Who is a patriot and what is patriotism? Is patriotism really such a good thing after all? These are questions that should have been asked but clearly have not been asked by those who have been making wild allegations about rampant anti-nationalism in the frenzy created by the JNU students meeting. Rabindranath Tagore was not at all certain that patriotism was a good thing. The renowned English writer, Dr Samuel Johnson, was certain it was not. He famously described patriotism as ‘the last resort of a scoundrel’.
Scoundrels and worse have resorted to patriotism to justify dictatorship. In democracies patriotism is often the last resort of leaders who find power ebbing away from them. Indira Gandhi claimed the JP movement was funded by foreign donations to arouse patriotic anger.
Patriotism and indeed nationalism are much to be admired in their place but politics is not their place. In the present overheated atmosphere there is already evidence of people playing the patriotic card — the dangers of excessive reactions and hysteria. The excessive reaction of Dattatreya Hosable, a senior leader of the RSS, has been a call for a purge of ‘all kinds of anti-national elements’ in all universities. Perhaps he is unaware of the history of purges, Stalin’s purge in the 1930s, for example. Imagine a purge of universities conducted by a police force.
Some television stations are doing their best to whip up hysteria. A TV anchor said: “In this country there is a bunch of people which includes secessionists, anti-nationals, champagne-sipping cocktail glitterati, five-star has been authors … And some out-of-work lawyers who say they are the free-spirits and come out with illiterate arguments.”
In an overheated atmosphere of patriotic hysteria, decisions are made without discussion, rational arguments go unheard, and debate dries up. The India described by Robert Blackwill when departing as American ambassador was “a pluralist society that creates magic with democracy, rule of law and individual freedom, community relations and (cultural) diversity. What a place to be an intellectual”. The fog created by hysteria is the last place intellectuals would want to find themselves in.
Hatred is an inevitable outcome of political patriotism. Politicians create enemies to fuel the patriotism by providing someone to hate. A good example of that is the human resource development minister, Smriti Irani, speaking in Parliament of the enemy within. A bizarre example is the BJP MLA from Ramgarh in Alwar district, Gyandev Ahuja. He is reported to have maintained that JNU students dance naked with each other and after the dances leave behind 3,000 used condoms, 500 used abortion injections and much else. This is an attempt to provoke hatred of JNU students by portraying them as depraved.
Hate also raises the question of whether all the perverted patriotism being aroused is really good for the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Hatred divides people, so how does it help his carefully cultivated image of a prime minister dedicated to achieving development for all? He has spent a great deal of time and an enormous amount of money on cultivating friendships with world leaders, but Obama, Cameron and Hollande will all have been reading troubling comments on his government published in their countries since the JNU meeting.
But having said all this my experience of India suggests that the patriotic frenzy will die down. As a journalist I was often asked whether the events of 1992 in Ayodhya meant the end of Indian secularism. I always answered, “In my experience the temperature rises rapidly in India but falls again rapidly.” This, I believe, is because India remains at heart the country Blackwill described. But that doesn’t mean playing with patriotism is a safe game. As for hatred, the last words of the English nurse Edith Cavell are an indictment of patriotism fuelled by hatred. Facing execution by a Nazi firing squad for sheltering Allied soldiers in occupied Belgium in World War II, she said, “Standing as I do in view of God and eternity I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone.”
The views expressed are personal