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A Strange Kind Of Deshbhakti

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By Vipul Rikhi:

Four days ago, we were to sing at Ramjas College in the evening and also conduct workshops on Kabir and Shah Latif during the day. Of course, all this had to be cancelled. The event was relocated at the last minute to Kirori Mal College with support from some of the staff there, and it was kept low-key, attended mostly by a few students from Ramjas, wounded in both body and soul.

Our names were not even announced, but thankfully the singers who had come from Kutch, Mavjibhai Jagariya and Saidu Ibrahim, were able to sing the songs of Shah Latif from their folk oral traditions. Even then, a gang of boys roamed around menacingly, trying to find out if we were doing anything that was more than “just singing some Sufi songs” and to see if they could disrupt it on some pretext. Next day Prahlad ji’s concert had to be relocated out of the university.

It is a sad time for our country when alleged love for the country has come down to this. We heard first-hand reports of what happened at Ramjas from the people involved. It is pretty much a case of straightforward bullying and show of power. What saddens me most is that so many well-meaning people seem to support this kind of so-called “nationalism”.

It’s a strange kind of deshbhakti indeed that approves of outright violence, bullying, de facto censorship, atmosphere of fear, threats of rape, circulating images on Whatsapp of teachers to thrash, and so on, in the name of objecting to some imagined notion of what is “anti-national”. Just like the pundits and mullahs who used to tell us in what way we must bow and pray to God, these days these new priests of power prescribe to us in what way we must love our country. As long as you shout the right slogan, stand up when required, and even beat up people who don’t agree with you, you’re a great “nationalist”.

If you dare to have a view of your own which doesn’t match the current prescription and dare to express it, you’re a threat to the nation. This would be funny, if it weren’t so tragic and full of real consequences for real people. The day is not far when even singing Kabir or Shah Latif will be deemed anti-national by these people, and one would need to seek prior permission to speak or sing or stage anything.

Perhaps one kind of twisted consolation is that this kind of madness is nothing new. Kabir says in one place:

Sadhu bhai, dekho jag bauraana
Saach kahun to maaran dhaave, jhoothe jag patiyaana

(Fellow seeker, look, the world has gone mad!
If you speak the truth, you get beaten up; but speak falsehoods and you will find many followers.)

I don’t know if there’s any space left for a sane debate, especially with those who are okay with this kind of violence and bullying in the name of being “nationalists”, but I would have thought that real deshprem or love for the country is a totally different thing.

Love is not oppression. How can love for the country be full of so much oppression, fear, violence and prescribed codes of speech and conduct? How can love for the country include going against some of its most fundamental values, such as the basic respect we accord to teachers, whether we like them or not? This is the first time, we were told, that teachers have been targeted and thrashed. A basic line of trust has been breached. How can love for the country include threatening your own country men and women with physical or sexual violence?

We may not agree with many other people’s opinions, but does that mean that we will beat and bully them into silence? What kind of country will there be left to love?

I feel a deep love for this land in my blood and veins, in my flesh and skin, in my breath and heart. But this love can only express itself in a deep feeling and joy and celebration of all that is good about us, our culture, dance, music, arts, poetry, philosophy and most of all the spirit which is accepting, loving and has space for everything. We must think about what the real values are which define this country, beyond sloganism and prescription-based gesturing.

In any case, this probably has nothing to do with love for the country, but with a pure and simple love of power. What Samuel Johnson famously said of “patriotism” now applies to our so-called “nationalism” – it is indeed the last refuge of the scoundrel.

ABVP students taking out a march to protest against violence at Ramjas College at Delhi University on March 2. Photo by Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

What saddens me most though, as I said, is the number of well-meaning private individuals (not the politicians who are interested in accruing power) who support this so-called deshbhakti. We must think about the real meaning of “desh”, and the real meaning of “bhakti”, before we find ourselves legitimising violence, harassment, censorship, bullying and goonda-raj in the name of some mythical ideological construct that we have been skilfully sold by those in power for their own agendas.

For Shabnam and me, personally, to be present that day at Delhi University, and just to play manjiras for those folk singers from Kutch, who truly represent the best of our land, was an act of love for our country.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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