Sunday, August 10, 2008

Love in the time of patriotism

Republic Day Parade on Rajpath, Delhi
Photo Credit : The New Indian Express

It's long since occasions like Republic Day and Independence Day lost their original meaning as annual reminders of our proud nationhood. Today they remind us more of our vulnerability and the threats we face from within as well as from outside.

Major cities and landmarks turned into fortresses again on this Republic Day. Citizens were suspect until proved otherwise. Armed guards, security uniforms and surveillance paraphernalia filled every inch of the grounds where "celebrations" were due. Familiar routines were enacted, admittedly impressive in their colourful splendour and the formidability of the military might on display.

But how safe are the proud citizens of this proud Republic after five decades of celebrations? Just before Republic Day, Bal Thackeray said publicly that the possibility of a civil war in India could not be ruled out. Civil war? In an India galloping at 9 percent growth rate? That certainly is the "vision" of the man who turned cosmopolitan Bombay into parochial Mumbai in one of those transfigurations that define today's India.

Thackeray being a Johny-come-lately Hindutvavadi, his idea of a civil war can only be a religion-based one. That makes the prospects somewhat disturbing at this stage of the Republic. After all, he has already experimented with some localised wars - and got away with it. He has also acknowledged that Narendra Modi benefited from the post-Godhra war in Gujarat, but must leave Maharashtra to the Shiv Sena. When religion is used for wars, the outcome is never decisive; the Crusades lasted more than two centuries, achieving virtually nothing. Nevertheless, religious wars are notorious for blood-curdling atrocities.

It will be surprising if Thackeray's prognostications come anywhere near reality. The vast majority of Indians are simply not communal enough to accept a civil war, let alone sustain it. But there are other harsh realities behind our glossy growth to make us pause for a moment on Republic-Independence Days.

On the eve of an Independence Day not long ago, an article appeared in the friendly columns of The Guardian about India "where a baby is born every two seconds". Along with a photograph of "a homeless crowd on a Delhi pavement waiting for food handouts", the article said: "For India the one-billion population mark is a reminder of other painful statistics; 390 million people - more than the entire population when India became independent - are too poor to summon the cash for basic foods, some 465 million cannot read, the largest population of illiterates in the world, and a disproportionate number of these are women__"

Since then other statistics have come up, about the number of billionaires going up, the sensex crashing all barriers, businessmen spending 111 million dollars (yes, dollars) to "own" one cricket team in one city.

In the dazzle and razzmatazz of such glittering figures, who will notice the rising numbers of female foeticide, abuse of women in public places, a caste war breaking out near Thanjavur (not Bihar) when a Dalit's bullock won the Pongal cattle race? On Republic Day we should not spoil the mood by referring to such things. We should only think of patriotism - which fortunately this year included the French President's love life.