When the Supreme Court made it compulsory last week for cinemas to play the national anthem before every show to “instill committed patriotism and nationalism”, I nearly fainted with horror. If this amounts to contempt your lordships, then so be it, but what on earth were you thinking? Have you not noticed the difference between real patriotism and the plastic kind? And if cinemas must follow your orders out of ‘love and respect for the motherland’ then why not malls, restaurants, bars and shops?
Nationalism and patriotism have been much on my mind of late. And not just because I was appalled to hear BJP leaders declare it ‘anti-national’ to oppose the abolition of nearly 90 per cent of our currency. Nationalism happened to be the flavour of the India Foundation conclave in Goa this year. And it happened that I was on a panel tasked with discussing nationalism as it exists today, when the Indian nation state turns seventy. My humble contribution to the discourse was that nationalism must never be enforced by political leaders. The Supreme Court had not spoken then or I would have put judges in the same category. Nationalism and patriotism come naturally when they are not decreed by people arrogant enough to believe they have a right to dictate such things.
If only the highest court in the land had noticed that real patriotism and nationalism would come naturally to Indian children if they were taught about India in their schools. Since we have persisted with a public education system bequeathed to us by our colonial masters, most Indian children continue to grow up learning more about English and American writers and poets than their own. They see their own history through the eyes of foreign historians and their knowledge of the epics is limited to Ram Leelas and Bollywood films. I have to sadly admit that despite having gone to one of the best schools in the land I read my first description of ancient Ayodhya when I read a translation of the Ramayana by an American Sanskritist not long ago.
Our own students of Sanskrit languish jobless because their only hope of employment is as priests. Why are there not departments in Indian universities where they could be employed to translate the thousands of ancient Sanskrit texts that remain obscure? Why are there not courses in classical studies where they could find employment? During the 2014 election campaign the plight of students in the Sanskrit department of Banaras Hindu University brought tears to my eyes. Many had done doctorates in Sanskrit but admitted that they would have done better to study English. They all expressed the hope that people like them would do better when Modi became Prime Minister.
Halfway through his term it has to be sadly said that he has done nothing at all to change the colonial model of education he inherited from the era of Nehruvian socialism. Not decolonising Indian school curriculums was probably the biggest mistake that Jawaharlal Nehru made and it could end up being Narendra Modi’s biggest mistake. There are BJP governments in major Indian states, so at least in these states there should have been major improvements in school syllabuses.
There is as much need to improve teaching standards in government schools as there is for curriculums to include books written by Indian writers, poets and historians. Unless this happens, we will continue to produce generations of Indians who are linguistically and culturally illiterate, and whose sole ambition is to learn English so that they can escape to countries where they can make better lives than they can in the motherland.
It would have been wise if the honourable judges of the Supreme Court had thought more carefully before pronouncing grandly that, “A time has come, (when) the citizens of the country must realise that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to national anthem, which is the symbol of the constitutional patriotism and inherent national quality.”
So we are now all ordered to make this display of meaningless patriotism when we go to the cinema, but what will this achieve? The short answer is nothing. Real patriotism and nationalism is what we feel every time a young soldier dies defending India’s borders. It is what we feel when India shows that it has the ability to produce great scientists, musicians and entrepreneurs. It is what we feel when the Indian economy grows faster than any other and it is what we will feel when our cities stop looking like slums and when our villages stop looking like wastelands. When India looks good, patriotism and nationalism do not need to be ordained by political leaders or judges. It comes spontaneously, and this is the kind of nationalism that will make a real difference, not the synthetic kind.