NEW DELHI: Nationalism, I have always believed — and here I am not talking about theories and books but family, social milieu and experience on the ground — is a flowing concept arising from acceptance that India is not de-linked from her people. That it is not just bland territory, to be guarded militaristically alone, but is occupied by a diverse population that needs to be nurtured and preserved with thought, introspection, self criticism, understanding, compassion.
Nationalism, for me as a thought transferred by the generation of those who fought for India’s freedom, is equivalent to dancing with her diversity, flirting ardently with her pluralism in all its vibrant hues, and falling and staying in love with her people and her Constitution.
For us nationalism and India meshed into one large, exuberant democratic whole. Secularism was the anchor, the pivot and even as we exulted in our freedoms, we were taught to speak for the poorest of the poor, to support those who needed a helping hand (Dalits, backwards), oppose fundamentalism of all religions and strive for a truly secular society where all religions were equal, and no one superior to another. This, we were told, was the strength of India; this is what made her unique, and this is what earned her respect across the world even when her economy was slow and her growth under a question mark. And this is what we saw and experienced as we travelled across the globe, and heard even Pakistanis wonder at our success in remaining secular and democratic.
We had and have respect for the Constitution, for our national anthem and of course the Indian flag. No one was asked to shout slogans, or to wave the flag to prove our nationalism. Not even in the traumatic days when India was settling down to be a country after Partition. We were told — all of us — that we were citizens of India,a secure, proud country looking ahead, seeking to then play a leading role in the non-aligned world, and with the confidence to deal with any challenges from within and without to her integrity. So there was no creation of shadows, certainly not, and no paranoid jumps at the slightest movement. In fact, quite the opposite as those who led us into a Republic then repeatedly told us not to allow hate and venom to enter our polity.
In our democracy, we were encouraged to speak about all concerns, all issues. We were taught that there is no country without compassion, without intellect, without a vision, without laws, without pluralism, without respect, without tolerance… Just as there is no country that can say she is strong with fear, with anger, with chauvinism, with hate, with venom, with casteism, with communalism….
We were taught in schools, at home, in the field, by editors, by peers, by elders that it was against India as a nation to attack her diversity, to be intolerant of her customs, her cultures, her many religions, her castes. We were told over and over again that being the more privileged, it was our duty to speak out for those being trampled upon, those facing injustice, those not getting an equal share of the great Indian pie. To not just speak out but to struggle, where we could, for their emancipation, for their empowerment, for equality, for justice.
So we did, all of us in our own feeble ways. Some by writing, some by teaching, some through politics, some by just working honestly, some by raising children with the right values of honesty and courage, some through charities, some by working in the field…. But everyone did so with the confidence they belonged, the security they were Indians and protected by her laws, the trust that her laws and Constitution gave them the space and the protection to fight for these rights when governments erred as they usually do. And that in the process the government might be weakened, but India and her democracy would be strengthened.
This lesson held and the resolve deepened. This morning I read an article by Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu where he has linked nationalism to Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, embroiling himself in the controversy of Rohith Vemula’s death and the cases of sedition against the young students for slogans that were raised at a dhaba, in an university. Reading him I was struck by how insecure he appears about India, about her ability to absorb and contain dissent, her democracy that has sheltered the ‘us’, the ’them’, the ‘different’ in one melodious whole, regardless of political carping.
Mr Naidu insists that Kanhaiya Kumar has violated his bail conditions by saying that women were raped by security personnel in Jammu and Kashmir. And he is worried about how this will be music to Pakistan’s ears? Well I am sure the Pakistan Army will not be particularly interested in what a student says or does not say, but will be fascinated by the current nationalism versus anti-nationalism debate in India where segments of society are being blacklisted as it were. And told by not just trolls but lawmakers as well to “go to Pakistan” at the drop of a hat. And that from my limited knowledge, is clearly of more interest to the Pakistani establishment as it goes against the grain of inclusiveness that their citizens had always envied us for!
And it is here that I have a major problem with the likes of Asaduddin Owaisi. He speaks a language that is more similar to those he claims to oppose. As it defies the concept of nationalism as our freedom fighters formulated it, and reduces it to a slogan. He creates controversies where none exist, and then places the minorities in the dock. He has done this so many times that many I know think he is working along with the BJP! This might or might not be true, but the allegation seems to stick as he defies the concept of secularism, and creates a controversy in the name of challenging the controversy. And in the process does great damage to secularism that is already under attack.
Take the Bharat Mata ki Jai issue. Earlier similar polarisation was sought to be effected over the Vande Mataram chant with music composer Rahman doing yeoman service by his amazing rendering of Vande Mataram and moving it from the controversial sphere into a space of sheer art. He robbed the chant of the militaristic connotations given to it by the hard right, and demonstrated to all that there was another, softer side to Vande Mataram quite away from the hard tones used by the right wing mobs. Instead of explaining this Owaisi follows the efforts to polarise society over such issues, by making slogans and mantras and chants as central to the individual citizens well being as the Hindu right.
Bharat Mata ki Jai is now the new slogan that the hard right, supported by the establishment is seeking to become the pivot of a debate that is far more complex and significant. Fundamentalists across the world — be they fascists, Zionists, religious communalists — use slogans to militarise, to threaten, to feed into doctrines of divisiveness and hate. And then build a new narrative, or at least what they like to think, around the slogan or some such issue. The response of the secularists is as lyricist and poet Javed Akhtar so well put in Parliament the other day by repeating Bharat Mata ki Jai, and saying he had no problem in saying it again and again. The words are in Hindi, but the sentiment is not in any language. And then going on to speak of the larger issue of communalism, after having silenced the treasury benches completely.
But what does Owaisi do? He comes in, as have others like him before, to add to the militaristic fires. He says he will not say Bharat Mata ki Jai. As if this is the only issue of the land. And what does this achieve? He immediately gives a handle to the hard right to pillory the minorities again on the issue of their nationalism, but two, and far more importantly, helps the right wing reduce the debate of nationalism that they are fighting to counter these days, to just the created issue of a slogan that Owaisi has now given legitimacy to. And as this was not sufficient he makes his legislator in Maharashtra say the same in the state Assembly, with of course the Shiv Sena, BJP and the Congress (always in two voices) pressing for his expulsion.
The right wing groups who are pinning nationalism to slogans and events to polarise the country are not just Hindu, is the point one is making. There is the Muslim counterpart that helps even as it seeks to speak for the interests and rights of its own community. And the fringe in both listens to these voices, see the arguments as reasonable, and takes sides accordingly. Owaisi currently represents the minorities under attack and so does not seem as menacing as say the OP Sharma’s from the ruling party, but his statements help equally in fanning the flames of the sought after polarisation in the name of the nationalism vs anti-national debate.
Secular opposition is what both have always been worried about—be it during the Shahbano judgement and the rights of women, or the Babri Masjid demolition that followed subsequently. The Muslim fundamentalists succeeded in getting the government then to reverse the Supreme Court judgement through a legislation in Parliament; this was used by the Hindu right to insist on the opening of the locks of the temple/mosque dispute, and the rest is history. The only consistent position against both was taken by secular democratic India, with protests decrying the new legislation taking away the rights of the destitute Muslim woman to seek redress under the law of the land; and the movement that followed to light communal flames of disaster.
So the humble request to Mr Owaisi is to retire and perhaps focus on what he never has according to his own constituents in Hyderabad, namely work for the welfare of the poor and the marginalised not with rhetoric, but on the ground.