Indians need to get less hyper-sensitive about our national symbols.
A dangerous brand of fascism
There are two extreme and opposing positions when it comes to national symbols. Some make a case for a European approach where flag-waving nationalism is frowned upon (with exceptions made for football matches) while others link extreme piety for every national symbol to patriotism.
In the West, it’s common for celebrities and sportstars to pose for photographs wearing undergarments in the colours of the national flag. Religious icons figure in popular songs laden with sexual innuendo. For a long time, it has been fashionable to ape the West. Could we copy them in this regard as well? I feel it is quite impossible. India has worshipped trees, rivers, the sun, and the earth we live on since the ancient times. The elders in my village would admonish children for urinating on tree trunks. Trees are deemed divine. The Indian tradition treats the earth as mother. To try and use Western frameworks to understand Indian life would be futile.
There is bound to be a difference in how the West influences our minds and Indian minds’ attitude towards national symbols. Can Indians think of wearing flip-flops with the Indian flag printed on it?
In the Mahabharata, Hanuman graced Arjuna’s chariot flag. It was Hanuman’s promise to the Pandavas that he’d be with them throughout war and help them.
For a people whose tradition teaches them the value of symbols such as flags, it would be inconceivable to denigrate them by sporting them on shoes or undergarments.
But in the name of guarding our traditions, the thought process of Indians is slowly but surely being directed towards fascism.
At the recent Chennai Film Festival, I happened to watch five films in a day and had to stand up for the national anthem each time a film began. The screening at one of the theatres had to be stopped because some tried to rough up a group of women who hadn’t bothered to stand up for the anthem.
This heady cocktail of Hindutva and ultra-nationalism seeks to chip away at our great diversity. Unlike China, and other modern Western nation states, there is no cultural, racial, or linguistic homogeneity in India. India has countless languages, dialects, ethnicities and cultural traditions. In our diversity lies our greatness. The forces of Hindutva-hypernationalism seek to flatten out this diverse landscape. They realise that mere slogans won’t help them achieve their objective. They need everyday rituals to constantly reinforce their message. The forcible worship of national symbols are those rituals.
Incidents such as the molestation of a Bengaluru woman on New Year’s Eve, and the attack on women in theatres for not standing up for the national anthem are closely connected. In the worldview of those who unleash such violence, the Indian woman is meant to demurely stay within the household. That is Indian culture for them. How dare they go out at midnight to party like men? If they do that, they are meant to be criticised. This is the view of our custodians of culture. These are the same people who now pretend to be the protectors of our national symbols in the “New India”. I fear we are moving towards a very dangerous brand of fascism.
Charu Nivedita is a post-modern Tamil writer based in Chennai. His magnum opus, Zero Degree, is considered one of the best in trangressive fiction.
Can’t shun our cultural legacy
There has been oft-repeated controversies regarding respect for flags, national anthem, national songs and other symbols of national importance. Most of the controversies are unnecessary because those behind such incidents have no logic or justification for their negative approach to the national anthem or the national flag. A few years ago, a parliamentarian cited religion as a reason for not singing the national song, Vande Mataram, and more recently Amazon Canada used the tricolour for making doormats.
In Kerala, some radicals refused to sing the national anthem in cinema halls. A pertinent question arises: why Indians are sensitive to national symbols? And why we do not treat them liberally as some of the advanced democracies do? To understand this problem one has to reexamine the growth of our national sentiments.
The first and foremost thing, which India is privileged with, is the concept of holiness. We have inherited a legacy of cultural and civilisational tradition, which adds spiritual values to even material things of larger importance. Our civilisation has never been materialistic; material fortunes have always been superseded by intellectual and spiritual prosperity. Therefore, unlike other countries, Indian nationalism distinctly gives a sense of spiritualism too and we celebrate our territorial boundary not merely as a piece of land or a sign of mere sovereignty, but as a spiritual entity (which should not be confused with religious entity). We consider India as our motherland, Bharat Mata. This trait is present in each and every Indian, and even in those who oppose it due to political reasons or ideological indoctrination. But a close scrutiny of the behavioural pattern shows that Indians too have cultural nationalism.
This is one of the reason we consider our symbols of sovereignty and freedom holy and do not treat them as material things. This argument may be unpalatable to many who see life from the materialistic prism and the nation form the Western materialistic indoctrination. There is another rationale behind our ultimate respect for these symbols. The tricolour, Vande Matram and the national anthem have not been in the aftermath of intellectual discussion or political decisions. They have evolved along the process of development of modern nationalism, along with anti-imperialist struggles. The best political and intellectual minds contributed to their adoption and they inspired millions to sacrifice their lives for the motherland. Seven teenagers in Patna sacrificed their lives for the honour of the national flag on August 11, 1942. Four of them — Umakant Prasad Sinha, Ramanand Singh, Devipada Choudhry and Ramgovind Singh — were Class 9 students.
Similarly, Vande Mataram was a war cry during the freedom movement. RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar was thrown out from the school in Nagpur for shouting Vande Mataram. The imperialist government issued a circular known as Risley Circular against shouting Vande Mataram. The context of their evolution made them inalienable ingredients of our nationalist tradition.
There is sentiment of millions attached with them, they symbolised our brave struggle against imperialism and sacrifices of our martyrs and also inspire us to protect our freedom. They are not the things of the past, but present and future possession of our posterity. A few radicals can’t defy millions under the pretext of freedom of expression.
Rakesh Sinha is an associate professor of the University of Delhi and honorary director of India Policy Foundation