Of National Loyalties
Posted on 1-October-2008
In this election season in the USA, the rivals of the Democratic Presidential Candidate, Barack Obama, have, on several occasions, tried to emphasise his 'otherness', suggested that he, with a strange name, is a foreigner and by innuendo and at least on one occasion directly questioned his patriotism. In making such suggestions, they have not been deterred by the fact that being the son of a white American mother from middle America, he is as American as the next man. If again and again during this long election campaign people have talked of Barack Obama's Kenyan father who remained a Kenyan citizen or of the fact that Obama's early childhood was spent among Muslims in Indonesia, they quite clearly wish to appeal to many voters' instinctive suspicion of a 'foreigner'. The USA is not the only place in the world where such suspicions exist. Anti-immigrant anger has erupted in Europe as much as in Africa. And there are not many countries in the world where people will hand over governmental power and authority to any one other than a native of the land.
In the real world, tribes, nations and national states demand loyalty of insiders and are wary of outsiders, notwithstanding the broadminded liberal's contempt for the smallness of spirit and narrow-mindedness that inform such attitudes. Nations take pride in the achievements and accomplishments of their own. It is not for nothing that international sports competitions, such as Olympiads become orgies of national pride, even hysteria. Even beyond sports and athletics, nations are not averse to looking at those of their own who have gone to live in other lands as useful diplomatic and political assets. I do not know how many in Pakistan had blood rushing to their temples whenever they thought of the former Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan because his wife was Pakistani. In India many chests certainly swell with pride whenever there is the mention of Bobby Jindal, the present Governor of Louisiana. Those same chests swelled bigger for a while when there came reports that Bobby Jindal was one possible running mate for the Republican Presidential candidate in this year's election. Sunita Williams, an American cosmonaut was feted in India because she has inherited some Indian genes. And for the past several years the Indian government has been organising an annual jamboree of people of Indian origin who have gone to live abroad, apparently in the hope of tapping into this important resource.
Diplomats, to which species I used to belong, and politicians often look upon those of their country who are in important positions of power and influence in a foreign land as special objects of affection. In 1970 and 1971, as a junior diplomat in Laos, I used to find it amusing to watch how much time and energy the French Ambassador and his wife had for the French wife of the Finance Minister of the country. In the early 1990's America's favourite Yugoslav was Milan Panic, a naturalised American citizen who until his return to the already crumbling Yugoslavia to take part in its politics, had made his career in the USA. The current Ukrainian President, Viktor Yuschenko, whose wife was an American citizen till the last year is the USA's and, by extension, the West's man in Kyiv, a useful tool in the West's moves to hem Russia in, within its frontiers.
From time to time, the migrant, even a politically important migrant, also reciprocates the mother country's love for him or her. Alberto Fujimori, born in Peru of Japanese immigrant parents, became renowned as the Peruvian President who dealt with leftist guerrillas with a firm hand. When his political stars became unfavourable, he decided to send in his resignation while on a state visit to Japan and stayed on there. He asked for and got Japanese citizenship and he left Japan of his own free will to return to political life in Peru. Ingrid Betancourt, a Colombian politician, has some French blood running in her veins and a French family name inherited on her father's side from ancestors who moved to Peru from Normandy some three centuries ago. Marrying a French diplomat, she acquired French nationality and kept it along with her Colombian nationality. While campaigning for election as President of Colombia in 2002, she had the misfortune of being kidnapped by FARC, the Colombian left wing guerrilla force. She remained in captivity till her release earlier this year. In all these six years her greatest champions were the French government and media and after her release, her most important and most visible public appearance was in Paris where she was given a hero's triumphant reception.
The nation demanding the citizen to die for it is common. In a quote which is now worn to the thread, John Kennedy exhorted Americans not to ask what the country could do for them but what they could do for the country. But Kennedy's country and its government now also claim the right to intervene anywhere in the world to defend the lives of American citizens. Even more recently the government of Russia justified its intervention in South Ossetia saying it had to go in to defend the lives of Russian citizens. American or Russian citizens whose lives are thus defended by their governments will be ingrates if they do not love their country or feel intense loyalty towards it. The case of ethnic Germans who had lived in Russia or the Soviet Union for two centuries wishing to go back to Germany in the years after the break up of the Soviet Union is different and yet an instance of a long lasting relationship between individuals and a nation. Expatriate citizens of other countries whose governments are not powerful enough to go to war in their defence yet turn to the mother or father land for protection when their lives or property are in danger.
There is a Sanskrit couplet so familiar that even an illiterate like me knows it, which goes like this: ' This is mine and this is another's, is how the small-minded calculate. For the large hearted, the world itself is a family'. Perhaps suffused with such ancestral wisdom or perhaps thinking of some Marxist utopia, a colleague of mine with whom I used to spend considerable time indulging in gossip or plain badinage once said to me about twenty-eight years ago that nationalism was a dead force. I asked him how he explained the special relationship between the USA and the UK. Later, I realised I should have asked another question about the close convergence on so many crucial issues between the USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand. Even though at one level the five are different nations, at another the linguistic and cultural bonds amongst the 'English speaking peoples' inhabiting these five countries are so strong that together they constitute a sort of quasi nation. At the other end are cases where, as in the Balkans, local ethnicisms have have become so strong that they have shattered the unity of a larger state. Much as we like to say that the world has shrunk or that we all live in a global village, nationalism is neither dead nor dying and ties of language, religion and culture to the lands of our birth, even to the lands of our ancestors are too strong to be snapped easily.