14/11/2016 12:23 PM IST | Updated 14/11/2016 5:27 PM IST

We Need To Stop Holding Up The Army As The Sole Repository Of All Nationalism

A nation is not just a territory that needs defending.

Baba Ramdev, right, seated next to retired former Indian Army chief General V.K. Singh during a protest in New Delhi in 2012. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

Stay hungry, stay patriotic. That's what Baba Ramdev wants ordinary Indians to be. Why? Because members of the army, who are protecting our borders, routinely go without food for days, especially when they are on active duty. Such is his logic.

"During war, our soldiers fight without eating food for seven to eight days. So, can't we do the same for our nation?" one of India's most successful yoga-guru-turned-entrepreneurs said to the media yesterday. "Many people are showing their opposition to the prime minister but nothing is bigger than the nation," he added.

As a defence of the government's move of currency demonetisation to curb corruption and black money, Ramdev's statement may warm the cockles of his devotees, especially those who believe nothing is bigger than the prime minister (to them, also known as the nation), but the comment is shockingly pernicious on several levels.

As the promoter of Patanjali, an FMCG enterprise which has already recorded a ₹5,000 crore turnover in F16, it is despicable of Ramdev to undermine the pain of hunger, that too in a country which ranks below some of its neighbours — China, Nepal and Bangladesh — in the Global Hunger Index.

We don't need to look up statistics to register the endemic poverty that afflicts India's heartland. But we do need to appreciate the bleak irony of asking millions of hungry people to put nationalist sentiments before their right to have three square meals a day.

Wasn't it Swami Vivekananda, often appropriated by card-carrying Hindutva activists to serve their own interests, who pointed out the futility of preaching religion to those left with an empty stomach? And so, by what right could a nation expect undying patriotism from those it has failed to guarantee two square meals a day?

Worse still, due to the acute cash crunch unleashed by the sudden revocation of old currency, even people with means to buy food have been reduced to looting stores, babies have died to lack of healthcare, senior citizens have collapsed in queues to get their money changed. The prime minister, who Ramdev wants the rest of the country to put before their lives, has mocked the plight of the people and then quickly followed it up with public histrionics. The worst elitism, especially among privileged Indians, is on shameless display on social media these days.

READ: Demonetisation Has Brought Out The Worst Form Of Elitism Among India's Privileged Classes

For Ramdev to drag the army into this unfolding crisis, as the exemplar of nationalism, is not only insidious (as an attempt to cover up for the ruling government's spectacular mess), but also disrespectful to the vast majority of Indians who are not part of the defence establishment.

The service rendered by the armed forces to the nation is, without a doubt, fraught with risk and hardship, demanding deeper reserves of courage and fortitude than, say, a school teacher's or a bus driver's. And yet, in a sense, the job of defending the country against enemies and keeping it safe from internal incursions is also a job like any other — with benefits and a salary.

To weigh it against other professions or to rate it on a scale of relative importance is unwarranted, unless one believes different kinds of work merit different levels of respect, according to a perceived hierarchy of dignity in labour. That would amount to claiming that some citizens are less important to the nation than others.

Why must the contribution to society by a scientist who develops a life-saving vaccine or by a doctor who cures hundreds of suffering patients or by an economist whose policy has a tangible effect in improving the conditions of millions be regarded as any less noble or patriotic than those guarding our borders?

A great musician may soothe many a troubled mind, a writer may give hope to those who have turned away from life, an educator may enable hundreds of young minds to look beyond their immediate circumstances and to dream big.

As far as critical services go, what about those who dispose of our daily refuse, without whom we would be drowning in our own garbage? And, most pertinent under the circumstances, what about the bankers, who are tirelessly working weekdays and weekends, trying to serve a nation desperately seeking cash?

By valorising the services of the army to the exclusion of others, Ramdev's ends up shaming the ordinary, salaried, tax-paying citizens of India, part of whose hard-earned incomes, ironically, go into funding the defence budget. In doing so, he too, along with the supporters of the ruling government, harks back to a relic from the past: to a moment in history when the military was the be-all and end-all of a nation's sovereignty as opposed to the sum total of many ancillary parts that create a complex, modern economy.

The appropriation of the army to advance political interests has only been gaining momentum since the surgical strikes along the Line of Control (LoC), after the terrorist attack on military headquarters in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, who has been described as "one of the nine jewels" of his cabinet by PM Modi, has brazenly politicised the counter-attacks waged by India's security forces in the LoC. Among the many explosive comments he made after the operations, he attributed the core ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as the driving force behind the counter-strike. He also believes that true Indians must be unquestioningly loyal to the government's decisions and never doubt the official version of any event.

Why must the contribution to society by a scientist who develops a life-saving vaccine or by a doctor who cures hundreds of suffering patients or by an economist whose policy has a tangible effect in improving the conditions of millions be regarded as any less noble or patriotic than those guarding our borders?

And so, the army seems to have suddenly become the golden goose for the ruling political class. In the past few weeks, thugs from a regional party tried to extort crores from a filmmaker as ransom for working with Pakistani actors in his film, ostensibly to replenish the army welfare fund. The veterans strongly objected to such lowly tactic and condemned it. Days later, during a flurry of protests against the irregularities in the government's One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme, an ex-serviceman committed suicide for not getting his dues: his tragic demise went on to show the hollowness of the government's claims of being a champion of those in service.

If the ruling party and its cronies really want to honour the army, they would best leave it alone and not taint it with terms like nationalism or patriotism, which now involve hitting a handicapped person for not being able to stand up during the national anthem. By the same logic, if the government is pro-people, as it doesn't stop reminding us, it should stop demeaning the patriotism of common citizens by taking away from them their legitimate right to protest against a badly executed policy change.

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