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Mainstream, VOL LV No 24 New Delhi June 3, 2017

Saffron Nationalism and its Perils

Thursday 8 June 2017

by Ashok Celly

Thanks to the BJP and its sister organisations, the media is buzzing with the discourse on nationalism. The ruling party has emerged as the self-appointed champion of nationalism. Convinced that it is on a strong wicket when it comes to nationalism, it is adopting aggressive postures and trying to push the others—political parties, minorities—on the back foot by raising slogans like ‘Vande Mataram Kehna Hoga’. In the prevailing surcharged atmosphere it is absolutely imperative that we discuss the entire issue of nationalism without passion and prejudice.

Let us start with the most obvious, the most elementary question: who, after all, is a nationalist? Quite simply, a nationalist is one who loves his nation. A nation is not an abstraction. It means the land, the flora and fauna and, above all, the people of India. The people of India would include apart from the Hindu majority, the Muslims, the Christians, the Sikhs, the Parsees etc. Does a saffron nationalist love Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike? Or does he believe with the great RSS ideologue, M.S. Golwalkar, that the Muslims and Christians are lacking in “the spirit of love and devotion for the nation”?

From the recent discourse on nationalism one gets the impression that the BJP leaders lelieve that their patriotic credentials are unquestionable, and they are far supeior to others when it comes to love of and commitment to the country. And that gives them the right to interrogate others—parties, communities etc.—and sit in judgment over their conduct and activities.

Now if you question someone’s patriotism, if you sit in judgment over other people’s conduct and, above all, if you bully them into chanting this or that (for example, ‘Vande Mataram Kehna Hoga’ which is not an appeal but a command), it breeds a sense of resentment and humiliation which may, sooner or later, manifest itself in dangerous ways doing great harm to the social fabric of the country. Exclusive and aggressive nationalism can do more harm than good. Hitler’s Germany is an outstanding example of that. Hitler and his followers demonstrated their love for Germany by eliminating the Jews at home and crushing the neighbouring European countries. In the process they succeeded in destroying Germany. Shall we not learn from Nazi Germany’s tragic history?

Also, the minorities in general and the Muslims in particular don’t need to prove anything. The Muslims, for example, have made tremendous contribution to Indian culture. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Vilayat Khan and Amajad Ali Khan are some of the most distinguished figures in the history of Indian music. The Muslims’ contribution to popular music is equally significant. For instance, the celebrated composition from the fifties classic Baiju Bawra—Man Tarpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj was composed by Naushad, sung by Mohammad Rafi and written by Shakeel Badauni. Three Muslim artists came together to give us one of our most wonderful devotional compositions. Isn’t that an eloquent testimony to India’s composite culture? In the world of performing arts—theatre, films etc.—some of the very big names are from the Muslim community, Ibrahim Alkazi and Habeeb Tanvir are outstanding theatre personalities. And the film Mother India, made by Mehboob Khan, is perhaps the greatest tribute to Indian woman-hood—her courage, her perserverance and her moral integrity—in the history of Indian cinema. The iconic role was played by Nargis Dutt and the film was India’s first Oscar entry. Finally, B.R. Chopra’s telly-epic was a big hit both with the Hindus and non-Hindus largely because of its powerful dialogues. The dialogues of Mahabharat—surprise of surprises—were written by a Muslim writer, Rahi Masoom Raza.

In the face of such outstanding contribution enriching the cultural life of the nation, the insistence on singing ‘Vande Mataram’ seems to be puerile. The saffron nationalist refuses to see—a case of myopia born of singularism—that one can express one’s love for the country in different ways. ‘Vande Mataram’ is one such way. ‘Jana Gana Mana’ is another, ‘Shubh Sukh Chain ki Barsha Barse’—a favourite of Bose and INA—is yet another and they are all equally beautiful.

Also, you serve your country not so much by what you say but by what you do. For instance, Azim Premji, the IT Czar and one of our richest industrialists, has given away a substantial amount of his wealth in philanthropy setting an example for other industrialists. Also, it is good to remember that the pitamah of Indian industrialisation, Jamshedji Tata, was a Parsee. Karmayogis like Jamshedji Tata and Azim Premji don’t need to parade their patriotism.

I would like to end this article with a reference to India’s most wonderful city—Benaras. Benaras is known as India’s most ancient city. It is also known as the holiest of holy cities. But, above all, it is the finest embodiment of the spirit of India. Does the self-righteous and judgmental saffron nationalist know that Bismillah Khan, the great shehnai player, used to start his day by playing the shehnai in the famous Kashi Viswanath temple? That he turned down several invitations to settle abroad/elsewhere because he wanted to live by the side of the Ganges? Similarly, Girija Devi, the great exponent of thumri, lived in Benaras because she loved to hear the azaan every morning from the nearby mosque. Bismillah Khan and Girija Devi are the finest representatives of our composite culture. They are the real Bharat Ratnas. If the saffron nationalist could imbibe a little of the Benaras spirit, he would be a better deshbhakt than by simply shouting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and forcing others to do the same. 

The author retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi. He is now a freelancer.

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