Friday, August 16, 2013

On patriotism

Yesterday India celebrated 67th independence day. Patriotic songs being played on various TV channels, through each gali and chauraha, kids running around in their school uniforms carrying a miniature tricolor and loads of facebook updates — that quite summed it up for me. (Discounting a speech I made at the local college, that is.)

All the hubbub and flurry of activities gone, the surge of patriotic emotions receded, began yet another “normal” day. But the thoughts won’t stop swirling and the head wouldn’t bother to clear up. I needed to put those thoughts on paper, erm, type them out, hoping to gain some clarity. This post is a dump of various thoughts and issues clamoring in my head, dumped in the hope to bring some coherency, get some peace and make things settle down a bit.

I vividly remember… I was ten years old. It was 15th of August, I was walking along with Mom on a road, looking at a rangoli of the Indian tricolor in front of a house. “These people should be severely punished. How dare they draw more than 24 spokes in the Ashoka Chakra? How can they draw the tricolor fluttering on the left-side of the flag post?” I had remarked lividly, with a deep sense of reverence showing up as I uttered “the tricolor”. Mom had laughed, her admiration of my “patriotism” apparent. Along with this, a dream was nurtured — of becoming an IAS officer and ‘serving my country’.

It was 26th of January, India’s republic day. I was in my freshman year at IITM. I remember having the thought — “What ‘Indian’ Institute of Technology? Such a low turnout for flag hoisting! These bas***ds will turn up only for Saarang orientation and other ‘cheap things’. Shame on us! We call ourselves ‘cream of the nation’ and we are turning into traitors, sleeping like pigs in our beds, not bothering to turn up to pay some respect for those who shaped up India!” Well, you know, it is hard for a strongly opinionated person to keep the edge out of their voice and acerbity off their thoughts.

Patriotic songs were, and are, an all-time-favorite genre of mine. I would never get tired listening to them, they would give a vague sense of purpose, engender motivation and keep my spirits high. “Don’t put those boring deshbhakti songs, da!” sometimes friends would say. I would wonder, “What a pathetic level people have fallen down to! They should be ashamed to be Indians!”

I am sure I am not alone. There are a great many who have similar attitude and feelings, albeit with a varying degree of strength and aggressiveness. All this sense of grandeur, doing something for a ‘higher purpose’ comes crumbling down when you give it some serious amount of thought. When you go from “I do it because I feel such and such” to “I do it because I feel such and such, and here’s why I think I feel that way”, more often than not, a change of attitude and perspective is imminent. “When we stop shying away from analyzing our own feelings, we stand to discover us truly, which might help us make better decisions, overcome obstacles and achieve what we want.” I don’t remember where I picked that one from, but often, it is more of ‘lack of time’ than ‘shying away’ that keeps us from asking the ‘why’s. Well, as it happens to be, for quite some days, I seem to be having all the free time in the world! Here’s some gyan my idle brain churned out…

Why do I love ‘Mother India’?
Because I was taught to do so.
Because I was told to do so.
Years ago, it was stamped hard on my impressionable mind that it is a ‘good thing’, a ‘noble act’.
Because whenever I displayed it, I was rewarded, directly or indirectly.
Because my story books, my textbooks told me that it is a good quality in a human being to be patriotic. Obviously, anyone would want to be a good human being.
Because the TV serials and movies I watched glorified the sacrifices of our freedom fighters and made heroes out of soldiers.

The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that it is a case of systematic brainwash. Through the education system, through the entertainment industry and through the sports establishment. Aided, fueled and propagated by countless agents, many of whom aren’t even consciously aware what they are doing exactly. We have to resort to this because, India, as it stands today, needs it. The security of our national borders needs it. The makeshift political/administrative/governmental mechanism that we call India needs it for sustenance. Left to themselves, kids, and eventually citizens won’t feel a sense of love towards India if this brainwashing were to stop. It doesn’t come ‘naturally’.

A diverse nation
In India, have people who don’t understand each other’s language; yet we stand united. We have dry deserts, we have thick forests. We have snow-capped mountains, we have marshlands. We are a diverse bunch — culturally, ethnically, linguistically and geographically.

Then what keeps us united? Yes! The “India” label, and the machinery which makes this label possible — the constitution, the union government (this would also include government owned corporations, institutions etcetra), the law. More importantly, the root of all this — the British rule and the struggle against it.

What I would like to point out here is the fact that most of these things seem made-up, contrived and circumstantial. There’s no ‘higher purpose’ to it, nor has it come about ‘naturally’. Many times, I hear “We might have our differences, our little fights and scuffles; but in the face of an external enemy, we unite, we fight together.” this is generally accompanied with a undertones of “this is something great, a quality that is worth admiring and being proud of”. I would like to call bullshit on this! Really? Is that something to be proud about? At best, it sounds like a cunning, sly strategy. Intelligent? Maybe. A ‘good’ human quality? I don’t think so. You know what I would respect? Living harmoniously with our differences, understanding and accommodating each other, solving problems with discussions in a fair manner without the presence of an external enemy.

Arbitrariness of the India as a banner to unite under
I would rather say ‘arbitrariness of India as a divisive criterion’! We tend to form groups, and groups within groups! What I wonder is why ‘Indianness’ should be a criterion for making up ‘us’ and ‘them’. If you anyway have decided to divide people, why divide on the basis of nationality? Why not based on language? How about skin color? What about religion? Why is it that we are brought up in a way that we are made to accept only the first division and shun all the latter ones?

“Law” do you say? What about the fact that laws regulating and governing marriage-related issues are religion-specific? “Armed forces” Hmm… all states have their police forces. The reason they don’t have armies is simple — they aren’t sovereign. My question is “What is so special about political sovereignity that a divisive tendency based on it is considered a ‘good thing’?”. We know that government and related parts is one important aspect of our social lives. But it certainly isn’t the only one. Our ‘culture’ or ‘traditions’, our language are some times equally important aspects of our lives. Why isn’t pride of culture, pride of language considered the same way as pride of nationality?

“India” is made-up, un-natural and hence requires a propaganda
We don’t speak a common language. There is extreme diversity in food, in clothing, in traditions and customs, essentially, in the very things that define what we are, in a natural way. Many of the commonalities stem out of deliberate efforts to stick together as a nation.

“But there is a strong thread of common culture, traditions that ties us together” we have all heard this blanket statement so many times and nodded to it. Well, I don’t see the ‘common thread’. To give an example, consider this: for the last year, I have been putting quite an effort to understand Telugu traditions and customs. I attended Telugu cultural events hosted in IITM, I started to learn to speak, read and understand the Telugu language. Take it from me, Telugu ain’t even a distant cousin of Marathi. I looked up Wikipedia to see how Diwali is celebrated in Telugu households and in Marathi households, answer? Waaay differently! After you are past some superficial similarities, you would realize that there are significant cultural differences. Right from festivals to food and clothing.

To make the ‘common cultural thread’ argument go off in a puff, consider this: the Punjabi and Tamil cultures have way less in common compared to Pakistani-punjabi culture and Punjabi culture. Same would the case with Tamil Nadu and a significant part of Sri Lanka. I wonder, how many of those who argue about “there being a common thread of culture, making us Indian” would be comfortable with “tying the knot” with a fellow Indian who isn’t from their own ethnic and linguistic background. That is what I meat when I say that the sense of brotherhood, comradeship isn’t ‘natural enough’.

Why does the propaganda work?
“Genes!”, I would say. Evolution makes sure that a bunch of co-operating individuals are more likely to reproduce and further their line as compared to a bunch of selfish individuals. Thus, the genes which cause us to feel compassion, the ‘empathy genes’ would propagate more. These would make us look out for the likes of us and be wary of those who seem alien.

It is not very difficult to make these tendencies ‘misfire’. All we need is to imprint is the association ‘Indians’ —> ‘we’, and the ‘rest’ —> ‘them’. History comes to aid. The curriculum in schools helps. The struggle against British serves a very nice place to start nurturing this belief. Rest is taken care by the very fact that we are evolved to be empathetic towards ‘one of us’.

So, you seem to be saying being patriotic is bad…
Uh, no. All I am saying is there isn’t any innate ‘greatness’ associated with being patriotic. It isn’t a noble thing if your chest swells with pride when you say ‘I love India’. At best, it is as noble as feeling proud that you like Batman. Continuing on the same line of thought, I don’t see why someone’s lack of ‘love for India’ should be something to be looked down upon. When someone doesn’t find it necessary to salute the national flag on independence day, there’s nothing wrong about it because those who are doing it aren’t doing anything grand, pure and selfless either.

What does this way of thinking change?
First and foremost, when I look at patriotism for what it really is — an irrational, purely emotional concept, having no innately positive value judgment attached to it, it changes my outlook toward others. It makes all the negative opinions about others I have been holding for their lack of suitable response to ‘patriotic stimuli’ go away. It makes me realize that I am not doing anything ‘morally good’, saintly by responding to those same stimuli.

Secondly, it frees me from the sense of guilt I feel when I say “I am Marathi and am proud of it!” When I listen to ‘E mere watan ke logo (O people of my nation)’ my chest swells up with pride, my mind fills with a sense of love towards India, a surge of gratitude towards those who sacrificed their lives protecting and fighting for Mother India; but similar is my response to ‘Jay jay maharashtra maza (Praise to my great Maharashtra state)’. Previously, I used to wonder whether it is narrow minded of me to feel that way. No longer that is the case. Now I see people for the hypocrites they are when they make senseless statements like “I am first an Indian and then a Marathi”. I am calling it senseless because of the unstated implication that pride for being one is somehow superior than pride for being another, because of the implied condescension towards people who take pride in their region/language/caste/religion. It isn’t. At least not when you look at it in logical, rational manner. Both are equally narrow-minded or broad-minded attitudes.

What is wrong if I feel closer to people who speak my language? Those who celebrate the same festivals as me, in the same way? Those who eat same food as me? Nothing! Especially, if it is taken for granted that there’s nothing wrong in having the same feelings based on the fact that you were born inside of certain geographically marked place called India. Bad if you say “I am a Hindu and I love Hindus”, bad if you say “I speak Marathi and love those who speak Marathi.” but suddenly good if you say “I am an Indian and I love Indians.” A martian would find such kind of logic really stupid. If you can’t tolerate grouping based on caste/religion/language/skin-color, how can you arbitrarily decide to accept the same based on nationality? Can’t we take it to its logical conclusion and extend it to all of the human species? If not, sorry sir, you don’t have any right to call others narrow minded.

Having said that, I would still ask my friends cheerily “Hey! What say we all go for flag hoisting tomorrow at administrative building?” but I would also know that it is not “Let’s do this noble thing”, it is more like “It would be fun, there would be songs which I enjoy and you might too. The feeling as the tricolor ascends, finally unfurls, showering flowers, fluttering majestically on the wind — simply indescribable! You might like it too. Boy! The solemnity in the atmosphere as the national anthem is played, a ‘must experience’ thing, I would say!” Saying that sentence in the same way as “Hey! Let’s all watch ‘Dark Knight’ tomorrow in OAT. It would be fun, the background score is awesome! And man! that joker! Brilliant acting! A ‘must watch’. Let’s watch it again!” and just like not liking ‘Dark Knight’ wouldn’t make my friend any lesser of an human being, so would it be, if they prefer to lay in the embrace of sleep instead of coming over for flag hoisting.

Now I know that when I listen to a patriotic song, the sense of ‘nation calling’, the urge for ‘action’ and the surge of pride isn’t any nobler than the sense of longing that erupts while listening to ‘Tu hi re’, the blurring of vision that happens when listening to ‘luka chupi’, the adrenaline rush and sense of inspiration that ensues while listening to ‘ab tu bhaag Milkha’, and the uncontrollable urge to dance when listening to ‘rum whisky’. Now I am clear that it is not “I want to be an IAS officer because I want to serve my country because that’s what a good Indian would do” but it is rather “I want to be an IAS officer because I want to serve my country, because doing so gives me a sense of satisfaction that anything else is unlikely to give, which happens to be so because I have been conditioned to feel that way since my childhood. My reactions, responses and way of thinking has been molded that way systematically, and more importantly, I don’t see any need to find a way of reversing that. The efforts and mental strength required to undo that is quite huge and unnecessary.” Because there isn’t anything intrinsically ‘good’/‘saintly’ about wanting to serve your own country. Nor is it any different from wanting to struggle for the betterment of people of your own caste. Both are equally bad or good, just the way the society looks at those two are different, which, IMO, shouldn’t matter!

Seeing my feelings for India for what they really are and finding out why they are that way makes me feel more content and satiates a sense of long stating curiosity.

So much for rambling, I hardly know whether it makes any sense…

Jay Hind! Jay Maharashtra!

3 comments :

  1. Although this piece has been well thought through, I disagree with some points .I feel there is definitely a thread of common culture that binds us all. I won't call it 'strong'. Maybe strong for certain parts, not so strong between the others.

    Language: All languages (Lets bypass tamil for a moment) have strong Sanskrit roots. Including Telugu and Kannada. Coming to Tamil, it has a good percentage of Sanskrit words, even in it's oldest form of Sangam literature. (http://psenthilraja.wordpress.com/2010/07/06/influence-of-sanskrit-over-tamil/ )

    Dressing sense: I think we'll find the commonalities once we stop focusing on superficial differences.I think the Saree is pretty much a part of every state's cultural dress code. (If you look at things meticulously, focusing on minor differences between the Bengali Saree and the one in Rajasthan, then you'll find many such variations within a state.) So is the case with Dhotar/Dhoti/Lungi. It's common everywhere in India with minor variations.

    Food: Although the major crops grown in a region, depend on it's climate/ latitude, and other geographical factors,(India being so diverse, climatically) I think crops like Rice and Wheat form the staple diet for most territories. (Rice also being consumed in many parts up north/ east and west as well, probably not in the same quantity as consumed down south). Items like Dal,being eaten in, nearly every part on India.

    Music: Traditionally, both the forms of classical music in India- Hindustani and Carnatic, have the same roots (Even the same swars: Sa Re Ga Ma etc). Of course, Hindustani music has had some Persian influence. Both forms of classical music are mostly aimed at spiritual-upliftment, a feature unique to the classical music of our land.

    You, simply can't tell me that India is not culturally unique. Certainly,there are elements of 'our' culture that are seen in 'most' if not all parts, with minor variations and external influences. And these elements are unique to India.

    You can compare Punjab and Pakistan, or Srilanka and Tamil Nadu, or Bengal and Bangladesh (as you have done. Although I doubt you'll find many commonalities between the Tamil and Sinhalese cultures), and say both have more in common than the state shares with the rest of the country. But weren't Pakistan and Bangladesh originally are part of India, simply divided due to religion? They are bound to have similarities. It's just that they chose to value their religion more than the greater commonalities that we shared, which is the cause of their exclusion.

    So, so it's not fair to pick a difference in the style of Diwali between 2 states and say we don't have much in common. These are minor differences. What about the same gods that we worship? What about the same cultural values a house hold is build upon?

    Also, research shows that we all have similar genes(Contrary to the popular belief that northern and southern people are genetically quite different).

    http://www.pnas.org/content/103/4/843.abstract

    http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090922/full/news.2009.935.html

    Cultural similarity between the states, and genetic homogeneity (to a reasonable degree) could be a basis for identifying together as a nation.

    I'm completely in favour of the global outlook, identifying as a single human race, helping out everyone irrespective of their nation. But good things should always start from home. It begins with being responsible for your family first, your community next, your state and so on. Besides, lets be pragmatic, it's a Darwinian dog eat dog world, where the west doesn't care about India's welfare (having colonized it and sucked up it's wealth for 200 years). So, it's important for Indians, at least the cream of the nation, to first uplift our own society, that frankly no one else will care about.

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    1. Pramod! I was so sure that you are going to comment! :)

      Thanks for calling it 'well thought through' and yeah, I must say it could hardly be called 'well researched' :) On the other hand, what you pointed out in meticulous details, just makes the post pale in comparison.

      "But good things should always start from home. It begins with being responsible for your family first, your community next, your state and so on."
      Yep! That's my point. If anything, if you must have an hierarchy, it could either be 'I first, then my family, then my relatives, then my community, then my region, then my state, then India and then the whole world' or the other way, where the entire world comes first and I as an individual comes last. All I am saying is, to me, one where India comes before everything else does't seem much logical, seems arbitrary. :)

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