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No discourse, just an open arena for extremists

Author: Reshmi R Dasgupta
Publication: The Economic Times
Date: March 16, 2019
URL:      https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/SilkStalkings/no-discourse-just-an-open-arena-for-extremists/

At a time when the words patriot and nationalism are hotly disputed, there must be freedom to differ

At a party in New Delhi at the British High Commissioner’s residence last week to celebrate the “official” birthday of Queen Elizabeth II—whose date obligingly varies according to the hosts’ convenience—guests were asked to stand at attention as the national anthems of the two nations were played. A British woman standing behind me whispered to her Indian friend, “Yours is so much nicer than ours!”

The Indian woman seemed a trifle surprised and asked, “Why?” The reply: “It’s a lovely tune and the lyrics I am told encompasses the whole country instead of glorifying one monarch! We (British) really need to change ours, I think!” The Indian lady did not offer any comment either way, but I was certainly pleased that someone openly appreciated our anthem, even if it was not my unknown compatriot.

I actually love singing my national anthem; I always have. It is true, however, that I took a closer look at Jana Gana Mana only when as a child in New York I had to listen to The Star Spangled Banner every time there was a football game on TV. And then I learnt in class about how it was composed after the War of 1812 and only adopted as the US national anthem in 1931, a full 155 years after Independence!

Maybe I am being too harsh about my fellow Indian’s reticence. At a time when the words patriot and nationalism are hotly disputed, even appreciating the national anthem becomes almost a political statement here. Defending even the most commonplace sentiment is a tedious task and many people would much rather stay silent than engage in protracted debates about different definitions and manifestations.

Later on at the same venue I bumped into an old friend who happens to be a daughter and sister of Army officers. She had just visited her brother in a forward area in Kashmir, where the “enemy” is clear and defined. She too spoke in hushed tones about the patriotism debate, almost as if it is taboo in our polite circles to admit to believing in the simplest definitions of words which have become complicated.

But is she wrong in being diffident? Why does the supposed “discourse” in our milieu lead to some feeling inhibited about their take on this issue? Why is there a tendency to link and liken all those professing a certain kind of sentiment with the lumpen elements who are supposedly the sole manifestation of the “other” school of patriotism, nationalism et al? Is there a class factor at work?

Most of us cringe at demonstrations of muscular “patriotism”. Our sensibilities naturally recoil at the thought of wearing our flag, literally and metaphorically, on our sleeves in that manner. But what if ‘people like us’—not lumpens— also feel uncomfortable about deriding India for reasons we perceive, rightly or wrongly, to be incorrect or exaggerated. Is disagreement on that allowed among PLUs?

The hushed tones of some people when these topics crop up in ‘educated’ circles belie all notions of the liberal-illiberal divide. If we are better than the unwashed hordes that push a one-dimensional nationalism dogma, then we must also be willing to allow shades of opinion in our own supposedly more openminded circles.

There must be freedom to differ— within all circles, especially elite ones. Worse still, intolerance tends to be conflated with communalism here. So once branded—most often unfairly—‘ intolerant’ over an entirely secular issue such as patriotism, nationalism or even singing the national anthem, those Indians—even more unfairly—are also deemed bigots.

Hence they prefer to stay silent or speak guardedly. So there is no discourse, just an open arena for extremists of all hues.

Those who tolerate only one definition or manifestation of patriotism and nationalism are plain wrong. And remember it cuts both ways.

It’s not only about stoutly opposing being forced to stand for national anthems at cinemas, saying ‘Jai Hind’ after announcements in aircraft or shouting “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. It is also about being forced to be guarded about wanting to do any or all of those things voluntarily!
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