Earlier this month, the Telegraph carried a report on a seemingly innocuous matter: the terminology used for Indian soldiers killed in combat. The Union government had clarified in the Lok Sabha that it does not use the term “martyr” to describe a soldier who had died in action, the article said.

That the government does not use this term should be obvious to anyone who knows what the word originally meant. Martyr, from a Greek word that literally means witness, refers to a Christian killed for his belief in Jesus. The term gained prominence in the first few centuries of the Christian church in Rome, where the religion often faced persecution at the hands of Roman authorities. Yet, it is used widely in Indian English to refer to Indian armed personnel killed battling militants, say in Assam or Kashmir.

This theological cross-pollination is not limited to the word “martyr”. The Supreme Court, in November, made it mandatory for the national anthem to be played in movie theatres before every film screening and barred the audience from sitting. “All present in the hall are obliged to stand up to show respect to the national anthem,” its order read.

The concept of a national anthem comes to India from Europe, where it was taken from Christian hymnody – songs sung in churches as part of the service. The original meaning of anthem itself refers to a composition set to sacred music. Naturally, then, in this mode of spirituality, standing is a mark of respect – church hymns are sung standing up. However, there is nothing universal about respect and standing up. A kirtan or a qawwali is performed sitting down and, one would assume, the singer or the audience means no disrespect. That standing up equals respect for the Supreme Court shows how closely linked the concept of a national anthem is to sacral hymnody in the West. Here, as in the case of martyr, without realising it, Indian nationalists are importing elements of organised religion to give shape to their conception of community.

Nationalism as religion

The resemblance between nationalism and faith is not unique to India. British political scientist Frank Wright, an expert on Ireland, said, “Nationalisms are not merely ‘like’ religions – they are religions.”

Similarly, Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle argued in their article Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion: “Nationalism is the most powerful religion in the United States.” They wrote, “Structurally speaking, nationalism mirrors sectarian belief systems such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam and others that are more conventionally labeled as religious.”

This, at least in the way the word religion is used in lay language, would come as a surprise to most people. Nationalism is conventionally not seen as religion in the way Islam or Sikhism is. This, though, is simply a matter of convention. Nationalism satisfies any description of religion. This is how Emile Durkheim, the founder of the discipline sociology, defined faith:

“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite people into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

Sacred symbols

Sacred things, in conventionally labelled religion, are totems or symbols. Think of the position of the cross in Christianity, the number 786 in South Asian Islam, or the swastika in Hinduism. The best example of a sacred object in nationalism is the national flag. American cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky wrote that the modern state has made its flags into “literally holy objects, the equivalent of the cross or the communion wafer”.

The most obvious example of a sacred thing is god – although the figure is not necessary to make up a religion per se. Buddhism is silent on the concept of a god and yet, was the world’s first missionary faith. In nationalism, the nation itself plays the part of god. In his book National Identity, British historical sociologist Anthony Smith pointed out that nationalism’s “deity is the nation itself”. This, in India, is not too difficult to see. Indian nationalism often fuses the Hindu conception of a female shakti deity to literally imagine a national goddess, Bharat Mata.

Bharat Mata, the Hindu deity who personifies India.
Bharat Mata, the Hindu deity who personifies India.

One of the most remarkable scared objects held by nationalism is the geography of the country. Earlier, political units were anchored in centres and metropoles. The Roman Empire was the Roman Empire as long as the city of Rome held. That its border fluctuated wildly did not really matter. In pre-modern times, land was exchanged between states in a rather casual fashion. This is near impossible today, given the sacred status of land in modern nationalism. Today, nations will be ready to pay immensely in terms of lives and money to maintain the integrity of their map. This is true even for seemingly pointless strips of land – think the Falklands war between Argentina and the United Kingdom, or the Siachen conflict closer home.

The map itself is held up as a remembrance of the sacredness of land and its image is drilled into the minds of children. In India, incorrect depictions of the country’s map are a legally punishable offence. The fact that the official Indian map itself does not correspond to actual territories held by the Indian Union means that, ironically, publishing a geographically accurate Indian map can land a citizen in jail – a rather incredible analogy to how modern religions have used concepts like blasphemy to police information.

Beliefs and practices

The most prominent practice related to the scared things in religion is praying. We have already seen how the act of singing a national anthem mimics the act of worship using hymnody. Other practices such as religious festivals are replicated in nationalism using parades, marches and rallies. Specific days – in India, most popularly, Independence Day – are chosen for groups of people to pay their respects to the sacred object of the flag by hoisting it, much in the manner that a congregational prayer on Eid or a Christmas mass pays its respects to the sacred object of Allah/God. In the context of the United States, Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle wrote:

“Curious liturgical forms have been devised for ‘saluting’ the flag, for ‘dipping’ the flag, for ‘lowering’ the flag and for ‘hosting’ the flag. Men bare their heads when the flag passes by; and in praise of the flags poets write odes and children sing hymns. In America, young people are ranged in serried rows and required to recite daily, with hierophantic voice and ritualistic gesture, the mystical formula: ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the country for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’.”

So sacred is the Indian national flag that, like Sanskrit in Hinduism, only a select few were allowed to use it till very recently. And even today, insults to sacred symbols such as the flag, map and national anthem are a legally punishable offence under a Union law.

On Republic Day 2015, the vice-president's act of not saluting the Indian flag created a furore. His office later clarified that in keeping with protocol, he did not offer a salute as he was not the principal dignitary.

Power of community

Community is really the central point of religion, which has historically been a tool for social cohesion. Religions like Islam and Christianity have well-defined groups such as the Ummah and Christendom. Religions think of their communities as supreme and other identities as either spurious or subordinate. To take an Indian example, in his famous poem Jawaab-e-Shikwaa, the Urdu poet Iqbal asked sarcastically: “Yūn to sayyad bhī ho Mirzā bhī ho Afghān bhī ho/ tum sabhī kuchh ho, batā’o to Musalmān bhī ho?” (You are a Sayyid, Mirza, Afghan, you are everything, but are you a Muslim?) This marked out Muslim to be the only true identity.

This is frequently repeated in Indian nationalism, where identities such as religion or language are seen to be below the Indian identity. In the 1959 Bollywood movie Dhool ke Phool, another Urdu poet, Sahir Ludhianvi, would write, “Tū Hindū banegā na Musalmān banegā, insān kī aulād hai, insān banegā.” (You will neither grow up to be Hindu nor Muslim; you’re the child of a human and that’s what you’ll grow up to be). Like Iqbal had deprecated any identity other than Muslim, Ludhianvi did the same for the Indian identity.

Community is central to the idea of nationalism and is such a powerful force that, like other religions, it is seen to be a legitimate cause to give up your life and/or take lives. In his seminal work on the origins of nationalism, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson wrote:

“It [the nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”

Death is really the one factor that sets religion apart from any other human group. But why would anyone, logically, die? What’s in it for him? Classical religion gets around this conundrum by proposing a theology of the afterlife, a place where Christian martyrs and Muslim shaheeds (both words mean witness) enjoy an exalted existence, thus making the sacrifice of their lives – otherwise a rather irrational act – worth it. Nationalism also promises a kind of eternity to anyone who lays down their life for their community. Soldiers dying in action are held up as heroes and promised an afterlife in the collective memory of the nation, as in this popular Hindi couplet by Jagdamba Prasad Mishra:

“Shahīdoñ ke chitā’oñ par lageñge har baras mele
Watan par mar mitne wāloñ kā bas yahī ab bāqī nishāñ hogā.”

(The corpses of martyrs will be the venue for carnivals every year; for those who die for the nation, this will be their eternal legacy).