This is a long emotional article, so read carefully and only when you have time, otherwise bookmark it and read when you are in position to think.
Are left parties traitors? Is congress is working for what is best for US, not what is best for India? Whether RSS is a terrorist organization? Is BJP trying to promote the communal ideals? Is protest in Gorkhaland, Mumbai, Rajasthan unpatriotic? I come across these questions and comments at online blogs, in speeches of leaders and even in books. Not only it is a debate about big issues –nuclear deal, naxalite problem, formation of smaller states or inflation- but it’s also a debate about values. How do we keep ourselves safe and secure while preserving our liberties? How do we restore trust in a government that seems increasingly removed from its people and dominated by special interests? How do we ensure that, in an increasingly global economy, the winners maintain allegiance to the less fortunate and development is trickled down? And how do we resolve our differences at a time of increasing diversity?
Finally, it’s worth considering the meaning of patriotism, because the question of who is or is not a patriot all too often poisons our political debates in ways that divide us rather than bring us together.
We have seen times when, all were defended as expressions of patriotism, and those who disagreed with your policies were sometimes labeled as unpatriotic. In other words, the use of patriotism as a political sword or a political shield is as old as the any notion of a nation.
We are at the crossroad of history as there are increasing instances of reacting not merely by criticizing particular government policies, but by attacking the symbols, and in extreme cases the very idea of India itself, by burning flags; by blaming India for all that was wrong with the world; and, perhaps most tragically, by failing to honor those soldiers who are fighting for country.
Now, most Indian never bought into these simplistic worldviews, these caricatures of left and of right. Most Indian understood that dissent does not make one unpatriotic. And most Indians understand that there’s nothing smart or sophisticated about a cynical disregard for India’s traditions and institutions. And yet the anger and turmoil of independence movement did not entirely drain away. All too often, our politics still seems trapped in these old, threadbare arguments, a fact most evident during our recent debates about the nuclear deal, when those who opposed the deal were tagged by some as unpatriotic, and a former president providing his best counsel on how to move forward with deal was accused of betrayal.
Given the enormous challenges that lie before us, we can no longer afford these sorts of divisions. None of us expect that arguments about patriotism will, or should, vanish entirely. After all, when we argue about patriotism, we’re arguing about who we are as a country and, more importantly, who we should be. But surely we can agree that no party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism. And surely we can arrive at a definition of patriotism that, however rough and imperfect, captures the best of India’s common spirit.
What would such a definition look like? For me, as for most Indians, patriotism starts as a gut instinct, a loyalty and love for country that’s rooted in some of my earliest memories. And I’m not just talking about the recitations of the words of Mahatma Gandhi at Morning Prayer at school, or the parade of children with small tricolor flags in their hands, or the some fireworks on the Republic day at New Delhi. Rather, as wonderful as these things may be, I’m referring to the way the Indian ideals wove its way throughout the lessons of my family, the lessons that my family taught me as a child. My grandfather telling about fight of independence, about Mahatma Gandhi, My father explaining how we Indians could do anything we set our minds to do at the time of launch of some space vehicle, My family clapping at the news of testing of nuclear bomb. That’s my idea of love for India. I remember listening to my father telling stories about his work on Agra airport with many of his college friends to make it usable for air force at the time of Indi-Pak 1971 war. I understand that his little effort in defense of this country marked one of his greatest sources of pride. That’s my idea of India.
As I got older, that gut instinct that so many of us have, that India is the greatest country on Earth, and it would survive at any cost. That gut instinct, that knowledge would survive my growing awareness of our nation’s imperfections: its ongoing regional strife; the perversions of our political system that were laid bare during the emergency of 1975; the wrenching poverty of our masses all across India. That instinct that this is the greatest country on Earth survived not only because, in my mind, the joys of Indian life and culture, its vitality, its variety, its freedom always outweighed its imperfections, but because I learned that what makes India great has never been its perfection, but the belief that it can be made better. I came to understand that our all political thoughts were started for the sake of that belief: that we could be governed by laws, not men; that we could be equal in the eyes of those laws; that we could be free to say what we want, and assemble with whomever we want, and worship as we please; that we could have the right to pursue our individual dreams, but the obligation to help our fellow citizens pursue theirs.
And that’s why, for me, patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. Instead, it’s also loyalty to India’s ideals, ideals for which anyone can sacrifice, or defend, or give their last full measure of devotion.
I believe it is this loyalty that allows a country teeming with different castes and ethnicities, religions and customs, to come together as one. It is the application of these ideals that separates us from Zimbabwe, where the opposition party and their supporters have been silently hunted, tortured or killed. It separates us from Burma, where tens of thousands continue to struggle for basic food and shelter in the wake of a monstrous storm because a military junta fears opening up the country to outsiders. Or from Pakistan, where every now or then some military general can displace the democracy. I believe those who attack India’s flaws without acknowledging the singular greatness of our ideals, and their proven capacity to inspire a better world, do not truly understand India.
Of course, precisely because India isn’t perfect, precisely because our ideals constantly demand more from us, patriotism can never be defined as loyalty to any particular leader, or government, or policy. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it.” That’s what patriotism is. Now, we may hope that our leaders and our government stand up for our ideals, stand up for what’s right, and there are many times in our history when that’s occurred. But when our laws, when our leaders or our government are out of alignment with those ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Indians may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism. The young lawyer from Porbandar, M. K. Gandhi, who led a mass movement to help India confront our tragic history of political, social injustice and live up to the meaning of our creed, he was a patriot. The leader of opposition Shyama Prasad Mukharjee, who died for a slogan of one country, he was a patriot. The young scientist, who refused an offer to make it big in US and worked all his life to make India’s missile program a reality, is a patriot. The engineer, who gave his life to open the flaws in system in Bihar, was a patriot. Recognizing a wrong being committed in this country’s name, insisting that we deliver on the promise of our Constitution, these are the acts of patriots, men and women who are defending what is best in India. And we should never forget that, especially when we disagree with them, especially when they make us uncomfortable with their words.
That’s part of the Indian tradition. That’s part of why we are proud to be Indians.
Beyond a loyalty to India’s ideals, beyond a willingness to dissent on behalf of those ideals, I also believe that patriotism must, if it is to mean anything, involve the willingness to sacrifice, to give up something we value on behalf of a larger cause. We must always express our profound gratitude for the service of our men and women in uniform – military and police, period, full-stop. Indeed, one of the good things to emerge from the J&K problem has been the widespread recognition that, whether you support the army deployment in valley or not, the sacrifice of our troops is always worthy of honor.
I’ve seen a new generation of Indians begin to take up the call. I meet them everywhere I go, young people involved in the project of Indian renewal, not only those who have signed up to fight for our country at borders, but those who are fighting for a better India right here at their home, by reaching out to those who are less fortunate, by teaching in underserved schools, or caring for the sick in understaffed hospitals, or promoting more sustainable energy policies in their local communities. I believe one of the tasks of our administration is to ensure that this movement towards service grows and sustains itself in the years to come. We should encourage national service by making it a part of the requirement for a new college assistance program, even as we strengthen the benefits for those whose sense of duty has already led them to serve in our military.
So government can do its part. We must remember, though, that true patriotism cannot be forced or legislated with a mere set of government programs. Instead, it must reside in the hearts of our people, and cultivated in the heart of our culture, and nurtured in the hearts of our children.
As we begin a new era as a nation, it is easy to take the extraordinary nature of India for granted. But it is our responsibility as Indians and as parents/teachers to instill that history in our children, both at home and at school. The loss of quality civic education from so many of our classrooms has left too many young Indians without the most basic knowledge of who our forefathers are, or what they did, or the significance of the ideals. Too many children are ignorant of the sheer effort, the risks and sacrifices made by previous generations, to ensure that this country survived four wars and emergency, through the great struggles of civil, and social, and worker’s rights.
It is up to us, then, to teach them. It is up to us to teach them that even though we have faced great challenges and made our share of mistakes, we have always been able to come together and make this nation stronger, and more prosperous, and more united, and more just. It’s up to us to teach them that India has been a force for good in the world and that other nations and other people are looking to us as the last, best hope on Earth. It is up to us to teach them that it is good to give back to one’s community; that it is honorable to serve in the military, that it is vital to participate in our democracy and make our voices heard. And it is up to us to teach our children a lesson that those of us in public life all too often forget: that patriotism involves not only defending this country against external threat, but also working constantly to make India a better place for future generations.
Just as patriotism involves each of us making a commitment to this nation that extends beyond our own individual immediate self- interest, so that commitment must extend beyond our own time here on Earth. Our greatest leaders have always understood this. They’ve defined patriotism with an eye towards posterity.
And in the end, it may be this quality that best describes patriotism in my mind, not just a love of India in the abstract, but a very particular love for, and faith in, the Indian people. That’s why our hearts swell with pride at the sight of our flag. For we know that the greatness of this country, its victories in wars, its growing wealth, its scientific and cultural achievements, its heritage, all result from the energy and imagination of the Indian people, their toil, drive, struggle, their restlessness and humor and quiet heroism. That’s the liberty we defend, the liberty of each of us to pursue our own dreams. That’s the equality we seek, not an equality of results, but the chance of every single one of us to make it if we try. That’s the community we strive to build, one in which we trust in this sometimes messy democracy of ours, one in which we continue to insist that there is nothing we cannot do when we put our mind to it, one in which we see ourselves as part of a larger story, our own fates wrapped up in the fates of those who share allegiance to India’s happy and singular creed.
That’s what patriotism means to me. Please feel free to tell me, what patriotism means to you.