The Curious Case of Constitutional Patriotism

VVP Sharma

First published: December 1, 2016, 4:00 PM IST | Updated: Yesterday
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The Curious Case of Constitutional Patriotism
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The Supreme Court interim order on November 30, 2016 on the issue of respecting the national anthem throws up interesting, even controversial, issues and arguments.

The critical one is about the order being interpreted – or misinterpreted – as forcing patriotism down people’s throats by dictating the conditions under which they listen to the rendition of the national anthem.

The Court, in its order, seems perturbed enough at this lack of respect – only alleged in the petition – to the national anthem that it states: “Be it stated, a time has come, the citizens of the country must realise that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to National Anthem which is the symbol of the Constitutional Patriotism and inherent national quality."

What did the court mean by “constitutional patriotism” and its relevance to the Indian situation? The order does not throw enough light for us to understand what meaning the court attributes to the phrase – constitutional patriotism.

The court will have more occasions – the next hearing in the case is on February 14, 2017 – to throw sufficient light.

It is a European political integration concept, the byproduct of the socio-cultural crisis post-war Germany was thrown into after it broke up into two – the German Democratic Republic and Federal Republic of Germany.

There were those arguing for the two Germanys to merge throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as they raised the possibility of integrating the two Germanys and debating on how both peoples could rally behind a single flag.

Constitutional patriotism, they found, could be the answer.

A notable German academic and philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, took the concept forward and popularised it in the 1980s. In layman’s terms, it simply means a people divided culturally and politically re-uniting and espousing the cause of common nationalism by saluting the constitution rather than an ideology or a cultural construct. You and I have our differences, so be it; but let both us agree to respect the Constitution so that it binds us to the concept of a unified nation and let’s not fight over whether your religion/culture or mine should determine our nationalism. That’s just about what it means.

In the previous two decades of the last century, this political theory resonated across Europe as it began to unite under the EU and Euro, in Iran where the various sects of Islam were battling the post-Shah-Khomeini years of political disintegration, in Bosnia where sub-national strife fractured the society beyond repair.

Political theorists in Europe even today say constitutional patriotism is largely flawed as a practical concept. Why? Again, it goes like this: We are in a global village, isn’t it? Shortening distances, getting used to living with diverse, even alien, cultures, habits and systems? The thrill of travelling and working abroad short of immigration? So, what does all this mean? Have you become a lesser Indian by dint of spending more time abroad? Have you, therefore, become less patriotic? No. What we all – at least most of us– are trying to do is find a way of co-existing with our national attachments our citizenship bestows upon us and the universal values that we seek in a modern world.

How do we go about achieving this? The old interpretation of constitutional patriotism presupposes unbridgeable politico-cultural differences between two segments of the same people. That was the case with Germany, perhaps. Not India, at least not after four generations after Partition.

We only have a right-wing government at the Centre. The counter ideologies are equally strong at work, still. Nor are our ideological differences so grotesque as to be rendered unbridgeable. The ruling right wing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, may insist on all of us accepting Hindu majoritarianism as the driving force of Indian politics. The opponents may be countering by saying majoritarianism presupposes the existence of the minorities as a political entity as well. We are finding our feet in a new political environment that is probably being hoisted upon the people. As that political battle continues, we certainly are not – at least not yet -- in a situation where our religious differences are leading us to certain Balkanisation. Perish that thought.

So, to take this argument further, why assume that our religious differences are making us less national/nationalist? We wouldn’t be talking like this if we were not convinced that some of us are forcing being Hindu as a criterion for being national or nationalist or patriotic? Such bigotry has not led to any constitutional or judicial breakdown? The signs are certainly there, but just signs. But we cannot see in these signs a sensationalised breakdown in our fabric and that too to such an extent that the only way to survive as a united nation is for all of us to respect our Constitution as a sign of our patriotism? Hardly. Laughable.

Constitutional patriotism is much more than a cure to shredded civic existence of a people being forced to unite.

In Europe, they are still trying to understand how they are different and yet united, how they share cultural mores and are yet economically divided, how they are socially integrated when they are politically distinct. In India, our cultural, social and political diversity is so complex that the very complexity keeps us united; for the simple reason that converting us into a homogenous entity that would allow us to be handed over on a platter to a particular authoritarian formation is not easy as said.

Constitutional patriotism also has a liberal-democratic facet. That is the interpretation Habermas tried to popularise in the 1980s. He wanted both Germanys to unite, but not as a farce of the 1930s and 1940s. He did not want localism, or local ethnifc identities to be the basis for a future national identity. He wanted the people to be liberal democrats when they united, honouring their Constitution as much as universal political values. You see, back then, that is till around 25-30 years ago, in Europe, it was till a big thing for a German to break bread with a Russian or an Englishman or a French. That is why, Habermas preferred universal political values to lead the integration rather than German ethnicity or rightist cultural correctness.

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