“Fortunately there were rebels”

As 2016 draws to a close and we look back at all that happened, the rhetoric around being “Anti National” stands out for me. If I took a stand in favor of JNU (no I’m not from JNU) I was labeled Anti National and a disenchanted youth. If I expressed reservations regarding the recent Supreme Court of India directive making it mandatory to play the National Anthem in movie theatres, I was again an Anti National. I was told that my opinions were at odds with those of our founding fathers. For starters the Fundamental Duty (Article 51A) cited by the Supreme Court which obligates all citizens to abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the National Flag and the National Anthem were not a part of the original Constitution. It was added by the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1976. Not really the era of founding fathers, was it? To put a lot of things in perspective I thought that the opinion of our founding fathers, particularly Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, should be put forth on issues that rattled my faith in this nation (rather its dominant rhetoric) in 2016.

What do we mean when we say India is a thriving democracy? What are our duties towards perpetuating our democratic republic? In his speech to the Constituent Assembly on 25th November 1949, Dr. Ambedkar provided some answers,

“If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.

The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions”. There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O’Connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.” 

Sounds particularly relevant? The reaction of a certain class of individuals (majority of whom form opinions without seeking information) to controversial actions of the Government remind me of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.  There are a lot of things that I was taught in school as being a virtue but which, it turned out, wasn’t absolute virtue. One of them was “obedience to authority.” What could be wrong with that? 

The holocaust had always intrigued me. To blame just Adolf Hitler for something that needed for its execution an entire army of Nazis is simplifying things a little too much. It was in search of answers to these questions that I came across  Stanley Milgram’s experiments. The experiments measured the willingness of study participants, people from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts (inflicting pain on another human) conflicting with their personal conscience. The experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of people were prepared to obey, albeit unwillingly, even if apparently causing serious injury and distress. (I would highly recommend Milgram’s Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View to anyone even remotely interested in the topic). Moral of the story? Obedience to authority might be a virtue in school but in life we need to first be convinced of the legitimacy and bona fide intentions of that authority. We need to be an argumentative Indian. It’s a virtue to reason, to discuss, to question, to deliberate. Questioning legitimacy of Government decisions is not being Anti National. Standing up for an environment of free speech, where students arrive at conclusions that might span the entire spectrum of possibilities, within a University is not being Anti National. Then what is? Here is Dr. Ambedkar’s answer:

“I am of opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realize that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the word, the better for us. For then only we shall realize the necessity of becoming a nation and seriously think of ways and means of realizing the goal. The realization of this goal is going to be very difficult – far more difficult than it has been in the United States. The United States has no caste problem. In India there are castes. The castes are anti-national. In the first place because they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality. For fraternity can be a fact only when there is a nation. Without fraternity equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.”

The sudden spike in the protectors of faith, the rise of the  gau rakshaks, the open appeasement of castes before elections, that would be considered Anti-national by at least one of our founding fathers. Difference of opinion was a virtue. Tolerance was the order of the day. A case in point (again from Dr. Ambedkar’s speech):

“Mr. Naziruddin Ahmed has coined a new name for the Drafting Committee evidently to show his contempt for it. He calls it a Drifting Committee. Mr. Naziruddin must no doubt be pleased with his hit. But he evidently does not know that there is a difference between drift without mastery and drift with mastery. If the Drafting Committee was drifting, it was’ never without mastery over the situation. It was not merely angling with the off chance of catching a fish. It was searching in known waters to find the fish it was after. To be in search of something better is not the same as drifting. Although Mr. Naziruddin Ahmed did not mean it as a compliment to the Drafting committee, I take it as a compliment to the Drafting Committee. The Drafting Committee would have been guilty of gross dereliction of duty and of a false sense of dignity if it had not shown the honesty and the courage to withdraw the amendments which it thought faulty and substitute what it thought was better. If it is a mistake, I am glad that the Drafting Committee did not fight shy of admitting such mistakes and coming forward to correct them.”

This modesty, this wit and willingness to accommodate and address dissent is conspicuous by its absence in our public life and public discourse today.

On the controversy that followed the Supreme Court directive (mentioned earlier) there was a brilliant article in The Indian Express by Aniruddha Ghosal that dealt with Rabindranath Tagore’s (creator of the national anthem) views on nationalism, “freedom of mind” and opinions “forcibly made alike”. The article begins with-

“In 1908, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a letter to his friend, A M Bose, and said, “Patriotism can’t be our final spiritual shelter. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.” …

In light of the recent directive as Tagore’s composition has come to symbolise nationalism — “something the Nobel laureate was not only critical of, but had famously described as “carnivorous and cannibalistic”, we need to keep in mind what Tagore wrote in his 1916 novel, The Home and the World, “that when love for one’s country gives way to worship, or becomes a “sacred obligation”, then disaster is the inevitable outcome. “I am willing to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than country. To worship my country as a god is to bring curse upon it.” 

If our Nationals of today read Tagore’s views on Nationalism, chances are that he would be declared an Anti-national, after all Tagore had warned Gandhi that there remained a thin line that divided nationalism and xenophobia.

“India, he argued, didn’t have a “real sense” of nationalism and noted that “even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

So that’s the opinion of another founding father. (The entire article can be read here: Rabindranath Tagore in 1908: ‘I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live’).

It was an interesting conversation I had with a friend today. I asked him to tell me the literal meaning of Jana Gana Mana. We didn’t know. I looked it up on Google and can bet that in a country where English has been the lingua franca since the days of our Freedom Movement, most people of our generation don’t know what is being said when we say Jana Gana Mana. To use a phrase I had used as a kid in my hindi exams, I didn’t know in panktiyon mein kavi kya kehna chahte hain! So we have a real world Pavlov Experiment! We are just conditioned to feel patriotic when we utter those words, most of us not knowing what they stand for.

But what is the point of all this? Well to get acceptance for the philosophy of “to each his/her own.” That our sense of Nationalism should not be so narrow that we end up eliminating all those who are sceptical, critical or just indifferent. We can be honest citizens questioning demonetization’s implementation. Debates over demonetization with a Pied Piper’s rat invariably lead to the rat accusing the party opposing the move on account of hoarding black money. We need this country to remember that our founding fathers held tolerance as a virtue not obedience. Differing opinions was what gave vibrancy and legitimacy to this democracy. Concluding with Dr. Ambedkar’s words:

“The proceedings of this Constituent Assembly would have been very dull if all members had yielded to the rule of party discipline. Party discipline, in all its rigidity, would have converted this Assembly into a gathering of yes men. Fortunately, there were rebels.” 



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