice, including some who had admitted their guilt. In the Maggi case, and one could add the controversy over Facebook’s Free Basics to that, many liberal Indians took the view that the relationship between multinationals and modern Indian consumers was analogous to the one that existed between the British imperial state and its Indian subjects. Even granting that the opposition to Free Basics had rational grounds, the campaign was extraordinarily xenophobic in tenor. Once this level of us versus them is ingrained in most minds, it is relatively easy for the Right to build on it for its own benefit by generating controversies over the eating of beef or the national anthem. Hindutvavadis can demand proclamations of national pride while attacking precisely those things that give us a rational reason to be proud of the country.

If the BJP and Sangh Parivar’s autoimmune patriotism is to be fought, it has to be by appealing to a more broad-based nationalism, but somewhere in the mix there ought also to be an unabashed critique of nationalism itself.