First Person | National Pride

When love for the country means being a card-carrying nationalist

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Am I a nationalist? Until this point in my life I had never been confronted with this question. Neither had I ever ruminated over it. Having been born and brought up in India, I have always lived here and what’s more, I like living here. In all these years, it never occurred to me to try and live anywhere else. And I am sure I am not an oddity, at least not at home. My entire extended family with one exception, live in India. Honestly, most may not have a choice but to live here (who else will have them), but surely, some of us continue to be here by choice.

Does it mean I love India? This is an odd question to answer. Certain things are so integral to your being that when they are singled out they stick out awkwardly. For example, I have never told my parents that I love them. Neither have they told me ever that they love me. But I have never been in any doubt about their love. I am sure they are equally confident about my sentiments. I fear, capitulating to new-age relationship guides, if I ever tell my parents that I love them, they will suspect that I am up to something sinister.

In the same way, I find it awkward singing ‘I love My India’. I feel that just as my parents do, my country too understands that I care. Care enough to respect the law of the land, pay taxes and criticise what I think is wrong in the government, politics or society. Care enough to not cheat, to not look for opportunistic, short-term personal benefits and not judge fellow citizens. I don’t shout slogans and I certainly do not wave the national flag. I sometimes listen to patriotic songs, but only for the beauty of the poetry and music; ‘Aye Mere Pyaare Watan’ from the movie Kabuliwallah being an all-time favourite. Despite having heard it a few thousand times or more, I am still moved by the longing in the words of Prem Dhawan and the melancholy in the voice of Manna Dey.

But there are a few occasions when I do behave like a flag waving Indian. And that happens when I am abroad and talking with foreigners. My heart swells with pride when I am in the company of other nationals and at the first opportunity I draw the conversation towards India — to the diversity of Indian food, the variations in Indian topography, the richness of Indian culture, the colourfulness of Indian clothes, the range of Indian music and the robustness of Indian democracy. My oft-repeated opening line is: In India, the dialect changes every 100km, and everything else, from language to food, clothes and complexion changes every 200km! I don’t talk about the Indian economy, because the foreigners do that.

However, for the first time in my life, this summer, on my three visits to Europe, the pride was replaced by embarrassment. The newspaper headlines were flung at me with a very concerned question: How bad are things really? On one occasion, a rather rude European smirked and casually said that looks like India is having one of its banana republic moments.

The first time this happened, I couldn’t quite figure out my appropriate response, so I only smiled weakly. Later, back in my room I wondered how I should respond to a foreign corporate, with limited attention span, when he asks me about killing of human beings in the name of cow protection or accosting of consenting adults in the name of religion protection or beating up of ordinary citizens in the name of nation protection. Why is it that everything but the human life needs protection in India?

Should I brazen out these questions or give explanations? Could I do it without exposing the political and social fissures that have started to creep into our public life? Globalisation, internet and social media have ensured that there is no hiding behind illusory rhetoric. How can I brag about diversity of food when they know beef is killing people? Or about richness of Indian culture when they know that communities are being asked to conform? Or about the robustness of Indian democracy when they know that the government is increasingly becoming synonymous with the nation and critics of the government are being labelled as anti-national?

Unable to figure out an appropriate response, for the first time this summer, I avoided talking about India to the foreigners. Instead, I made silly comments on the US President who is fair game these days.

But I am not happy with this. I want my smugness back. I want my pride back. Maybe, I first need to talk to Indians about India. To ask them that since love brings grace, dignity, magnanimity and tolerance, why does your love express itself only in violence, vulgarity and intolerance? Pride in the nation gives confidence. Why your pride in the nation fills you with insecurity? Perhaps, you are mixing up sentiments. Perhaps, you need to get back to the basic lessons of nationalism. Hopefully, then the international headlines will be less cruel to us and we will be able to reclaim our pride of place at the international dinner tables.