Monday, 13th August, 2012: This morning, I had a rude awakening. It dawned on me that I had been wrong throughout my life, that I was not a patriotic person; in fact, I had been, throughout, a hypocrite shedding crocodile tears on Independence Day and Republic Day. Here’s how I made this uncomfortable discovery.
While I was making tea this morning, a martial song started playing inside my head – a favourite at neighbourhood flag-hoisting ceremonies:
“Taaqat watan ki hum se hai, himmat watan ki hum se hai,
Izzat watan ki hum se hai, insaan ke hum rakhwale”
I was visualizing uniformed Indian soldiers marching at Siachen or Rajasthan, rifles on shoulders, as they sang this song.
Suddenly, as I stirred the sugar in my tea, the scales fell from my eyes. I realized I was not visualizing myself as one of the soldiers. Nor was I visualizing anybody dear to me as a soldier. I was just visualizing faceless, nameless soldiers – men who were just part of the system that I was paying taxes for, like the bus drivers and conductors and municipal staff.
With this realization came another realization: this was why India was consistently failing to become the India of my dreams. I had been dreaming unworthy dreams! I wanted great changes and fantastic progress but always, always I mentally placed myself outside the circle of change. For over three decades of my life, I have been dreaming of an India that others would strive for, shed blood for and make huge sacrifices to build, while my family and I were grateful bystanders and beneficiaries.
It is not only soldiers who make sacrifices. Closer home, I have always wanted the government, administration and police to toil harder and more sincerely for a better-managed roads. Why better roads? Just so that my family and I can drive through it with minimum delays and hassles. Yes, most policemen are already overworked, underpaid and demotivated… but hey, is that my problem? I pay taxes, don’t I? So they must work harder! That’s my reasoning… and my reasoning is flawed.
For decades, I have dreamt about Mumbai becoming a city with the feel of Singapore or Dubai. I want the slum people – who are 65% of my city’s populace — to stop congesting the cityscape, and stop jostling with me for space on trains, buses and roads. I want them to vanish. No, wait, I want a few of them around only as domestic servants, security staff and vegetable vendors.
And nowadays, as I watch the prices of milk, bread, vegetables etc. rise alarmingly, I pray that my monthly income should rise to keep pace with the cost increase. But I don’t want my domestic servant to ask for a raise, because that would hurt me in the wallet.
My personal safety, personal convenience, personal growth are my inviolable fundamental rights and human rights… and I hope enough soldiers and policemen are being employed to maintain order and die if necessary, so that the smooth flow of my life is not rudely interrupted.
Looking back, I realize now that my dreams are not worthy of becoming a reality.
My learning in recent years is that prayers are answered, but only if they qualify as genuine prayers. For decades, I have prayed hollow prayers, and dreamt false and insincere dreams. No wonder they are not realized!
There’s this other song:
“Ae mere watan ke logon, zara aankh mein bhar lo paani,
Jo shahid hue hain unki, zara yaad karo qurbaani.”
Lata Mangeshkar’s rousing voice always makes my eyes moist. Well, no longer. “This, my friend, is patriotic pornography”, I tell myself this morning, angry and bitter with myself.
But the past is past, and anger, bitterness and regret are useless. Self-flagellation is useless. To go forward into the future, I need to ask what my nation needs from me today. And so I ask: WHAT DOES MY COUNTRY NEED FROM ME TODAY?
To answer this question, I need to know what India is. Do I know?
Do I have an understanding of my country – a bird’s-eye-view, a proper working model where all the constituents, stakeholders and various mechanisms are represented fairly? Am I capable of rising above my own self-interest and personal agenda to envision what my nation truly is, and what it needs?
How many layers of indoctrination have I undergone and am still undergoing? Can I peel my way through the many layers of caricaturized, mythologized India in my mind’s eye, to see the real India – the true collective reality that my 121 crore fellow citizens have together created, along with me, my parents, wife, children, family, friends and associates? Can I peel away all the propaganda, so that I see India with freshness and directness? Can I see the India that we are still creating, today, this moment, as we live and breathe and think?
Can I bring myself to truly experience this process of co-creation that we are continually engaged in – all of together at different levels? To experience this, I must stop myself feeling like a passive inheritor of antiquated historical baggage, with odds and ends from the Mughal era, the British Era and the Nehruvian era. Can I, truly?
Can I erase from my mind this vision I have of Bharat as a smiling Hindu goddess drawn on a world map? Can I erase from my mind this idea that the highest service to Bharat Mata is to guard her with guns against plundering northern invaders? Can I erase from my mind the idea that the imaginary sanctity of this goddess must be restored by Sanskritizing our entire cultural heritage and making Ayodhya the national capital?
Can I stop seeing India as merely an administrative and governance framework inherited from the British colonizers, to be defended from separatists and cross-border terrorists who are bent on disrupting this order? Can I stop defending this framework, and start looking at it sensibly as a live, evolving thing – an organism that must shed its old and dead parts to grow robust and beautiful?
Can I stop seeing India as a victim of a few historical figures? Can I stop fantasizing that India is a mythical land where milk and honey and foreign investment would freely flow, if only the Gandhi-Nehru legacy were magically dumped into the Arabian Sea, and the legacies of Veer Savarkar, Subhash Bose and Sardar Patel were embraced by the populace?
Can I stop seeing India as only a way of doing business? Does the highest patriotism necessarily constitute “exploiting opportunities” to maximize economic growth, so the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) figures go into double-digits and attract a gush of foreign investors? Can I stop paying lip-service to “sustainable development” and “equitable distribution of the fruits of development”, and start looking at realistic ways of maximizing “Gross Domestic Happiness” of the people of India?
If a genie were to grant me a wish, what must I wish for? Should I wish for urbanized manufacturing superpower that establishes its economic and political dominance over USA, Russia, China etc? Is such thinking not a reaction to colonialism? Can we please shed this colonial chip-on-our-collective–shoulder? Keeping the right-to-life-and-liberty of people like Adivasis and, yes, our fellow creatures in mind, should I wish for a happy steady-state nation that maximizes the “Gross Domestic Happiness” of all its constituents? A nation where inflation, deforestation and over-exploitation of resources and people are not part of the script?
Must we envision India as a nation where exemplary punishment swoops down to smite wrongdoers – especially corrupt politicians and administrators – and hang them publicly as soon as they do wrong? Or will my India be a tolerant state, which is not necessarily a weak state?
And if tolerant, then tolerant of what, exactly? Alcohol? Recreational drugs? Tobacco? Dance-bars? Rock musicians? Religious zealotry? Product imports? Cultural imports? Internet pornography? Foreign Direct Investment in retailing? What?
I am just thinking aloud. No, I don’t have an understanding of what India is, and so I don’t understand what India needs. Honestly, I don’t. My patriotism does not extend beyond reading the morning papers and then tut-tutting, criticizing Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, Prithviraj Chavan, Mayawati and Mamta Bannerjee, and bemoaning how the country is going to the dogs.
SEE MY PLIGHT. Despite being well-to-do, my life is paradoxically a hand-to-mouth existence, and this is considered quite normal in Mumbai. Like my fellow citizens (many of who earn several lakh rupees a month, which I don’t), I frantically carry on business-as-usual every day of my life, and I put my nation indefinitely on hold. This is because if I don’t earn my livelihood every single day, working over 16 hours a day, poverty and homelessness will befall my family, and my wealth will simply evaporate within days, weeks and months. And so I live in constant fear of poverty.
My only option is to expect some messiah like Anna Hazare, Baba Ramdev or Arvind Kejriwal to arrive on the scene and rescue this nation with a magical cure-all formula like the Jan Lokpal Bill.
Yes, my patriotism manifests only as love for all those beautiful patriotic songs by Lata Mangeshkar, Manna Dey and Mohammad Rafi that refer to about our glorious soldiers at the borders.
WHILE I AM WALLOWING IN SELF-PITY AND SELF-FLAGELLATION, a dear friend calls me. In the run-up to Independence Day, she has organized an informal chat in a college. She wants me to give the collegians a little talk about Article 51A of the Constitution. I agree to try; I’m not sure I will find the time to spare.
And then I google for Article 51A. Turns out that it is about the Fundamental Duties of a citizen. And then I read:
“it shall be the duty of every citizen of India—to abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions and blah, blah, blah (Yup, that’s easy), to cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom (Oh yeah, baby, I cherish them; who doesn’t?) to uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity and blah-blabbety-blab (Yeah, yeah, sure, why not?)… to defend the country and render national service when called upon to do so…
This is Article 51A(d), and it grabs my attention and stops me in my tracks. I stop glossing over the fundamental duties, and read the article carefully, slowly, twice.
“IT SHALL BE THE DUTY OF EVERY CITIZEN OF INDIA— TO DEFEND THE COUNTRY AND RENDER NATIONAL SERVICE WHEN CALLED UPON TO DO SO.”
And you know what I’m thinking? “Me? Is it my duty to defend the country? Even if there is a massive attack from Pakistan and/or China, will the Indian Army ever call me to render national service? Hell, no. Because I’m 47, balding, overweight and have poor eyesight. I would be a liability, not an asset.”
Jokes aside, I don’t think my country needs all its citizens to don military boots and take up arms to be called a patriot.
And then I think: We need to defend against other threats also. We are called upon to render national service in the domains where we have maximum knowledge and experience! The unrecognized threat is not out there, it is in here! The threat is not only from external forces, from Maoists or even from corrupt ministers and bureaucrats in the corridors of power. The threat lurks in my city, in my neighbourhoods where I live and work, and in the way I do live and do business. The threat is in all the little things that I do or refrain from doing, all the little lies and half-truths that I speak, and all the necessary truths that I avoid speaking in the course of my daily life.
THE THREATS TO MY NATION ARE IN ALL THE LITTLE COWARDICES THAT I AM HABITUATED TO PERFORM DAILY.
And so, the remedy for that is tiny little acts of courage that I must perform, such as:
• Refusing to pay the shopkeeper more than the MRP for a packet of milk
• Speaking an inconvenient truth at my housing society’s annual general meeting
• Asking my family doctor to be transparent about commissions that he receives for prescribing pathology tests or recommending hospitalization
• Telling my chartered accountant not to fiddle with figures to minimize my tax returns
For such acts, I don’t need the courage to face the bullets of enemy forces. I only need to face a some ridicule, and occasionally, some confrontations. My nation does not need me to lose my life, it merely needs me to occasionally risk losing face. Can’t I do even that for my country?
These little acts of courage are within my control.
So, what am I waiting for? AM I WAITING FOR THE PRESIDENT OR PRIME MINISTER TO MAKE AN ANNOUNCEMENT THAT SAYS: “I call upon all citizens in all walks of life to come out and defend the country from:
1. Civil works contractors who go out of their way to offer 40% kickbacks to ministers and officials
2. Hospitals and pathology labs that give 60% referral kickbacks to doctors
3. Doctors who recommend avoidable surgical procedures and prescribe exhorbitant and unnecessary drugs
4. Judges, magistrates and public prosecutors who take bribes and adulterate justice
5. Companies that put fixers and middlemen in the corridors of power
6. Advertisers who propagate lies, and sell unwholesome products & services
7. Food vendors, big and small, who knowingly use carcinogenics and harmful substances as sweeteners, food colours and preservatives
8. Business houses that use money power and PR agencies to keep the public in the dark
9. Chartered accountants who routinely manipulate figures for tax avoidance
10. Architects who tutor builders in how to cheat and cover up
11. Authorized automobile workshops that give incentives for workmen to lie, cheat, unnecessarily change parts, charge labour and inflate bills
12. Factories that openly pollute the air, water and land
13. Police, vigilance and regulatory authorities that openly turn away from their duties
14. Media bosses who adulterate genuine news with paid news
15. Insiders in all spheres of activity who keep quiet about unscrupulous practices that they are aware of
16. Political parties that collect donations and election funds without accountability
17. Citizens who abuse even tiny positions of authority on the managing committee of their trade association or their cooperative housing society”
The list goes on and on… I know that the PM or anybody else in public life will never make such specific announcements. But that is no excuse for me to continue to ignore all these evils that exist in our midst.
What will it take for me to get to take ownership of such problems, and take up the fight on such battlefronts? Am I waiting for a national emergency to be declared before I stop living my life in a business-as-usual manner? Am I waiting for a complete breakdown in civic services before I feel sufficient alarmed to do my fundamental duty?
I don’t know. I hope not. I would be ashamed if that is the case. And as things stand currently, yes, I am ashamed.
No, I am not quite sure of a lot of things. I am filled with uncertainties. But of one thing, I am certain: this Independence Day, when tear-jerker patriotic songs are playing on loudspeakers, I shall not vicariously satisfy myself with visions of dying soldiers and grieving mothers.