Flag-waving nationalism can set a nation on a perilous slide

Patriotism is ample
Flag-waving nationalism can set a nation on a perilous slide
Flag-waving nationalism can set a nation on a perilous slide
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We have never heard of ultra-patriots. But we have heard of ultra nationalists and nationalists for almost two weeks across India now, leaving many angered, many more confused and a wider majority entirely clueless about the cause of the outrage. There’s a reason we don’t call people ultra-patriots – it doesn’t exist. You love your country, respect its values and traditions and hope others feel the same. Patriotism is inclusive. Hoisting the national flag is every Indian’s right, an expression of allegiance and pride. The Supreme Court has recognised this in 2004.

Nationalism and its ultra cousin are best kept caged. Remember the seven-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s where both sides sent little soldiers to battle waving flags? History is replete with examples of where this path can lead. Nationalism excludes. Nationalism presupposes the superiority of one nation above the other. Most often it is based on a passport, a usurpation of democratic rights, a blatant discrimination based on religion and war. It is not for nothing that marching armies wave flags and beat drums as they walk. Patriots never deprive others of human rights, nationalists do and when all else fails, they take to arms or plunder or both. Think about it? Why not add greedy and crony capitalists to communists, Maoists, leftists if we are talking about the destruction of India? Which vital sector of development – food, water, health, housing, infrastructure and media – has India’s moneymaking elite not trampled upon?

Before coming to free speech and flags, I want to narrate an anecdote from my years at Stanford University in California. The year was 1982, a tumultuous one in international relations. There was the Sabra and Chatila massacre in the Middle East and the Malvinas islands (Falklands) in Argentina had been attacked. American Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger was visiting the campus and a section of the students were enraged. “Weinberger take a walk, we don’t want to hear you talk,” said the students protests on campus. Among the placard carrying protestors were Argentinians and Palestinians, most of them on university fellowships as doctoral students. While Stanford was conservative, nearby Berkley was considered a bastion of the left.  Heated arguments on campus were routine, but it was clear to all who the ‘professional’ protestors were. Often they came for the free food and drinks that followed ‘protest’ events. I have no doubt these events were under the watch of the relevant law and order authorities including plainclothes police.

Free speech is a responsibility. The JNU event marking the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, convicted and hanged for the attack on India’s parliament, is far from innocent. None contests that there was mischief at JNU and slogans calling for India’s dismemberment were raised.  Universities around the world have to deal with subversive elements and ‘professional students’ are paid and encouraged by vested interests to keep trouble festering. The problem with JNU is its proximity to power for decades. Many Delhi university colleges are bastions of one of other political parties – university body elections resemble assembly elections. Neither does anyone contest that the lawyers at Patiala House who threatened, assaulted and beat-up journalists were hooligans. Goon lawyers thrive in all Indian courts. Read Dhanya Rajendran’s report on the gangs of lawyers and criminals in Chennai’s courts.

At both JNU and Patiala House there was a total break down of law and order. In the former the police and government was heavy handed, in the latter, inexistent. It is a telling commentary on the state of affairs at JNU which brings the vice-chancellor to negotiate with the police. This institution is state-funded. Its students gave responsibilities before rights. That must sink in independent of anything else.

India’s flag represents years of struggle for freedom and independence. In it are couched universal values that countries strive to achieve and hope to ensure their peoples respect. Wrapping the hooliganism and a broken state apparatus that cannot provide even the basics of security in the national tri-colour is worrying. It speaks to a ‘fixing’ mentality, rather than a solving one. Its damage will be deep.

As he lay down his life defending our frontier in Pampore, Captain Kumar left us a poignant message. He wanted neither quota (as his fellow Jats in Hayana are demanding) nor azadi (cries from his Alma Mater JNU)) but a razai (an Indian blanket). He wanted the very here and now that would help him do the job of defending his country. It is in enabling the here and now, the very necessary and the mundane (water, electricity, food, jobs) that this government can ensure India’s buoyancy and resilience. Patriotism is a felt and lived thing, a shared sense of values and commitment. Flags are symbols of inspiration - they must never be sources of domination, economic value and political advantage. Hungry stomachs and parched throats cannot eat flags.

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