WHO IS A PATRIOT? , The Telegraph

The novelist U. R. Anantha Murthy has long objected to the characterization of the Sangh Parivar as the ‘saffron brigade’. Saffron is a beautiful colour, the colour of renunciation, worn by monks and others of great and good character. Why should we cede it so easily to a bunch of bigots?

To me, at any rate, the argument is compelling, and ever since I heard Anantha Murthy make it, I have eschewed the word ‘saffron’ in describing a band who, far from renouncing anything, are hungry for power and all the goodies that go with it. However, a recent experience made me aware that we were in danger of ceding other, and equally resonant words, to the men on our right. At a meeting held in the magnificent old convocation hall of the University of Mumbai, I had just heard a paper presented on the life and work of the jurist M. C. Chagla. The paper was entitled: ‘A Lawyer and a Gentleman’. When question time came, I suggested to the author that he add, to the title, the word ‘Patriot‘.

Afterwards, in the coffee break, I was set upon by a gentleman who had recently retired from a high position in the University. ‘Is it only because he was a Muslim that we have to add that qualifier “patriot”?’, he said. ‘I object to this kind of patronzing labelling’. I reeled under the onslaught. For in making my remark I had completely forgotten that Chagla’s first names were Muhammad Carim. What I remembered instead was how, at the age of eighty, he had bravely stood up to the Emergency. In suggesting that he be referred to as a ‘patriot’, I also had in mind his incorruptibility as a judge, his fearless investigations into corruption in high places (as for example his report on the Mundhra scandal), and his nurturing, as a Union Minister, of such institutions as the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Given all that he had done in his public career, I felt that to merely call him a ‘lawyer and a gentleman’ was to sell him short.

It is necessary, at this point, to distinguish between ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’. A German thinker once put it this way: ‘A patriot is someone who loves his country. A nationalist is someone who hates other countries’. This distinction is sustained by the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, which has a single, straightforward definition of patriotism—‘vigorous support for one’s country’—but which offers at least three meanings for nationalism, viz.: ‘patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts; an extreme form of this marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries; advocacy of political independence for a particular country’.

In the depths of the First World War, Rabindranath Tagore travelled to Japan and the United States to warn them against emulating the destructive nationalism of the countries of Western Europe. As he put it:

‘The political civilisation which has sprung up from the soil of Europe and is overrunning the world, like some prolific weed, is based upon exclusiveness. It is always watchful to keep the aliens at bay or to exterminate them. It is carnivorous and cannibalistic in its tendencies, it feeds upon the resources of other peoples and tries to swallow their whole future. It is always afraid of other races achieving eminence, naming it as a peril, and tries to thwart all symptoms of greatness outside its own boundaries, forcing down races of men who are weaker, to be eternally fixed in their weakness.’

Tagore was emphatically not a nationalist, but can we say with equal certainty that he was not a patriot? Did not his work in and for this land, his travels to its far corners, his sensitive portrayals of its landscapes and its peoples, his friendships with Indians of all castes and creeds, all bespeak of a deep, deep love for India? These words, from a debate with Gandhi in those momentous years 1920-21, demonstrate (I believe) that Tagore was a patriot without being a nationalist:

‘Today, at this critical moment of the world’s history, cannot India rise above her limitations and offer the great ideal to the world that will work towards harmony in co-operation between the different people of the earth?… The idea of India is against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others, and which inevitably leads to ceaseless conflicts… Let us be rid of all false pride and rejoice at any lamp being lit at any corner of the world, knowing that it is a part of the common illumination of our house…’

Tagore died in 1941. Five years later, a group of some two hundred odd Indians met to discuss the elements of a Constitution for a soon-to-be free nation. Their discussions took three years, and are reproduced, in full, in thirteen bulky volumes reprinted by the Lok Sabha Secretariat. The salient points are summarized in the Constution of India, which, true to the teachings of Tagore, basks in the glow of numerous lamps, not all of them lit in India. Its republicanism is influenced by the example of France and the United States, its federalism by that of Canada and Switzerland, its emphasis on Cabinet Government by the United Kingdom. This is not to say that it is wholly or even largely derivative. To the contrary, many of its most important features are based on Indian experiences and ideas.

Nationalism in other countries necessarily involved the demonizing of other countries. Without the hatred of France, and memories of battles against France, there would be no Great Britain; without the hatred of Great Britain, and memories of battles against Britons, there would be no United States of America. On the other hand, India became a nation without fighting a war or demonizing its rulers (Gandhi’s best friend was an Englishman, C. F. Andrews, and he, Tagore, and Nehru all admired the best in English and, indeed, European culture).

The process of nation-formation in other lands often rested upon the forcing down the throats of citizens of a common language or common religion, or both (the religion was sometimes called Marxism). On the other hand, one can be an Indian and practice any faith (or no faith or all) and speak the language of one’s choosing (even the language of the erstwhile colonizers). The idea of India is sui generis, and in two fundamental respects: first, it is non-adversarial with regard to the rest of the world, and second, it is inclusive with regard to itself.

Although much amended and bent, the Constitution of India is still somewhat like its framers meant it to be—a charter for a democratic republic of men and women who all live in the same territory without speaking the same language or subscribing to the same faith. Anyone who believes in the democratic and pluralist ideals of the Constitution can (and should) be termed a ‘patriot’. It is a word we must be allowed to use freely, without fear of being thought politically incorrect. As for M. C. Chagla, he did more than believe in the ideals of the Constitution—he upheld them all through his long life, whether as lawyer, judge, Minister, or elder statesman. While saluting him as a patriot, I shall withhold that label from the Sangh Parivar, whose commitment to the Constitution of India is less than certain. A label more appropriate to them, perhaps, is ‘chauvinist’.

Tags: , , , , ,