Saturday, December 10, 2016

Patriotism for dummies

A) You can’t force patriotic feelings. B) See A).  

(Published on December 3, 2016 in Business Standard)

These days there are so many reasons to hold one’s breath and count to ten that if we did it every time, we’d all get hypoxic and faint dead away. On the upside, that would save us from having to read things like the interim order just passed by the Supreme Court regarding the national anthem.

To recap, briefly, Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Amitava Roy issued an order making it compulsory for theatres to close doors and play the national anthem before every movie screening across India, and obliging audiences to stand for the duration. They said that this will inculcate patriotism and respect for the anthem. The order said that the anthem cannot be commercialised or dramatised.

What, you ask, are we still flogging that old horse? 

Apparently nothing says proud, free nation like corralling citizens into rooms to force them to love their country. It will create a virtuous cycle—every time Indians go to the movies in India, we will be reminded that we are Indians, in India, and that we love being Indians in India, and then maybe we won’t mind so much about being fully grown adults locked up in a room and told what songs to listen to.

“Be it stated,” reads the order, “a time has come, the citizens of the country must realize that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to National Anthem which is the symbol of the Constitutional Patriotism and inherent national quality. It does not allow any different notion or the perception of individual rights, that have individually thought of have no space. The idea is constitutionally impermissible. ” [Sic to all of that].

They used to play the national anthem before movie screenings, back when the Republic was young and raw, and people were still learning the tune and all the words. It was a good way to shore up a fragile new national identity, and it must have been an exhilarating reminder of our freedom.

But unless you’re worried about a couple of oldies here and there still harrumphing about how things ran better under the Raj, today you can safely assume that everyone is aware that we live in a self-governing country. Plenty of people, of course, do not feel that they have enough of a stake in the nation called India, and who protest and resist, quietly or loudly, verbally or through action, briefly or for lifetimes. They are constitutionally entitled to do that; the Constitution is set up to protect the rights of a minority of one. Indian democracy has always been a kaleidoscope of these pushes and pulls, agreements and disagreements, loves and hates. To say that now, suddenly, the time has come to realise that we live in a nation, after 70 years of nationhood, is jarring. To say that different notions and individual rights are constitutionally impermissible when it comes to the anthem is difficult to take seriously—worse, it’s antithetical to the Constitution.

The order flows from Article 51(a), the citizen’s fundamental duty to respect the flag and the anthem. But fundamental duties are not enforceable. Justice Misra interprets respect as everyone standing in a closed movie hall. A previous, much more sensible Supreme Court judgement by Justice Reddy said that respect simply means not disrupting the anthem. The difference between these two interpretations is a little something called choice.

There are two rules for patriotism: A) You can’t force patriotic feelings. B) See A).
If making a reluctant Indian stand were to miraculously fill her with love for the nation, Justice Misra might be on to something. But since it is impossible to force patriotic feelings, all this order will achieve is to make her think that the nation is repellently bossy. And that closed doors are a fire hazard.

There are many reasons why you may not want to stand for the anthem. Maybe you love your country but don’t like public displays of affection. Maybe you feel bullied because all you’re trying to do is watch a movie. Maybe you haven’t decided how you feel about nation-states. Maybe you don’t like being told what to do. Maybe you’re a true patriot, promoting democracy by defending the idea of choice. The point is, standing or sitting or doing handstands in the aisles has nothing to do with how you feel about your country. Let the standers stand; let the sitters sit. That’s democracy.

What would really suck is if, every time you’re at a movie, the anthem served not as an exhilarating  reminder of your freedom, but as depressing reminder that a part of your freedom has been revoked. But Indians before us have been though that, and they came up with an excellent response. It’s called civil disobedience.

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