The difference between Nationalism and Patriotism

first published on LinkedIn on May 24, 2016


These two words Patriotism and Nationalism have been bandied around both by the government, the media and the people at large for some time now. Add to that another word that may be related in some way and that is ‘intolerance’. In fact perhaps it is the word intolerance that has incited the other two words. And this is in spite of articles on the BJP website which claim ‘Hindu society has an unquestionable and proud history of tolerance for other faiths and respect for diversity of spiritual experiences.’

Three words that were not common in our vocabulary for 68 years after independence have become common in everyday parlance in almost every discussion on the ‘state of the nation’ discussion. You almost stumble over the words thinking they may mean much the same thing. Take for example the Economic Times of May 26, 2016 where on Page 1 it says ‘ Irani also said the “debate of nationalism” made her wonder why any Indian should have to explain why he or she is patriotic. ” I don’t have to certify your patriotism, and you don’t have to certify my patriotism” she said.’ Smriti Irani who is our Minister for Human Resource Development also seems to use the words nationalism and patriotism interchangeably and in the same breath.

For example when Aamir Khan spoke about intolerance six months ago in a public forum he was dubbed unpatriotic. And he was severely reprimanded by the Government in public, the first telling sign of which was to not renew his contract as an ambassador for ‘Incredible India’ a gesture that dumped him unceremoniously. But when Kanhaiya Kumar was released from judicial custody the judge used the words anti-national.

“The time is ripe that while giving some concession to the petitioner on monetary aspect for purpose of furnishing the bond, he can be required to furnish an undertaking to the effect that he will not participate actively or passively in any activity which may be termed as anti-national. Apart from that, as president of JNU Students Union, he will make all efforts within his power to control anti-national activities in the campus. …”

And it is not only in India that these words are becoming important. In the race for the next President in the US, whenever people refer to Donald Trump people use the words ‘new American nationalism’. Meaning that the old American nationalism is over. Or perhaps the much touted American Dream is now under threat, and a new American nationalism is required to save the American Dream. It is no wonder that Donald Trump’s campaign line is ‘ Make America Great Again’. Suggesting it is not great anymore. 

Difference between Patriotism and Nationalism

What if any are the difference between these two words patriotism and nationalism ? Are they being used almost interchangeably? Do they mean different things? 

If one looks at the dictionary meaning of the two words the meanings are as follows:

Patriotism means devotion to one’s own country and concern for its defence

Nationalism is devotion, especially excessive or undiscriminating devotion to the interests or culture of a particular nation-state.

Nationalism and patriotism both show the relationship of a citizen towards his or her nation. The two are often confused and frequently believed to mean the same thing. However, there is a vast difference between nationalism and patriotism.

Nationalism means to give more importance to unity by way of a cultural background, including language and heritage.

This is understandable given the cultural leanings of the current Indian government. Again an article on the BJP website actually says ‘Hindus are at last free.’ Suggesting that they have been imprisoned for the last 68 years after independence. The cultural inflection comes from thoughts like these about Hinduism that are expressed in public forums.

 Patriotism pertains to the love for a nation, with more emphasis on values and beliefs. 

In his Notes on Nationalism George Orwell says ‘By “patriotism” I mean 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. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseperable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.’

So many intellectuals have tried to interpret the meaning of these two words.

But I would also like to make one last distinction. Because patriotism and nationalism are used in conjunction with the country. But many times we seem to confuse country with the current government in power and that is wrong. Allegiance to your country doesn’t necessarily mean allegiance to the party in power. These two are different it must be appreciated. 

In fact as Edward Abbey says a patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government. Quite clearly making the point that the country and the government are not necessarily the same.

Anyway I think these are new political memes that are emerging across the world and we have to be watchful about how they develop in the future.P

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Prabhakar Mundkur has spent 40 years in advertising and worked in India, Africa and Asia. He is currently Chief Mentor with HGS Interactive a part of HGS in the Hinduja Group. He is on the advisory board of Sol 's Arc ( ) an NGO dedicated to special education for intellectually challenged children. He is also a member of Whiteboard ( ) which supports senior management of NGOs in financial management, PR, Communication and HR through pro bono expertise.

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