Nationalism can never be imposed by fiat. This should be obvious. But, for some reason, it is becoming increasingly obvious that it is not. Since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, the idea of imposing nationalism by force appears to have gripped too many BJP political leaders. Ministers in particular should refrain from labelling people, but almost daily we hear them warning ‘anti-nationals’ that there will be dire consequences for those who speak against India. A particularly foolish statement came from a minister in the Haryana government last week. It is unworthy of being repeated here.
Unfortunately, he is not the only BJP leader to have offered his opinion on the brawl in Delhi University between students who believe they are nationalists and those they have labelled ‘anti-national’. It is my view that nobody has the right to decide who is a nationalist and who is not, but the two can play the game. So let me make it clear that I believe anyone who seeks to crush dissent and free speech on university campuses is anti-national. They sully India’s image with their hysteria. And they have breathed new life into aged Leftists who have been mercifully inactive for a while. To see them lead a student march last week bearing placards saying ‘their’ democracy was more important than ‘your’ nationalism, made me laugh, because nobody is more allergic to democracy than those of the Communist persuasion. Besides, nationalism and democracy are not antonyms.
The idea of imposing nationalism by fiat has spread not just across university campuses but even to our courts of law. Or why would the Supreme Court have taken it upon itself to order cinemas to play the national anthem in every show? Is this something judges should concern themselves with? At the risk of inviting your ire dear judges, may I remind you yet again that your primary duty should be to fix our broken justice system. It shames all Indians that rapists, murderers and terrorists remain unpunished for decades because the law takes so long to punish them.
To return, though, to the subject of nationalism, may I say that most Indians today are very proud of being Indian. What is very sad is that most Indians have no idea what being Indian means. In the history books they read in school, they read a version of history written by our colonial masters. If this government is serious about infusing nationalism, then why has it done so little to improve school curriculums? In our universities, why is there such disdain for research that seeks to unearth the mysteries of our ancient past? Why do we still teach Sanskrit in a way that can only produce priests? If even without knowing what being Indian means the vast majority of Indians are so proud of being Indian, think of how much prouder they would be if they understood more deeply the origins of the idea of India?
There are other ways of inspiring spontaneous nationalism. Countries that have built beautiful cities, fine universities and given ordinary citizens the ingredients to live with dignity, do not need to impose nationalism by executive fiat. In India our political leaders have in 70 years of glorious independence not been able to provide the vast majority of our citizens with the most basic public services. So they live in squalor so wretched that it is surprising that there are not millions more ‘anti-nationals’ being bred in the slums of our big cities.
In rural India, people struggle daily to stay alive without clean water, electricity, healthcare and jobs. So painful
is this struggle that it is astonishing there is not anti-nationalism of huge proportions.
So political leaders giving lectures on nationalism should desist forthwith and spend more time mulling over the failures of politics and governance that have created the need for nationalism to be imposed. More worrying still is the very narrow idea of nationalism that is at the moment in vogue. It is an idea so narrow and flimsy that singing the national anthem is considered nationalism and attacking someone who does not stand for it in a cinema hall is considered an act of nationalistic passion.
On a personal level, I found the slogans shouted in JNU last year very offensive, but I do not believe that the students who participated in this were anti-national. They were just students. It was a mistake to make arrests and sedition charges because the end result has been to make heroes out of people with some very defunct ideas. Only in India do we have university campuses populated by students who have not noticed what happened to Marxist countries in the past 20 years. Listening to their slogans and speeches makes you wonder if they have noticed yet that China is no longer Marxist and the Soviet Union no longer exists.