Friday, October 14, 2016

Patriot games

In which cynicism preys on sentiment, and everyone loses.

(Published on October 8, 2016 in Business Standard)

On a recent television debate, actor Om Puri stuck up for Pakistani actors working in Bollywood, and said that nobody forces soldiers to sign up to the Army. The ensuing tide of vitriol caused him to apologise for those remarks:

“‘I am guilty and I deserve a punishment. I want to be tried by the army, I should be court-martialled. I want a constructive punishment,’ Puri said. ‘The army should teach me how to use weapons and send me on the same site where that brave man was [sic] sacrificed himself for the country. I don’t want to be forgiven. I am pleading to the nation I want to be punished.’”

It’s so over the top that it sounds like a satirical comment on the idiocy of having to apologise at all. Like: “I’ve been a bad, bad elf. Please allow me to stand in the corner in a dustbin, banging my head repeatedly against the wall, while our demigods in uniform punch me in the kidneys. Broadcast it live. Hey, do you have rusty nails, burning coals, broken glass, anything? I’d really like to crawl through that.”

But maybe Mr Puri was being genuine. Either way, the takeaway is that the most pressing national issue is to figure out whether something can be read as an insult to the nation, and then, depending on the answer, read it as an insult to the nation anyway, and throw an eye-watering tantrum until people coddle you just to shut you up—or, more malignantly, because otherwise you will blacklist, beat, or kill them. You don’t want that, because we are also a country in which law-abiding citizens are told that the police will not be held responsible if criminals do them harm.

That’s what happened to actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who had a role in a Ramleela in Uttar Pradesh. The Shiv Sena said a Muslim can’t act in a Hindu story, and the police said they couldn’t do anything about any consequent trouble, so the organisers asked him to pull out. Law is ceding ground to de facto power: social behaviour is increasingly being regulated by social threat or violence. The Sena must be thrilled to be spreading its communal poison beyond Maharashtra, but the BJP can take credit for softening up the territory.

After all, it’s UP—ground zero for the cow/beef vigilantism sparked by Mohammed Akhlaq’s murder last year. In Dadri this week, a man jailed in that case died of illness. His body is laid out in public, wrapped in the Indian flag. Is the message that he served the nation by murdering a Muslim—whose son serves in the Air Force? It’s a grotesque, criminal fudging of issues, cynicism preying on sentiment.

What of the people whose job it is to play watchdog, to separate truth from the smoke and mirrors? In India today, if you’ll pardon the expression, too many news anchors have abandoned that role to function like the government’s PR department. When Arnab Goswami says that questioning military action indicts one’s patriotism—that there should be no room for nuance in this black-and-white issue—he is no longer a journalist. But then news anchors have long jostled for patriotic cred, when they should have been reminding India that patriotism is not a requirement for citizenship, nor is playing along with calls for unity—however patriotism and unity are defined in that moment. And in this moment, patriotism and unity are being defined as unquestioning worship of the armed forces. Self-styled patriot anchors are leading witch hunts when they should be pointing out that the armed forces are as fallible and open to question as anyone else, and that questions are not the same as insults. Instead, they have helped popularise the term ‘martyr’ for a soldier killed in action, apparently innocent of the religious connotations of the word. A dead jihadi is a martyr. A dead Indian soldier is a professional who served the state and is publicly mourned.

That’s the stunning achievement of two and a half years of this government—a political bait-and-switch, selling a promise of economic development, and delivering a triumphalist machine that sacralises country, nationalism, majoritarianism and tradition, to achieve Hindutva goals. Secular institutions and ideas are being given non-negotiable religious weight. Religion has handcuffed rationality and put a gun to its head, and individual rights are being socially delegitimised.

When insecurity makes sweet, sweet love to mindless team spirit and overblown regard for power, the child of that union is hyper-nationalism, and it’s a spoiled brat whose parents rush to fulfil its every wish. This emotional pap is very handy at election time—you have only to look at the posters coming up in Uttar Pradesh, of the Prime Minister pictured as a warrior.

But there’s another way to fight for your country: You can just refuse to give up your brain.

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