You think you’re a patriot?

The True Test

Kathua rally

People of good sense need to worry when anyone assumes the monopolistic right to arbitrarily design the uniform of patriotism. Simplification is a symptom of shallowness. It equates patriotism with the willingness -- especially coerced willingness -- to shout certain slogans and assume certain postures in prescribed contexts. But what are we to make of this mouth-and-limbs patriotism?

‘Patriotism’ is derived from patris, which means fatherland. Unburdened by etymology, we happily assume that patriotism is love for the motherland. The Germans, especially under Hitler, never spoke of the motherland. To them, the fatherland was the foremost idol, at whose alter it was noble and heroic to sacrifice millions of lives. Despite the unspeakable suffering this generated, there are still those who insist that the willingness to kill and die, presumably for the benefit of the motherland, is the essence of patriotism.

Alright, let us agree that patriotism is love for the motherland. But what does it mean to ‘love’ the motherland? And how are we to love mothers? Should we necessarily love our mothers by hating and killing the sons of all other mothers? Would our mothers be happy simply because thousands of other mothers are unhappy? How many mothers will have eyes un-flooded by tears in the theatre of such patriotism?

It is shocking how little we realise that a woman becomes a mother by consenting to be a medium of life, not of death. In this process, she endures unimaginable pain and near-death self-violation. “Mother” is woman in the service of life. So, love for the ‘motherland’, to make sense, should be wholly oriented to life. The Germans knew this; that’s why, thanks to the Teutonic instinct for precision, they preferred ‘fatherland’ to ‘motherland’. If hating and killing is to be the agenda of patriotism, it is better that it looks male, rather than female. 

To love is to wish for, and give, the best to the object of love. To wish for sincerely is to work tirelessly for the realisation of what is wished for. The proof that we love our country is that we function at the highest level of our aptitudes, and work towards activating the best potential of all our compatriots.

No matter how many countries we hate and vilify, and how many groups and religious communities we spite and despise, we shall remain aliens to patriotism so long as we do not practise this pro-active love. Pursuit of individual and collective excellence is the proof of patriotism.

If you are an employee, and you love your company, you express your love best by endeavouring to be at your best in the work you do and in the person you are. You perfect your knowledge, your skills and the quality of your being, for this purpose. It is because we don’t understand this basic truth that the corrupt, too, pass off as patriots in our country. Hatred and cruelty are idioms of corruption. Such benefits as you think your company derives out of your hatred towards twenty other companies are wholly illusory. Love thirsts to be at its absolute best, in every possible way, for the benefit of the object of love. 

While a company may be respected for the quality of the goods it produces, a nation is honoured for its character and culture. Culture is the creative expression of the genius of a people. The most basic feature of a meaningful idea of patriotism should be, therefore, a zealous commitment to activate and empower the potential of all citizens through a high quality of education, such as Japan did in the wake of the Second World War. In comparison, our patriotism is belied by a crass indifference to the awesome potential of our people.

Love refines; whereas crudity is the culture of hate. Music is to love what abuses are to hate. Music and abuse are, both, cultural tastes. It is as possible to propagate a taste for abuses as it is for courteous and civilised speech. True patriotism respects the need of one’s motherland to keep public discourses civil and civilised.

Abuses blared in the public sphere are like rotting garbage dumped on the bosom of the motherland. True patriots will, like Charles Dickens, feel offended when public discourse is degraded with vulgar boorishness. Because he loved the English language, Dickens used to drag those who vulgarised it to the nearest police station!

Cheapened culture

It takes no genius to thrive by the vulgar tastes of the masses. When the culture of a nation is cheapened, it is easy to ride on the adulation of hysterical masses, happy to be entertained by any rabble-rouser out to malign and degrade his adversaries. The fact that the crowds are happy to be entertained thus does not prove that they know and despise the objects of his attack. In fact, the less the rabble knows about them, the better it is for the rabble-rouser.

When public tastes are cheapened, there will be no paucity of crowds that feel thrilled and entertained by the avalanche of abuses hurled at those who are presented to them as villains and, especially, when what they hold sacred is trampled underfoot. But a man of culture, imbued with a sense of dignity, will not stoop to inflame such low sentiments, much less benefit from its frothing hysteria. He will have the good sense to eschew it as an insult to the motherland. Patriotism and the degradation of national culture — especially public discourse — cannot go hand-in-hand.

A true patriot is one who endeavours to be at his best — professionally, intellectually, morally, humanly — for the honour of his country. He loves all Indians as his sisters and brothers. Petty purveyors of hate and motor-mouths of mean-mindedness are counterfeit patriots, no matter what slogans they shout and how cavalierly they lynch vulnerable and defenceless individuals. To deem this ‘love’ for the motherland is an insult both to mother and to motherland.

(The writer is former principal, St Stephen’s College, New Delhi)

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