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Performing Patriotism Should Be A Choice, Not A Compulsion

11/11/2016 11:55 AM IST | Updated 21/11/2016 10:04 AM IST
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Hindustan Times via Getty Images
People stand for national anthem during the hoisting of the largest national flag, measuring 60 ft x 90ft, atop a 207 ft flag pole at Rajiv Chowk on 7 March 2014 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

I recently watched the movie Dishoom (2016), mostly because I am based abroad and homesick enough to watch any Bollywood film that I can. One thing that struck me was the song at the beginning of the movie, which listed the situations in which the two brawny heroes would give a "dishoom" or a smack to others, with one of them being "Jana Gana mein na khada hua toh dishoom" — a whack for those who didn't stand up for the national anthem. I had not heard this song earlier, and I kept thinking about this line, and its implications, long after the movie was over.

It started with a memory of my adolescence. I had gone to watch Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) with my mother, and at one point in the film, the child actor who played the son of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol broke into "Jana Gana Mana" at a posh British school. It was an emotionally manipulative moment, with the son not really understanding his mother's nostalgia for India but trying to offer her something to make her happy. I stood up. I think around five people stood up in a theatre that was packed. It felt a bit awkward, especially when some people around me sniggered when I stood up. It wasn't a time when it was common to perform your patriotism in public. Anyway, once the national anthem was over, I sat back down to watch the rest of the movie.

A powerful India is one where you do not feel a need to give a "dishoom"' to those who do not stand up for the national anthem.

If the national anthem is played in a movie, I would still stand up today. Yet I strongly believe that this should not be prescriptive. I think a nation that requires every person present to stand up to the national anthem is actually a weaker nation than one where it's up to each individual to make the choice. Because it is the weaker idea that needs coercion to back it up.

This may initially seem counterintuitive. After all, narratives of strength are built around countries that perform patriotism in a starkly visible way, such as the British during the colonial period or America today. These are nation states that make the performance of patriotism routine at public places/functions — from movie theatres to sporting events — and associate it with the idea of international dominance. It is a strong country when all its citizens repeatedly say so, isn't it? Such a performance of dominance is seductive, and often countries with aspirations to dominance mimic these performances, hoping that the display of strength will bring strength itself. It is not dissimilar to the oft-repeated advice in the self-help canon of "fake it until you make it". The performance of patriotism serves to create the illusion that the fissures underneath do not exist, and in that process creates more fissures in its demand for homogeneity.

I think a nation that requires every person present to stand up to the national anthem is actually a weaker nation than one where it's up to each individual to make the choice.

This is also a false narrative because nation-states that are more performative of their patriotism are not necessarily the ones with the least conflict or with the happiest citizens or the highest levels of equality. These things depend on a variety of other factors, some within the control of a nation's politicians and policies, and some not. Some nation-states are richer than others, and power frequently goes hand-in-hand with the availability of resources, including capital. At the same time, even the most powerful of nation-states have their share of disenfranchised and disenchanted citizens, and their discontents can brew long enough to erupt in unexpected ways.

Another binary is created between the idea of a regressive patriotism on the one hand and an international cosmopolitanism on the other. This binary conveniently allows social observers to pontificate that it is the under-educated, under-employed, prejudiced masses who champion the nation-state, while a sophisticated elite who have transnational passports and global identities are able to leave behind the shackles of nationalism and not just inhabit but also bring into being a more liberal world. In the case of India, this binary is false: it is possible for overseas citizens to take regressive positions in terms of their demands from the nation they have left behind, whereas within the nation there has been a sustained and fierce criticism of the increasing imposition of the culture of valourising patriotism. Not just that, cosmopolitan identities are as much imagined as national ones. Like national identities, these international identities include elements of exploitation, hegemony and hierarchy. For example, a software professional and an aged-care worker may both be migrants but enjoy different privileges, while Muslim migrants in Western societies face ideological inquisition and indoctrination that other seemingly benign minorities face far less. The language of an identity shapes the language of its critique: global identities demand global critiques just as national identities demand national ones.

[A] binary is created between the idea of a regressive patriotism on the one hand and an international cosmopolitanism on the other... In the case of India, this binary is false.

At the heart of it, the nation, like religion, is an ambiguous signifier that means different things to different people. I am aware that India is imagined, but that does not mean that imagined ideas cannot exert powerful holds on us. Saying that a nation is imagined is not the same as saying that it holds little or no value. Nationalism cannot be left only to the self-proclaimed nationalists. If we wish to make this world a better place, we begin with the world that we actually live in, and we live in a world where a majority of the population lives in nations. It is precisely the emotional investment that I have in the idea of India that makes me critique not just the government and its policies but those practices of its people that seem dangerous to me. This emotional attachment demands neither a corresponding emotional attachment from everyone nor does it wish to condone or ignore the violence and exploitation of the State. In fact, it is this emotional attachment that insists that the voices of the marginalised, the disenfranchised and the suppressed need to be heard and circulated. It insists that alternative models of development, progress and equity need to be understood and debated, as the problems of present-day liberal capitalism become evident worldwide. It insists that the Indian government not be subservient to crony capitalism and that it be answerable not just to certain segments of its citizens but to all of them, even those who disagree with it. A powerful India is not one where every citizen stands up to the national anthem. A powerful India is one where you do not feel a need to give a "dishoom"' to those who do not do so.

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