Sania Mirza & the Indian Tri-color

A local court in Bhopal issued summons to tennis star Sania Mirza for allegedly disrespecting the national flag during a function some time back. The summons was issued by following up on a case filed by social worker under the Prevention of Insult to the National Honor Act (1971).It is alleged that Mirza disrespected the national tricolor by sitting in a manner so that her feet pointed at the flag, which the social worker felt was derogatory and had hurt him (Press Trust of India , January 9th 2008).

I chanced upon this news snippet in a national daily and it got me thinking about India and our Indian-ism (If I may say so).

I have had the opportunity of living away from my home country (India) for a while. One of the good things about this has been that I get to see India from an outside perspective. It also gives me an opportunity to be more objective in my viewpoint rather than being in the middle and loosing orientation. And being a self-professed Indophile, what I see doesn’t always make me happy. These are my thoughts about this.

In the last decade or so, India has been going through silent yet powerful transformations. All though the changes are not fully in place, but they do show their brilliant face time and time again in different arenas. Be it the forceful yet diplomatically impeccable take-over of Corus or Arcelor, the Nano which humbly snubbed all the auto-giants’ noses into the ground, the fiery and defiant altercation of the Indian team with the foul-mouthed Australians and a nation rallying in their support. This country has moved a long way from the “turn-the-other-cheek” policy of yesteryear.  There is a renewed pride attached with us about our country, our achievements, and our Indian-ism. Unlike the olden days, we don’t say that we are Indians and become a wallflower in one corner of a social gathering. Instead we get onto the middle of the dance floor, party like there is no tomorrow, and let people know that we are Indians and we have arrived. I love these heady days and pray for many more to come.

Yet, all is not well. There is fine line between nationalism based on honest appreciation of one’s country and self-deceiving images of national pride. Wikipedia defines patriotism as “Patriotism denotes positive and supportive attitudes to a ‘fatherland’ (or ‘motherland’), by individuals and groups. The ‘fatherland’ (or ‘motherland’) can be a region or a city. Patriotism covers such attitudes as: pride in its achievements and culture, the desire to preserve its character and the basis of the culture, and identification with other members of the nation”

Recently, a fellow colleague sent a couple of links which lead to the online version of the Indian Constitution. It is the longest written constitution of any independent nation in the world, containing 395 articles and 12 schedules for a total of 117,369 words in its English language version. Constitutional scholar Granville Austin states that “probably no other nation’s constitution has provided so much impetus toward changing and rebuilding society for the common good”  One of the key features of the Indian constitution is its liberal borrowing from the “Bill of Rights” of the US Constitution. This is known as the Charter of Fundamental Rights. This charter is the sanity check to ensure that our society remains equal and open in all respects, and has become the bedrock of India’s democratic set-up.

With all its drawbacks, I can still say with pride that we live in an amazing country. I know it’s hard to believe this  with the traffic, the open corruption, lack of infrastructure, the crime-ridden society yet we still should count our blessing to be Indians. Barkha Dutt, the journalist par excellence, recounts her experiences of traveling in Pakistan after the recent assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Her story is filled with sadness and grief and at the same time extols the virtues of our society. I am quoting a few lines from her article:

After a week of traveling through Pakistan, I got the sense that four bitter wars with us later, its people have finally conceded the battle to the ‘idea of India’.”

“‘being in Pakistan underscores what we don’t realize often enough ‘ with all its warts, our democracy and secularism are what has kept us sane”

I could go on praising and comparing our nation with others of the world, but then I would be digressing.

What I want to say is that, freedom doesn’t come easy. People who believe that gaining freedom is the difficult part tend to forget that even more arduous than achieving freedom is to maintain that freedom. If you don’t believe me, you can look at our neighboring countries. Their sorry state will surely drive the point home. Similarly, democracy doesn’t come easy either. It’s seen generally that the noble ideal of freedom of speech and expression are good as long as they are in our favor. But the true meaning of democracy is that we take it in the right spirit when another person derides the principles/thoughts that we presumably cherish. And although his speech or expression makes us go into a fit of rage; yet we still accept his fundamental rights and acknowledge his actions. That is true freedom of speech and expression and it’s the sublime goal of any democracy.

For an inch of land, for a shred of a flag, a soldier performs the supreme sacrifice and lays down his life. But the idea here is not to miss the woods from the trees. The symbol of a free and democratic country can’t be just a flag; it should be also be the act of a citizen of the country exercising his right of freedom of expression, his freedom of religion, etc. The flag is the symbol of those ideals and it’s for the protection of those ideals that countless of our soldiers have bravely faced hell and high waters and have died doing so. It’s for those ideals that your and my forefathers have faced bullets and lathi charges so that we can live to see this day and enjoy the fruits of the tree that they have tended with their sweat and blood. The flag just happens to be there but is of no consequence if the ideals that it embodies are forgotten. I don’t propose that we should wear tri-colored slippers because the law of the land is insurmountable and that we should be proud of our nation and its symbol(s).

However, I do propose that we should try to refrain from heeding to false hedonistic national euphoria. Patriotic jingoism is the first step in the direction of self-deceiving images of national pride. This false patriotic fervor is used by unscrupulous elements to gain popularity by cannibalizing on another person’s fame. Or is used to make a citizen bask in the false glory of his nation, and then frighten him that if he/she doesn’t do something, then that glory will be lost. In both cases it’s detrimental to the individual and society as it tends to put power in the hands of few. This by very definition is the anti-thesis of Democracy which condemns the idea of the accumulation of power in the hands of few!!

I believe that India is not a country! Because as a country it’s divided by “narrow domestic walls” of language, religion, caste, regions, etc. I believe that India is an Idea. An idea so grand and yet so humble, so rich and yet filled with humility, an idea 5000 years old and yet so new that it seems timeless. India is so multi-faceted and complex that it would take much more research just to view its different faces, let alone understand them. It’s so abstract and yet so insanely rational and concrete. India is perpetually in chaos, but there is strong and powerful method to its madness. And that method is the acceptance of disparity, the ideal of being free, fair, kind, and true to human spirit. It’s this idea of progress and betterment that tightly binds the country India’s many discrepancies and contradictions and makes a nation.

I don’t say that we are without malaise. After all we too are humans and we have our short comings. But who doesn’t? What I say is that India is poised, it’s shinning and it’s ready to move on to the world’s center stage. And we are a blessed generation to witness this transition. However, we are also a generation with the heaviest responsibilities on our shoulders as we stand at a crucial juncture. On one end is the great nation we all want. A nation based on progress, intellectual and financial wealth, and freedom. On the other end we have the same old society we so desperately want to forget. Therefore, we should remember not to succumb to the lure of political, nationalistic, religious, linguistic, or caste-based jingoism that rears its head sporadically across the country.

Probably when history looks back it wouldn’t know our names but it will know that we lived in the times of Ambanis, Mittals, Tatas, Murthys, Tendulkars, Vishwanathan Anands, Jaspal Ranas, and Bhaichung Bhutias. That we co-existed with the Kalams, Amartya Sens, MF Hussains, and Manmohan Singhs. People who have labored hard and through talent, perseverance and at times sheer grit in the face of great odds have beaten the best in their games within their rules. These people and many like them don’t wear the tri-color on their body as it shines through their personality and achievements.

Therefore, we shouldn’t cry murder if Tendulkar accidentally cuts a tri-color cake or Mirza inadvertently shows her feet to the national flag. Their achievements and accomplishments prove beyond doubt their patriotism and nationalism. Of course their action should be reprimanded because it’s against the law. But sometimes the media and unscrupulous elements use these incidents for their vested interests. However we the people should not patronize these emotions, or succumb to mass hysteria, or get into a witch hunt. This approach is the only way for true democracy and freedom; the alternative is anarchy and disintegration. The choice is ours because the future is ours too!!

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