Tuesday, February 05, 2013


A recent discussion with friends about the meaning of certain symbols such as the national anthem, pledge of allegiance, the national flag, etc. has left me thinking about what ‘patriotism’ means. Does it means external symbols like the flag, an anthem, etc.? Does patriotism mean showing allegiance to these symbols (and hence to the nation)? Perhaps it means vociferous support of everything that the country does. Maybe it includes the demonization of those that don’t do any of the above. Maybe patriotism is about blaming those that don’t wear lapel pins, for instance.

Before launching into my thoughts on this topic, let me recount an anecdote that a friend narrated recently (from her school days in India). So we have all grown up with the dual events of flag hoisting and singing of the national anthem during Independence and Republic days in India. Every year, on the 26th of January and the 15th of August most school grounds around the country and filled with kids, teachers, parents, local dignitaries and so on for the Indian tricolor being hoisted followed by a loud rending of “Jana Gana Mana”. So, this one time (in my friend’s school), one of the students refused to sing the national anthem. Turns out that he was a Muslim and according to his faith, one should not sing praises of anything other than the supreme being. So he respectfully declined to participate. From what I heard, he was vilified by his schoolmates and teachers for a long time for being “unpatriotic”.

Let’s pause a little to think about the above anecdote. I might be missing some details because I’m repeating it from someone’s narrative of their memory of the incident. But that is not the point. Nor is it the point of whether boy was correct in his interpretation (or implementation) of his faith (not being a Muslim or a scholar of the faith I cannot honestly comment on that part). Now, let’s put this at the back of our minds and proceed for a bit (don’t worry, I’ll come back to it later).

Consider the following questions:
  1. What if one loves the nation but disagrees with its policies?
  2. What if one doesn’t like the overt professions of love for these symbols (anthem, flag, etc.) but still has respect and love for the country?
  3. What if one genuinely hates his/her own country due to its policies, or treatment that has been meted out to the individual/community?
Is anyone following one or more of the above lines of thought “unpatriotic”? The problem is, in India, any of these could quickly get you into trouble – essentially for stating your opinions. Using the garb of patriotism people quash any attempts at free speech and personal choice. For instance, someone stating that they do not want to sing the National Anthem is a matter of personal choice. They should not be targeted for this reason. As long as one doesn’t force others to stop singing it (or saluting the flag) how does it affect anyone? If you like singing the anthem, then you should; if someone else doesn’t, well, then that is his/her choice. The same goes for “respecting” the national flag. How can something like the flag lose its value just because one person “disrespects” it (or burns it)? If it was such a fragile symbol of a nation that one person can bring its value down, then isn’t it time we rethink its position in society? The same goes for any community, god, leader, etc. These things are (usually) above any single person’s acts. The very fact that a society allows an individual to express their freedoms and choices by showing (actively or passively) disrespect for such symbols means that the society (and country) is resilient to provocations and is moving in the right direction.

Patriotism then, in my opinion, is not about the overt show of love and affection for such symbols (or even abstract entities). It is not about tormenting those that voice their opinions. Patriotism is about thinking what is good for the society/country as a whole and working towards those goals. This might foment short term discord because what is “good” may not be obvious in the short term and could even include the process of disagreeing with the policies/actions of the nation (or governments). It could involve putting unpleasant, yet important, topics into the public domain. It could be raising awareness of problems. It could involve publicly condemning those that threaten our freedoms and points of view (not just of the majority, but the minority as well). It could involve service of any sort. It could mean an understanding of our responsibilities and participating in the democratic processes. Patriotism could mean all of these and a lot many more things. But it does not imply the suppression of those that we disagree with, no matter how insignificant the argument or the group.

I often hear comments like, “the country should come first” or “this is how the terrorists get in” and so on when I profess that blind love for the symbols of patriotism is not part of my beliefs. These vacuous arguments just add to the collective noise of public debate and are used to target those that disagree with the majority opinions. It might be better to think about why that person disagrees with you in the first place.

Now, consider question (3) that I mentioned above. What if an individual (or group) hates the country that they’re born into? There could be many social, political and economic reasons for this and I won’t get into any of them here, but what is such an individual (group) supposed to do? The silly solution of “get out of the country” is not a feasible one. That’s just a churlish response. Now if they refuse to honor the flag or the national anthem or the policies of the government, is it fair to call them “unpatriotic”? Or is time better spent by trying to figure out the underlying problem(s) and perhaps moving in the direction of positive dialogue and (hopefully) solutions?

Now let me ask you this question: was the boy in the earlier anecdote unpatriotic because he refused to sing the national anthem, or was he just expressing his freedom of choice? At the end of the day, which one do we cherish more? Loud professions of allegiance to “symbols” that can be better termed as “jingoism” or the ability to inculcate the freedoms of speech, choice and expression in society?

1 comment:

Surendra P said...

There are people who question the term "Vidhata" in the National Anthem of India. This is the basic rule of the National Anthem of India.