Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Thoughts on 2nd October

Thanks to the Bengal Post, there should be at least one post a week on the Philippic.
More, if certain other things work out.

There are good reasons why the citizens of the USA consider their country to be the greatest in the world. The biggest reason is that Fox TV tells them so. To be fair, their present President does not repeat this statement as often as some of his predecessors. This may be because, in any speech by Obama, B.H., at least 30% of the time is spent in striking a statesmanlike pose and looking at a point about 3 feet above the left shoulder of the cameraman on Centre 1, which leaves less time for uber-patriotic affirmations. Most Americans take this as an indication of (a) statesmanlike intentions, though not necessarily ability or (b) a malfunctioning teleprompter. But any public figure in the USA must, in any public pronouncement, work in a reference to the USA as the leader of the free world and the guardian of democracy. This helps in building public consensus, patriotic fervor, even national unity. The method has been tried and tested by other world leaders such as Hussein, S., Hitler, A. and Dzugashvili, J. It seems to work.

Do these affirmations lead to an overwhelming question? Or does rhetoric lead to a blind acceptance of the maxim of “My country, right or wrong”? My question is limited to the context of our own country. Do we Indians believe in our country because we are told to do so? Or is there a deeper basis – whether rational or emotional - to our patriotism? As far as I am concerned, I live in India because I would not fit in anywhere else. This is my country. I would have no peace or comfort in a country where I can’t buy tea in an earthen cup. But I have sense enough to know that this does not make India the greatest country in the world (as, indeed, “Mom’s apple pie” is not sufficient proof of American superiority). One of the good things about my country is that I can still say this on a public forum without fear of the outcome.

Come to think of it, everybody says this. In the international media the concept of India, incredible or otherwise, exists in the future. We Indians agree. We’re getting there, we may be world leaders some time soon (a decade? A century?), but we’re certainly not there yet. Indians abroad (especially in world heritage sites like New Jersey) tend to have an extreme version of this objectivity. For them, practically nothing about India is acceptable. Not the infrastructure, food, medical facilities, education nor even the air. Not for them the empty rhetoric of world domination. (Curiously enough, this is the demographic that is most likely to buy into the Fox TV view of the USA. But we shall examine this phenomenon anon.) This clear-eyed pragmatic view, alas, rarely extends to Indian icons. The same Bangali who derides the work-culture of Bengal is most likely to get emotional over any criticism of Netaji. Or Swami Vivekananda. Perhaps Bangalis are not a good sample, since they can get equally emotional over Suchitra Sen and (on the evidence of lady friends from DSE) Kaushik Basu. No, let us examine the Indian at large.

Can you criticise his national icons in public and get away with it? Ambedkar, Bose, Nehru, Rajaji, Shivaji – can any of us afford to be less than respectful in our public utterances, without fear of an immediate and often physical reaction? The Americans are quite the opposite in this regard. They are as comfortable with depictions of Jefferson’s peccadilloes with the domestic staff at Monticello as they are with Jay Leno’s wisecracks about the current President. They accept the fallibility of their leaders and icons while maintaining the myth that their country is, by and large, above criticism. Those who do venture to criticise the country as a whole disguise it as criticism of a particular administration, of individuals rather than the collective. Doing otherwise would invite being labeled as a “Liberal”, which as we know is polite American usage for “wacko pinko Fascist Commie faggot”. In India on the other hand, the revered Arundhati Roy can write a brief 82-page essay in a leading weekly about the various ills of the Indian state, but a historian who suggests that the pride of Maharashtra was less than perfect must face a book ban.

I find this strange. What I find even stranger is that the efforts of one man were the single largest factor in creating this system whereby we live in a (reasonably) free and democratic nation, yet this man’s memory is reduced to dry paragraphs in history books and poorly painted portraits in government offices. This man’s life and even his views are beyond the realm of public scrutiny, despite his own experiments with truth which he recorded in frank and sometimes self-flagellating detail. It is sacrilegious, or anti-secular, or just plain traitorous, to suggest that despite his political acumen he made mistakes that led to bloodshed and misery. The real tragedy of the man’s legacy lies in this, and not in those three gunshots at a prayer meeting in 1948. By placing him above and beyond criticism, we have placed him beyond reality. And in the process denied his legacy the light of the truth that he believed in.


Madame Sosostris said...

Would abject, slavish, slavering adulation at the way that you use the English language be inappropriate? I would love to know you personally, and have a sneaking suspicion that in real life you are a wordsmith of renown, but would settle for a vastly superior species of human being.

Having said that may I suggest a reason for this difference? As someone once said, USA is a country with strong institutions and weak people, while India is a country with people who are stronger than the institutions.
Phlebas (Protik Prokash Banerji)

subbu said...

sigh!! you cant even seem to criticize rajinikanth nowadays!!

narendra shenoy said...

This is really superb!

Anuradha said...

I agree with you that people in the west are objective and accept their leader's fallibility whilst still having faith in their country...but we Indians are emotional lot which tends to cloud our reasoning and judgement.

Anuradha said...
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Onomatopoeia said...

Good point you raised here! But this inverse in the way institutions and public figures play out in the public in India & USA is just a derivative of what constitutes this country.

I believe with the multitudes of complexities that India is made up of [Bengalis, Marathi etc. North, South etc. Hindu, Muslim etc. Rich, horribly poor etc.], public speech/behavior must put forth a set of ideals that are sacred to all. We cannot say like the Americans that 'our country is all so wonderful' because for some of us it is for some it is not and there is a long road till this becomes a single thought.

On the contrary, while America prides itself in expression all facets [good/bad] of its forefathers, Indians tend to derive their strength as a nation from these figures which are blown larger then life as sacred ideals and men/women of principles which we should all embody!

Partho said...

Why Philippic? Why not Prufrick?
However, on to the issue.
I strongly disagree with your assertion that this man was responsible for this democracy. His only experience in governance was with the Congress Party where his record is somewhat less than bright on the standards of democratic practices. The one man to whom India must be eternally indebted is the much vilified JLN. The nation ought to be thankful MKG for other and posiibbly no lesser reasons. He showed the importance of courage in a good cause and the value of unflinching honesty to a people who had completely forgotten that such a virtue did exist. That teaching too is lost.
I keep having long mail exchanges with a scholar who is writing a tome on MKG. He has absolutely refused to touch two topics in the biography.
1. The reasons behind Gandhiji's actions post Tripuri and Haripura sessions.
2. Why Gandhiji was so obsessed with his digestive system?
I had suggested both but was summarily turfed out.

Bbbllluuubbb said...
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Sounak said...

It's brilliant, but what I feel the inability of the Indians to accept the fallibility of their heroes comes from the fact that as a nation we tend to idolize a person and exalt him to the rank of the superior being and completely ignore the human aspects.

Anonymous said...

I think we are more attached to our heroes than to the concept of the Indian nation.

Agneya said...

"This man’s life and even his views are beyond the realm of public scrutiny, despite his own experiments with truth which he recorded in frank and sometimes self-flagellating detail. It is sacrilegious, or anti-secular, or just plain traitorous, to suggest that despite his political acumen he made mistakes that led to bloodshed and misery"

Actually, it is far from traitorous to suggest that his mistakes led to bloodshed and misery.

To understand why I say this, I invite you to read a series of essays on Gandhi that I have done. In it, little-known beliefs of his are discussed, such as his idea that women (including one's mother or sister) who are being raped should not be defended with violent force. The essays cover his long period of loyalty to Britain, his racism, the Christian foundation of his religious beliefs, his unusual relations with the women of his ashram, and his desire for the Hindus of partition to willingly let themselves be slaughtered by Muslims. Also discussed are his belief in the equality of all religions, the true origin of the Indian revolutionary movement in 19th century Bengal, Gandhi's inability to follow the kshatriya dharma, his 'advice' to soldiers, why India has always been one nation, and even a section describing how the Aryan Invasion Theory brought disaster to Europe. Finally, I analyze the continued Gandhian influence on India's current political class. Free viewing and download is available at the link below.


ab said...

Agree on most counts except the following:

1) MKG was not responsible for either the democracy or even the freedom. The British were divesting out of the Empire business and after world war 2, india was both difficult and not so profitable place to run.

2) That you can't get tea in an earthen cup outside India. I think your experiences in Jersey, where no one of sound mind and body should be frequenting, have left a bitter after taste which is reflected in some of your posts. It would be so much better if you cross the body of water (take a tunnel or a bridge, even the nj transit will do) and get to new york. 3) fox news has any serious reach beyond the bible belt. Sure it has ratings. Wouldn't you love to watch stand up comedy everyday? But, we don't take them seriously. In fact, we don't take any news media seriously anymore. Just like india, it has become a joke of the sitcom variety.


Anonymous said...

Nice post.
I think we are doing injustice to Gandhi's ideals of truth if we are not willing to accept any criticism against Gandhi and his methods. I personally feel that his autobiography is cleverly written and shows the shrewdness of the man (which I admire). Some people are unwilling to accept that Gandhi could do any wrong. I guess this is the effect of seeing his smiling face on currency notes every day.