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Nationalism: Flagged content

“When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim, or a Christian, or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence”

J Krishnamurti

In 1984, during a protest against the Reagan administration in America, one of the demonstrators set fire to the national flag-an act that brought him widespread condemnation. The man was then convicted of “desecration of a venerated object” under a Texan law. The decision was appealed in the Supreme Court, and in a landmark 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the Texan law that prohibited the burning of the American Flag was in violation of the freedom of speech, and hence, unconstitutional. The defendant was exercising his freedom to express himself when he burnt the flag, and hence, could not be punished for it. He was cleared of all charges.

This is a rare example of rational winning over rhetoric. The judges on the case certainly did not approve of the burning of American flag, but as they noted in their decision while saying that “It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects even those who hold it in contempt”, their disapproval does not suffice as justification for infringing upon rights. It is difficult to imagine that something like this could happen in a country like India, especially with the wave of nationalism that is sweeping the country.

The external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, for instance, was applauded when she responded to Amazon Canada, who was selling doormats with the Indian flag on it, by threatening to rescind the Visas of Amazon employees. The fact that the mats were neither meant to be an insult, nor were they in violation of any laws, questions the extent of the minister’s jurisdiction on the matter. The fact that the people she threatened to punish had nothing to do with the issue, or that footwear and mats having flags of other countries printed on them are sold in India, did not seem to concern her or her admirers.

It seems that we cannot even look to our apex court to display the sensibility that was seen in the USA in the 1984 case, not when the court thinks that the idea of ‘any different notion or the perception of individual rights is constitutionally impermissible’. These remarks came in the justification of its decision to make it mandatory for theatres in India to play the national anthem before every screening. Nationalism is now making an already overburdened judiciary expend time on trivial issues with no practical benefits that could come from the rulings on them. Interestingly, when a Kerala school expelled two students who refused to sing the national anthem citing religious reasons, the Honourable Supreme Court stepped in and its decision is, funnily enough, contradictory. “There is no provision of law which obliges anyone to sing the national anthem”, it said, while ruling on this issue in 1986. Further,  in the 1943 West Virginia State Board v. Barnette case, the Court of the United States also declared that compelling students to salute the national flag constituted a violation of the freedom of speech, and that such forced unification of opinions was unconstitutional. “No official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein,” Justice Robert Jackson wrote, a statement that would certainly cause hyper-nationalists to lose sleep over.

From calling for the beheading of those who don’t chant ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, to uninstalling apps for alleged remarks by the app’s CEO, or criticising a non-Indian singer for pocketing the flag, India seems to pride itself on blowing up non-issues and finding innovative ways to take offence. Certain news channels have boarded the nationalism bus as well, and often end up replacing intelligent debate with nationalism debates. When media bodies begin using the standard argument of ‘anti-nationalism’ to silence the Opposition representatives, it is clear that the problem has grown to a larger scale.

These events are nothing but symptoms of a disease. The disease, sweeping the nation like a medieval plague, is the burst of nationalism. If the nationalists are to be believed, their affliction is among the most noble virtues a man can boast of. However, nationalism is simply not as unquestionably a good thing as they would have you think. “Even though, from childhood, I had been taught that idolatry of the Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity,” wrote Rabindranath Tagore in his essay.

Nationalism is being used as a tool to silence any kind of opposition. It has been used by governments in ways which have impacted our national unity negatively. Our humanity has to precede our nationality. Our goal has to be betterment of people, not simply of countries. While love for your nation, to an extent, helps to better society, nationalism today preaches hatred for our neighbours more than love for our brothers and sisters of the country. Boundaries have to be transcended, and the trend that is instead deepening them is a step back for humankind.


Cover image: Vaaridhi Mathur

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