India's is a different flavour

India's is a different flavour

The debate over 'nationalism' has been raging in recent times. It is again being debated as the Supreme Court has questioned its own interim order pronounced last year making it compulsory for cinema halls to play the national anthem before the start of the movie and requiring people to stand up. In the course of the hearing, Justice D Y Chandrachud made a pithy observation, "Should patriotism be worn on our sleeves?" The interim order was subjected to searing criticism and ultimately, the court had to issue a clarification that it was not compulsory.

However, there is a growing effort to make it compulsory. Jaipur and Guwahati municipal corporations have made the singing of the national anthem and the national song mandatory at the start of the workday and before dispersal. In July last, the Madras High Court made the singing of Vande Mataram in schools, government offices, private entities and industries in Tamil Nadu compulsory.

A single-judge bench ordered that while schools must sing it at least once a week, the national song must be sung in offices once a month. However, the court clarified that if any person or organisation has any issue with its singing or playing, they would not be forced to sing it, provided there are valid reasons for not doing so.

'Nationalism' is a contentious word which not only divides the world but also divides the nation from within. In India, the debate is going on in the context of gau rakshaks, Kashmir, and the requirement to play the national anthem or the national song and to stand up when it is played. Gau rakshaks have added militancy to the cultural nationalism based on exclusivism, but it is heartening that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken out against them several times.

Kashmir stirs up strong emotions and war hysteria, with people preferring a permanent resolution of the issue by pulling out all stops, including war with Pakistan, though a small minority also supports secessionists and raises the slogan of 'azadi' in the name of freedom of expression.

The very concept of nationalism stokes controversies. In fact, nationalism is not a narrow term. In September 1916, Rabindranath Tagore paid a visit to Seattle in the US and was subject to virulent attack by the American press for his full-scale animadversion of nationalism. Smelling a rat, the Detroit Journal warned the people against "such sickly saccharine mental poison with which Tagore would corrupt the minds of the youth of our great United States."

His own countrymen there, the activists of the revolutionary Gadar Party, excoriated him for betraying the Indian nationalist aspirations. They thought that since Tagore had been Knighted by the British government a year before, he had been sent there as a British agent to besmirch his own nation.

Surprisingly, the British government too, uncomfortable with his unequivocal denunciation of war, covertly supported the rumour that the Nobel laureate was being used as a tool of German propaganda to antagonise America against the British and the Allied war effort. Deeply hurt, Tagore cancelled his lecture tour and sailed for Japan in January 1917.

When Gandhi launched his swadeshi movement by organising a bonfire of foreign cloth, C F Andrews remonstrated with him, "I know that your burning of foreign cloth is with the idea of helping the poor, but I feel that you have gone wrong. There is a subtle appeal to racial feeling in that word 'foreign', which day by day appears to need checking and not fomenting.

"The picture of your lighting that great pile of beautiful and delicate fabrics shocked my intensity. We seem to be losing sight of the outside world to which we belong and concentrating selfishly on India; and this must, I fear, lead back to the old, bad, selfish nationalism… Do you know I almost fear now to wear the khaddar that you have given me, lest I should appear to be judging other people, as a Pharisee would, saying, 'I am holier than thou.' I never felt like this before."

Redirecting ill-will

The bonfire coincided with a famine in the Khulna district of Bengal and the picture of shivering naked villagers appeared revolting to him. Mohan replied to dear Charlie (Gandhi and Andrews were Mohan and Charlie to each other) affectionately: "To me it seems utterly degrading to throw foreign cloth in the face of the poor because we have no longer any use for it…If the emphasis were on all foreign things, it would be racial, parochial, and wicked. The emphasis is on all foreign cloth. India is racial today; the people are filled with ill-will. I am transferring the ill-will from men to things."

This is the Indian tradition, which always allows latitude for different viewpoints. Andrews was not suspected to be a spy; in England, even D H Lawrence was under surveillance during World War I as his wife Freida was a German. However, latitude does not mean the freedom to raise anti-India slogans, question every move of the security forces and raise the human rights issue at the drop of a hat.

 

We have seen the worst phase of nationalism during World War II. Six million Jews were killed in the holocaust in Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany. Scientists and philosophers like Albert Einstein, Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, Karl Popper, and many others fled from Germany.

 

However, killing and spreading hatred were not the sole domain of the Nazis. There were many who spread animus against Germans as well and pleaded for their extirpation. India never spread hatred against any nationality or race despite suffering the worst of exploitations, tortures and killings at the hands of firangis. India is known for its magnanimity.

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