“Mother India” by M.F.Husain.
“Bharat Mata ki Jai (Hail Mother India)” sounds like a war cry. In the past few days it has indeed become one. For me, the slogan is associated with Eastman colour films and rising fascism in the political landscape. The phrase also sounds treacly and a bit of a burden on the nation’s maternal bosom to nurse 1.26 billion people, many of whom are sucking her dry.
There is no reason for nationalism to mimic a soap opera where a bunch of stooges of patriarchy prop up the mama country on a pile of shaky bricks, bricks that are being marked to build a temple. National pride in this scheme comes not from welfare schemes but by sanctifying spiritual symbols. Rightwing groups now want the cow to be declared the mother of the nation; six people attempted suicide for this demand.
India is getting transformed into a place of worship. On his first day in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi touched his forehead on the steps of Parliament and referred to the Constitution as his holy book. Every attempt is made to convey that the country has a certain religion. When a country has a religion – and nationalism is seen as a religion – many a charlatan will claim to save it.
The head of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), an organisation that has no locus standi and yet dictates the policies of the government, declares: “Now the time has come when we have to tell the new generation to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. It should be real, spontaneous and part of all-round development of the youth.”
When fascists speak of spontaneity it is assumed that they will ensure it is done. MP and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) Chief Asaduddin Owaisi categorically stated that he would not chant the slogan even if a knife was put to his throat. The response of senior leaders has been to shame the ‘anti-nationals’, making them out to be separatists who should be shunted from the country. The Shiv Sena wants to revoke citizenship and voting rights of those who do not repeat the mother mantra.
There should be more people challenging this. The need to hail the country arises when there is a war or a calamity. This tugging at the mater’s apron strings during normal times, that too in the Assembly, is a kneejerk attempt at scoring points. Owaisi’s legalistic justification that “Nowhere in the Constitution it says that one should say: Bharat Mata ki Jai”, is not a strong enough rejoinder. Fidelity is an emotion; it is not a leash to fetter the dog with.
Gestures of obeisance may be antithetical to an individual’s personality, ideology or faith. But even before a Muslim in India might try and explain such concerns, those who flaunt their “Hindu nationalism”, as though they own the country by virtue of their birth, will scream sedition.
The use of the term ‘Bharat Mata’ is far from innocent. The concept of Mother Earth for the majoritarian narrative is linked not to the soil that the farmers till but a hydra-limbed goddess who will destroy any opposition, even if it is an apparition in the form of ‘others’. Kitschy posters of Mother India superimposed on the map follow this prototype. However, when artist M.F.Husain painted Mother India as a nude woman in the shape of a map with state names he was chastised for “hurting Hindu sentiments”. Deference to deities seen as patriotism seems to be the norm.
Umar Khalid shaved off his beard, a beard more like a salute to Che than to any mullah. “For the first time I discovered my Muslim identity,” he said. “He is playing the Muslim card,” they said. They who have been playing the Hindu card, they who want education to follow ancient scriptures, they who believe that what today’s science is doing is all there in the Vedas, they who have held the country to ransom on the basis of a temple. For many of us discovery of our religious identity came through such pummeling. Mine happened after the Bombay riots of 1992-93 following the demolition of the Babri Masjid; Umar Khalid’s happened now. It is painful, always.
Umar has been arrested for sedition in the JNU case of February 9 where he has been charged with organising a rally on campus in support of Afzal Guru, who was hanged to death for his role in the Parliament attack of 2001. [This has been described as a judicial killing by activists and lawyers.] Guru is considered a martyr in Kashmir. At the rally, there were slogans: We will destroy India. We will fight India. We will break India into bits. Such slogans are common in the valley.
Initially, when Umar had gone underground, his father told the media, “My son is a communist, he does not even practise his religion.” Had he been a Hindu it might have been a different story. Had he been an upper caste Hindu, he could even write a column stating that he is an “anti-national” but a proud Hindu, as TV anchor Rajdeep Sardesai indeed dramatically did.
The only opinions a Muslim in India is expected to express are on jihad (obviously that you are against it) or the ghettos (where you might not live). You are expected to be a part of the mainstream but you dare not question that mainstream. If you ever do, then be sure that only the voice of the privileged majority can save you. You can fly only under the wings of Hindu samaritans.
In the mock courtroom TV show, the host made it clear to Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan that he should not be complaining about intolerance because he had acted in PK, a film that “insulted Hindu gods”. [Truth is that it called out frauds of all faiths.] He then emphasised how despite this the large-hearted majority community had made the film a hit. The nation is dressed up as an idol and 80 per cent of the population acts as priest offering the minorities an opportunity for retribution.
Aamir Khan capitulated. He listed out his essential goodness by mentioning his Hindu wife, and ex wife, and his family tree dotted with Hindus. He then folded his hands and apologised. It was a searing moment. It made me angry. It reminded me of the picture of another man pleading with folded hands to be spared during the Gujarat riots. The actor probably did it to ensure his space as a public figure; the anonymous man did it to survive, invisibly.
What happens to the angst of the initial bold statements? The rebels, whether they are actors or MPs or students or writers, are using a faulty blueprint that reads: we do not want freedom from India, but freedom within India. The student leaders and teachers explain away their concept of ‘azaadi’ as “freedom from hunger” and “freedom from WTO”. This is the sort of obfuscation that institutions revel in. It is especially unfortunate as this was done as a response to the anti-nationalism charge for supporting Kashmir; soon the martyrs of a university, who were being sacrificed due to ‘those masked men’ who do terrible things like raising anti-India slogans, replaced the martyrs of Kashmir.
But the real wakeup call comes from the masked dissidents because they have to protect a tangible territory and not belief systems with different levels of opiate. Kashmir does not consider itself Indian. Kashmiris show up on polling day to vote for the least despicable candidate, one who might not get coopted by the Indian state. The exaggerated sentiments come from having had their state torn to bits in a land of unmarked graves and half widows. This is not the reality of Mumbai or Delhi or the cities where we live. We seek other freedoms.
The India in which states refuse to speak the national language, and have even broken up into two, has still not grasped the concept of dissent, which is why the rebels begin to sing paeans to the nation the moment they are caught with fists in the air. This negates the basis of dissent. Challenging nationalism is not only valid, but essential. In a free society, it is imperative to be free of any blind and stifling allegiance. The nation is an idea, an abstraction; our response is personal. No government or political party can define it for us.
The question of freedom is complex because issues outside the realm of social and armed conflict have become politicised too. Patriotism, therefore, often means suffering from the xenophobia of the political leaders and/or their supremacist ideals.
A nation cannot be free if its people are poodles chained to an acceptable idea of freedom.