Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
This piece of mine appeared today in Mail Today.
Sometimes satire simply cannot keep up with real life. A few days ago I read a piece in the Indian Express about a 28-year-old gentleman based in Bhopal named Prakash Kumar Thakur. Thakur specialises in persecuting those who ‘insult’ India’s national flag. He recently filed a court case against Sania Mirza because she was photographed with her feet on a table on which the Indian flag was also kept. The case was filed under something called - I’m not making this up - the Prevention of Insult to the National Honour Act.
The maximum sentence under this act is three years in jail. A distraught Mirza reported that she considered quitting her sport. Thakur reacted to that response by calling it “emotional blackmail.”
Thakur, the report tells us, had earlier filed cases against Sachin Tendulkar and Mandira Bedi. Tendulkar had cut a cake designed like the tricolour. Bedi had worn a sari with the flags of various countries, including India, on it.
Thakur’s advocate, RK Pandey, had filed a similar case against MF Husain. They recently also sued a publisher of a class VI textbook for not printing the tricolour properly.
In the best line of the report, Thakur is quoted as saying: “Me and my friends will move around the city from 2 pm onwards on Republic Day collecting flags lying everywhere and destroy them in private with full dignity.”
Yes, even flags have dignity. And, presumably, feelings. I hope Thakur and his friends had a good time yesterday.
The national flag is not the only symbol of national pride that patriots like Thakur worry about. There’s also the national anthem, which was allegedly “insulted” last April by NR Narayana Murthy. Indeed, in Mumbai, it is played in cinema theatres before the start of every film, and it is compulsory to stand.
This is what we’ve reduced patriotism to.
In my view, there are two kinds of patriotism. The first kind involves feeling that your country is, in some way or the other, greater than others. Often, self-esteem is involved. Patriots of this kind will want others to share their feelings about their country. They might feel offended if someone suggests that their country is not all they imagine it to be.
The other kind of patriotism involves loving certain things about one’s country. This is a personal love, different in each individual’s case, and patriots of this sort will enjoy their patriotism without demanding that others share it.
If we were to be flippant about such grave matters, we could call these kinds of patriotism Mera Bharat Mahaan and Mera Bharat Mujhe Pasand.
I see myself as the second kind of patriot. When I think of the things I love about India, I think of concrete things in the real world, such as its food, its music, the languages that I’m fortunate to know. These don’t blind me from the many things wrong with the country - nor do I have any desire to impose my preferences on others.
The Mera Bharat Mahaan kind of patriot, on the other hand, is involved with a narrative of greatness. A key part of his identity is his Indianness. For this reason, he needs to believe that India is a great country, superior to others.
Symbols like the flag and the anthem are, thus, important to him. They represent his nationalistic fervour. Equally, a display like the Republic Day parade makes him feel proud. Its purpose is validation.
This need for validation was understandable in our early years as an independent country. We’d just gained independence after decades of being humiliatingly colonised. It was a mini-miracle that we existed, bridging such linguistic, religious and cultural divides. We needed to believe in ourselves as a nation.
And, let’s face it, there was a bit of a collective inferiority complex running through the country.
Sadly, even after 60 years of independence, that craving for validation remains. Why else do we make such a hue and cry every year about India’s entry to the Oscars, and ignore our own national awards? Why else do we rush to claim any foreign achiever with an Indian background as a national hero? (Sunita Williams, born in Ohio and raised in America, has been awarded the Padma Bhushan this year.) Why else do we go gaga with excitement when we hear of Madonna practising yoga or Gwen Stefani putting a Bindi on her head? Why else do we celebrate when Shilpa Shetty wins Big Brother, and ignore poor Rahul Roy, who won the desi version?
India has advanced leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades, but we still haven’t acquired the self-confidence that a mature democracy should have. Too many of us are still sensitive about symbols of our nationhood, and that’s a pity. We are proud, I believe, of entirely the wrong things.
As a nation that won its independence with such difficulty, if there is one thing we should be proud of, and should continue to aspire towards, it is freedom. Not just the freedom to vote, but freedom in every social and economic sense. As long as we don’t infringe on the freedom of others, we should be free to express our sexual preferences, to trade with others, to watch the films we want, to read the books we want, to say what we want. And yes, free to disrespect a flag or refuse to stand up when the anthem is played.
What’s the point of being a free country otherwise?
The main issue involved in all the cases that Thakur has filed is not patriotism - Thakur has the right to feel warmly towards the national flag. But he does not have the right to impose his feelings and his preferences on others. The issue here is freedom.
India, sadly, has never given freedom of expression the level of protection it deserves. Article 19 (1) (a) of our constitution speaks of protecting free speech, but Article 19 (2) immediately limits it by making it contingent on concepts like “public order” and “decency and morality”, which are open to interpretation by bureaucrats, judges and mobs. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) has a number of laws which effectively make it a crime to give offence.
Section 295 (a), a non-bailable act, is particularly notorious: It punishes actions “intended to outrage religious feelings”, and has been used against Ravi Shastri when he said he liked eating beef, and against a publisher for publishing a Santa and Banta jokebook.
The IPC, of course, was drafted in the 19th century. It needs an overhaul - as does the attitude towards national pride that many of us have. We are a vibrant democracy now, and the idea of India cannot be harmed any more by a few displays of disrespect towards emblems and symbols. We should stop insulting our country by behaving otherwise.
* * *
You can check out more essays by me in my essays and Op-Eds archive.
Sita Sings the Blues: The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told
Dev.D doesn't flinch from depicting the individual’s downward spiral
9 across: Van Morrison classic from Moondance (7)
6 down: Order beginning with ‘A’ (12)