By Sidharth Bhatia
Patriotism is in the air. Literally.
Air India, the national carrier, has been instructed to use ‘Jai Hind’ after every on-board announcement on every flight. Naturally, this decision has triggered a thousand and more online jokes and memes. Will crew members now say, “We will now commence our meal services, Jai Hind. Paneer or Idli? Jai Hind”. Will passengers now have to sing the national anthem before taking off? And so on and so forth.
Jokes are a good way to mock, and to let off steam, but they don’t change things. A government which finds public opinion, especially inconvenient public opinion, an irritant at best and sinister at worst, is not likely to care much about what the citizen thinks – unless that opinion conforms to its own views.
Thus any legitimate dissent is the work of liberals, sickulars and sundry other malcontents, while the most rabid communalism or hysterical nationalism is the ‘voice of the people’, or the ‘authentic self-expression of real Indians’.
Thus, no matter what anyone says, this is not a decision that the government is going to change. It has always been part of the ruling dispensation’s core agenda to inculcate nationalism among the people, and this is in keeping with that objective. The constant invocation of Bharat Mata, the flags that have been installed in different parts of the country, the valorisation of the army and diktats like making it compulsory to stand up for the national anthem in cinemas – this government has gone about that agenda with much vigour.
The Air India fiat has come just before the elections – before the code of conduct kicks in –but that really is of no consequence as it would have happened anyway. But post the Balakot airstrikes, the Nationalist Project has acquired urgency.
Simultaneously, influential voices from not just the party or the wider Sangh parivar but also from the government (and its ‘intellectual’ voices) are now laying down the red line – asking questions of the armed forces is being declared as unpatriotic. Not just of the forces, but also of the government and of the prime minister. The effort is to conflate the abstract concept of the ‘nation’ with the prime minister and the government – who have been elected by the people – and the armed forces, which are supposed to be under civilian control.
Thus, the balance of power is sought to be shifted from the citizens to the state, and anyone who questions this reversal of the democratic order, is deemed to be against the ‘nation’. It’s a sleight of hand of the most venal sort, and in the past, has led to the worst kind of excesses in history.
Consider these examples from the past few days. Piyush Goyal, the government’s man for all seasons (and ministries), sulked and lashed out at a journalist from the India Today group who, in a live chat on stage, asked him some questions that he apparently found inconvenient.
The journalist has not particularly been known in the past for any hostility towards this government; but here he was simply doing his job: asking for answers. Goyal huffed and puffed and asked the journalist: “Are you a part of this narrative that is trying to belittle our armed forces?” Then he suggested that “this kind of thinking” would “propagate the Pakistan theory in India”, which presumably means that Indians with such ideas were speaking up for Pakistan.
The message couldn’t be clearer – asking questions plays into the hands of the enemy, and therefore, it’s best not to ask questions. The journalist, of course, reminded the minister that he did not need lessons on nationalism (and that his father had been in he army, which frankly is neither here nor there), but this is a good example of how responsible members of this government think.
Then, General V.K. Singh, former army chief turned minister, who has in the past used words like “presstitute” for journalists, called student leaders “jonk” (leeches). He called for ‘surgical strikes’ within India, presumably against dissidents of various hues. He bemoaned that India was not like Israel, where no one questioned the army. Perhaps the good general thinks he is still in the army mess where soldiers are soldiers and where one can let off steam against damn civilians, while the junior officials stand by and applaud. One can almost hear him saying, “Bomb the whole bloody lot of them.” Democracy can be a real pain sometimes.
And the voluble Ravi Shankar Prasad, not to be left behind, has put it more bluntly – the Congress is demoralising the armed forces by asking for evidence about the strikes, therefore the Congress is “speaking the language of Pakistan.” In other words, shut up and accept what we tell you because if you don’t, you are a traitor.
That governments and politicians don’t like pesky questioners is a universal truth. But this government has taken it to extreme lengths. Prime minister Narendra Modi has never held a press conference or given an interview to a journalist who may ask tough questions. Routine inquiries, even via the Right to Information route, are turned down. Even the Supreme Court finds it difficult to get information from the government. What is the prime minister and his government so scared of?
The questions however have not stopped. Indians are natural sceptics, even cynics. Large sections of the media, whose dharma should be to question authority, have capitulated and some of the most powerful names in the country may have lapsed into silence, but the citizens on the street are not going to do the same.
Their voice does not get heard by those sitting on high, but when the occasion arises, they make their opinion known. They will get that opportunity soon. They are not going to be silenced by invoking patriotism.