Patriotism is too sublime and spontaneous an emotion to inhabit the narrow confines of a song; or to be tethered to catchwords; to be held captive by a political discourse that is tribal and toxic; and to be anchored to an idiom of hate. Provoking a community — which took a conscious decision not to migrate to Pakistan at the time of partition — and subjecting it to a patriotic ‘song test’ is absurd; you are almost questioning the implicit relationship of trust that citizens have with their country.
A citizen’s patriotism is a ‘given’ in this template for which he does not have to furnish a certificate; and we are all bound not by religion or any other identity but by our allegiance to the Constitution. Muslims like to wear religion up their sleeve but that is not a good enough reason to question their patriotism.
Because such chest thumping demands by jingoists — that, for instance, pit the ‘national song’ against the national anthem by suggesting that one is more patriotic than the other — is a manifestation of their own scorn for the Constitution.
So, it will be equally ludicrous of me to beseech, in a ‘patriotic moment,’ any organisation and ask it to replace their morning prayer with ‘Ae mere watan ke logon’ — my daily morning chant. Because I cannot question their lyrical idiosyncrasies, just as they cannot question mine! Nor can I make the outlandish demand: why don’t they sing the national anthem or the ‘national song’ rather than recite a prayer in an archaic language that I cannot understand?
Strictly speaking, under Article 51A of the Constitution (Fundamental Duties) we are duty bound to propagate and promote only the national anthem and the national flag. In fact, according to the apex court, there is no national song per se; also, singing is not mandatory: even when Jana Gana Mana is played in cinema theatres, the audience is obliged to stand, but not necessarily to sing along.
The Madras High Court recently made headlines when it directed that Vande Matram be made compulsory in all TN schools and educational institutions once a week. But this is clearly a case of judicial overreach. As against this, there is a 1986 ruling of the Apex Court which had provided protection to children belonging to the Jehovah’s Witness sect in Kottayam, who had refused to sing the national anthem during a school assembly. The court, while upholding the children’s right to freedom of speech and expression and right to religion, had held, ”…There is no provision of law which obliges anyone to sing the National Anthem…” The Supreme Court has, however, made it mandatory for us to stand when the national anthem is played in theatres before the start of the movie, though it is anybody’s guess whether it rekindles patriotism in us.
Even the BJP cannot recoil from admitting that the RSS was able to make assertions about its ‘nationalist’ bonafides without unfurling the Tricolour at its headquarters until 2002.
In fact, Sardar Patel had to virtually goad the RSS into accepting the national flag, even making it a precondition for lifting of the ban clamped on the Sangh after Gandhi’s assassination. It, of course, took the RSS half a century to overcome its inhibition –prodded perhaps by Atal Bihari Vajpayee — and unfurl the Tricolour!
Any clamour to prove one’s patriotism — and tomorrow it may get linked to the Aadhar card — is absurd in a democracy that will turn 75 in 2022. And that too in a nation that has cruised through the ebb and flow of nation building without any recourse to bellicosity.
But for all the saffron bluster, we are not exactly bristling with pride. Rather, simmering with anger, riven with divisions, we are widening the trenches further, making the social schisms and the fault lines insurmountable. To add to our discomfort, we have the likes of ‘detox’ Baba Ramdev telling us rather menacingly that he would have “beheaded” those who refuse to chant “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” were it not for the law of the land!
How different would that be from North Korea where citizens in detention centres are thrashed for forgetting the words of patriotic songs? The other extreme being the United States of America where courts have ruled that desecration of the flag is protected by the First Amendment because it is clearly a political statement! Because this kind of violent nationalism makes us mistrust others, it impairs ours judgement, it tramples our freedom of choice; it is also ‘another kind of social control’. Also it does not answer my school going nephew’s simple query: ‘How can you love a country but not its countrymen?’
The modus operandi for spreading this virulent form of nationalism is simple: Tell lies and half truths about the idea called India — invoking ancestry, religious absolutism, mythology, national symbols — spew venom, internalise the hate into governance, make it an instrument of State policy. Occasionally, the strategy works: It makes us angry, keeps the intellectuals off balance, the political class divided, the media confused, widens the chasm between the liberals and the conservatives — disturbing the equilibrium and poise of the nation.
Rather than taking inspiration from diverse sources to construct a mosaic of pan India identity, we are caught in a haze of saffron. But as PM Modi said from the ramparts of the Red Fort, in the context of Kashmir, we must integrate alienated communities, living on the periphery, into the mainstream. And that applies as much to Dalits and Muslims as the people from the North East. But integration is not about assimilation; it is not about pushing the Bande Mataram, the Surya Namaskar and the like down the throats of a community in the name of creating a ‘cohesive society.’
However, the onus for integration — through economic linkages and by creating an all-inclusive education stream — is as much on the majority community as on the minority. A multi-cultural society like ours must make an allowance for the fact that even as we live in the same nation, we often cohabit parallel realities. There is no clash of civilisations here: it is just spurious nationalism that keeps intruding into our lives from nowhere.
The author is a former editor of The Free Press Journal