February 21, 2016

India: Nationalism, noise and anger (Aakar Patel)

OUTLOOK February 21, 2016

Indian Nationalism Limited

Real feeling for nation in terms of contribution and sacrifice seems absent. Only noise and anger are on display.
I have travelled around the world and I notice that we Indians use some words that others do not.
'Non-vegetarian' is a word only Indians of upper caste and middle class use. No other nation knows the word 'non-veg' and in no other country except India do flight attendants offer 'veg' or 'non-veg' as options. They offer the 'meat', or 'fish', or 'chicken', which are standard and one must opt specifically for vegetarian.
Similarly, 'anti-national' is not a word one encounters in Europe or the United States. This is because the opposite of it, meaning 'nationalism' is not a good word in their languages. Nationalism produced Europe's two great wars and being nationalistic is seen as a negative value. I cannot think of a single European political party that uses the word nationalist that we in India use so easily, even in party names, like NCP.
In Hindi and Gujarati, the word for nationalism is 'rashtrawad'. This is a warm word, and something to be desired in an individual because 'rashtra' itself is a warm word for all Indians, unlike 'nation' which is neutral. Urdu is more accurate and offers 'nationalism' as 'qawm-parasti'. The Oxford English Dictionary defines nationalism as 'an extreme form of patriotism marked by a superiority over other countries'. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines nationalism as a feeling 'exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on the promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations and supranational groups.'
This accurately describes Indian nationalism to me. In the last few days we have seen how passionate Indians can get in defending our nationalism. We take strong objection to slogans which disagree with our view of Bharat Mata. So long as our objection does not result in violence I am fine with it. Unfortunately, this time, as with most times, it has resulted in violence and I was not surprised. The behaviour of lawyers in the court on two consecutive days on the Jawaharlal Nehru University matter was totally in keeping with our culture.
I wanted to write about something else. Going back to 'nationalism', in what other ways do Indians show it? Going by television debates, it is obvious that the overwhelming majority of middle class Indians are nationalistic when it comes to opposing slogans and when it comes to the unity and integrity of India.
And yet only 3% of Indians pay income tax. Here our 'nationalism' is not particularly strong. Also, it should be made clear that the majority of these tax payers are salaried individuals whose tax is deducted by the employer so the opportunity to do tax theft is not available to them. These middle class people play other tricks with their 'salary break-up' and this is not the space to write about that.
Another uniquely Indian thing is called TDS, a phrase only middle class Indians know. It stands for 'income tax deducted at source' and no other country I know has it. The government of India assumes that there is a certain amount of theft that its citizen will do and so it deducts the income tax before the return is filed. Recovering such money for your refund is not easy, but again that is not the subject of this piece.
Our passionate love for our nation as seen in our anger at slogan shouters does not extend to caring for the nation in other ways. We are one of the dirtiest people on earth and even our holiest river the Ganga can only be cleaned if the Supreme Court orders it, and even then with difficulty. The citizen will not show his love voluntarily. Casual breaking of the nation's laws shows up in other words that are uniquely Indian. For example 'unauthorised construction' and 'encroachment'. I have been travelling to America and Europe for 30 years and have yet to encounter individuals who do such things. Here of course it is as common as individuals getting angry over slogans.
Our nationalism seems to be limited. The government's response to the JNU issue is to force an Indian flag on all universities. Will this produce the right effect? The feeling we have for Mother India is already very strong, but it does not reflect in our actual actions and our behaviour, only in our sentiment. And the strength of feeling only shows when it comes to our reaction to the actions of others, not our own.
I think nationalism as defined in English is quite accurate for us Indians. We are concerned mainly about 'our superiority over others' and our emphasis is 'on the promotion of our culture and interests as opposed to those of others'. Real feeling for nation in terms of contribution and sacrifice seems absent. Only noise and anger are on display.