What is a 'Nation'?
When we cheer for a particular team and country in a cricket game, we rarely question what reasoning has gone into our idea of 'nationalism' at that point. The history of nationalism is now far enough in the past for us to take it for granted that all human beings have nations and that 'good' human beings profess a loyalty towards their own nations. However, when one asks “What is a nation?” or “Why is the nation so important?”, one finds that often such fundamental questions are ones that we have never had occasion to ask ourselves and we do not have ready answers for them. Over the past few decades several answers have been given to these questions and yet social scientists are dissatisfied with the descriptions they have available to them.
Ernest Renan provided one of the earliest answers to the question, 'What is a Nation?':
A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Only two things, actually, constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of remembrances; the other is the actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to value the heritage which all hold in common.
[Renan. 1882. Paris. `Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?' in Nationalism. 1994.]
Though this was one of the first answers to the question and is more than a century old, this answer is far from obsolete. In fact, it seems to keep re-surfacing in common understandings of nationalism. This definition points us towards the two crucial factors that have resurfaced in the discourse of nationalism practically everywhere in history: a shared past and the will to “live together” under one State.
Memories of shared glory, great sacrifices and suffering are vital in creating a sense of solidarity. The nation is projected as a territory which has been unified by ancient ties which then gain an almost sacred connotation. Even the youngest of nations seeks to create for itself a very old history.
Thus, to deny the `sacred' bond of the nation then becomes almost to blaspheme against an order that is natural and higher than any that a human being has created. This then leads us to the latter element—the will to live together. This is crucial because it includes within it a certain complicity or conformity to the idea of the nation, and is the emotional investment we make in the nation.
This is why cheering in a cricket match is an act charged with significance. Think of instances when somebody cheering for another country, an 'opponent', is labelled 'anti-national' or a 'traitor', and the fact that this reaction is generally considered natural and justified.
Can we explain why an individual who does not support the country in a game is considered a threat to the country? Surely when someone supports one cricket team over another s/he is not guilty of creating a situation of any physical threat to the country. So then why is s/he labelled a 'traitor'? What trust has this individual betrayed?