We are living through difficult times when every word is torn apart with an ‘Us vs Them’ attitude or put through dubious tests to define virtue and vice. The controversy raging after Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), said that he would not utter the slogan ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ is unwarranted. The Maharashtra assembly has gone so far as to suspend AIMIM legislator Waris Pathan for endorsing Mr Owaisi’s views. One BJP youth leader has bayed for Mr Owaisi’s tongue, while posters outside his Delhi home have branded him a ‘traitor’. Mr Pathan said he would proudly say ‘Jai Hind’, a slogan coined by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, but that apparently is not enough for his baiters. Bollywood actor Anupam Kher has tweeted that the only definition of nationalism for ‘Bharatwasis’ should be the slogan ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. Such moral policing of patriotism goes against current practices in mature democracies.
Long before it became a modern nation, India encouraged a culture of dissent and debate. From the sexual freedom discussed in the Kamasutra to the eclectic vision of Rig Veda, it has taken in many shades of opinion. Atheism and pantheistic idol worship have co-existed, just as materialistic and ascetic traditions. The Constitution of India only fortified this spirit in embracing freedom of expression, right to worship and equality in a modern package. Patriotism in India should show respect for the Constitution, but that does not require a monochrome slogan or tests that smack of vigilantism. Even patriotism itself is not compulsory, though desirable. Extreme and odd-ball views are best ignored or argued than be subject to unseemly name-calling, legal action or violence. We must laud poet-lawmaker Javed Akhtar for turning his farewell speech in the Rajya Sabha into an opportunity by mocking Owaisi for being narrow-minded and then going on to say that uttering ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ was not his duty but, in fact, a right. Such nuanced delight apart, India has seen objections to the Vande Mataram song by Muslim politicians, who deem it not a salute to the motherland but obeisance to the Divine Mother as a Hindu idol. Such dissidence is best left aside in street corners than be subject to cultural witch-hunts. India’s civilisation has enough of traditional strength and modern intelligence to mock rather than hound odd-ball dissidents
Jingoism is not the only shade of patriotism, which itself might have 50 shades in a land of diversity. The Constitution exists as the guiding force, with an independent judiciary for supervision, when a cacophony of jingoists drowns out voices of reason.