The Power of National Identity

The essence of belonging has long been pivotal in shaping human history. It nurtures a sense of comfort, fostering attachment to various entities such as family, native roots, language, institutions, communities, and nations, thereby evoking feelings of pride
Dr Mohan Kanda
  • When an individual or institution achieves something commendable, hearty approval en masse is evident. When something angers people, it hurts their pride
  • Uniforms have been worn by members of a particular group as a means of identification. uniforms have served as a symbol of unity and purpose.
  • Andhra Pradesh had the credit of being the first state in India, to be created on linguistic basis. That feeling of oneness, people had never enjoyed before
  • The Ku Klux Klan comprises current American white supremacist, far-right terrorist organisations and hate groups targeting persons of other faiths

INDIANS have many reasons to celebrate this year, as they witnessed some remarkable achievements in various fields. The Cricket World Cup 2023 has been hosted by India with excellent facilities and arrangements, thanks to the efforts of the Government of India (GOI) and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). The country also rejoiced at the successful launch of Chandrayaan 3 by ISRO, and the leadership role of India at the G20 Summit meetings. These events showed that Indians are very passionate and emotional about their national pride and honour. 

The feeling of ‘I belong to’ has, for a long, played a significant role in shaping the history of mankind. It sustains a sentiment of comfort, and a sense of belonging, be it to the family, the native village or town, mother tongue, institution, community or nation it also leads to a feeling of pride. When an individual, or an institution, achieves something commendable, that sense of pride takes the form of expressing hearty approval en masse. If, on the other hand, something happens that angers people and hurts their pride, mass resentment inevitably follows. For example, when Javed Miandad, the dashing and ruthless Pakistani batsman, hoisted India’s medium pacer Chetan Sharma for a six, on the last ball of the Pakistan-India cricket ODI, at Sharjah in 1986, he broke a billion Indian hearts. Saina Nehwal, winning the Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Championship in badminton, can send us into raptures, while a failed expedition to Mount Everest, can cast a pall of gloom, all the way from Bhuj to Aizawl, and from Leh to Rameswaram. This propensity, while being common to all parts of the country, is particularly evident in Tamilians, Bengalis and Telugus.


Before 1953, the erstwhile Madras Presidency comprised almost all of Tamil Nadu, some parts of Kerala, Karnataka, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states of today. The Telugu-speaking people of the Presidency suffered from a feeling of neglect and were treated as second-class citizens. The simmering discontent, which the Telugus felt, soon expressed itself in the shape of a demand for a separate state to be carved out for them. In support of that demand, and in a development which was the first of its kind in independent India, a fast unto death was undertaken by Potti Sreeramulu (whose name the erstwhile Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh bears now). The demand was conceded, albeit rather reluctantly, by GOI. Soon thereafter, The Telangana region of Nizam’s Hyderabad state was added to the Andhra state and, in 1956, a new state of Andhra Pradesh was created, by an act of Parliament. Andhra Pradesh had the credit of being the first state in India, to be created on a linguistic basis. 

That feeling of oneness, which the Telugu-speaking people had never enjoyed before in their long history, however, was not to last long. The people belonging to Telangana, nursing a feeling similar to what the Andhras felt in the Madras Presidency, soon began an agitation, demanding a separate state or, in other words, restoration of the status quo ante. Not unexpectedly, that agitation also turned violent and was quelled only after firm, and determined, efforts by the Indian government. That was followed by another agitation, this time by the Telugu-speaking people of the original Andhra region, again demanding another separate state for themselves, which is a different story. The fact remains that, today, the Telugus live in two different states, Andhra and Telangana, once again.

While the Lions clubs consisted largely of retired entrepreneurs wanting to use their talent and resources, it’s nice to give something back to society. The Rotary clubs consist of a global network of 1.4 million neighbours, friends, leaders and problem – solvers, who believe that united action can create a lasting change across the globe

Another instance that highlighted the consequence that hasty government policies can cause, even leading to uprisings, was the ferocity with which the Tamil people opposed the imposition of Hindi as an official language, a movement that, at one point, even resulted in the burning of the national tricolour. 

Likewise, four decades ago, in Andhra Pradesh, in a development that attracted the attention of the whole country, as well as many parts of the world, the Telugu Desam Party, whose Supremo was the matinee idol and darling of the masses, NT Rama Rao, was spectacularly swept into power, riding on the plank of Telugu pride. NTR, as he was fondly known to one and all, had whipped up the passions of the Telugus following the insulting treatment meted out to Anjaiah, then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, at the Hyderabad airport by Rajiv Gandhi, a Member of Parliament, and son of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. 

Symbolism: Signifying National Pride and Expression

The sense of belonging to a country, which we have been discussing, is also generally expressed in concrete terms through national flags, anthems, songs, postage stamps, birds, or animals. They serve the noble purpose of overcoming barriers of caste, community, race, creed, religion, and sex, while also creating a bond between different parts of a country, and between different countries, which otherwise do not have much in common. 

Anthems & Songs – India’s anthem, ‘Jana Gana Mana’, composed by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, as well as the national song, ‘Vande Mataram’, penned by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, often move people to tears, especially when rendered by people imbued with a sense of Intense patriotism.

In the case of the United States of America, ‘the Star-Spangled Banner’, a symbol of American history that ranks with the Statue of Liberty, and the Charter of Freedom, is the official anthem. ‘Hail to the Chief’ is the personal anthem of the President, originally preferred over ‘America, the Beautiful’, written by the 19th-century poet, Catherine Bates. The song ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’, an American folk song, written by Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson in 1955, while not quite regarded as a national song, is very popular all over America, as a powerful lament for the soldiers who died while fighting for the country. Earlier ‘God Save the Queen’ was the national anthem of the United Kingdom, now ‘God Save the King’ is the national anthem and the royal anthem of most Commonwealth realms. The UK has no national song as such. 

Australia has ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as its national anthem, with the lilting song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ being generally agreed as the national song, somewhat akin to ‘Vande Mataram’ in India. 

‘Amar Sonar Bangla’, similarly, is the national anthem of Bangladesh, scripted by none other than our own Rabindranath Tagore! While on the subject, it is interesting to note that Uruguay has the distinction of having the longest national anthem with 150 bars lasting 6 minutes!

We in India, have many songs that convey the fervour of patriotism, and unswerving commitment, to the concept of the country’s unity. ‘Saare Jahan Se Achcha’, by Muhammad Iqbal, is probably one of the most well-known of that genre. When, soon after the 1963 war with China, the song ‘Mere Watan Ke Logon’, written by Kavi Pradeep, was rendered by the legendary Lata Mangeshkar, to an audience in which the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was present, Nehru openly shed tears. 

There are also songs in other languages of India that express similar sentiments. In the Telugu-speaking states, for example, a good rendering of the unforgettable song, ‘Desamunu Preminchumanna’, by freedom fighter and versatile author, Gurajada Appa Rao, or, for that matter, ‘Maa Telugu Thalliki’, by Sankarambadi Sundarachari, can never fail to be a hair-raising experience. Yet another song of the same genre, is ‘Jaya Jaya Jaya Priya Bharatha Janayitri Divya Dhathri’, by Devulapalli Krishna Shastri, whose unforgettable compositions regaled the Telugus for decades. Listening to the lilting tune, and the musical lyrics, of ‘Jaya Janani Parama Pavani’ by the bard of the Telugus, Rajinikanth Rao, is an experience that comes very close.

Books-Patriotism is the spirit which has also inspired the writings of several great men with the ‘Discovery of India’ by Jawaharlal Nehru and ‘The Train to Pakistan’ by Khushwant Singh being well-known examples of that genre. And, while not from a movie as such, the song ‘Sarfaroshi Ki Tamannaah Ab Hamare Dil Mein Hai’, by Ramprasad Bismil, as an ode to young freedom fighters, during the independence movement, ranks among the most popular patriotic songs of the country.

Movies -The sense of loyalty to, and love for, one’s country has also found a powerful conduit for its expression in movies. Some actors, such as Manoj Kumar, have excelled in producing films, strongly influenced by that spirit. The song ‘Mere Desh Ki Dharti Sona Ugle’, penned by Gulshan Bawra and rousingly rendered by Mahendra Kapoor, in the movie, ‘Upkar’, became a runaway hit, both for the lyrics and the rendering. Other popular Hindi numbers, that proved equal to that song, were ‘Apni Azadi Ko Hargiz Mita Sakte Nahin’, sung by Mohammed Rafi in the film ‘Leader’ and ‘Vande Mataram’ exquisitely sung in a refreshingly different style, by the immortal Lata Mangeshkar, in the film ‘Anand Math’, as also Manna Dey, singing ‘Kehni Hai Ek Baat Hame’, in the film ‘Talaaq’.

Dances – The Fine Arts also are not only a universally acknowledged conduit for the expression of the history, culture and psyche of nations, but also convey their message in a pleasing, and entertaining, fashion. We have already discussed the value of songs and books, as well as motion pictures, in that context. The grace, rhythm, and beauty of the Indian forms of dance, such as Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Manipuri, Kathakali and Odissi have spread, to every nook and corner of the world, the glory of India’s traditions and culture. 

Attires – A sense of belonging to, and a feeling of oneness with, a unique culture, community or region, can also arise from other things such as cuisine and attire. Take, for example, the ‘ pyjama’ and ‘kurta’ which the Punjabis favour as attire, the ‘Pagdi’, the headgear which is so much part of the culture of Rajasthan or the loincloth, or ‘dhoti’, so popular in the southern states and West Bengal. Each represents the distinct culture of a community, or region, of the country.

Cuisines– Likewise, the ‘mirchi bajji’, such a favourite with the Telugu speaking people, the unparalleled ‘filter coffee’ which only the Tamilians can produce, the ‘samosa’, (with, of course, garam garam chai!) of Uttar Pradesh or the ‘biryani; of Lucknow or Hyderabad. Just like trademarks of commercial commodities, all these, so typically, represent a people or a region.

Many other countries have their own equally well-known and popular dance forms. Among the most widely known dance forms of the world are the Samba of Brazil, Waltz of Austria and the Belly dance of the Middle Eastern countries.

However, in contrast to common perception, hockey is not the national game of India.The next best answer, kabaddi, is also incorrect. And those siding with the currently popular cricket are also mistaken. As a matter of fact, India does not have a national game. The Indian government acknowledges all games equally and doesn’t encourage one over another

Flags – As far as national flags are concerned, our tricolour is a symbol of selfless patriotism, with green standing for the fertility of India’s land, white for peace, truth, and purity, and saffron for strength, courage and sacrifice. The Ashoka Chakra, in the white strip in the centre, in navy blue, (the colour which stands for love, kindness and peace in Buddhism), symbolises the philosophy that there is life in movement and stagnation in death. The 24 spokes in the Chakra speak of the various religious paths, available for a human being, for leading a virtuous life.

On similar lines, the ‘Stars and Stripes’ is the national flag of the United States of America with 50 stars, each of which stands for one of the states and 13 stripes, representing the original British colonies, which declared independence from the crown. Likewise, the ‘Union Jack’, so-called as it depicts an amalgam of the process of three nations under one sovereign, is the official flag of Britain.

Sports -Certain games, and sports, have also become synonymous with the culture, and personality, of countries. Everyone knows that baseball is the game of the USA in that cricket is Australia’s national game. But how many of us know that Bhutan’s national game is archery? However, in contrast to common perception, hockey is not the national game of India. The next best answer, kabaddi, is also incorrect. And those siding with the currently popular cricket are also mistaken. As a matter of fact, India does not have a national game. The government of India acknowledges all games equally and doesn’t encourage one over another.

Species – Some species of animals and birds are also chosen by nations to serve as ambassadors of their culture, and spirit, as also history. India, for example, has chosen the colourful and swan–sized peacock, for the reason that it is the most auspicious bird, and embodies the country’s fauna. It has a long history of religious and legendary significance in Indian culture. The country also has the tiger as its national animal because of the elegance, strength, agility, and colossal power associated with that animal. Elsewhere in the world, the United States of America has the bald eagle as the national bird and the American bison as the national animal. Japan has the green pheasant as its national bird as well as its national animal.


Traditionally, boarding schools are divided into houses of different colours to create a sense of belonging and identity. In the same way, colours serve as a symbol of regiments in armies. The house system is a traditional feature of schools in Britain and has spread to other Commonwealth countries, including India. Schools are divided into houses, with students being allocated to one of them at the time of admission. Houses are usually identified by different colours, such as red, blue, green and yellow, with each colour representing different qualities such as victory, bravery, honesty, and wisdom.

Within armies around the world, ‘colours’ are a set of flags and are associated with a particular regiment. The practice originated in ancient Egypt some 5,000 years ago. And, over time, colours have become symbols of military spirit with a great deal of cultural and scientific significance behind them, honoured by military personnel and civilians alike. They also represent the spirit of a regiment. It is considered a great feat to capture and bring back an enemy’s colours. Colours, therefore, are defended by soldiers with their lives and, when deemed redundant, are never discarded but placed in a museum or a place of worship.

As far as the Indian military services are concerned, the Army uniform is khaki with green and brown patches that serve as camouflage. The Navy uniform is white with the Air Force generally having a light blue coloured uniform.

Throughout history, uniforms have been worn by members of a particular group as a means of identification. They are dresses of a distinct design or fashion that depict solidarity. From the times of the Roman Empire until today, uniforms have served as a symbol of unity and purpose. Uniforms play the role of facilitating the identification of students in schools. They also serve the purpose of neutralising barriers arising from economic, cultural and social causes and increase a sense of belongingness. 

In the military services, a uniform stands for the nation’s principles and identity and contributes to the qualities of confidence, drive, and attention among servicemen.


The qualities of loyalty and discipline are also inculcated among their members by the International Boy Scouts and Girl Guides and Scouts movements, established by Lord Baden–Powell in 1907. Subsequently in 1953, in Luzern, Switzerland, the International Scout and Guide Fellowship (ISGF) was established. ISGF has, as its primary objectives, the keeping alive the spirit of the Promise and Law as laid down by Lord Baden-Powell, to bring that spirit into the communities in which they live and work, and actively to support Scouting and Guiding in their local communities, countries and worldwide. 

I remember, with joy and pleasure, my own participation in the Scouts movement in what was then Madras (now Chennai). We were taught many things there, including the tying of various types of knots. One incident that stands out in my memory is my participation in a fancy dress competition. Although my act was graded the best, I only got a plastic soap box as a prize, while a friend of mine, whose depiction of a magician was adjudged the second best, was given a leather wallet. I still wish I had come second! 

The sense of discipline, and teamwork, which I imbibed during that time, proved to be one of my strongest attributes subsequently. One must, in the truest sense of the expression, take one’s hat off, to Lord Baden-Powell!

The spirit of teamwork, the sense of belonging to a group sharing a common ideal and the need to satisfy the urge to serve those in need, are also addressed successfully by well-known international movements, such as the Lions Clubs, and the Rotary Clubs. While the Lions Clubs consisted largely of retired entrepreneurs wanting to use their talent and resources that’s nice to give something back to society, The Rotary Clubs consist of a global network of 1.4 million neighbours, friends, leaders and problem–solvers, who believe that united action can create a lasting change across the globe.

I have pleasant memories of having been associated with both movements during my service and being a participant in a mutually beneficial experience.

An experience that can create a strong bond of oneness and a sense of belonging is being an inmate of a sought-after hostel in a University. My coursemate in Service, Vivek Agnihotri, who retired after having served as the Secretary General of the Rajya Sabha had stayed in Muir’s Hostel of Allahabad University, (now called A N Jha hostel as part of the inexorable spirit of Indianness that is spreading with alarming rapidity all over the country). That hostel also has the distinction of producing many other distinguished persons, including famous civil servants. Incidentally, A N Jha, who had served as the Chief Secretary of Uttar Pradesh, state and Director of the National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, was an alumnus of that hostel. Needless to say, there are many such instances of famous hostels, not only in India but in almost every other country.


It is common practice for countries to choose one of their airlines as the national carrier, which is normally the one owned or managed by the country’s government. Such airlines usually carry the name of the country. The national carrier of New Zealand, for instance, is ‘Air New Zealand’ while Australian Airlines is the ‘National Airline of Australia’. Interestingly enough, the national airline of Indonesia is called ‘Garuda Indonesia’ named after the mystical, giant bird, Garuda, the mount of God Vishnu.

Within armies around the world, ‘colours’ are a set of flags and are associated with a particular regiment. The practice originated in ancient Egypt some 5,000 years ago. And, over time, colours have become symbols of military spirit with a great deal of cultural and scientific significance behind them, honoured by military personnel and civilians alike. They also represent the spirit of a regiment

In India’s case, Air India is the flag carrier of the country. At present it is owned by Talace Private Limited, a fully owned subsidiary of Tata Sons, after Air India’s former owner, the Government of India, completed the sale. Founded by the legendary JRD Tata in 1932, with Tata himself flying the single-engine plane to Bombay from Karachi, the airline acquired great international fame, not only for its punctuality, courteous service and excellent cuisine but also because of the hype provided by the unforgettable Maharaja, the mascot of the airlines. The takeover of the airlines by the Tatas may have caused many old-timers to shake their heads in disapproval largely for reasons of sentimental nostalgia. In the event, however, it was essentially a sound and sensible decision welcomed by many experts.


Nationalism, and patriotism, are no longer as intense, or fervent, as they used to be earlier. The forces of globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation shrunk the world and increased the scope for the magnitude of cooperation, inculcating a sense of oneness between and amongst countries and their peoples. 

It is, however, another matter that the scope remains largely unexploited. Instead of travelling in the direction of creating a feeling, of belonging to a single entity called mankind, inhabiting a peaceful and flourishing planet, nations continue to pursue narrow, and selfish objectives, fuelled by vested interests with a stake in the continuance of conflict and unrest. Most regrettably, that phenomenon is not confined to the international arena alone. Even within countries, barriers continue, not merely to exist, but constantly gain in strength, which divides people in the name of religion, caste, creed, community and gender. Fortunately, it is the bond of sentiment, referred to earlier, that has succeeded, in most such cases, in ensuring that the barriers have a limited impact with the overriding factor of patriotism prevailing over their divisive impact.


That having been said, the fact remains that ‘enlightened self-interest’ continues to be the theme that underscores the policies of countries, in international relations. As the Foreign Secretary puts it, in an episode of ‘Yes Minister’, “the Foreign Office of Britain has been accused of many things but never of ‘patriotism’”! Lucky, the British!! At least they belong to a country which knows where its interests lie!

One must note, at this point in this discussion, that belonging to organisations, communities or groups, of like-minded persons sharing goals or objectives, need not always be desirable, or in the best interests of society. 

For example, the Ku Klux Klan (with its name believed to originate from the Greek word ‘kyokios’), comprises historical and current American white supremacist, far-right terrorist organisations and hate groups, which originated in the mid-19th century, target persons belonging to different faiths, communities, and countries. The Sicilian Mafia indulges in activities which comprise protection, racketeering, arbitration of disputes between criminals, and organ illegal agreements and transactions.

These organisations, among many others around the world, have inflicted suffering and pain upon their targets, driven by misguided distrust and hate, through activities, such as protection, racketeering, arbitration of disputes between criminals and organising and oversight of illegal agreements and transactions.

We now draw close to the end of this rather interesting examination of the tendency of human beings to “flock together”, to obtain a sense of belonging or oneness. That phrase, incidentally, is part of the saying “birds of the same feathers flock together”, which traces its origin to a poem by 16th-century poet William Turner.

Before we close our discussion, we need also to look at the flip side of the coin. It is all very well to talk of the sense of oneness, belonging and the other advantages and joys of being part of a group, community, language, culture, region of a country, or nation. But when one looks at the larger picture, the reality with which one has to live is altogether different. 


Our great country is known famously as one endowed with the ability to maintain an ambience of “unity in diversity”. And as Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada declared in a speech in 2015 in London, “Canada has learnt to be strong, not in spite of our differences, but because of them…”. That spirit of accepting diversity as an advantage and not as a challenge is much more so in the case of India. The country, after all, is home to every known religion in the world from Christianity to Islam and Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Its people speak more than 120 major languages and close to 1600 dialects. And, in matters such as attire, cuisine, customs and rituals the variations are such as to make the country seem like a continent such as Europe with each state being a country.

What would be the point in seeking to destroy the richness of this beautifully woven fabric, woven with the fibre of Indianness, into narrow and divisive barriers?

It is precisely that, which, regrettably, appears to be happening all around us today. Selfish and rapidly, narrow-minded forces fuelled by Western interests, or systematically weakening the monolith of integrity and patriotism that India stands for. Intolerance, distrust and suspicion are in the unbridled rampage in the ambient atmosphere. Recent incidents in the country, such as a teacher encouraging students of his class to beat up a boy of a different faith, and a poor man being beaten to death, after being accused of stealing a banana in a temple, – are truly heartbreaking. 

At this sensitive and critical juncture in the history of a fledgling nation, all civilised citizens of the country must learn to draw a balance between the lure of the sense of belonging and the need to march towards a strong and vibrant One India. Thus, the ends of evil, as well as virtue, can be served by a sense of belonging and oneness. 

Nationalism, and patriotism, are no longer as intense, or fervent, as they used to be earlier. The forces of globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation shrunk the world and increased the scope for magnitude of cooperation, inculcating a sense of oneness between and amongst countries and their peoples

The trick, clearly, lies, in finding the golden mean between two alternatives. One is to be a ‘social animal’, which a human being, by nature, is, as the Ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle said. The other is to realise that a sense of loyalty to a group or community, if not kept under check, may lead to consequences inconsistent with the imperative of the country’s integrity as a nation.

‘Vishnu Sahasranamam’ is a Sanskrit hymn containing a thousand names of Lord Vishnu, one of the Triumvirate of Hindu Gods. In the epic Mahabharata, Bhishma, the ‘Pitamaha’, or grandfather, of the warring Pandava and Kaurava clans, is on his deathbed, made of arrows, after the battle between the two sides has concluded. Yudhishthir, the eldest of the Pandavas asks Bhishma who the refuge for all the greatest Divinity in the world, and the refuge for all human beings, is. Through the hymn, Bhishma conveys the message that mankind can free itself from all sorrows, by chanting it. The first words, ‘Viśvam Visnuh…’, signify that the whole Universe, together with all its animate and inanimate beings, is one with the Supreme Being! 

Mohan Kanda

Dr Mohan Kanda is a retired member of the Indian Administrative Service. In his long and distinguished career, he served in various capacities at the State as well as at the Centre including Chief Secretary of the Government of Andhra Pradesh, and Member of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Government of India. He has authored several books including ‘Ethics in Governance - Resolution of Dilemmas - with case studies’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

three × three =