Monday, March 28, 2016
The Prime Minister's speeches at the world Sufi conference and later at the BJP workers' forum brimmed with distilled wisdom. The first, asserting that terrorism was anti-religion, was a call for tolerance. The second was a reminder that development was the singleminded objective of the government. Both speeches fell on deaf ears as far as his own party followers were concerned. For them the singleminded objective was nationalism.
The problem with nationalism is that it means many things to many people. Everybody is of course a nationalist. But Jawaharlal Nehru's nationalism was different from Indira Gandhi's. Atal Behari Vajpayee's nationalism is different from Sakshi Maharaj's nationalism while Sitaram Yachury's nationalism is different from B.T. Ranadive's. Nationalism in North Korea means the supreme leader's right to shoot the army chief to death. The nationalism of Donald Trump, racing to the US presidency, is to keep every Muslim and Mexican out of America. To the Chinese nationalism means every nation in the world accepting their preeminence.
Conflicting notions of nationalism can also mark the political positions of leaders who otherwise share the same ideology and the same dreams. When the time for independence came, leaders like Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru compromised on partition as it looked like the only way to hasten freedom. But Mahatma Gandhi did not. On August 15, 1947, he avoided the celebrations in Delhi, observed fasting and spent time with riot-affected citizens in Calcutta.
Gandhi's disapproval of truncated independence made no one call him anti-national. This showed that nationalism provided legitimate ground for differences and disagreements, protests and criticisms. When nationalism is used to deny this right to differ, it ceases to be nationalism and becomes a contrarian force called hyper-nationalism. Nationalism allows democracy. Hyper-nationalism does not. Nationalism makes Tagore sing about the heaven of freedom where the mind is without fear and the head is held high. Hyper-nationalism makes Sadhvi Niranjan Joshi see Indians as either Ram's children or unmentionables. (She used uncivilised language, but remained an unchastised and honourable member of the Cabinet).
The immediate consequence of hyper-nationalism is that it takes attention away from the Prime Minister's priorities and focuses it instead on daily realities of life and death. Fanatic groups feel free to strike at citizens and no recourse seems available to citizens. The lawyers who behaved like street gangsters on the premises of the Patiala House courts still strut around as patriots because they think the system backs them. Two men taking their buffaloes to the market are lynched and their bodies hung from a tree. The culprits are arrested and let off on bail, making them feel that the system backs them.
It is this twisted atmosphere that has turned Bharat Mata Ki Jai into a topic of acrimonious debate. This beloved signature tune of all India was proudly chanted by multitudes of patriots as they were led away to prison or to torture chambers during the freedom movement. The timeless slogan inspired the new generation as well, as could be seen during Anna Hazare's campaign against corruption. Problems began with the Hindutva groups appropriating the slogan as a brand of their identity. If they had left it at that, things would still have been all right. But they insisted that those who did not share their view of the slogan were anti-national. This was odd from ideologues who, as a matter of policy, refused to sing the national anthem at their functions and recited Vande Mataram instead. Liberal India did not call them anti-national. Illiberal India should at least have accepted that what was good for Subhas Chandra Bose, the paragon of patriotism, was good for all and said Jai Hind to that.
Ironically, it was left to L.K.Advani, a Hindutva hawk during A.B.Vajpayee's days, to put things in perspective. Asked about the Bharat Mata Ki Jai debate, he said he did not want to comment because it was a vyarth vivad, a meaningless controversy.
If we ignore such voices of experience and keep going the way we are going, we may unknowingly be imitating Pakistan. Their cricket captain acknowledged the love he received from Indian fans and at once the patriots back home came down upon him like tons of bricks. For them the captain had gone anti-national. The Urdu poet Fahmida Riaz anticipated the parallelism when she wrote: So it turned out you were just like us / That stupidity, that ignorance / We wallowed in for a century - / Look, it arrived at your doorstep, too.