In a world increasingly being taken over by a totalitarian right wing ideology (and India is very much there, along with the USA, UK, Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, the Phillipines, Poland) the idea of patriotism has been distorted to serve the authoritarian tendencies of their rulers. Autocracy does best when it has an enemy, real or imagined, to frighten its citizens with; this enemy can come in various forms: a neighboring nation, terrorism, drugs, traitors from within, economic collapse, a different religion or ethnic community. Its alleged purveyors are equally varied – contrary ideologues, intellectuals, artists, journalists, academicians- and they have to be countered with the force of “sovereign violence” and public denunciation in order to “save” the nation from their conspiracies.
But before this can be done it is necessary to acquire legitimacy for the state’s actions. This is done by aggressively promoting an ersatz and aggressive form of Nationalism in which the autocrat’s ideology IS the national interest and any opposition to it is anti-national, if not seditionist. This nationalism is enshrined in a new concept of patriotism, a form of jingoism, where loyalty is sought for the ruling establishment and not for the country. And to extract this loyalty from its citizens, this redefined patriotism has to be necessarily militarized – equated with hysterical support for the state’s coercive apparatus – the military, para military, police, even state sponsored vigilante mobs. These forces are brought into play on every occasion – Parliamentary debates, election speeches, television programmes – to divert the attention of the populace from other unresolved problems, and any questioning of their actions is branded as unpatriotic. In the Indian context we see examples of this everyday, whether it is the “unpatriotic” demand for withdrawal of AFSPA, reported excesses in Kashmir, questioning of the Rafale deal, the brutal conduct of the UP police against the anti-CAA protesters, recent actions and inactions of the police in Delhi, mob lynchings. By militarising patriotism every coercive action of the state becomes legitimate, the agents of this coercion become holy cows, and every other agency of the state becomes secondary. This is also a calculated effort by the rulers to co-opt the armed forces to their cause. Support for this militarisation becomes the only standard for judging one’s patriotism because the “enemies” of the nation (as defined earlier) can only be countered by these armed forces and de-facto militias.
This has worked well for Mr. Modi so far, ensuring that the bread and butter issues are put on the back burner, and garnering massive popular support for him and his party. But the events around the Covid 19 pandemic may be about to change all this. An invisible virus has locked down the whole country and generated an unprecedented fear and panic not seen since Partition. It is an existential dread about a deadly present and a precarious future. And suddenly, the jingoistic bogies created by the government to stir up nationalism appear inconsequential, hollow and petty in the face of threats to our very ways of life. A realisation has also set in that the real threat to the country today is not on its borders or in the jungles of Dantewada, but right here, in the air we breathe and the hand we touch. It is not the govt’s militarised apparatus which will save the country but a new set of heroes and warriors.
The front lines today are not on our external borders but in every village and town, and those engaging in battle there are not soldiers but people who have been completely neglected so far by this militaristic government – doctors, nurses, para medicals, scientists, researchers, sanitation staff, pharmacists (they are there in our uniformed forces too, though equally neglected there too). It is these warriors who are the real patriots today, risking their own and their families’ lives in order to keep us safe; their sacrifice is the patriotism we need to realise and recognise now, and in the future too.
There are others too, those who are fighting the parallel war to prevent our economy from collapsing, to ensure that the supply chain of the goods and services on which our daily living depends does not collapse. Humble entities we take for granted: store clerks, truck drivers, the grocer and the vegetable vendor, the milk man, the delivery boy, the bus conductor, the journalist, the private security guard – they too put their lives at risk every time they venture out. And let us not forget those backroom, invisible boys and girls who are keeping our telecom and digital systems going at this difficult time, keeping us connected even as the government is compelled to snap these connections. This eco-system of social media platforms, digital information and services fills the physical void, Sanjay Kapoor, former CEO of Bharti Airtel reminds us in an article, allowing us to remain productive even while avoiding the risk of contagion. It enables families to stay in touch, access vital information, maintain everyday commerce. These techies may not be risking their lives, but they ensure that our digital civilisation does not collapse. It is these people who are the real patriots of today.
If there’s one important lesson that COVID 19 has taught us, apart from exposing our fragility and stupidity as a race, it is that these hitherto unsung, unacknowledged professionals are the soldiers of the future. It has, hopefully, taught us that whereas boots on the ground will always be needed, the next millenium belongs to biological, economic and cyber warfare; while protecting our borders may still be required, the real challenge will be in protecting our ways of life, our natural environment, the health of communities; while Pakistan may continue to be enemy no. 1, the real enemy will be our inability to accept that the world will have changed irrevocably after this virus, and that we too need to change our politically expedient definition of patriotism. One doesn’t have to wear a uniform, or march to the rhythms of jackboots, or chant Jai Shri Ram to be a patriot. Of course, our armed forces will always occupy pride of place, but they now have to share this space with others on the new front lines of the new dangers.
So it’s not enough to clap or bang pots and pans for two minutes to express our theoretical gratefulness to the many who are preventing our health and economy from collapsing. What is needed is to discard this deviant concept of a militarised patriotism, recognise the new warriors and realign national resources so that the real patriots are better equipped to defend our ancient civilisation and modern economy. As Mark Lawrence Schrad, the American author and Professor of Sociology hopes, in an insightful article in the POLITICO magazine: “Perhaps, too, we will finally start to understand that patriotism is cultivating the health and life of your community, rather than blowing up someone else’s community.”