We need patriotism as a unifier in a divisive polity
Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, wrote Samuel Johnson, back in 1775. While the context of his assertion is unclear, here in India the debate on patriotism and its ostensible misuse has intensified. The commissioning of Sardar Patel’s Statue of Unity, the National War Memorial and the installation of giant Tricolours at universities, airports and public places have all resulted in shrill debate.
In 2016, in a much-debated judgment, the Supreme Court ruled that the National Anthem be played before the screening of movies at cinema theatres around the country. Many of our political leaders now routinely top and tail their speeches with loud proclamations of Bharat mata ki jai. More recently, Air India, beset with fundamental existential issues, ordered their crew to end all announcements with Jai Hind.
While some of this may seem like forced nationalism bordering on jingoism, part of this push towards patriotism may be justified. Is there a case to make our patriotism more demonstrative, even peppered with exuberance?
In the 70 years of our Republic, our nationality has been undermined by strong regional and community identities. It takes an external threat or severe calamity to remind us of our Indianness, and even then the unity is fleeting. A whole generation of young Indians have grown outside the halo of the freedom struggle, so nationalism increasingly seems irrelevant to them.
Our freedom fighters used nationalism to unite the subcontinent’s diverse demographics against British rule. At the peak of the nationalist movement, Mahatama Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Vallabhbhai Patel and other leaders cleverly used iconography that instilled collective belonging. Singing Vande Mataram and hoisting the national flag were widely symbolic of the campaigns, protests, revolts and defiance against British rule during the freedom struggle. Gandhi’s charkha was a potent symbol of swadeshi and the independence movement.
Currently, our nationalism gets unbridled expression in cricket stadia with flag waving, Tricolour-face painted fans, and in the frenzy that accompanies the ceremonial closure of the gates at the Wagah border; or during mass protests and agitations like the India Against Corruption movement in 2011, and the ongoing anti-CAA agitation.
Visible nationalism — as opposed to jingoism — is not a bad idea. For one, it is a demonstration and reassertion of our national identity. Every generation reinvents and re-imagines what the nation is and how they should relate to it. Providing them contemporary symbols may actually be a good thing, much like Mile sur mera tumhara did in the 1980s and AR Rahman’s 1998 classic Maa tujhe salaam infused a new zest into Bollywood’s ageing repertoire of patriotic melodies.
One has to just observe the pride and excitement in people who take selfies against the giant Tricolour at New Delhi’s Connaught Place; in and around India Gate, and in public spaces like the vidhan sabhas. It’s not uncommon to see #IndiaFlag trend on Twitter and Instagram and on pictures adorning the social media profiles of millions.
We are ultra-conservative about the use of our national emblems. For 55 years after Independence, it was illegal for a private citizen to fly the national flag. It took former Congress Member of Parliament, Naveen Jindal, an eight-year-long legal battle to win citizens the right to fly the flag, in 2002. It took another judgement to rule that not lowering the flag at night is no violation of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, which got the Union home ministry to extend permission, in 2013, to fly the flag after sunset.
Even now, the Flag Act has stringent rules about the manner of display and disposal, and guidelines that make it impossible to use in lifestyle products and patriotic paraphernalia, all of which are so out of touch with the times. Thankfully, our worthies have not, as yet, turned their attention to guidelines on how the national flag is to be used in social media.
By comparison, Americans love to display their patriotism by wearing every imaginable commercial item bedecked with the stars and stripes — hats, visors, bandanas, t-shirts, ties, shorts, leggings, umbrellas and bikinis. The United Kingdom’s Union Jack too, once seen as a stuffy symbol of imperial nostalgia, is a hugely popular memento that successfully rode prime minister John Major’s 1997 national rebranding exercise — Cool Britannia.
We could do with a little symbolic patriotism reinforced into routine activity and not depend solely on annual celebrations around Republic and Independence Day.
In the Instagram age, giving young India, contemporary, social media worthy sharing symbols must be encouraged. In this context, some of the photo-op symbolism around the Statue of Unity, or the vastly more intense emotional connect for relatives of our martyred military personnel at the National War memorial are welcome steps.
We need patriotism as a unifier in a hugely divisive polity, separated not just by ideology but also by regional and parochial considerations. Some of the new symbolism, even if seemingly forced, provides the collective psychological ownership of nationhood that we badly need.
That said, no government has a monopoly in defining what constitutes nationalism and forcing it on its citizenry may well have the opposite effect. However, providing contemporary icons and symbols for citizens to cherish and celebrate, and regular opportunities to proclaim this identity, may just be the glue that binds us. The true test of nationalism, though, is more than the compulsion to stand during the national anthem, but to unreservedly live the core values of the nation.
Lloyd Mathias is an angel investor and business strategist
The views expressed are personal