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We Need Our Children To Be Empathetic Patriots, Not Just Standers And Saluters

06/01/2017 4:44 PM IST | Updated 09/01/2017 3:05 PM IST
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My 10-year-old and I watched J.K Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in December. Our first film after the Supreme Court enforced the playing of the national anthem in theatres. "The national anthem? We should stand?" he asked. Yes, I said as we stood up. We then sat down to a three-dimensional treat of Rowling's beasts. But what is mono-dimensional is our idea of patriotism. Anthem singing and flag saluting have become unreflective rituals and habits. If I let my son assume that standing, singing and saluting is all it takes to be a patriot, I fail as a parent and as a patriot. We need to imagine patriotism more empathetically for our children. Our Constitution offers legal basis for this. Rowling offers literary and moral relief. And our anthem itself offers an opportunity.

If I let my son assume that standing, singing and saluting is all it takes to be a patriot, I fail as a parent and as a patriot.

Besides flag- and anthem-respecting duties, our Constitution lists duties of developing scientific temper and humanism. These would make my son and your daughter, rational citizens. Rowling in her address to Harvard graduates of 2008, championed an empathetic citizenry. Imagination for her has a "transformative and revelatory capacity" that "enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared." Rowling worked with Amnesty International before she wrote the Harry Potter books, you see.

I ask our children, and all conservative and liberal youth discomfited by the court's enforcement of indoor patriotism to re-imagine and empathise with what—to contemporarily paraphrase it— our anthem "rouses" in Punjab, Maharashtra and Odisha; "echoes" in the Himalayas; and "mingles" in the Yamuna and Ganga.

From Punjab's Bhatinda, a train ferries nearly a hundred cancer patients everyday to a hospital in Bikaner, Rajasthan where treatment is subsidised. Most patients are from poor farmer families of southern Punjab where cotton is grown with reckless chemical application. Pesticide-intensive farming is a legacy of the green revolution of the 1970s. The green revolution also wrought economic and political disparities between rich casteist Sikhs and Dalits. In 2015, Punjabi Dalits filed more than seven thousand "atrocity" complains. Dismembering Dalit limbs is common in Punjab. Caste and cancer are symptomatic of failures in fundamental duties and rights, including environmental protection duties, right to equality and right against exploitation.

If cancer among Punjab's farmers is linked to cotton's success, farmer suicides in Maharashtra are linked to cotton's failure. More than 60,000 indebted farmers, many of them Marathas, took their lives in the rain-fed Vidarbha region since 1995. They grew Bt cotton, a cost- and water-intensive cash crop. Drought combined with debt and inept and indifferent politics in breaking farmer dignity and will. But the oppressed are also the oppressor. Marathas marched in many "silent" protests this year seeking the repeal of the Schedule Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. It provides legal protection for India's Scheduled Castes and Adivasis against upper caste insult and injury. Dalits, disproportionately exposed to health risks given their confinement to environmentally polluting livelihoods, have suffered from caste violence in Maharashtra. The wails and "silences" of both oppressed and oppressor should rouse patriot hearts.

Patriotic filmmakers and audiences need to realise that there is more to Himalayan nationalism than just planting our tricolour atop snowy summits.

In its order the Supreme Court extolled our "gyan" and "vigyan". Now, the Vedas or Upanishads are gyan. In them are the first references to Varna, the fictitious fourfold caste yarn. Be that as it may, one expects even from a mining company named Vedanta some dharmic responsibility. But Vedanta rouses anger among the Dongria Kondh Adivasis of Odisha. Vedanta has sought to mine their biodiverse Nyamgiri hills. The spiritual and livelihood practices of the Kondhs in Nyamgiri reflect their exercise of fundamental duties of valuing and preserving their cultural heritage and environmental protection. There is a vibrant diversity of patriotism in India, which is every Indian's fundamental duty to understand.

Meanwhile in the Himalayas, climate change has caused glacial melt, landslides and floods. Worried scientists argue that disaster risk management should steer development here and not vice versa. Rampant tourism infrastructure, civil and military road works and hydel dams have exposed Himalayan farmers and pastoralists to multiple risks. They could, using the right to constitutional remedies, approach the Supreme Court for protection against infringements of their fundamental rights. Patriotic filmmakers and audiences need to realise that there is more to Himalayan nationalism than just planting our tricolour atop snowy summits.

And what mingles in our rivers? Domestic refuse, farm pesticides and industrial effluence have polluted our holy rivers of Ganga and Yamuna beyond restoration. From spiritual spaces that cleansed our sins, they have become scientific spaces to be cleansed of our sins.

We "have the power to imagine better," said Rowling. Tagore will approve. Did not our anthem's poet laureate also say "Don't limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time? "

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