Last night, a prominent television anchor began a discussion at a hugely attended conclave in Delhi by telling his audience to repeat after him, “Bharat Mata ki jai!” Then he asked those in the audience who had done so to raise their hands. Almost everyone did.
I hadn’t, and didn’t. Not that I have any problem shouting this particular slogan: I have done so on numerous occasions, most notably with a busload of transiting Indian pilgrims on a European airport tarmac a few months ago. It’s just that I didn’t like the idea of doing so because someone demanded it of me in a public space.
When the anchor went on to ask those who would refuse to say the words to raise their hands, I did not do so either, because I wouldn’t refuse to do so every time. I just believed in my right to choose whether and when I would say those words, or any other.
Definition of Nationalism
- Owaisi and
AIMIM may have deliberately exploited the issue for political purposes to appease a particular community.
- Political opportunism takes over public interest at times; row over Bharat
Mata ki jai slogan is another example of this.
- No Indian should be
compelled to mouth a form of nationalism he’s not comfortable with.
- It should be possible to
disagree with an Indian who doesn’t wish to shout Bharat Mata ki Jai,
but defend to the death his right not to say it.
Acid Test of Nationalism
That seems to me to be the principle at stake in the recent controversy that has erupted over the refusal of MP Asaduddin Owaisi and a Maharashtra MLA belonging to his party, Waris Pathan, to chant this particular slogan. Both have taken their oaths as legislators in the name of God and swear by the Indian Constitution. They aver that they have no problem in hailing the nation with a robust “Jai Hind” or “Hindustan Zindabad!”
But to them, “Bharat Mata ki Jai” sounds overtly Hindu, the deification of the nation as a mother goddess, and as Muslims they don’t feel comfortable with it. They point out, not unreasonably, that the Constitution does not require them to raise this slogan, and they should not be compelled to do so.
The other side of the argument-- the side passionately advocated by Amit Shah and the BJP -- says that every Indian nationalist should say these words upon demand, and the “one per cent “ who don’t should be made to understand that their opposition to the slogan is unjustified. The BJP and its fellow travellers have made something of a fetish of nationalism as the major issue at stake in the country today, especially in the wake of the disloyal and supposedly seditious slogans shouted at JNU last month. “Bharat Mata ki Jai “ appears to have become the latest acid test of Indian nationalism.
As I said, I have nothing against the slogan. I believe, as Javed Akhtar memorably pointed out in his farewell speech on exiting the Rajya Sabha, that many Muslims don’t have a problem with it either. But some do, and the issue is their right to dissent from this latest test of loyalty.
Let’s accept that Owaisi and his MIM party have deliberately exploited this issue for political purposes -- as part of their efforts to differentiate themselves as the only authentic and courageous voices of the Muslim community who are willing to stand up against the majoritarian chauvinism of the ruling party.
Indian politics affords plenty of examples of principles being advanced to mask simple political opportunism, and I am prepared to concede that this might be yet another example of this. Still, however, the principle remains valid, and should not be vitiated. No Indian should be compelled to mouth a form of nationalism he does not feel.
Idea of India
The BJP has wrongly, in my view, invented an idea of Indian nationhood that privileges one religion, one language and one discourse, while requiring everyone else to conform to it. In doing so they are undermining the basic ethos of Indian democracy, which recognises the nation’s diversity and celebrates multiple ways of being Indian.
The magic of Indianness is that you can be a good Bihari, a good Muslim, a good leftist and a good Indian all at once. Our nationalist heroes created a nation built on an ideal of pluralism and freedom: we have given passports to their dreams. The BJP would sadly reduce the soaring generosity of their founding vision to the petty bigotry of majoritarian chauvinism.
Voltaire famously told someone, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. It should be possible for all fair minded Indians to disagree with an Indian who doesn’t wish to shout Bharat Mata ki Jai, but defend to the death his right not to say it. That’s what our democracy is all about, but some of us appear to be in danger of forgetting it.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and author)