Let me begin with a declaration.
I am not a nationalist. I am not even patriotic about this state created national identity. I refuse to be an unquestioning loyal servant of our political form. I am not wowed by the symbols of the State. I certainly don’t enjoy watching the Republic Day parade where every type of killing machine is on grand display. I don’t believe that the death sentence should be awarded even to terrorists. Yet, I will say that I belong to this land and have an equal right to its embrace and no one, and I mean absolutely no one, including the highest courts can take that away from me. That sense of belonging is in me and will live until the day I pass on. But I will not have someone demanding my love, my salute, my tribute for his notion of India.
So, who am I and where do I belong?
Right to question
In the last few weeks we have seen the deadliest venom spewed on students who have expressed a different idea of their land and its purpose. Beyond the legal arguments, we have seen rank hatred being hurled and that needs challenging. We must ask: What is the nature of the love that is being demanded from all those who hold that white voter identity card or blue passport? Is it love at all, or just a selfish protectionism, violent assertion, an unthinking stone-walling of those who question the very foundation of our political construct? But is it not just this kind of discourse that allows for a revaluation, even rejection of “what is”? We are told that these questioning people are negative, bringing disgrace to our country, contributing nothing to nation building. Where does the blueprint for this building come from? It evolves from difficult, uncomfortable, disturbing questions raised by voices of varied textures and tones. I, for one, certainly believe, that we cannot move ahead without their words questioning the meaning in our sentences. This is openness to receiving without anger, inhibition or confrontation.
Let us also not reduce this to Voltaire’s cliché on freedom of expression. This is a deeper, subtler enquiry into the nature of belonging to a nation. We need to go beyond the right to speech and explore the thoughts behind expression. Born from this is also humility towards what we believe as being sacrosanct and essential. There will be very many pitches, each providing for a different insight. And unless we make an attempt to receive everyone, we are lifeless.
Creating the ‘other’
Why are we unable to listen to voices without being reactionist? What are we so scared about? I am baffled. The students in Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University did not at any point take up arms and attack anyone. They did not demand the killing of any human being or the destruction of any natural assets, yet we want them removed. But the corporates and conglomerates of the world are allowed to strip our land with state sanction and displace people. And religious bullies continue to spread hate among people.
Where did this madness for national pride come from? By drawing dotted lines around us and separating us from the rest we have all been forced to assert an identity of pride, pride itself being an imbalanced emotion. The students at Hyderabad and JNU are not anti-national – whatever that may mean – but let us suppose, for the sake of argument that they are, I don’t see a problem. They are not anti-people, anti-life, anti-nature, anti-love, anti-compassion or anti-welfare. We need to seriously ask ourselves what we are looking for in our co-inhabitants. Isn’t an inhuman nationalist worse than an empathetic anti-national? Take one look at many of those who today drum their loyalty to the Indian nation and you will see a religiously sectarian, casteist, male-chauvinist who cares little for the poor and marginalised. Any active involvement of theirs in social upliftment comes from the position of charity or a misuse of that for advancing their own divisiveness.
What keeps us safe?
Let us love our land, not romanticise the nation state as the insider-outsider dichotomy built into the latter’s DNA. This separation operates as much within its borders as it does beyond. It is to the credit of our founders that they recognised this problem and tried their very best to address its structural complexity. But the debate continues and should. Our Constitution has given us some remarkable things. But there is nothing absolute or final about a document that allows amendments to keep it abreast of the times, of life!
Political parties have only worsened the situation by twisting people’s ideas into party positions. The BJP, Congress and the rest are incapable of seeing anything beyond their own noses but will use every opportunity to create confusion, manipulate minds and weaken the quality of the debate that normal people want. It is also true, that we live in a society where few are willing to listen to political questions that emanate beyond party outfits.
The other dimension that has been added to this shouting and counter-screaming is pitting the sacrifice made by the armed forces against questions being asked by students. Mahendra Singh Dhoni and actors like Mohanlal have unfortunately used the death of soldiers to trivialise dissent. Their sacrifices can never be forgotten or diminished, yet I am wearied by the argument that we sleep safe at night only because someone patrols our borders, for truth that it is, it is not the whole truth. Sleep settles over us at night because someone called the Indian peasant is growing our cereals, someone called the line engineer and manual scavenger is keeping our water and drainage pipes going, someone is handling the dangerous chemicals that make our paints safe, someone cleans our streets of all the garbage we patriots keep heaping on them, someone is fighting for the rights of the downtrodden and because our teachers share generously and policemen and policewomen guard our roads selflessly. And, let us not forget, we find rapture in the morning and repose at night because someone called an artist sings or dances for our happiness. Every member of society helps us sleep safely and happily and no one can be placed on a lower or higher pedestal. There is also another side to any country’s fighting machine that we cannot glorify. That which keeps us safe, threatens others, does it not? I refuse to sanctify the bomb-dropping jet and the flame-throwing tank.
Humanity above all
I belong to this land because of the air, fragrance, earth, sounds, languages, music, dance, drama, rituals, cuisine, unsaid words, smiles, quirks, jokes, habits, battles, inequalities and sharing that make me who and what I am. All this exists beyond the state. This is my land, my people and my life. My “here” is not bound by the homogenising tag that makes for an Indian citizen – whether of the ordinary native, or OCI or NRI variety. My land is fluid not static, constantly self-renewing, self-defining, leaving me free to sing any song. There is no question that the state has facilitated my living, but the state itself comes from the experiences that I have described above and therefore it cannot take away who I am. The state is not a privilege gifted to us, it is built on the understanding, questioning and framing of what already exists. If the state forgets its reason for existence then it needs to be, and will be, challenged.
Tagore, who gave us our national anthem, also said:
“I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds. I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.”
Let us not destroy life by succumbing to the State.