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Patriot games

india Updated: Apr 14, 2007 03:05 IST
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For the world at large, Infosys is the 21st century index of India, more recognisable today to the global citizen than even the national flag. Heads of State make a ritual stop at the Bangalore campus to gawk in surprised admiration; international columnists obsessively recite its virtues to argue that the world is flat; and the rest of us feel pretty darned proud that software has finally dislodged the snake charmer as the abiding cliché of the Orient. No matter what you think of him otherwise, there are no two ways about it — Narayana Murthy is inextricably linked to the modern Indian’s sense of self.

So also is Sachin Tendulkar. Every time he goes out to bat, he carries with him the dreams of a billion people. Like many sporting legends, he is an iconic symbol of our subliminal nationalism. When he plays dismally — as he did in this World Cup — we feel we have the right to be outraged, because in some strange, sentimental way, we believe he belongs to all of us. He is the common property of an entire nation — one of the few strands that ties and holds together a country otherwise splintered by caste, class and cash.

Isn’t it strange then that it is these two men who have been put through the most banal and petty patriotism test? Surely our nationalism is not so fragile that we now need affirmation and apologies from two people who have done us proud as a country, on more occasions than we can even remember?

Though the global village is apparently the new, trendy residence of choice for the liberal lobby, like most of you, I’m no internationalist. I feel unabashedly Indian, and this means that not just do I jump to my feet and sing along with the national anthem, it also makes me inexplicably sentimental, proud and teary-eyed. But equally, I will not support a police enforcement of patriotism, such as in Maharashtra, where it is now required by law to play the anthem before any film is screened. Nor do I accept that there is one standardised rulebook on the do’s and don’ts of nationalism that every citizen is obliged to obey.

So, if Narayana Murthy chose to play an instrumental version of the national anthem when President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam came visiting, my question is, so what? Does it make him any less Indian? Next time we want to boast about India’s software giants to our friends from foreign lands, will we stop wearing Infosys as one of our badges of honour?

I don’t personally agree that a vocal rendition of the anthem would have been “embarrassing” (unfortunate choice of word by Murthy) for the outsiders on the campus. But does that give us a right to convert this into a debate on patriotism and national pride? Are we now going to stand by and support the foolish rhetoric of the Karnataka government that has branded this an “unpardonable offence”?
As far as I can tell, Murthy broke no law or protocol. Neither did he disown his company’s Indian roots — the anthem played out twice, in the beginning of the ceremony and before the President’s departure, as is customary. And anyone who wanted to sing the words out aloud was free to do just that.

International sporting events routinely play only instrumental versions of national songs. Are we now going to monitor Indian players as they step up to grab their medals to watch whether they sing along or not? And if they don’t, will we call them anti-national?

The flag controversy is even more ludicrous. In Jamaica, Sachin Tendulkar put a knife through a cake baked in the colours of our national flag (given the team’s performance, and Woolmer’s murder, we should be grateful the knife was aimed only at a cake). Now suddenly, there’s a case slapped against him for insulting the flag. And the cricket board and the government are locked in a heated debate over whether India’s High Commissioner to Jamaica should take the flak, or the poor unsuspecting cook who created the tricoloured dessert to begin with.

Buried in the blah-blah of it all is the question no one is bothering to ask: why should a cake baked in white, saffron and green offend anyone’s notion of honour? Must our flag be imprisoned by some archaic and entirely unimaginative diktats? Is our national sentiment going to be always prescribed by a dry, clinical and unbending bureaucracy? Why should designer Malini Ramani have to fight a legal battle for wearing a dress draped in the colours of the flag? Why did Congress MP Naveen Jindal have to petition the court before ordinary citizens were given the right to hoist the flag? Why did the cricket team (whom we otherwise subject to hyper-nationalistic scrutiny) have to get special permission to wear the flag colours on their helmets?

In countries like the US, the courts have upheld the right to burn the national flag as a mark of protest or expression. In India, by contrast, we routinely get hysterical if the flag is ever taken out of the boundaries of officialdom. Even today, after the intervention of the courts, Indians can only wear the flag waist upwards. And a special government committee has been appointed by the courts to lay down the ground rules on how, when and why the flag can be used.

Isn’t it all utterly absurd? What’s even more disappointing is why we let them get away with it. Why are ordinary Indians so silent, so passive and so indifferent to how we are allowed to express our nationalism? Let’s remind the arbiters of good behaviour that being Indian is a feeling, not a formula. And feelings can be neither coerced nor enforced.

Patriotism need not be puritanical. You and I must have the right to inject it with sentiment, humour, anger and even irreverence.
Otherwise our freedom is meaningless.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, ndtv 24x7