Even as India’s government targets its own citizens on university campuses, stokes the flames of communalism to win the elections in Uttar Pradesh and fails to condemn the lynching of Muslims over the suspicion of consuming beef, it needs to pretend that violence is being perpetrated on the country by others.
The others are not only the ubiquitous foreign hand, but also home-grown anti-nationals who are apparently trying to break up the country. And how, pray, are they doing this? By criticising war, by criticising the government and by questioning authoritarianism.
Several things are disturbing about this one-size fits all definition of nationalism. But the interesting aspect of it is what gets sentimentalised as being “pro-nation” and vilified as “anti-national”.
Among the things that are sentimentalised, the first and foremost is the Army: the “martyrs” who lay down their lives for the nation. In his increasingly bumbling remarks against Delhi University student Gurmehar Kaur – who stood up against the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarathi Parishad after it assaulted students and teachers at Delhi University’s Ramjas College on February 22 and whose father was killed in the Kargil War – Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju said her mind had been “polluted” by anti-national forces.
According to him, these forces are “the Leftists who celebrated when Indian Army personnel were martyred in the 1962 [Indo-China] war, and raised anti-national slogans”.
Rijiju went on to say that “whoever makes anti-national statements will be dealt [with] firmly under the law”. And then came the piece de resistance from the minister, when he said: “The martyr’s soul must be weeping on seeing his daughter being misguided by those who celebrate the bodies of martyrs.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a martyr is someone “who undergoes death on behalf of any religious or other belief or cause”. A member of a professional armed force cannot be a martyr because martyrdom cannot be a job. If you die in your line of duty – for example, as Dalit scavengers routinely do while inhaling poisonous fumes from sewage waste – then you are not termed a martyr.
Horrible and callous as it is, the government pays its soldiers to die. To then call these dead soldiers “martyrs” is the government’s way of sentimentalising their death and deflecting criticism away from its own policies.
The Indian Army continues to be one of the country’s most secular institutions – take for instance its rejection of the “penance” money in October that the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena extorted from Bollywood director Karan Johar to allow a smooth release for his film featuring a Pakistani actor. But the Army is also being used in a battle for the mantle of nationalism – a battle in which the horrors of war are glossed over to highlight the sentimental aspect of dying for one’s country.
This link between economics and sentiment can best be compared to the only other group that is sentimentalised as much as soldiers – and that is mothers.
Let us move on, then, from martyr to mater, or mother.
Mothers are sentimentalised to such an extent that even the country is termed a “motherland,” or “Bharat Mata”. Insulting one’s mother is a thing not to be tolerated and men and women all over the world pay obeisance to this great machine of reproduction. It is to protect the motherland, purportedly, that solders are martyred. In contrast to the soldier’s death, it is the mother’s ability to give birth that is celebrated.
But unlike the soldier, the mother does not get paid for producing and then – very often in India – staying at home and looking after the children. Mothers work incredibly hard. Children require care and energy and attention all day, every day. But mothers do not get paid for their back-breaking work. The Indian government certainly has no scheme by which to pay the mothers whom it extols.
In fact, in the 2017-’18 Budget, the government did not allot enough funds to fufill its promise of giving Rs 6,000 to every pregnant woman.
But governments are able to get away without paying their mothers salaries or benefits because they sentimentalise them instead. Similarly, governments can uphold their pretense that soldiers who die in war want to do so, by ignoring the fact that these soldiers are paid.
In both scenarios, the martyr and the mother get the short end of the financial stick and are instead stuck with this fantasised burden of sentimentality that they may never have wanted.
What are we fighting for?
Dead soldiers and ignored mothers: these are the staples of the current government’s “nationalism.” And anyone who speaks up against war – as Gurmehar Kaur did – or any woman who speaks up is vilified by the government. No minister has denounced the trolls who have threatened her with death and rape. Instead, they have denounced her for having a “polluted” mind.
BJP MP Pratap Simha compared her to Dawood Ibrahim. An online comment notes that since her father is dead, her grandfather will need to look after her. There is no sign of the mother, because she has been holed up in her sentimentalised cocoon.
Babita Phogat, one of the Haryana wrestler sisters on whose life the recent superhit Bollywood film Dangal was made, had this to say about the situation:
I will not hear a single word against my country, Phogat said. But which country is Phogat talking about? The one that attacks professors and students? The one that sends soldiers to their deaths? The one that condones a rape culture? Or the one that sentimentalises both martyr and mother, without caring for either?
Madhavi Menon is a Professor of English; views are both personal and political.