India is more nationalistic than Bharat Mata
As we know, most Indians in the United States hate Donald Trump, but they like the Donald Trumps of India. And, most Kashmiri students in Delhi hate India’s Donald Trumps, but they admire the Trumps of Kashmir, who want to create a sovereign Islamic republic, deny minorities their property rights and shroud all women.
And so it goes across many parts of world. People who are haters of one Trump are lovers of another Trump. This is not irrational. Nationalism is never blind love for real estate but, like activism and global sports, always an elite self-interest that co-opts and enlists underclass suckers to work for the privileged. The best way to achieve this end is through patriotism.
Is that what the chief deceit is in the demand of some Patriots that all of us must chant ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’?
Last week I kept muttering, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. I really did, I am not trying to be amusing. I told iPhone’s Siri the chant. I hope you don’t think it is too odd, I even went into the bathroom to say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ aloud with honest passion. I was trying to arrive at what is my problem with what is essentially a reasonable slogan. I even believe in it in substance.
The problem, I realised, was not that the thugs of Shiv Sena chant the same thing, or that political criminals and murderers chant it. Also, culturally there was no problem. Culturally, I am closer to venerable sari-clad mamas than Jewish women in robes. For a person who grew up speaking Tamil and alleged Malayalam, Hindi, of course, is a foreign language, but that was not the problem. Maybe the issue was that an atheist, whatever the label might mean, is not habituated to the humility of worship?
Finally I decided that the problem with chanting the slogan was that it was too easy. Like saying ‘Hail Mary’. Nationalism that is easy is worthless. It is like the religiosity of criminals and jerks.
There is a lot of facile nationalism that is going on. Patriots are claiming devotion for the nation by just mouthing some words or claiming that ancient India was so great it... you know the details. Actually you can fill in anything.
There is a more difficult and meaningful type of nationalism that is possible — like not evading taxes; laying down high aesthetics for new temples; inventing modern architectural designs that are not imitations of Western cultural sentiments; accepting that English is now an important Indian language; delivering higher education in Indian languages; finding the courage to abandon India’s obsolete family planning policy that chiefly involves performing risky surgeries on impoverished women; and promoting the idea that it is not a crime to produce more Indians, even if they are born of poor Indians. What can be more nationalistic than saying that there should be more Indians in the world, not less? There is a lot more to nationalism than chants.
The Patriots should accept that over the past five years or so Indians across the classes have become nationalistic in ways that are more sophisticated than what the Sangh stands for.
In fact, the Patriots do not seem to realise they are fast losing monopoly over nationalism, at least a modern, powerful form of nationalism that does not look like nationalism at first glance. Even the posh, who are repulsed by the idea of nationalism, are taking to that emotion.
In the heart of the phenomenon is the fact that for material, cultural and feudal reasons, India’s elite and the urban young have solidified the idea of home. It now appears to them that they are most secured of their social status here than in the West. It is true that the freest way to live is to reject the idea of home but in the practical world this high form of atheism is beyond the means of most people.
They need the idea of home because everybody else has a home. And, for the first time in the history of modern India, not counting a brief period after Independence, the elite and the young are directly invested in making home a better place. The Sangh was a beneficiary of this phenomenon in the last general elections but since then urban Indian nationalism has evolved into something more complex and broader than the Sangh’s narrow provincial view.
Protests against a Caucasian documentary-maker who portrayed India in a poor light or against a multinational’s genetically modified organisms, or against Facebook’s effort to connect India’s billion are minor manifestations of this trend. A deeper expression of the phenomenon is in the Left-activist territory.
Among a broad section of the youth, for instance, there is today a greater concern for women, ecology, the poor and every type of human who is vulnerable to the actions of the strong. Not a long time ago, an Indian street protest would feature laughing men waving to television cameras. But now street demonstrations are serious, and they involve most sections of society. Also, every day common citizens are educating the poor, fighting with municipalities, taking on builders and politicians. One day, there might even be lane discipline, who knows.
The seeming transformation of the most influential of all Patriots, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is a recognition of the changing ideas of nationalism. The RSS will soon abandon its traditional shorts. The Sangh’s push against the decriminalisation of homosexuality, too, is an acceptance that nationalism and modernity need not be arch-enemies. But it is still caught in an archaic form of nationalism that deals in cows and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The views expressed are personal