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India’s angst

“Patriotism”, said Samuel Johnson in 1775, “is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Over the intervening years, this famous quote may have become a cliché, but has lost none of its sting. This is because patriotism continues to be used to whip up virulent nationalism and fierce religious extremism. Governments and demagogues constantly appeal to this base sentiment to control and direct citizens and mobs.

We see this at work in the ongoing American presidential campaign where Donald Trump exhorts supporters to help him “make America great again”. Considering that the US is already the richest and most powerful country in the world, it is not clear what steroids he is offering, but the rhetoric is enough for voters to rally to his banner.India has left the secular path charted by its founding fathers.Closer to home, the recent furore over the arrest of a student leader from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on the charge of sedition shows how an insecure government can use an archaic, colonial-era law to whip up nationalist support. When Kanhaiya Kumar was detained and then beaten up by lawyers in court, liberal Indians were outraged. During this ongoing controversy, I have exchanged several emails with an Indian reader whose views diverge from the liberal mainstream. In one email, he writes:

“Over recent decades, JNU has become a factory that churns out government financed leftists who go out to promote political causes. Kanhaiya Kumar is a 32-year old ‘student’, ostensibly coming from a very poor family. His ‘field work’ and the recent notoriety will give him a career in politics, the most lucrative of all professions in India.”

This somewhat jaundiced view overlooks the long and honourable tradition of students opposing the official line, and often taking left-wing positions. This is an expression of the passion and idealism the young thankfully possess, and has often been a force driving change. Students around the world have hel­ped to bring down oppressive governments, or forced them to withdraw unpopular policies.

In this case, Kanhaiya has been accused of shouting slogans calling for India’s destruction, a charge he denies. But even if he did call for the country’s ‘barbadi’, surely this was a wild rhetorical device, and not a serious declaration of intent. The government’s overreaction has severely damaged its claim to be a modernising administration.

But this is only one in a long chain of events that has taken India from the secular, democratic path its founding fathers had charted. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself presided over one of the worst bloodbaths in India when, while chief minister of Gujarat, his administration stood by as well over 1,000 Muslims were slaughtered by rampaging Hindu mobs.

M.F. Hussain, the iconic Indian artist, was forced to live his last years in exile after a series of court cases were filed accusing him of ‘hurting the sentiments of people’. In 1998, his house was attacked by thugs from Bajrang Dal, and his paintings vandalised. Called the Picasso of India, he was hounded for depicting Mother India as a nude woman.

Last year, Pakistan’s ex-foreign minister’s book-launch in Mumbai was disrupted by goons from the extreme right-wing Shiv Sena. The same organisation has prevented the Pakistani cricket team from playing in Mumbai, and last year, stopped a Pakistani play from being staged in New Delhi. In another sign of growing Hindu extremism, a Muslim was killed by a mob on the suspicion of possessing beef.

These are just a few random incidents that highlight an accelerating departure from secular, democratic values. For Indian liberals, this is a deeply disturbing trend, and one unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. Even though a right-wing BJP government is in power now, Congress was not above pandering to Hindutva sentiments when it was politically expedient.

The truth is that with the passage of time, the elites of the post-colonial era, raised and educated in Western values, have seen their power wane. Moral and fiscal integrity are seen as old fashioned, and power has shifted to populists and demagogues who better reflect the public mood. The left’s infighting when in the opposition, and ineptitude when in office, has greatly weakened it. Although India’s constitution is secular, it no longer represents the majority’s worldview.

In a sense, the changes taking place in India reflect those initiated in Pakistan in the 1980s under the baneful dictatorship of Ziaul Haq. For instance, few Pakistanis — especially in the younger generation — are willing to accept that Jinnah was a staunch secularist.

And let us not forget that when a Pakistani cricket fan, Umar Daraz, waved an Indian flag after a match-winning knock by Kohli against Australia, he was promptly arrested. The police charged him with acting ‘against the ideology of Pakistan’. But UK citizens of foreign descent often wave their national flags when their teams are playing against England. None of them are locked up. So why are we so caught up with these childish notions of patriotism and jingoism? When will we finally grow up?


Irfan Husain, "India’s angst," Dawn. 2016-02-27.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social aspects , Political issues , Social issues , Social rights , Hindu extremism , Religious extremism , Donald Trump , Gen Ziaul Haq , PM Narendra Modi , Kanhaiya Kumar , M.F. Hussain , Bajrang Dal , United States , India , Gujrat , BJP , JNU