It’s twenty six years since Tiananmen Square today, and the concern over free speech and government repression of dissenting voices is as much as ever. Quoting from a piece in The Quartz published yesterday in the context of Tiananmen Square, something I found really relevant… “Then and now, China’s senior leaders seem unable to grasp or to admit that people could both be deeply critical and deeply patriotic.”
This is really the crux, isn’t it? Shouldn’t politics be about being able to give space to dissent without feeling insecure about it or even better, being able to channelise dissent into meaningful debates and discussions that fuel energy rather than moving to squash it at every instance? Should dissent not be interpreted as concern and interest, as a way for people to engage? Should it not be seen by governments as an opportunity to involve citizens, or at the very least as a way to know what drives or upsets people?
Yesterday’s papers reported about Indian PM Modi’s denouncement of communal politics, his meetings with leaders from the Muslim community. Minister of State for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, whose ‘go to Pakistan’ edict for lovers of beef is now infamous (and which I was considerably incensed by), was present at Modi’s meeting and was perhaps being chastised as well.
Modi’s reticence on addressing the issues that are making minorities and liberals squirm has been widely commented upon. But it seems clear that Modi speaks up at this time because the conversation on communalism is detrimental to the one about economic development in India. He believes it is the latter that brought him to power and will keep him in the PM’s seat. I cannot comment on other analysis (usually from the parties in the Opposition) that suggests that the real objective behind BJP’s government is to fulfill the RSS’ longstanding dream of making India a Hindu nation. But I am hoping the PM’s public statements go beyond his own personal resolve and extend to creating a culture that stops pouncing on anyone who disagrees with right wing ideology.
For those who disagree are doing so because they believe in a different idea of India, not because they want to jump ship. Those who speak up are those who love their country, or at least are affected by what’s happening around them. Possibly they also have ideas and imaginations that the nation could benefit from. To me, the inability of Modi to tap into this pool of interested and engaged people, many of whom voted for him perhaps hoping that they could participate in some way, would be his true failing. If he, or any other leader, could channelise this energy and enthusiasm, the possibilities could be endless.
As election fever grips the nation with Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh in poll mode; as the mind grapples with the several grey areas in the charges of sexual assault leveled at erstwhile respected and now much maligned citizens; as I worry about a nation pushing its multitudes of poor further to the sidelines in its current state of enamor for a particular strain of neo-liberal thinking…
In the midst of all this, I read with delight the news about India’s Mars spacecraft successfully exiting Earth’s orbit on its way to the Red Planet. I realized I had been worrying in my subconscious mind about the craft going off track and the profound sense of relief and pride that washed over me was both amusing and heartening.
I have to remind myself everyday that India is a good story. Not just because it is my country and I have more than my share of patriotism inside me, but because I see immense positives everyday. We are not a nation that has given up, we are on the street trying our best everyday. I refuse to believe in that self-created image of Indians as a people happy with status quo. No, we are restless for change and that is hugely hopeful. Let’s not give into the media-created hype of negativity, but look around us at all the success stories and brave attempts being made every day by ordinary people who want to live a good life, do a good job and leave a sound legacy behind for an undoubtedly capable generation to take on.
I often wonder about patriotism. It is a concept I have defended, debated and doubted at various points in my life, but I have always been unashamedly patriotic.On Republic Day, as Nupur and me drove together to a party, we were trying to examine how our concepts have altered over time. Not only in the sense that we now see patriotism very differently as adults in our mid-30s, cynicism and facts crowding our judgement, but also we wondered about how children saw it today.
As a school going child in the ’80s, my consciousness was strongly influenced by adult discussions about Indo-Pak wars in the decades just gone by and we still indulged in a lot of role play that involved skirmishes with the neighboring country. I remember Gautam, my neighbor, would constantly ask stuff like: If you lost an arm fighting against Pakistan, would you want to die or live? I would never know how to even begin answering such a question and would find it hard to try and imagine myself bleeding and cut up in a war zone somewhere! At school, the Indian freedom movement that overthrew colonial suppression was a large part of what we were taught, through history lessons and every day in the songs we sang and the speeches made at Assembly time for the birth and death commemorations of various national leaders. The glory of our ancient past was yet another refrain that was relentlessly drilled into our impressionable minds.
So yes, my initial ideas of patriotism did involve a muscle flexing superior image of India as a large, powerful nation in the regional context. At the same time, I was also perceiving the image of my country as poor, backward, under-developed and highly inefficient as seen by the West through adult discussions when they returned from abroad or when the various NRI friends my parents had as well as relatives returned for visits. Their disparaging tone hurt me, scared me and baffled me as I struggled to understand the contradictions in the ideas I had about India.
Each year, when I watch the Republic Day Parade on TV, I wonder at the colossal amount of resources that go into that spectacle. I wonder why we need to, in this so-called post-modern era, show the world what missiles we own and how well our bands march and what culture flourishes in our States. This time, I went to see the spectacle for myself. And I was drawn into the old-style tear jerking, chest-swelling-with-pride experience of patriotic feeling. It is a superbly choreographed show indeed and even the cynic in me just decided to shut up and enjoy!
The kids were enthralled, each with their own perceptions. Udai loved the marching, Aadyaa liked the dances. They both practiced the National Anthem in the car, but I realized they are not too sure about which one is the Anthem and which one is the song. And they have no clue about the National Pledge! Those of you who remember the endless jokes about “All Indians are by brothers and sisters” would be having a good laugh. But yes, times have changed. Today’s youngsters have much less doubts about India’s capabilities and see themselves as citizens of this nation with undoubted pride. They associate the image of India with technology and competence, and are less obsessed about military or cultural superiority. In fact, at nearly nine, I think Udai is in more of a global citizen mind frame and is barely conscious of his identity as an ‘Indian’. Quite a contrast from how we were at the same age!
So do we consciously inculcate patriotism in young Indians? And how do we deal with the contradictions in the image we offer to them? I don’t subscribe going back to the hyped distorted way history was often presented to us, for instance. Or do we allow them to develop their own brand of patriotism as they grow, learn more, analyze what is happening around them?
As an unashamed patriot, I know I influence my children without even knowing it to take immense pride in their nation. For its achievements certainly, but also for its diversity and pluralism, and for the simple fact that it is our home.
It’s turned out to be a spiritual sort if day, or at least a day of visiting places of worship or belief- Bhakra Dam, Naina Devi temple and the Anandpur Sahib Gurudwara Keshgarh Sahib.
Our first stop and one that took most of our day was the Bhakra Dam, a monument to modernity, a temple that celebrates Indian independence and progress. The dam is a hydro electric power project that powers much of north India. It also supplies water for irrigation to a large area, enabling to a large extent India’s green revolution. It’s impressive certainly and the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful, but the scale is so large both of the structure and the landscape, that it’s a bit hard to take in. There is considerable security. ‘No photography, no parking’ proclaim several large signs and security personnel are pretty sharp about stopping people from clicking and generally putting the fear of God in visitors.
We walked past the dam and peered down to see a mountain of silt and garbage on the other side. All feelings of national pride came instantly crashing down. Irritated, we asked the security boys about this. The garbage is what the river brings in with it and it gets caught on this side of the dam. There is no sophisticated machine to dredge or clean this stuff. ‘By boat, by hand’ the security guy informed us!
Even on the boat ride onto the vast stupefying waters of the Gobind Sagar Lake, I counted an array of alien objects- plastic bottles of course, slippers, medicines intact in their plastic sheath, condom, etc even though it was largely clean. I sat there and thought about how people dump all manner of rubbish into the streams and rivers that flow by and how the lake and the dam have to deal with all that trash.
We also talked about the dam being a manifestation of how man has interfered with nature. We spoke of the complexity of issues rehabilitation of villages drowned in dam projects. Of course, back then when this dam was built people whose village was drowned considered it a sacrifice to the ‘temple of modern India’ or so my mum tells me from her memories of the time. We also spoke of how that very flat enormous lake actually filled a deep gorge and we were floating around on the top of something that went way down!
More about the other two sites later (with pics) and here are some clandestine clicks of the dam and surrounds.
I woke up this morning to glance down from the balcony at the community flag hoisting ceremony happening down in the park. On a rather chilly morning, a dedicated bunch of residents were assembled, singing the usual patriotic songs and releasing balloons in the colors of our national flag. It didn’t seem a particularly moving ceremony from my perch high up on the 14th floor.
Later, as I caught glimpses of the Republic Day parade on TV and was idly wondering about the relevance of such an imperial sort of display in the current post-modern context, I was surprised to find my eyes wet with tears of emotion! ‘Aah, patriotism!’ I said to myself.
Now, of course we are all patriotic deep inside. But the sharp, militant form of patriotism of our childhood, of those times when every young child dreamt of fighting a war for the country (when in our make-believe games, the boys were soldiers in imaginary Indo-Pak wars and the girls nursed the wounded!), can hardly be seen anymore. In today’s context, the threats have changed in nature. No longer is the country potentially under attack from outside elements, but insiders seem more threatening to the tenuous structure of our young and still immature democracy.
This 63rd Republic Day in our 65th year of independence, patriotism is no longer something we wear on our sleeve. As so-called global citizens, we the educated middle classes, express love for India in our desire to see higher GDP growth, industrial productivity, sectoral growth, rising sensex figures, increasing employment figures. We are patriotic in how we would like to see India beat China hollow (in your dreams, I hear the cynics say!) in terms of economic growth, exports, etc. I wish we’d get more competitive and patriotic and make efforts to improve our basic indices like health, infant mortality, sex ratio, literacy…we’re so far behind in trying to meet the Millenium Development Goals, we should, as a nation, hang our head in shame!
But coming back to the point, for all our professed love for India, are we really patriotic and does patriotism still mean something to us?
Patriotism, by definition, is about love for one’s country and loyalty to its central institution, the state. A large part of patriotism is about defending one’s nation against others and in the context of India’s current situation, against moves to destroy the nation’s democratic foundations and institutions as well. Which means we need to speak up and stand against all elements that want to divide Indians and those who want to take away any of the freedoms granted to us by the constitution.
To sum things up, shedding a tear or clapping in delight at the Republic Day parade simply isn’t enough! We’d need to do more to save our nation from its true enemies and then we’d be patriots for real!