Straw Warriors and the Pantomime of Patriotism

His spit had licked the envelope before sealing it and what he assumed to be my fate. This was several years ago. It was what we charmingly refer to as hate mail. He, a nameless person with no address, had camouflaged his handwriting in cunning ways. He was telling me about how I should be blown up; several parts of the body were mentioned, many of which I did not know I possessed. He said that I had no right to be in my country. A coward was telling me this?

The News, Pakistan, published a piece of mine, Mumbai’s Charge of the Lightweight Brigade; it had already appeared in CounterPunch; there was credit attributed at the bottom. No one noticed. Straw warriors geared for battle.

How seriously can you take the words of those who are insecure about 1600 words written by an Indian that appear in a Pakistani newspaper? For two decades I have addressed these same issues in newspapers in my country, written open letters to various leaders in columns in Indian publications. It did not count. I became the great betrayal.

It would have been all right if I were a socialite describing the Camembert Dariole at one of the restaurants of the Taj. It would be okay if I was reeking of nostalgia for a lost haveli in Lahore. It would have been okay had my name been different.

“You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements,” said Norman Douglas.

The other day television screens crackled with the image of Lata Mangeshkar singing, “Ae mere watan ke logon, zara aankh mein bhar lo paani, jo shaheed hue the unki, zara yaad karo qurbani.” (It had become the anthem song after the first war with Pakistan and talks about remembering those who were martyred.)This is one of the most disgusting images where a respected person is used and allows herself to be used to advertise a ‘war-like’ scenario.

A private TV channel’s music show was talking about ‘Pakistan aur Bharat ki jung’ (the war between India and Pakistan, since contestants from there too were participating) months before the Mumbai attacks. This Saturday they got a godman to be the chief guest; the sets had the ‘Om’ sign fluttering all over, and the songs were interspersed with clippings from the Mumbai attacks. Words like dushman (enemy) were used throughout. The Swami very kindly said that not all Muslims were bad, and then he covered one nostril and exhaled from the other to teach people the technique of self-control.

Indian democracy is in danger not because of articles that question the policies of the government, but because a group of people believes that the only way you can get some self-respect is if you have an enemy. Such political jugglery lacks both foresight and depth. It also uses denial. No one is even discussing the blasts of Bangalore, Jaipur, Ahmedabad. Mumbai has become the focal point. The Mumbai of 26/11. If you go back to a bit of the past, a past that is still seeking justice from the secular judiciary of the country, you are reminded about the colonisers, “your great great grandfather”, the Mughals, who razed temples. History tells us they came as conquerors; they did not visit India to show off their skills as architects of monuments with filigree work. What did we expect?

Is it the same as one’s own elected leaders with dubious credentials colonising minds?

They brandish knives to preserve a heritage and in the process mar it. The upsurge of so-called nationalism runs parallel to the economic liberalization process. Today, CEOs of companies hold forth on “Imagining India”. The majority of the population does not have the luxury if imagining even regular water supply and electricity. Deaths due to malnutrition are just not sexy enough. We need an idea even for nationhood to plug itself.

Such assertions usually occur when there is a crisis or some sort of material satiation, as in Iran. The opposite happened in the erstwhile Soviet Union and the true yardstick of how to gauge the fall of communism was to see how the new Russia responded to religion and McDonalds, both tremendous power bases.

Western imperialism that now houses the diaspora has acquired a halo. Gordon Brown will carry his ‘Fight terrorism’ tuck box on his picnic visit to India. We genuflect at the altar of these former masters only because they let some of our people drive cabs and become curry kings. This attitude of snobbery has percolated down to our concept of culture.

I shall not replicate the anger of the man who said, “When I hear about culture I reach for my revolver.” For I do believe that even reaching for a revolver for such an abstract provocation is part of cultural brainwashing.

It is facetious to propagate a nationalistic blind belief that seeks to replicate superstition in religions. Therefore, I protest the callousness with which Indian Muslims are being herded into believing that their only way of ideological survival is to belong to or promote the idea of “Muslims for Secular democracy”. I am waiting for groups called ‘Hindus for Secular Democracy’, ‘Christians for Secular Democracy’, ‘Sikhs for Secular Democracy’. An ad man, who is referred to as ‘god’ – a blasphemous thing to do in Islam – has the temerity to talk about asli and naqli Mussalman (real and fake Muslims). These celebrities have managed to garner local Muslims much like politicians do during elections.

There is something extremely devious about carrying a huge tricolour on the eve of Bak’r Eid and making it a moral message of Right versus Wrong. They are playing into the hands of all fundamentalist forces that use religion. How many of these famous people will send their children in the army? Will any of these high society Muslims be accessible to the person from Bhendi Bazaar (a downmarket largely Muslim locality in Mumbai) when he is being denied his rights or when he is told that the ghetto he lives in is a danger zone? Will these Muslims speak up for those dumped in jails only because they are circumcised? We need to fight the demons inside us before we look for enemies outside.

It is ironical that hip peace proponents are taking part in the jingoism-with-a-religious-flavour repast of a “war-like situation”, which only their imagination seems to conjure.

By allowing such groups to hijack nationalism, we have failed to realise that patriotic zeal is becoming its own opponent. Culture fascists have appropriated the right to freedom of expression, which binds those who do not adhere to their idea of such expression.

Tagore put it succinctly: “Neither the colourless vagueness of cosmopolitanism nor the fierce self-idolatry of nation worship is the goal of human history.” History, unfortunately, has never been much concerned about larger goals. It is but a sequence of events strung together, mostly due to a lapse of memory.

Vishnu Hari Dalmia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had once said that the Hindu Rashtra has to do with culture and not religion; he had been kind enough to emphasise that those who live in this country must accept the ethos which has a place for both Ram and Akbar, though not Babar.

To drown in the juices of our diversity and to hark back to our fairytale version of ancient civilisation is to deny history. Post partition secularism rose as a response to the Raj and more specifically the theocratic state across the border. It had to redefine itself to include equal opportunities for all religions which have been enshrined in Articles 25-28 of the Indian Constitution.

Nehru felt the need to change India’s “outlook and appearance and give her the garb of modernity”. Is it merely a garb?

Nirad Chaudhari had stated that being Indian was only a geographical term. It suited him to don dhoti or tweed as per his compulsions in a distant shore. What about the emotional investment of those born and bred in the country and carrying its ideological baggage without flashing it?

The pantomime of patriotism is a strategy to help people continue to be as lazy as they are while sending out the signal that their conscience allows them to sleep at night. National consciousness appears to have become a cure for insomnia.

Some of us prefer a state of wakefulness. I assume my Constitution respects my rights as much as I respect my duty towards it. I call myself an Indian because I touch its reality on my own terms without wearing blinkers.

FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based columnist and author of A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan, Harper Collins, India. She can be reached at





Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections