May 05, 2016

India: BJP and its supporters are working to sacralise the concept and language of nationalism (Mitali Saran)

Business Standard

Mitali Saran: From the rib of nationalism

Monsters tend to outgrow their leashes

Mitali Saran  |  New Delhi 

Maharashtra Chief Minister said that people who don’t chant “Bharat mata ki jai” have no right to live in India, and have mala fide intentions to break up the country with…silence, one supposes. RSS leader Indresh Kumar said that people who don’t chant “Bharat mata ki jai” should go to Pakistan. Gujarat leader Dilip Sanghani said that prospective students will have to write “Bharat mata ki jai” on their application forms if they want to get into any of the educational institutions run by his trust. Yoga guy “Baba” Ramdev said that but for the Indian constitution, he would decapitate lakhs of Indians for not chanting Bharat mata ki jai, causing to break out in support of free speech.

The only good thing to come out of this non-issue-turned-monster-problem, so far, is comedy group AIB’s advertisement for a new Patanjali shampoo called ‘Behead & Shoulders’.

In the context of our real problems — an increasingly cavalier attitude to President’s Rule; drought-hit farmers; Dalits being raped, murdered and humiliated; the diplomatic meltdown with Pakistan; and children continuing to go to bed hungry — the pitched political battle over nationalist slogans seems irrelevant. But it is doggedly being made relevant. The central government said that it did not “authorise” the statements of Messrs Fadnavis or Ramdev, whatever that means, but declared that they are expressions of nationalism. Why, then, pretend to distance itself from what it obviously approves of? What’s the point of this double game?

Simply put, the BJP and its supporters are working to sacralise the concept and language of — to recreate it as a kind of religion, with all the uncompromising sensitivities and uncritical acceptance that go with articles of faith. They lead by example, escalating the language of devotion, of mother, of martial defence, and of not just offering their lives for the motherland, but relieving other people of theirs.

It used to be that patriotism was a silent non-issue, like citizenship by birth. You didn’t have to rip your chest open and display the Indian map tattooed on your beating heart to be accepted as a certified Indian. By getting all pop-eyed with outrage, the BJP has invented — out of thin air — the idea that if you do not adequately prove and demonstrate patriotism, you are a traitor, or at least very dodgy. It’s a wonderful way of cornering and alienating large sections of Indians. It depends not on legislation, but on social behaviour. Pretty soon the population starts to correlate various histrionics with sincerity, and voila, you’ve created mass competitive devotional patriotism. But you’ve also co-created, from the rib of devotion, that most dangerous of corollaries: blasphemy.

The idea that question, critique, and non-compliance are blasphemous, and justify spontaneous violent response, is completely normal in theocratic states like and Saudi Arabia. India was proud to be different. We’ve always been plagued with religious groups screaming over books and art and so forth, and the state’s response has more often than not been weak-kneed, but the state has steered clear of stoking the idea of blasphemy. Now, at a time when Mumtaz Qadri is being eulogised in Pakistan for committing murder in support of blasphemy laws; at a time when rationalist atheist bloggers are being picked off by Islamic fundamentalists with machetes in — now is when India decides to flirt with unleashing the fires of blasphemy? What are we playing here, competitive bonkers?

The BJP has provoked the nationalism debate because it is central to the Hindutva idea of a strong Hindu nation — and handily detracts from other failures. (The Congress opposition has opportunistically helped, even accusing Smriti Irani of blasphemy in Parliament.) From Hyderabad Central University to Jawaharlal Nehru University, and now the National Institute of Technology in Srinagar, where a ‘nationalist’ standoff between students has resulted in condemnable police action and CRPF troops on campus, it is defending and fanning devotional nationalism. The problem is that the idea of anti-national blasphemy, still young, could one day grow up and break its chains. India will then start to blend into its neighbourhood. It will be pointless to be banished to Pakistan: we will already live there.

Does the BJP know what it’s doing? If not, that is extremely worrying. If so, it is even more worrying.