As our country gets ready to celebrate one of its biggest national holidays, citizens all over its length and breadth will gear up to put up a dazzling show. School teachers will teach students patriotic songs. Building societies will organize flag hoisting ceremonies, preceded by a seemingly polite but emotionally charged battle over which member will do what. Shopkeepers will drape their mannequins in orange, white and green. Ragged children at traffic lights will offer miniature paper tricolours instead of their usual China-made toys. Mainstream media will pose intellectual questions with deadly earnestness; “What Have We Achieved in XYZ Years?” Politicians will smile extra-wide into camera lenses, somehow aiming to convey the impression that it is THEIR day. A week later, exhausted but content in having done its ‘duty’, the nation will move on to The Next Big Thing.
It is quite natural that the strident patriotism associated with August 15th should die out a few days later. For genuine nationalistic pride, you need genuinely historic milestones, such as the struggle for freedom from the British, or the recent anti-corruption movement, or being in the midst of the Kargil War. And even this sentiment faces challenges in a constantly changing world. Our world races towards globalization while celebrating individuality and personal freedom. Some of its people wish to divide themselves into ever-smaller factions based on ever-finer distinctions (race, religion, language, caste, etcetera, etcetera ….) whereas others want to unite for global concerns such as environmental damage and world peace. Many of its countries allow multiple citizenship. So in this brave new changing world with shifting and blurring boundaries, does loyalty to one’s motherland still have a place? Or is it an outmoded, irrelevant and ultimately doomed creed?
Anyway, how would you define patriotism today? How should I, an average urban middle-class citizen of India, express my loyalty to her? Is she my motherland only because of the happy accident of my being born within her? Do I prove my loyalty by studying Bharatnatyam rather than tango, eating vada pav and not pizza, and wearing sarees instead of jeans? Does working for Google and not Infosys make me anti-national? Does shopping at Walmart and not the local kirana store make me anti-national? Am I allowed to question my country’s constitution? Am I allowed to question my country’s foreign policy? Or does asking such questions make my loyalty suspect?
These questions are universal and not confined to citizens of any one country. Is Edward Snowden a traitor to his country? Was Solzhenitsyn a traitor to his? Is Irom Sharmila a traitor to hers? Are Dai Qing, the environmental activist, and Liu Xiaobo, the human rights activist, traitors to theirs? Were the Germans who supported Hitler patriots, or were they criminals against humanity? Were American anti-war crusaders unpatriotic, or did they simply consider humanity a greater cause?
The fact of the matter is, patriotism is an abstract concept, full of conflicting notions. Some westerners are known to sew their national flag onto T-shirts, caps, even bathing suits, as a public display of their love for their country, but a similar action would create a furor in India. Many people light firecrackers when the Indian team wins a cricket match, but cheat while paying their taxes. The neighbor who rails against the perils of Brain Drain happens to be a road-repair contractor who bribes government officials to get his contracts. The columnist who writes scathing critiques on the state of the nation dissuades her children from joining the armed forces. Inevitably, jingoism and insularity are used as convenient substitutes for patriotism, because they feel so much more satisfying than quieter, less spectacular actions.
Instead, the sincerest and most selfless way to be patriotic would be to follow the second part of John F. Kennedy’s immortal words (with an emphasis on the verb): Ask what you can DO for your country. We have each benefited from a solid system of education which has placed us way ahead of our counterparts in many other developing (and some developed) countries. Our standards of living have been improving steadily in the decades since independence – not all countries have been as fortunate. We have a free and fair press. We have unrestricted access to the internet. It is time we counted our blessings. It is time we gave back. How can we do this?
Interest yourself in local governance. Any new developmental initiative is usually put up in your local BDA/Panchayat/Municipal Council. Check plans for construction of sewers and drains, new roads and flyovers, pedestrian walks, etc. Follow up on schemes where the government spends plenty of money such as garbage recycling and pothole repairs. These are the usual money generators for corrupt babus, but a vigilant and inquisitive populace would go a long way towards preventing the misuse of OUR money. File an RTI if you are not getting answers. It costs just as much as a pizza and is available online: http://rti.gov.in/rti/states.asp
Volunteer in your community. Patriotism, like charity, should begin at home. If you’re unsure of where to begin, several initiatives such as Teach India and Janaagraha, make it easy to join in for as little as a couple of hours a week. Or you can choose to do your own thing. For instance, if you notice trees being felled in your area, complain, gather your neighbours, and raise a stink. Organise a community clean-up of your locality to rid it of plastic waste. Investigate the possibility of introducing solar water heaters and rainwater harvesting in your building. Every little bit helps.
Educate yourself. Ask yourself: Do I know what my fundamental duties are – do I carry them out – or have they been forgotten post-High School? Am I educated about the issues that are in the news – poverty, overpopulation, the falling rupee, Naxalite attacks, the Narmada dam, Kashmir – or do I just swallow the media rhetoric whole, without questioning or probing or thinking for myself? It is time we paid our country the compliment of knowing her well.
Make sure you’re registered to VOTE! Find out more about your local candidates, inform yourself on the national ones, make sure your name will be included in the electoral list, and keep all your identification documents up-to-date. Local elections are just as important… perhaps more important, than national ones.
Most of us retain the strong emotional connect to our homeland that is forged in our childhood. The spirit is willing, but the flesh might not quite know what to do. But it is up to us to forge our feeling for India into something positive, practical and meaningful. Our patriotism is best expressed by contributing to our country. Wouldn’t that be an occasion for the biggest celebrations yet?