Jawaharlal Nehru saluted as the tanks rumbled down the highway. My chest puffed out, thrilled at the sight of the tricolour. We stood to attention as a military band played “Saare Jahan se Accha – Hindustan Hamara “(Best in the world – our India). I was young and my country was also young. Khadi still meant Gandhi. Gandhi still meant truth and non-violence. Then why the tanks and the men with guns? Little boys didn’t ask such questions. Guns and tanks were their favourite toys. They still are.
Republic Day Parade, perhaps understandable when undertaken by a newly liberated nation, is for a country that is 50 years old, hardly a sign of security or maturity. That we have become increasingly dependent on vulgar displays of militaristic jingoism and “patriotic” fervour is inversely proportionate to the actual loss, both of freedom and of idealism since the heady days of 1942 and 1947. Where once we burnt foreign cloth we now pay enormous sums for the privilege of a designer tag that triumphantly signifies our import and more significantly, our buying power. It is no longer considered to be bad taste to flaunt your wealth in a country where the average monthly wage is less than the price of an executive’s lunch.
Today our economy has become totally dependent on the IMF, the World Bank and a conglomerate of multinationals, as well as on a ruthless kind of indigenous businessman for whom the supari (hired assassin) killing of a trade union leader is as easy as the stuffing of a peti (suitcase full of banknotes) into the hands of a politician. Agricultural and industrial relationships have become masked by a mysterious energy known as “the market forces.” Who are the workers and who is the boss? Who gives the orders? What causes shares and prices to rise or fall? Who has ordered that ever more private cars shall inhabit our planet and ever less air and water shall be available to breathe and drink? Who benefits from the export dollar that was earned by converting a self-sufficient population in the countryside into the reviled slum dwellers of some heartless metropolis? Whose interests are served by the fact that poor nations like India and Pakistan, not to speak of the whole world, shall spend all their money on an arms race instead of fighting poverty? As the media itself is bought up and newspapers become a veritable TV Guide, questions that are unanswered eventually become questions that are unasked.
Not surprisingly, the more dependent we become, the more we must sustain the illusion and gesture of independence, the illusion of nation, the illusion of culture and religion, indeed, the illusion of any sort of identity that can bring us some comfort in an age where corporations rule anonymously over a population that has no name. So revivalism, communalism and fundamentalism become the order of the day for they protect us with the familiarity of the known. And the most legitimate form of uniting the known “us” against the unknown “they”, is nationalism.
“Patriotism”, Samuel Johnson once said, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. One glimpse on Republic Day will reveal more of this commodity than can fit the widest of TV screens. There you will see Mr. Hawala, Mr. Gawala, Mr.Bofors, Mr.Cogentrix, Mr.Enron, St. Kitts* and.Sardar Sarovar all jostling for space There you will find the suave owners and spineless editors of newspapers that pay handsome tribute to 50 years of Independence and at the same time carry loving paeans on the birthday of their favourite fascist.
But you cannot fool all the people all of the time. This year when the tanks roll down main street and the parade gets underway there will be at least one old boy who will not be cheering. Not because he loves his country any less, but because by now he has understood that love has nothing to do with the celebration of power. And if he still buys a paper tricolour it is not because it makes him proud but because he didn’t have the heart to rob an urchin of his one legitimate job for the day.
*Infamous scams involving well-known politicians.
Anand Patwardhan, The Times of India, 26 January, 1997