I was in a small village in Rajasthan on January 26, the Indian Republic Day. Children ran through the village shouting in chorus, “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai, mera bharat mahan” and the like. These are children who will see little opportunity in their life; barring exceptions, each will spend his life as unskilled labor, marginalized and exploited in a globalizing India. Yet they ran, loudly, overtly, persistently patriotic.
On a talk show on Maoism, the wife of the slain cop, Francis Induvar emphatically claimed that her husband’s blood bled for the nation and she will be proud if her son too joined the police. Newspapers regularly carry obituaries and reports of jawans killed in combat, the odd blast – the death in “service of the nation” bestowing martyrdom on them.
That the State is separate from the people is a given. That the state will work in the interest of the people is not. In fact, often, the converse is. Therefore overt patriotism is a poor and middleclass virtue because unquestioning allegiance is convenient: to maintain peace and an appearance of order and frame paucity of options as considered sacrifice for the good of the country.
Patriotism is not innate, but inculcated and institutionalized by the State. Inculcated through dogmatic education and embedded through whimsical handouts to indoctrinate the poor to see the State (and its actors) as benefactors. Corrupt incompetent buffoons are repeatedly elected because they are framed as patrons and not accountable representatives. It’s significant that in a patriarchal society, Gandhi is revered as bapu and Nehru as chacha, thus killing all avenues to question their decisions. Every aspect of the poor person’s life is circumscribed by some state handout. Grain is distributed in fitful spurts from a dysfunctional PDS, eligibility for which is summarily given or retracted. Education and health from dysfunctional state infrastructure is delivered with disdain. Further, the right to work comes with the Mahatama Gandhi moniker. Roads come at the behest of Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. House to live in as Indira Gandhi Avas Yojana. The local MLAs and MPs spend tax monies but litter their constituencies with their name markers.
Patriotism means love and devotion for one’s country. Yet how does one define a nation, when the concept is reshaped as soon as borders are redrawn? Pakistan and Bangladesh were originally part of India but their “otherness” now is unquestioned and the accepted account is that one is exporting terrorism and the other illegal immigrants to India. Scores of our first-line soldiers die unaccounted deaths, their death framed as martyrdom in shallow consolation. But whose beliefs are our soldiers defending? Enlistment in first-line combat positions is overwhelmingly an outcome of complete paucity of employment opportunities not the courage of conviction. What does conviction even mean in the context of an army? Even if individual wars have clear aggressor and aggrieved parties, what about the battles within and individual bullets exchanged? What when the US/UK pressure us to deploy forces in Iraq, the UN for “peacekeeping”? What about when we pit these cadets against our own people? Often the bullets and blows exchanged are not defending the sovereign concept of a nation or even a principle, but pitting the poor against the poor.
If earlier the State used patriotic fervor as an administrative tactic, big business is now co-opting national consciousness for private profit. Patriotism is love for the collective, an all-embracing identity and hence a unifying force. A patriotic populace is submissive, servile and now conveniently unified in a single market. With one stroke in 1991, the entire country unasked became a single unified market for global companies.
American consumer-products giant, P&G is envisaging ambitious growth based in part, by expanding into the Indian rural markets, a strategy mirrored by virtually all consumer-goods companies now that they’ve saturated the urban markets. Our obsession with cricket is now a private industry with global players. Sports and entertainment are moving from participative recreation to centralized consumption, all in the guise of Brand India. That SRK should choose anti-Muslim sentiment in the context of post 9/11 America and not the homegrown examples of the Muslim pogrom in Mumbai/Gujarat is an example of exploiting national identity for business profit. The Islamic identity in the former is fused with the Indian identity keeping intact the entire country’s potential as a market whereas domestic examples will inconveniently divide the national market, that too with the majority Hindu market on the wrong side of the marketing device (now, there’s all sorts of movie merchandise too – t-shirts, Reebok shoes, luggage etc).
Meanwhile, the rich and powerful are unencumbered by patriotism, having already graduated to becoming “world citizens”. They claim pride in their Indian identity but go about their business with distance, protection and right of way from their own people. The Indian identity is parlayed into a prerogative to direct and exploit national resources and expand sphere of influence outside of national boundaries. In a country riven by class inequities and appalling human development indicators, the poor cannot harness the collective strength of the country. Patriotism then is a bottoms-up centralizing force, used to subsume economically weaker class interests by more powerful state interests, and in neoliberal India by corporate interests.
Kennedy stirringly said, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”. He was wrong – a citizen’s right to state accountability takes precedence over the state’s demand for allegiance.