“Patriotism is a maggot in their heads.”
— Henry David Thoreau
If you are a ‘patriot’, you must have already brought home a trendy LED television set at a heavily discounted price on Republic Day. The kind-hearted retail manager may have also gifted you a packet of atta for free in admiration of your love for the nation. For the free market is an imaginative species. The deluge of advertisements — their borders often tinged with saffron, white and green — announcing fabulous deals on consumer goods is designed to win over even sceptics who scoff at the idea of patriotism being sullied by frenzied consumption.
These advertisements — they often relegate news to the margins during the weeks leading to Republic Day — represent a new language of patriotism that the market has successfully inserted in the consciousness of a neo-liberal economy. That every conceivable human emotion, including one’s love for the nation, can be commodified for profit is something that the free market has demonstrated with alacrity for a while now. But what is worthy of scrutiny is the concommitant process that shapes citizens’ ideas not only about the nation state but also of their responsibilities towards it.
In a country with a regrettable lack of interest in either its past or in its future, national holidays are seldom spent in quiet introspection. They have usually been perceived as occasions of leisure and, in recent times, have turned into orgies of consumption. But this consumption is fanned by a spirit of competition within specific class fraternities. The decision to spend one’s savings on a sleek, expensive television is perhaps made easy by the memory of the device mounted tastefully on the wall in a neighbour’s drawing room. Limited ideas surrounding the disparities that characterize the nation itself complement these spontaneous splurges. There is thus seldom time to pause and reflect that 360 million impoverished Indians — going by the contentious definition of poverty by the Planning Commission — have not been invited to this carnival of patriots.
Devious interpretations of patriotism have served not just the market but also ambitious nation states splendidly. History has been a witness to the devastation brought upon the world by Nazi Germany intoxicated with the dream of conquest. In recent times, the ruse was used successfully in the United States of America where the Patriot Act — devised in response to the 9/11 carnage— ended up increasing manifold the repressive powers of the State.
The ease with which such distortions takes place is indicative of the fogginess surrounding the idea of the nation itself. This is particularly relevant to India, given its rich diversity manifest in the form of competing identities — caste, class and community — battling over flimsy resources, thereby endangering the idea of India itself. Such conflicting claims are seldom settled through dialogue or debate. The Far Right’s periodic depredations represented by its hounding of artists and its attacks on democratic institutions show that institutional vigilantism now decides who is, or is not, a patriot.
In a democracy, it is imperative for citizens to resist such strictures by demanding a charter of inclusion. Such a charter can not only be used as an instrument to demand representative governance but also help map the contours of a vast and diverse nation. Thoreau was critical of citizens who endorsed poor governance in the name of patriotism. Indians should remain forever on guard, lest the maggots creep into their heads as well.