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"Bharat Mata Ki Jai"
how valid a measure of nationalism?

by Advocate Anand Prasad



Being a common law lawyer, my first instinct is to follow the letter in this analysis - citing constitutional provisions and court rulings. That approach could sometimes get confusing when dealing with emotive issues, and hence this attempt to analyse the issue on a first principle basis.

Should nationalism be worn on one's sleeve? Be expressed loudly and visibly? Is reluctance or failure to be demonstrative with nationalism a bad thing? Or a pointer to anti-national behaviour? Or is it simply a demonstration of an inherent confidence in our country.

While the rationale for being demonstrative with nationalism is easy to understand, the reasons for not being demonstrative may not be as clear. Consider this:

A child refuses to eat candy when an elder seeks to force the candy upon the child. (The assumption being that this child likes candy). Does a mere refusal mean the child hates it?

Thinking 'intellectual', as against 'emotional', a few more questions come alive: (i) What is nationalism for an Indian? (ii) What is the Indian nation? Does it differ from the Indian state? (iii) Could there be a difference in how an Indian connects to the Indian nation as against the Indian state? (iv) Does an Indian citizen have the right to not be overtly demonstrative about his or her nationalism? (Is a person at a movie theatre, lip-synching and singing the national anthem more patriotic than, say, the next, who is merely singing it in his/her head, or feeling teary-eyed listening to it, yet not singing at all?) (v) In that context, does the phrase "Bharat mata ki jai" have a monopoly over how citizens ought to expresses their affection for their motherland?

One way of looking at it would be like this:

The term 'Nationalism' is defined and understood in various ways. My favoured interpretation would be 'an emotional attachment to one's homeland'. Assuming that the terms emotional and attachment are well understood, let's discuss the term 'homeland' and what it might mean - from time to time.

For many of us brought up in the modern Indian school system, it ought to be fairly clear - it's the Indian nation. However, I can also see how this might be confusing, at times.

Which then gets us to the second discussion. What is the Indian nation and does it differ from the Indian state? Is it rational to insist on an emotional attachment to the Indian state?

Historically, it would be fair to see India as a geographical area - spread in the north from the Himalayas, to the river plains, into the Deccan plateau and in the south up to the Indian Ocean. Going east to west however, becomes tougher. I would say that on the west, the Indian nation began on the eastern borders of Iran and in the east, India began on the south west of China. This is close to the notion of an Akhand Bharat.

Modern day India, of course - as defined by it's political boundaries - is much smaller, and can be found and seen in any Indian school text book. That is territorial India, but not necessarily a description of the Indian 'nation', which is wider. To me, the Indian nation would comprise of the land mass, the people that live in the subcontinent, the different cultures and sub cultures, cuisines, languages, art, history, religious beliefs and traditions of this region. This would include both, the good and the bad in our civilization. Aspects that we appreciate and love, and those that we dislike, even resent.

To share my sense for historical India - amongst the positives would be the family system, culture, many acceptable traditions (barring some of difficult to accept ones), our understanding of nature which brings about our spirituality, food, art, and above all, a basic raw energy that is difficult to find anywhere else on the planet. On the negatives, there are a few, though the two big ones would be economic deprivation and social injustices.

For the modern Indian state, the top-5 positives would be:

  1. our limited but steadily growing success in reducing economic depravity and the creation of economic opportunity
  2. blunting the sharp divides of the cast system
  3. democracy - however distorted, the theoretical recognition of our fundamental god-given rights (which not all citizens enjoy equally, though)
  4. the Indian defence forces and their culture (being an army kid, am a big beneficiary of this culture) and
  5. the existence of an independent judiciary, (which may presently be suffering a few hiccups on account of an inclination to play to the gallery).

That's still a lot more than most nations in the world.

On the downside...

The clear failures of the modern Indian state would be:

  1. the continued existence of social injustices
  2. the slow pace of our judicial system and its inability to be effective
  3. the colonial minded and oppressive bureaucratic system
  4. a highly inept and extortionist police force. And. last but not the least,
  5. the political culture that has evolved in India where every aspect is to be in spin and there is no straight talk.

I am deliberately not flagging corruption as a negative, since I see it as an oversimplified term that points to a general failure of a system that has potential but consistently underperforms.

Somehow when I think 'Indian nation', the historical India springs to mind, including its good and sometimes the bad aspects. When I think 'Indian state', it's the modern state that jumps at me. I suspect it's the same for many of us.

Hence, when we think of homeland, what are we thinking of - the old India or the modern version. In many ways, its easier for me to feel affection for the old India - a strong emotional attachment. -- She is the mother. The modern Indian state, for all its benefits it affords, not easy to love. A grudging acceptance of the benefits it affords, yet, accompanied by a whole lot of the despicable. -- A big brother.

While some of our citizens, softened by the benefits we squeeze out of the system, live in status quo and in our drawing rooms are critical of aspects of the Indian state, others refuse to accept the status quo and are either already in some form of rebellion, open or subtle. Given this complicated situation, I can see the discomfort in some Indian citizens with having to wear their heart on their sleeve, for their homeland.

The right of choice to not be overtly demonstrative of one's nationalism, is an interesting one. Exercise of such a right draws an obvious adverse reaction from those that take comfort in being the opposite - demonstrative of their nationalism.

In India where there are various sub-nationalisms, the exercise of a right not to be demonstrative with one's nationalism makes the demonstrative ones distinctly suspicious of the former's intent. The immediate suspicion is whether one form of sub-nationalism is seeking to trump or prevail and therefore subvert the collective sense of Indian nationalism.

To appreciate the context, there needs to be an acknowledgement that India is a nation where many sub-nationalities exist, sometimes coexisting peacefully and at other times not. India is also a land where we often encounter and witness one sub-nationality refusing to accommodate another, with ease.

For many, the idea of a modern India is to be able to co-exist with both the agreeable and the disagreeable forms of sub-nationalism.

In the context of the failings of the modern Indian state, it is also not difficult to imagine some of these failures leading to a section of Indians challenging the notion of nationalism relating to the modern Indian state.

I would dare say, a large majority of these naysayers would have a strong emotional attachment to the 'old India' - and sometimes even to one of the many Indian sub-nationalities. Examples of these would include the naxals, the north eastern rebels and the Kashmiri separatists - not to mention, in another context, locals that do not appreciate the UP-walas and Biharis in Mumbai or the north-easterners in Bangalore.

Hence, once born in Indian origin, it is difficult to conceive of a person who rebels against or rejects all forms of Indian nationalism, which includes a sub Indian nationality. I would venture to say that all Indians have an affinity to one form or the other of the Indian nation - we are just too interesting a people for that not to be so. Nobody rejects their own mothers, though each loves their mother differently.

In the above context, if we were to consider the term "Bharat mata ki jai". The notion of Bharat mata was probably born in the fight against British imperialism. The common image that pops into the mind with the term is of a Durga-like goddess standing against the map of India. Indian traditions of course had no such 'goddess', for there was no political entity like India in the old period - at least not until the British forged us into the modern nation-state that we are today.

In the past, we were seen by the rest of the world as a contiguous geographical space, much like we see the Arabian Peninsula, Europe or any of the Americas. Digressing a bit, infact the Hindus were the people that lived in this geographical space, regardless of their religious beliefs. It was like saying Americans, or Europeans, Turks, Chinese or Arabs etc. The interesting thing to note is that some of the home-grown Hindu religious traditions would still be as different from each other as are the Semitic religions.

Hence, not all sub-nationalities could be expected to be arrayed behind this notion - the Bharat mata kind of nationalism. To insist that they must is an imposition, and all impositions that people find disagreeable are resisted, like a child resisting candy being pushed down its throat. Hence, you find the reactions from the Owaisis of the world. I would suspect that a 'Madrasi' who has no knowledge of Hindi, would react similarly. But that does not mean they love the Indian nation or their motherland any less - or any of its sub-nationalities.

To many it is a complete and utter waste of time and energy to focus on being demonstrative of one's affections to the modern Indian state, particularly for those in positions of power and authority. Especially, when this stems from a need to push back an external view of an inferior India, which in many ways, we're not.

India is a nuclear-power state, with a very strong army and a rapidly strengthening economy. Fears and thinking from the times of the British Raj should not to be allowed to rule us or divert our attention. Our nation state needs to be focused on putting more money into the hands of our people and creating a fair and just society, free from prejudice.