Patriotism in 2019: When Symbols Are Revered More Than Rights

A few days ago, I shared an article against the reading down of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. Minutes later, I received a notification about a comment on the article thread.

It was posted by a neighbour who is probably only a few years older than me. He works for an automobile company and apart from sharing pleasantries at family functions – we’ve been neighbours for a long while – we haven’t stayed in touch.

I clicked on the notification to read this:

“I don’t know why you always post like this? Don’t you love your country? Are you not an Indian? Or you become Pakistani? Don’t you have trust in your Indian media? What’s your agenda in posting these things? Have you become leftists? Or you get some type of funding from someone by posting these kind of things? Please explain. I want to know.”

The article was a report on protests in the Valley after the central government imposed its decision.

This comment was not just directed towards this particular article but to my entire timeline which is not sympathetic to the current government. His comment led to a heated exchange where multiple people joined in to defend their views.

I was enraged to witness just how easy it is for people – including friends, relatives and acquaintances – to brand someone a traitor and question their patriotism. I googled the definition of patriotism, and found “devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country”.

Do I love my country? If I was asked this question ten years ago, I would have said ‘YES!’ and ridiculed anyone who asked such a question. How can anyone not love their country?

Besides, above the love for the country, it isn’t hard to be seen as a ‘certified patriot’: stand up for the national anthem, take selfies with the flag on important days, and support the Indian cricket team passionately.

But these days, the definition of patriotism has taken a turn. Until recently, I was never asked if I loved my country and neither did I ask random people on the streets to tell me if they loved their country.

Then, one fine day, someone appears to have written a new rule on what it means to be a patriot – that one “must agree with and wholly support any and all decisions taken by the government”.

As such, abusing people and calling them ‘anti-national’ for simply disagreeing with the government’s policies appears to have become a national sport.

When I am told to love and support my country, what exactly am I supposed to love and support? The land or the farmer? The forest or the tribal? The river or the dam?

Also read: Do We Know What Patriotism Really Stands For?

Patriotism conveniently ignores these questions because there are no easy answers.

The power of symbols and imagery

The present government has perfected the practice of selling patriotism because it helps it retain power and control. They do so by deducing the idea of a nation to symbols like maps, flags and national anthems.

Every Independence Day, we consume imagery of the Indian flag painted on the political map of India, which encompasses Pakistan occupied Kashmir, Aksai Chin (part of Ladhak occupied by China, which India claims as its own) and parts of Arunachal Pradesh occupied by China.

We often forget to depict the Line of Control and the Line of Actual Control too. In our collective imagination, that land is ours, even if we don’t understand its geography, language and culture. We are more attached to these lines on a piece of paper but forget about people living in these disputed regions.

Flags and anthems are no different.

We need to understand that they are all symbols of our national identify. They were used as tools for protest and resistance against the British, because they helped in uniting diverse communities with different religions, cultures and languages. We carried these symbols post 1947 as remnants of a long and painful struggle for independence won with the blood and sweat of thousands of men and women.

However, today these symbols have become more important for the wrong reasons.

Popular culture also effectively feeds the rhetoric of symbols. In Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Ghum, it’s hard to forget the scene where a melodramatic Kajol is left teary eyed after her son sings the national anthem to a room full of white people. How patriotic. The scene effectively established the patriotism of the NRI family. What else is required of Indians living overseas anyway?

Also read: What’s Driving Our Taste for Explicitly Nationalistic Cinema?

The state has also effectively merged the imagery of the symbols with that of the armed forces. Every Independence Day, we are reminded again and again by the popular media that we owe every second of our lives to the soldiers fighting for us at the borders.

The men who lay their lives should definitely be celebrated and decorated, but we must not stop asking – why war? We must not allow the government and the media to justify and glorify war.

Because if we truly cared for our soldiers, we would want them safe with their families.

We must also pause and ask, why is our patriotism only reserved for symbols of national identity and the armed forces? Why is it that a solder taking a bullet on the border hurts us more than the death of a manual scavenger who chokes to death inside a manhole?

Why is that we are angered more by terrorist attacks but feel nothing for the Adivasis who are killed for defending forests from greedy corporations? When journalists are killed for reporting facts?

We can and should support both the soldier and the manual scavenger, but patriotism as it stands today tells us that one form of service is greater than the other.

We must question that.

French writer Voltaire said, “It is lamentable, that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind.”

Has patriotism turned us into enemies of mankind?

Bhawna Jaimini is an architect and researcher based in Mumbai

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty