Tharoor Line | Patriotism linked to sport an expression of solidarity. It need not threaten others

"Every time India played a cricket Test match or entered a World Cup, I rediscovered my inner Indian nationalist."

In drawing a distinction between nationalism and patriotism, I have long argued that nationalism is about allegiance to a state whereas patriotism is about loving your country. Love of country is an elemental emotion like one’s love for one’s mother – you love your country not because it is really the greatest place in the world, but because it is yours, you belong to it and it belongs to you.

This kind of patriotism is visible in people’s pride in their national traditions of food and drink, art and music, cinema and literature, the idiosyncrasies of their countrymen. Even sport. I used to joke that as a lifelong United Nations official I was a convinced internationalist, but every time India played a cricket Test match or entered a World Cup, I rediscovered my inner Indian nationalist!

Nationalism, in the benign sense of a patriotic attachment to a particular homeland, and yearning for its success, is inescapable for every human being. Scratch a cosmopolitan and you will find a patriot underneath.

Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor served as Under-Secretary General under Kofi Annan's leadership.

This came home to me when watching, on television in New York, the 1996 cricket World Cup final with a friend and colleague from the United Nations. The match was between Sri Lanka and Australia, so I was a relatively neutral spectator, albeit with a bias in favour of my homeland’s subcontinental neighbours.

My companion on the occasion, Palitha Kohona, had an unusual history. A Sinhalese born in Sri Lanka, he had migrated to Australia, studied law there, worked for the Australian government, and had been seconded to the UN as an Australian official.

As the match began he was entirely politically correct, expressing the hope that the country of his formal legal allegiance, Australia, would win. But as the game progressed, it became impossible for him to hide his true feelings, becoming visibly (and soon enough, audibly) elated at every Sri Lankan success—and, towards the end, cheering the underdog Lankans on to their famous victory.

World Cup
Sri Lanka defeated Australia to lift their first cricket World Cup on March 17, 1996.

I told him after the match that whatever his passport said, he had proven that day that blood mattered more than citizenship, and that he was clearly a Sri Lankan at heart and not the Australian he was officially supposed to be. It did not surprise me, in the end, when he reverse-migrated to the country of his birth, rising to senior governmental office in Colombo as Foreign Secretary, and ending as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the very United Nations he had served as an Australian.

Patriotism of this kind partakes of some of the ethno-chauvinist elements of more aggressive nationalism, but at bottom is little more than the expression of solidarity with others with whom one shares a common home, or a common cultural history. Intellectuals might draw careful distinctions among blood, passport, residence, citizenship, patriotism, and nationalism; to me, patriotism is simply love for something beyond oneself that one identifies as ‘mine’. It need not threaten others.

I have been thinking about these matters as the news came in of India’s unexpected and unprecedented victory in the Thomas Cup, which seems to have made badminton fans of us all. There were certainly more eyeballs tuned to the IPL matches going on at the same time, but very little emotional identification with the teams, which bear names that are little more than labels of convenience. (Two Tamil Nadu players featured in the match between Chennai Super Kings and Gujarat Titans – but both were playing for Gujarat!)

Thomas Cup
India's team members pose with their nation flag after winning Thomas Cup title in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, May 15, 2022. Photo: PTI

Yet when the Thomas Cup was won, Indians who had never even heard of the tournament before felt their hearts swell with pride at the achievement by a few unheralded young men far away. They had won for, and as, India – and so each of us shared a little in their glory. For that brief moment, every Indian was reminded of his patriotism.

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