SONGS OF FREEDOM
TRUE PATRIOTISM SHOULD SUBVERT ALL FORMS OF OPPRESSION AND IT MUST BE BOUND TO HUMANITY RATHER THAN THE NATION-STATE
IAM ATTEMPTING TO pen this piece on a day when a lot that I believed in, as a citizen of India, has been taken away. I thought the Constitution is the one thing that gives us culture, records our past and, at every turn, reimagines our present. But on August 5, this tradition of respecting multiple cultures, ideas, voices embodied in the spirit of our Constitution was torn to bits. Dr B.R. Ambedkar had secured for us humanity, fairness and ethics of living. But I fear we are witnessing the first step in a series that will undo the dreams of India enshrined in that sacred book, all those years ago. Our past has been far from clean and many have repeatedly raised their voice at cardinal moments. But what we are witnessing now is a drastically different kind of politics—a blaring siren that has killed any semblance of music. Culture was forfeited and patriotism twisted and mutilated. The 5th of August 2019 will be remembered as the day when we, as a country, trampled upon the Kashmiris’ right to redefine their relationship with the rest of India. We went back on our word and in the darkness of the night unleashed our machinery to mute an entire region. If this is Indian culture, then I reject it once and for all. If I am considered patriotic only if I applaud this move, then maybe I am not patriotic. But to many this was a patriotic act, a brave decision that unites the country, undoes a wrong and will make us stand together as one. But what is patriotism?
Over the past five-plus years, there has been a need to differentiate between patriotism and jingoism. But with all the rubbish that is thrown our way every day, do we really know or even have the mind-space to seriously investigate this feeling?
A few years ago, as I was waiting in the green room getting ready for my concert, the organiser informed me that since the auditorium was owned by the state government, they insisted on playing the national anthem before the concert began even though this was not a government function. I refused to leave the green room or get on stage until the anthem ended. Was I unpatriotic not to participate in the celebration of the anthem? What is the anthem itself? Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the former governor of West Bengal, has often spoken of the word manas in our anthem. This was Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s word of hope. The word that symbolised the innate innocence within everyone of us. Not the innocence of nativity, but the self that is untainted by greed. The glimmer in a dewdrop that falls on a leaf. He celebrated this possibility in every Indian and hoped for a land where we held dewdrops in our palms in wonder. But when this work of art, the national anthem, is thrust upon us as a song of allegiance, that beautiful song turns into the trumpeting of an authoritarian regime. I would also argue that, in forcing its rendition before a celebration of a musical tradition,
the symbol aesthetically distorted culture, art, melody, rhythm and the profundity of the aesthetic experience.
If we were to listen to every song that was sung, each poem that was recited, all the prose that was published, the tunes that were hummed or slogans that were chanted during the freedom struggle, we would know how they spoke of justice, equality, fairness, democracy, rights and freedom. We sought the emancipation of the body and the mind. The British were the obvious oppressors, but the words were not limited to pointing to their evilness. The cry for freedom was as much about the people within, an appeal for self-reflection, a movement for us to arise from social slumber.
When Subramania Bharati asks, When will our thirst for freedom be quenched? When will our love for thraldom cease?, he is speaking of the conditions under British rule, but he is also speaking beyond his time, raising questions about the human condition. He is speaking for the last person standing and demanding change from the privileged. Whether it was Bharati or Dwijendralal Roy, they spoke of people, to people and for people. We fought the British tooth and nail not because they were outsiders but because of injustice. Patriotism in its essence is not obedience or faithfulness; it is the celebration of questioning and free will. When D.K. Pattammal sang with patriotic fervour, she hoped to nudge Indians to express themselves fearlessly, to stand up for others. Protected within those words and melodies were the rights of every individual. Patriotic songs were not composed to capture power, they were
WHEN PEOPLE ARE TODAY CALLED ANTIHINDU AND ANTIINDIAN, THE ACCUSER IS COLLAPSING SOCIORELIGIOUS IDENTITY AND FAITHFULNESS TO THE NATIONSTATE, NARROWING OUR INDIAN-NESS TO SPECIFIC COLOURS, SYMBOLS AND RITUALS
sung to empower ourselves, to strengthen human rights and challenge any power structure that diminishes us as people. Patriotism is subversive; the subverter of the feudal, the uncaring, the power-hungry and the dictatorial. It does not serve the state and hence must, at all times, uphold the highest human qualities. Only when the country listens and learns from the patriot does it remain alive.
Patriotism was not a majoritarian imposition; it was a caring song for all, especially for those whose songs are not heard. The nation-state had and has very little to do with this patriotism. When an entire people came together and stood together for self-determination, they knew that the cause was human, not Indian. But like all idealisms, this too soon vanished into the shadows of community and religion. Patriotism becomes jingoistic the moment it loses its selfless nature, when it champions ownership, othering and criminalises those who are vulnerable.
What about that line we call our border, that which determines our sovereignty? Isn’t patriotism vouching for that political line, protecting its convoluted shape across mountains, rivers, seas and forests? In 2010, just after the civil war had ended in Sri Lanka, I performed in Colombo in the memory of Neelan Tiruchelvam, the Tamil lawyer, politician and academic who was assassinated by the LTTE. He was a patriot who fought until the very end for dialogue and process, and listened to every voice. For that concert, I rendered a song written by a Tamil poet about whom very little is known— Tara Bharati. He asks in his song:
Has any country stolen a river because it flowed across the border?
Has anyone arrested the wind because it crossed the fence? Have the border walls ever stopped the rain clouds from coming down the hills after raining on the towns above? Do we accuse a tree on the border of encroachment and cut its roots because it drew water from the neighbouring country?
At the end, he asks people to awaken to the spirit of sharing. Patriotism sprouts from this freedom, the sharing of human values. A bond that expands into a larger political construction that we call country but can never be stopped by barriers or steeples. The lines that we draw on a map are just markers of this coming together amongst one set of people. It does not mark the position of the outsider. Patriotism, therefore, cannot be reduced to a realestate business of acquiring or safeguarding land and neither is it about international contractual agreements. Patriotism cannot and should not be bound by the idea of the nation. The nation needs patriots and not the other way round. Patriots must have the courage to name their own country as the perpetrator if that is the truth. Patriotism takes only the side of the just, not a nation-state.
Mythology and history, too, contribute to the collapse of patriotism. No democratic country came into being from vacuum, and this means it carries within social, religious and political practices the splendours and the grotesqueness of the pre-democratic times. Bundled deep inside those bedtime stories and lullabies are identity markers that soon turn into tools of discrimination. When people are today called anti-Hindu and anti-Indian, the accuser is, in one stroke, collapsing socio-religious identity and faithfulness to the nation-state. In that masterstroke, he rekindles the ruptures of the past and narrows our Indian-ness to specific colours, symbols and rituals. When that happens, even a beautiful song of belonging turns violent. When the German national anthem was rendered with gusto by German supremacists under Adolf Hitler, it was an unpatriotic, unmusical, inhuman act. Patriotism loses its selflessness and morphs into a flag-waving, anthem-singing drill.
The patriot challenges culture, religion and any social practice that is undemocratic. No saint, elder, writer, painter, sculptor, philosopher or singer is beyond the enquiry. The word of god is not exempt from questioning and neither is the atheist or rationalist absolute. The patriot is an artist, a citizen, a sensitive human being who cares for people and all that we treasure as this planet.
PATRIOTISM CANNOT BE REDUCED TO A REAL-ESTATE BUSINESS OF ACQUIRING OR SAFEGUARDING LAND. PATRIOTISM CANNOT BE BOUND BY THE IDEA OF THE NATION. PATRIOTS MUST HAVE THE COURAGE TO NAME THEIR OWN COUNTRY AS THE PERPETRATOR IF THAT IS THE TRUTH