No flag can hide injustices

By Jawed Naqvi
Monday, 21 Jun, 2010

The real question is which particular version of the nation does the national flag represent? Narendra Modi’s version? Nehru’s version? Mahatma Gandhi’s version? – Photo on file
It was Howard Zinn, the late American Marxist historian who said there was no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people. Zinn was critiquing his country’s habit of waging wars and toppling governments for American interests. Zinn’s vision is clearly anathema to resurgent Indian nationalism. Recently, I saw a poster with a boyish Rahul Gandhi exulting: “The Indian flag is my only religion. All sorts of people, police, zealots, ideologues, corporate CEOs have taken to peddling their wares wrapped in the national flag. Recently, at a meeting of media professionals a former head of the Intelligence Bureau said that it was the duty of intelligence agencies to spill blood if that is what it took to defend the Indian state against threats by its own people. By that definition the British were justified in their massacres of 1857 and Jalianwala Bagh. Operation Green Hunt, the Indian government’s war against Maoist rebels of Chhattisgarh, is a current variant of a war being waged against people in the name of nationalism.

The Maoists have reportedly estimated that they will overthrow the Indian state by 2050 by means of an armed struggle. Their violent methods have come in for a great deal of debate. The liberal view is that legal, parliamentary methods should be the preferred choice of those seeking to change the Indian constitution. The irony is that many of the resistance movements in the country, including the Maoists’, often find themselves waging militant struggles to force the government to implement existing laws and the existing constitution which the government pays lip service to but constantly violates.

The real question is which particular version of the nation does the national flag represent? Narendra Modi’s version? Nehru’s version? Mahatma Gandhi’s version? The state changes its character, sometimes imperceptibly, slowly but very often suddenly and drastically. Should someone raised to believe in the Indian state under Nehru resist Modi’s state? Is a peaceful, legal, constitutional method possible to arrest the advance of Modi-like fascism in India? If so who is to lead the charge? And what would the head of the Intelligence Bureau make of those resisting the state? Is it morally or politically tenable to support the state and the flag even when it betrays the promise it made to the people?

With the kind of politics we have seen in recent years, these questions will only sharpen. Is Rahul Gandhi’s flag-bound nationalism in any way different from the political culture symbolised by those who demolished the Babri Masjid, for example, or killed Dalits, Sikhs, Muslims, and are now busy militarily targeting pristine tribal communities at will?

The discussion gets complicated when flag-bound patriots bare their nationalist fangs. They begin to label anyone differing with them as traitors and anti-nationals. This is when the national flag begins to mask the bitter truth – that there are more pretenders to claim exclusive rights on nationalism than there are seats in India’s parliament.

Expediency and opportunism seem inadequate to describe the adjustments that are increasingly made to accommodate a range of potentially contrary ideologies under the convenience of a national flag. The rightwing BJP leader who defected to the Congress remains just as nationalist as the Congress party ideologue who is now ensconced in the BJP. Or take the example of Jaswant Singh, the mild-mannered former foreign minister. He was thrown out of the BJP for praising Mohammad Ali Jinnah in his book about partition. The RSS, which is the ideological fountainhead of most rightwing Hindu groups, including the BJP, described Singh’s views as anti-national.

However, now there are reports of Jaswant Singh’s imminent return to the BJP. The question that is not being asked is the one that pertains to his equation with the national flag. As an advocate of India’s nuclear doctrine Singh won laurels as an arch nationalist. As a minister who nearly brought peace with Pakistan in July 2001 during the Agra summit, he was perceived as a soft diplomat. However, has the BJP forgiven his trespasses on Jinnah? If so has the party accepted his thoughts on partition in which he slammed Vallabhbhai Patel for the creation of Pakistan? Patel is a Congress and BJP icon. Has Jaswant Singh rowed back from his position to accommodate the BJP?

Take the case of Uma Bharti, the lower caste Hindu ideologue who campaigned for the demolition of the Babri Mosque. She was thrown out of the BJP for criticising the party’s upper caste orientation. The BJP is in the throes of a serious political restructuring. While several former members like Jaswant Singh and Ram Jethmalani are returning to the BJP, some of its allies are showing signs of restiveness.

The latest person who seems to have become somewhat edgy in the BJP’s company is one of the major figures of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. He was so upset with some of the advertisements sponsored by the BJP featuring him and his Gujarat counterpart Narendra Modi that he cancelled a dinner for the party’s delegates who were in Patna for their national executive meeting.

Subsequently, the rift between Nitish Kumar and the BJP deepened when no one except L.K. Advani mentioned his name during a rally in the town.

If Nitish Kumar was angry over the possibility of losing the Muslim vote for being shown clasping hands with Modi, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra has lately displayed signs of disquiet over the clandestine links between the BJP and the Congress, and between the Congress and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), during local elections.

The Shiv Sena evidently fears such deals will undermine its position vis-à-vis both the BJP and the MNS, the breakaway group which has cut into the Shiv Sena’s Marathi vote bank.

It is worth recalling in this context that the Shiv Sena had supported the Congress’ Pratibha Patil, a Maharashtrian, for the president’s post instead of the NDA’s Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, a veteran BJP leader from Rajasthan. What is more, Sena supremo Bal Thackeray had expressed his preference for Sharad Pawar, another Maharashtrian, as a possible prime minister in the place of Advani, the NDA’s nominee.

Given these widening gulfs between the BJP and two of its allies, the party will be pleased that Jaswant Singh and Ram Jethmalani are returning to the organisation. There is also talk about Uma Bharti being accommodated by the party. It needs Jaswant Singh in Rajasthan and it needs Uma Bharti in Madhya Pradesh for the lower caste vote. Which particular version of these two contradictory types of caste politics is in the national interest? The soothing balm that seals the rifts and mends the cracks is the overriding corporate influence which now virtually controls Indian politics. They are the real backseat drivers that power the ship of Indian democracy.