“It will come to you, this love of the land. There’s no gettin’ away from it if you’re Irish.” – Gerald O’Hara in Gone with the Wind
My friends and I went out to watch Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam yesterday. While a political circus raged in different states of India about the disparaging depiction of Muslims in the movie, I came back home each day to yet another Arnab Goswami’s high-decibel let’s-settle-the-issue-tonight Newshour debate. My daily dose of this grotesque parody of democracy—where ill-educated, non-articulate supposed leaders of political parties and interest groups raise a perfect storm—was working its predictable course. My curiosity was piqued to the extent that I started spending nights studying about Islam. Obviously, I had to watch the movie.
As we made our way inside the fast-filling theatre, one of my friends remarked that we were too early. “I don’t want to sing the national anthem“, she said and walked off.
Reeling with shock and rage, I settled down. “It could be me in her shoes any of these days”, I told myself, as I stood up straight and made myself form the words of the national anthem in my mouth as it played in the theatre.
The singing of the national anthem is an exhilarating and emotional experience. When I was a child, it thrilled me to sing it out loud. It thrilled me to hear it being sung outside other schools and on TV. I almost always stood up straight whenever I happened to hear it being sung or played. And truth be told, I don’t agree to having to air it in movie theatres over last-minute calls for pop corn and loo.
I’m not sure what the airing of the national anthem in plush movie theatres seeks to achieve. If the objective is to spur national awakening and loyalty, then I think it would be done better by giving citizens more reasons to sing for the country than we have at present. Because if you have one proud young woman refuse to sing the national anthem despite all the reasons why she should be singing it, you have a serious problem.
Can I even attempt to try and discuss the problem? An honest attempt would require me to state the problem; then follow it up by investigating what causes the problem, and then seek methods to eliminate the causes that create the problem while suggesting ways of resolving it. It would also require me to cite facts and evidences at each step, and define the supposed payoff at the end of this process.
Unfortunately, I have reasons to believe that I cannot do any of it without risking whatever goes by way of freedom of speech. And my reasons are real; not hypothetical.
On the morning of August 26, 2012, I decided to type out a long-pending post in this blog. It was a Sunday; I was alone at home; my dogs had eaten and I had made up my mind to spend the day writing and lazing. To my dismay, I discovered that wordpress.com wouldn’t load on my machine. I was also simultaneously logged in to Facebook and Gmail—all of which worked fine—giving me the impression that wordpress was down because of some error or maintenance work.
To check if there wasn’t something wrong at my end, I dashed off a status on Facebook and tagged a few friends—asking them to check if wordpress was loading on their machines. It was, and they advised me to check my firewall settings.
However, in the context of the Azad Maidan riots and the exodus of people of the north-eastern states from every city owing to their threat perception—something made me wary. I started digging into the real-time news updates. After some searching, I came upon a short piece in which an angry Minister of Communications and IT decreed that certain communally sensitive materials on the Internet would be blocked in India. Apparently, there was a Pakistan hand in spreading communal disharmony in India, which may necessitate more surveillance and censure from the government, the minister added.
What the minister did not divulge and the newspaper did not report is that certain Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were instructed to block entire domains (such as wordpress) temporarily in a bid to prevent people from spreading rumours—a phenomenon that showed signs of snowballing into a political Frankenstein for the ruling polity. I have come to know of this from numerous commentators in the online newspapers I was reading.
The ease with which a centralized power structure can mobilize and manipulate public opinion is well-known and documented. While governments across the world have resorted to a certain level of manipulation and data-doctoring—whether for military or ideological reasons—our problem is not as much as the disempowerment resulting from it as the active consent in it from a section of society who hold us at ransom.
In my Facebook conversations with a friend that morning, I asked if he agrees that the nation owes an apology from anyone responsible for directly or indirectly instigating fear, causing violence, and damaging public or private property. I opined that anyone who doesn’t agree to this has something other than the nation’s interest as priority. I was referring to the Azad Maidan riots—and to me the most bizarre of all the riots that ever happened in India (for various reasons that can’t be discussed here owing to the length of this post).
My friend, who’s a senior journalist, saw no echoes of the Emergency in the sudden suspension of a fundamental right. And at the mention of Azad Maidan, he donned his victim garb and declared me to be a “Sanghi”—a diminutive for a Sangh Parivar supporter, which to him probably means a right-wing Hindu troll who questions every Muslim’s patriotism—before he retired hurt. Obviously, the spurious saga of Indian victimhood came in the way of an honest conversation.
While I congratulate myself for having such an interesting posse of friends, it’s worthwhile to counterpoint the two described here. Why would she refuse to stand up for a harmless, less than a minute’s worth duty to the nation? Why would he duck a question that is difficult to answer, but also equally difficult to ask?
As I walked back from the movie this Saturday, I tried to remind myself of all the things that this nation has given me and I should be grateful for—all that which was denied to my ancestors, such as a cheerful Sunday to spend in friendly chatter and no work, a lovely Saturday evening out to the movies—where you can wear what you want, eat your fill, and do not have to fear the person in the next seat—money to spend on movies and pets, an education to earn that money, equitable taxation, financial institutions to save money in, an environment in which a girl may go out of her home to earn a living, an environment in which a girl may not be dragged by the hair and executed or sold in the nearest slave market, the fact that I’ve never had to go through the ravages of war, famine and epidemic in my entire life, the right to marry whom I want—within my caste and religion or outside of it, the right to pray to whoever I wish, the right to not pray at all, the right to birth control, the right to vote, the right to question those who govern us, the right to justice, and most importantly, the right to disagree. I think these are very good reasons to sing paeans to one’s nation, despite everything else.
Should we try and teach ourselves about what went on before we had these rights—as a way of respecting what we have achieved so far? I don’t know. Nevertheless, let us not practice pusillanimity in the name of democracy. Let us not force each other to prevaricate when it comes to asking and answering difficult questions. Let us break our hearts, once and for all, and be honest with ourselves: Exactly how patriotic are we? What does this “love of the land” mean to us Indians?