May 31, 2020
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Patriotism, A Dirty Word?

Are you willing to die for your country? I would be very interested in a survey that would truthfully tell us how many of us would.
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Patriotism, A Dirty Word?
illustration by Saurabh Singh Are you willing to die for your country? I would be very interested in a survey that would truthfully tell us how many of us would. What struck me instantly, as the news started coming in about the attack on Parliament, was how frightened most of the MPs were. How quickly the same bastions of power send off our jawans to die without a thought. So willing to let others die for them, but how many of them would have thrown themselves unarmed at a terrorist as J.P. Yadav did?

The minister of state for defence, Harin Pathak, gave an account of himself during the attack on Star News. "I heard all this shooting going on and for a few seconds I was in shock. Then, I got my presence of mind." You would then expect him to say how he got on his cellphone to his ministry to inform the security forces so action could be taken immediately. Instead, what did he do when he got "his presence of mind"? He said, "I ran and hid behind a pillar." If this had been a movie, he would have been the comedian.

When the world existed without the boom of terrorists, the question of dying for your country was rarely a personal question that every individual had to confront. Today, it has become a personal and individual question that must be answered. Yes, we would all love a world as John Lennon Imagined, a world without borders, passports and armies. But that fantasy is as hopelessly far as John Lennon is.

Sadly, today's Indian is as ambivalent about patriotism as he is about how he is going to spend the evening. Although one enjoys today's youth with their comfortable exhilaration of Indian culture unhindered by any colonial hangover, there is a marked lack of patriotism. One would imagine, that if push came to shove, in a national emergency, their first thought would be, "Which is the best country I can move to?" It is considered an "asset" practised by many among the wealthy of this country to give birth to your baby in the US of A. Not only for the snob value, but if things go wrong, your child will always have an option. John Kennedy's exhortation, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country", is a completely alien concept for us. Everybody seems to be asking, "What's in it for ME?"

Go to any public gathering and one is hit by how many people are complaining about India. People who bribe, never pay taxes, jump red lights, complain about corruption. Where does the buck stop? Right at you and me.

It is said that one day in the life of a nation can change the nation. For the US it was September 11. Will December 13 be such a day for us? Since September 11, the American media has blasted a patriotic blitz (e.g. Newsweek's Spirit of America) bordering on jingoism. Passengers on Flight 93 became Supermen and John Waynes.

The US education department circulated a memo: "Engage in patriotic activities to give your students comfort. Say the Pledge of Allegiance, sing patriotic songs or read books about courage." The Bush administration has thrown its weight behind a mass Pledge of Allegiance by the nation's 52 million children, a pen-pal exchange between the US children and Muslim children overseas.

Scott McClellan, a Bush spokesman said: "This war will have a profound effect on our future generations. It's important for them to learn about compassion for those in need, tolerance for those from different backgrounds and gratitude for those who sacrifice at home and abroad defending freedom."

Before we get into the chip-on-the-shoulder syndrome—"Why should we copy Americans?"—let me quote Rabrindranath Tagore: "Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly become ours, whatever might be their origin." Amartya Sen too has written in an essay on Tagore on "the importance of appraising Western culture in an open-minded way, in order to see what uses could be made of it".

Today, patriotism of any kind is considered not so cool and is a behenji concept. Journalists and intellectuals dismiss it as pure jingoism, politicians of course misuse it for vote gains and for the general public, it is a shrug of complete disinterest. But let us not forget that it was Gandhiji's brilliant spin doctor tactics which raised a nation's emotions enough to fight colonial rule. Israel survives on emotion and every Israeli child is brought up with the belief that he/she must be prepared to die for his country. (Note: This does not automatically cancel out dissent or criticism of their government.)

In the late '30s, Gandhiji and Tagore disagreed and argued a great deal about the concept of patriotism. There are few such debates now. Has the idea of India died? Clearly, there is a need for a new concept of patriotism that has to be evolved for these times. Do we need patriotism at all? (No space here for that argument.) To me, patriotism is about nation-building, not ethnocentric goondaism. Tagore's concept of patriotism carried a heavy dose of internationalism and humanism—let's call it patinterism. To maintain democracy, compassion and cosmopolitanism within this patriotism, we need a conceptually strong leadership, to take it forward. If milk drinking Ganeshes can storm the country, why not this?

What if a social service corps was created like the Peace Corps and every student was drafted into service in a rural area for a year? What if the government passed legislation that every Indian above a given income group had to spend two weeks (or a month) in a rural area (outside of his own state) doing community social service with an NGO, would you be willing to go? This would include everybody, from the President of India to the Ambanis and You. Well, would you go?
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