Book Review: The Battle of Belonging- On Nationalism, Patriotism, And What It Means To Be Indian by Shashi Tharoor

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  • Publisher : Aleph Book Company 
  • Release Date: 31 October 2020
  • Genre: Non-fiction, Indian History, Political Structure, Political Ideology
  • ISBN-13 : 978-8194735380
  • Price: INR 799/-

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About the Book

There are over a billion Indians alive today. But are some Indians more Indian than others? 

To answer this question, one that is central to the identity of every man, woman, and child who belongs to the modern Republic of India, eminent thinker and bestselling writer Shashi Tharoor explores hotly contested ideas of nationalism, patriotism, citizenship, and belonging. In the course of his study, he explains what nationalism is, and can be, reveals who is anti-national, what patriotism actually means, and explores the nature and future of Indian nationhood. He gives us a clear-sighted view of the forces working to undermine the ‘idea of India’ (a phrase coined by Rabindranath Tagore) that has evolved through history and which, in its modern form, was enshrined in India’s Constitution by its founding fathers. Divided into six sections, the book starts off by exploring historical and contemporary ideas of nationalism, patriotism, liberalism, democracy, and humanism, many of which emerged in the West in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and quickly spread throughout the world. The author then summarizes India’s liberal constitutionalism, exploring the enlightened values that towering leaders and thinkers like Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Ambedkar, Patel, Azad, and others invested the nation with. These are contrasted with the narrow-minded, divisive, sectarian, ‘us vs them’ alternatives formulated by Hindutva ideologues, and propagated by their followers who are now in office. Today, the battle is between these two opposing ideas of India, or what might be described as ethno-religious nationalism vs civic nationalism. 

The struggle for India’s soul has heightened, deepened, and broadened, and threatens to hollow out and destroy the remarkable concepts of pluralism, secularism, and inclusive nationhood that were bestowed upon the nation at Independence. The Constitution is under siege, institutions are being undermined, mythical pasts propagated, universities assailed, minorities demonized, and worse. Every passing month sees new attacks on the ideals that India has long been admired for, as authoritarian leaders and their bigoted supporters push the country towards a state of illiberalism and intolerance. If they succeed, millions will be stripped of their identity, and bogus theories of Indian-ness will take root in the soil of the subcontinent. However, all is not yet lost, and this erudite and lucid book shows us what will need to be done to win the battle of belonging and strengthen everything that is unique and valuable about India. Firmly anchored in incontestable scholarship, yet passionately and fiercely argued, The Battle of Belonging is a book that unambiguously establishes what true Indian-ness is and what it means to be a patriotic and nationalistic Indian in the twenty-first century. 

About the Author 

SHASHI THAROOR is the bestselling author of over twenty books, both fiction and non-fiction, besides being a noted critic and columnist. His books include the path-breaking satire The Great Indian Novel, the classic India: From Midnight to the Millennium, the bestselling An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, for which he won the Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Books (Non-Fiction), 2016, and, most recently, The New World Disorder and the Indian Imperative (co-authored with Samir Saran), The Paradoxical Prime Minister: Narendra Modi and His India, and The Hindu Way: An Introduction to Hinduism. 

He was a former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and a former Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs in the Government of India. In his third term, he is the longest-serving member of the Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram and chairs Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology. He has won numerous literary awards, including the Sahitya Akademi Award, a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and the Crossword Lifetime Achievement Award. He was honoured as New Age Politician of the Year by NDTV in 2010, and in 2004 with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, India’s highest honour for overseas Indians.

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Author and politician Shashi Tharoor called this book his magnum opus and he rightly did so. After reading this book, I can actually say this book is his magnum opus.

Bringing together his observations as a critic, columnist and politician, Tharoor presents to us an insightful  collection of his thoughts on nationalism, patriotism and the identity of a normal Indian. Analyzing patriotism and nationalism at length, he further goes on to highlight the difference between pseudo-nationalism and true nationalism in these pages

In the last few years, a lot of Indians are questioning their sense of belonging. It can be safely assumed that the title of this book was inspired by one such discussion where the sense of belonging seems to have been lost and one needs to fight for it now - leading to The Battle of Belonging

A place where you were born, the only place you have always known as homeland, your country and a place where you belong - now suddenly seems alien for many reasons. It can be the political atmosphere of the country or the chaos prevalent in the name of religion across the length and breadth of the nation. The fact still remains that we are the citizens of this place and we are feeling lost. His magnum opus is Tharoor's way of trying to show the lost citizens a direction. 

The book is neatly divided into six sections namely - the idea of nationalism, the idea of India, the Hindutva idea of India, the on-going battle of belonging, the anxiety of nationhood and reclaiming India's soul. These sections are further divided into chapters which can be construed as important milestones in the history of the nation. From Kashmir to Ayodhya, From Gandhi's Hinduism vs Hindutva to the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and NRC (the National Register of Citizens) - this books talks about it all. For a layman this is a brilliant walk down the memory lane and trace the history of the nation till the current times. 

Tharoor does not shy away from giving his opinion on some topics which cannot be called easy-conversation-starters in today's times. Neither does he mince with his words while shedding light on controversial topics like the assertion of Hindi or the doctrine of Hindutva.

It is particularly admirable how he dissects each and every topic in such great details. From the what, to why, how, where and what next - he has it all sorted in sequence. He even shares definitions and sources for the meanings to aide further readings for curious souls who want to know more. 

Backed with immense research and brilliant observations, Tharoor adds a certain honesty to this book. I particularly enjoyed reading the chapter called Fighting Back, where he states,

'History is replete with examples of democracy being used as a stepping stone to power by nationalist parties that then proceed to subvert or even dismantle it and substitute it  with their own authoritarianism. The formula is well known: weaken the independent institutions, demolish the autonomous checks and balances, stifle dissent, persecute and prosecute the critics, suspend genuine politics and replace it with mass rallies, parades, celebrations and entertainments, while treating the populace to 'bread and circuses'. (Pg. 387)

Through this book, Tharoor makes an excellent case for civic nationalism combined with patriotism. His arguments in the favour of it, make you believe that this is the only way every Indian can get their rightful place intact with its honour and respect. 

This book is by no means a dated statistic which speaks about things long forgone. It is very well updated and talks about the current scenario with an eerie detail. It also follows it all by a detailed bibliography at the end of the book which has so many interesting references for further reading. Something about the bibliography says this discussion is not going to end with this book. It is a topic which needs more books and more discussions.

Interestingly, Tharoor just does not talk about the problems in this book. He is in no mood to simply magnify the issues and analyze them cryptically for pages and pages, endlessly. After making his point, he swiftly moves to the solutions which according to him, can help us overcome the current situation we are in. 

The epilogue of the book is titled - Winning the Battle of Belonging and begins with these lines,

This book has been a paean to an India where it does not matter what religion you practice, what language you speak, what caste you were born into, what colour your skin is, and a celebration of civic nationalism that affirms that in India it should only matter that you are Indian. A paean, I said- not an elegy, and certainly not a dirge. (Pg. 405)

This book is for each one of us who are desperately looking for answers to our questions. Growing up in a nation different than what we are living in right now, we are bound to be laden with questions. Strange as it may sound, we are surrounded by questions. Ones that we ask and ones that others around us are asking. Once again taking Shashi Tharoor's words here to emphasize on the need for answers:

Above all, our patriotism must give us a nationalism of hope, not fear. 

Only then will be able to look a questioner in the eye and say with upright stance and uplifted gaze: 'This is my nation. I am proud to say I am an Indian.'


The only drawback I can claim for this book is that I wish this book was for masses. Both in content and pricing, this book is not something I can say every one will enjoy reading. It definitely needs loads of patience to devour a 450 pages book, with so many details to process, understand and analyze. It also needs someone who wants to be the change they wish to see in this nation. 

However, this does not take away the fact that this book is extremely important. And I would not be wrong is saying, this should be considered an important academic read in our country to encourage healthy debates and invite ideas and suggestions for this. 

The book does not promise to be the answer to all, but it does promise to raise a lot of questions and make us think. 

Overall, a brilliant read, which should be read by one and all.