Our intimate enemy

On August 15, 2016, young men raced through the streets of Delhi (and no doubt many other parts of the country) on motorcycles, in trucks, cars and auto rickshaws, waving gigantic versions of the national flag and shouting “Bharat mata ki jai”.

On the same day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave his Independence Day address from the Red Fort and the most memorable and consequential part of his speech, it now seems, was his reference to Balochistan. The aftermath has become a discussion and criticism of Pakistan and “our” policy towards “them”, rather than a celebration and assessment of India.

For those of us who belong to the group described as India’s young, a question arises. Did Pakistan always play such a dominant role in how we defined ourselves as a nation? What do we stand for, when we wave our flag and shout slogans on the street?

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India has certainly cast a long shadow in Pakistan and that is understandable. Since Jinnah’s death in 1948, there was a steady de-secularisation and militarisation of Pakistan’s politics, both of which came together during General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship. As a secular, democratic and diverse nation, India was a living contradiction to the idea of Pakistan. But the same did not hold true for us.

India is not a Hindu country, and we never defined ourselves in opposition to the neighbour. India’s freedom was a separation from the British Empire, not from Pakistan. And from what one can make out from the history books, Pakistan was never as integral to how we defined ourselves as it seems to be now.

India is not a Hindu country, and we never defined ourselves in opposition to the neighbour. India’s freedom was a separation from the British Empire, not from Pakistan. And from what one can make out from the history books, Pakistan was never as integral to how we defined ourselves as it seems to be now.

Despite the bitterness of Partition and the battles over Kashmir, Nehru’s imagination of India was more focused on bringing in a liberal, European modernity under the aegis of a benevolent, paternal state. Big dams, public universities and state-led industrialisation were accompanied by a suspicion of the west (we were recently free of a predatory colonial power) and the desire for self-sufficiency. Pakistan, while certainly important, didn’t stand a chance against the larger project of “nation-building”.

Despite the bitterness of Partition and the battles over Kashmir, Nehru’s imagination of India was more focused on bringing in a liberal, European modernity under the aegis of a benevolent, paternal state. Big dams, public universities and state-led industrialisation were accompanied by a suspicion of the west (we were recently free of a predatory colonial power) and the desire for self-sufficiency. Pakistan, while certainly important, didn’t stand a chance against the larger project of “nation-building”.

Even for Lal Bahadur Shastri, who found himself in charge of a country at war with Pakistan, the slogan was “jai jawan, jai kisan”. The farmer, at a time of food shortages, got equal billing to the soldier. Indira Gandhi won a war with Pakistan, but the rationale for the conflict was a moral one — the liberation of Bangladesh. And the slogan that cemented her as a mass leader was “garibi hatao”. As time went on and Indira tried to become India, our insecurities grew. But in a Cold War world, the “foreign hand” was usually a reference to the United States and its allies, not Pakistan. Jayaprakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia were at the forefront of articulating struggles for dignity, identity and they rallied the voices of the first generation of students to have come of age after Independence. Their successors still count on the political loyalty of the social groups that were politicised during that time.

Pakistan, except perhaps during times of war when jingoism is at its peak, was relatively peripheral to our nationalism. Now, though, as India is well into senior citizenship, things seem to have changed. The heroes of our freedom struggle are no longer deified; we constantly question their legacy. We are no longer insecure about the West. In fact, we want them to come and Make in India. The farmer seems to enter the public imagination only when he commits suicide. Lofty ideals don’t stand a chance against the joys of a globalised world and a liberalised economy — whether it comes to consuming entertainment from around the world or simply buying our way to bliss.

We can only look at the romantic idealism, socialism and liberalism of the past through a sepia-tinted Instagram filter, and marvel at its black-and-whiteness in a high-definition world. Now, religion seems to play a greater role in politics and cross-border terrorism is having an understandable impact on our relations with our neighbour. When we wave a flag, our identity seems to be built in large part around the easiest kind of nationalism — in juxtaposition to an enemy.

When you meet Pakistanis, there is no strangeness, only familiarity. For north Indians in particular, there isn’t even a language barrier. Their television shows are better than ours, and actors like Fawad Khan can easily become sex symbols without being accused of love jihad. Perhaps that’s what we should choose to celebrate instead of blaming politicians for our troubles. After all, it’s easy, almost a cliché, to blame the political class for the bitterness with which we see our neighbours, or the lack of an inspiring vision of India for the youth.

And yet, the young, flag-waving motorcycle-riders I saw on Independence Day weren’t just shouting “patriotic” slogans. Their expressions of love for their country were peppered with chants of “Pakistan murdabad”. While so many of the rest of us were sitting at home (myself included) buying some really great swag on Amazon. Perhaps both of us, the “patriots” and the consumers, are part of what the flag stands for today.

The Article First Appeared In The Indian Express 

 

 

 

 

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