There is no doubt that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has done remarkably significant work in the domain of school education, be it infrastructure development or pedagogic innovation. And we have already been told that this time the AAP government will introduce the deshbhakti curriculum in the government schools in Delhi. Well, I would like to believe that a government that takes education seriously, and even thinks of the happiness of children in an otherwise oppressive schooled society is possibly attaching a positive and life-affirming meaning to the spirit of deshbhakti. However, as a teacher, I wish to make a point of caution, and raise a set of critical issues relating to this urge to inculcate deshbhakti among school children.
At times, I fear that we have become neurotically obsessed with the discourse of nationalism and patriotism. See its devastating consequences. First, the phenomenon called toxic/stimulant nationalism has reduced patriotism into a negative emotion — hatred for the enemy. No wonder, hyper-masculine aggression or violence is its necessary sub-text. It cannot exist without demonising the enemy it constructs perpetually. Second, it has lost its naturalness, and become a compulsive/ritualistic performance. It has to be proved and demonstrated time and again. While the obedient children of the reified Bharat Mata show their patriotism through the cacophony of Jai Shri Ram, we stand up in a cinema hall and show our affinity with the national anthem. I wonder whether Rabindranath Tagore ever thought his sublime poetic prayer would be trivialised in this fashion. This urge to prove our deshbhakti has become so powerful that these days even the protesters — Marxists, Ambedkarites, Gandhians and feminists — are compelled to use the national flag almost like a totem. And third, this chronic deshbhakti syndrome often deprives us of the much required faculty of self-reflection, and the courage or honesty to question even our own shortcomings. In other words, this heavy dose of nationalism or patriotism has not helped us to become truly awakened citizens. Instead, we have learned either to romanticise our past, or to erect the walls of separation: India vs. Pakistan, Hindus vs. Muslims, and nationalists vs tukde tukde gang.
Well, it is possible to say that Arvind Kejriwal and his team do not agree with the politics of toxic nationalism, and they see deshbhakti as a positive feeling — a socio-existential articulation of engaged responsibility. Yes, it is good to hear that for them deshbhakti means honest work for the nation. Yet, I insist that that the goal of education ought to transcend the parameters of even what Kejriwal regards as true patriotism.
Of course, I admit it is important for the young to sharpen their socio-historical imagination to know and understand the liberating spirit of decolonisation, or the quest for swaraj. It is equally important to be aware of the flow of Indic civilisation — its splendid diversity and rhythmic unity, its ups and downs, or its achievements and possibilities. And I believe that if we have immensely sensitive and dialogic teachers driven by creative pedagogy (not exam-centric rote learning), it is possible for school children to transform their history/civics classes into an enchanting experience. Yes, they would be able to appreciate the land surrounded by the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean. They would love to walk with Gandhi and Bhagat Singh. They would begin to appreciate the core constitutional values. And they would experience the rhythm of Kabir and Nizamuddin Auliya, or Ghalib and Tagore. This, I believe, is enough. There is no need for sermonising, or continually bombarding the minds of children with the moral lessons of deshbhakti.
In fact, what is important is to create a leaning environment that encourages critical inquiry and the ethics of care. I have no hesitation in saying that blind bhakti for the nation is not necessarily always positive. After all, history has taught us an important lesson: The narcissism of modern nation-states has caused war, genocide and colonial invasion. Furthermore, nationalism as an orthodox religion often obstructs the elasticity of consciousness; it kills our ability to see beyond limiting identities, experience our shared humanity, and embrace the world as a whole. Hence, to take a simple illustration, if a young learner feels that the happiness of the people in the Kashmir valley is more important than the militaristic claim over their land, her wisdom, far from being silenced, has to be understood by the teacher. Likewise, I would like a social science teacher to urge her students to realise that the dadis of Shaheen Bagh are not conspirators; instead, their non-violent satyagraha aims at creating a truly humane/inclusive India. In other words, deshbhakti need not be free from criticality or art of resistance.
Furthermore, a liberating pedagogy ought to cultivate the ethics of care. Quite often, militarism and militant nationalism destroy this spirit. For example, is it wrong if a teacher encourages her students to see cricket not through the lens of nationalism, and appreciate even when, say, Pakistan plays good cricket, and defeats India? Or for that matter, is it unethical if a Sanskrit teacher also asks her students to take active interest in Urdu or Persian literature? Or is it wrong if the students are encouraged to interrogate the politics of war? Imagine what it would mean if instead of glorifying the much-hyped “surgical strike”, and “sacrifice” for the nation, they begin to appreciate John Lennon’s musical utopia. Yes, this will sow the seeds of true religiosity and universalism: A mind that sees beyond borders.
Hence, while as a teacher, I convey my wishes to Kejriwal’s team for its desire to work in the field of education, I pray that the Delhi government understands there is something higher and nobler than the cult of deshbhakti: The way the river finds its meaning is by merging with the ocean.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 9, 2020 under the title ‘Nation and its cheerleaders’.
The writer is professor of Sociology at JNU