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Patriotism and poverty of ideas

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-03-2017 Manu Joseph

When the labour pains begin, the women of her tribe shout curses at their husbands. Some say the women curse in the filthiest Marathi possible. That is tradition. The 18-year-old girl, too, abused her man as she delivered their child. But her husband was out of earshot. He was a soldier on the front lines during India’s brief battle against Pakistan in Kargil. What she did not know was that hours before she had begun her curses, he had been killed in combat. She told me all this one year after the war as I barged into her house in Maharashtra’s Satara district to seek the normative “one-year-after-Kargil” stories. She tried not to weep through the interview but when the photographer made her pose with her dead husband’s photograph in her arm (“hold it a bit up, a bit further, yes, yes”), she broke down.

Elsewhere in the state, when I arrived at the door of a dead soldier’s home, his mother started trembling in fear and ran inside. A year ago, the news of her son’s death had arrived like this—with a man in plain clothes at her door asking to see her. Her other son, too, was in the army and when she saw me, she thought he was gone too.

It was cruel to walk into their homes as they were rebuilding their lives and remind them of their sorrow; and it was particularly cruel because the nation, for all its patriotic swag, was not really interested in their wounded lives. The nation does show respect for dead soldiers, but interest is a very different matter.

The families of the two soldiers were very poor, which would not surprise most Indians. As everybody knows, the men who die in battle are usually, if not always, from impoverished homes. But it is important for the state to explain the exploitation of its poorest men through the ideas of patriotism and sacrifice. The families of the dead themselves endure their loss not only through the different ways in which the nation tries to compensate them but also by accepting that the men died for glorious reasons.

It would appear that the religion of patriotism is filled with believers who have the same simplistic notion of love and sacrifice. But that is not how it goes. Patriotism has prophets and evangelists and high priests and common believers who exhibit various degrees of faith. The greatest beneficiaries of a nation’s sovereignty—its politicians, industrialists and elite cultural dependents who are nothing outside Indian boundaries—are the most passionate propagators of the idea.

This was evident after Gurmehar Kaur, the 20-year-old daughter of a man who died in battle, released a photograph in which she held a placard saying Pakistan had not killed her father, war had. It is not an extraordinary statement but it swiftly became one. She seemed to be questioning the significance of the enemy of the state in the death of a martyr, thereby absolving Pakistan and holding India equally responsible. She confused the patriots. Their violent reactions to her inoffensive plea for peace is a result of the confusion. For years they have been told by their handlers that India has an enemy, and they have been told this because it is hard to create a story about heroism without villains.

The reactions to Gurmehar’s placard showed the interaction between the promoters of patriotism and the naïve receivers who allow themselves to be used. The promoters are, as always, the greatest beneficiaries of the Indian state, its politics and economics—for instance, north Indian politicians (south Indian politicians have gained very little from nationalism); those in the capitalist systems; and people who can be considered intellectual and cultural elites only in India and would feel diminished if they stepped into foreign cultures. On the other hand, those who supported Gurmehar were Indians who have never seen patriotism as a hefty human virtue. Not surprisingly, they have either not benefited from the modern nationalistic India, or have been threatened by it or are part of a sophisticated global cultural elite and their self-worth does not depend on the greatness of India.

The promoters of patriotism are not covert frauds. The most influential political evangelists are those who entirely believe in the ideas they promote. There are, of course, conmen among nationalists but they will always remain minor influencers compared to those who are truly deluded.

History and contemporary society is filled with the beneficiaries of a system who use morals or ideology to convince others that an idea will enrich a community while, in reality, it only benefits a few. Not long ago in India, the Brahmins used morals to ensure that women and a huge section of the population that were slotted in the lower castes could not compete with the elite for resources. The contemporary evangelism of cultural pride, too, is part of the same force. For years, the regional elite have thwarted the spread of English in the name of promoting Indian languages. As a result, politicians and governments have done very little to take English to the masses though proficiency in that language has for long proven to be one of the great equalizers in Indian society.

Much of leftist activism, though always couched as something pious, is motivated by the subconscious elitist instinct to use idealism to mess with the lives of others. It is not a coincidence that the campaigns against greed and materialism are conducted by the very beneficiaries of greed and materialism. Their award-winning savants who go around the world to attend human rights conferences are only unknowingly guarding the turfs of the rich by trying to defame the very desire to prosper. Of course, much can be said against greed and materialism but if you are poor these can be useful vices to possess.

Everything that the left does is a spectacular exercise in keeping the oppressed where they are, through a passionate glorification of their miseries. They never tell small farmers the truth: that they are doomed and should liberate themselves from agriculture. The children of farmers are smart enough to realize that. In almost every survey, they exhibit their wish to escape to the cities and do not appear to share the romanticism of the village that some Indians who do not live in villages appear to possess.

The morals that the left conveys to the poor are unmistakable—businessmen are evil; the rich are unhappy; highly efficient crops designed in labs are poison; loans can be treacherous; power plants are destructive; remain in your forest dwellings. In another time, cunning feudal lords may have said very similar things to the poor to keep them poor.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.

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