Features » Magazine March 26, 2016
A flag vendor tries to make a living by selling the tricolours and badges. Photo: K. Murali Kumar The Hindu
does the idea of India mean to the ordinary people — the auto drivers
and fishermen, students and shopkeepers, car drivers and homemakers?
the wake of an increasingly shrill demand for demonstrative
‘nationalism’, the country has ranged itself on two distinct sides, each
taking upon itself the onus of defining and laying down just what
nationalism is, which anthems are more or less devoted, which symbols
more significant, and which citizens can be awarded certificates as
good, bad or middling patriots. In the ensuing noise of battle, what we
have lost sight of is the middle ground, inhabited by the ordinary
people, the auto drivers and fishermen, the students and shopkeepers,
the car drivers and homemakers. What do they think? What does the idea
of India mean to them? How do they demonstrate their love or loyalty?
What is important to them? The Sunday Magazine
team fanned out across the country to talk to this anonymous person on the street. And what we found was eye-opening.
the fisherman in Chennai who said that before Bharat Mata he worships
Kadal Mata (ocean mother) who gives him his daily bread to the tribal
musician in Kerala who said making anthems compulsory in school is no
guarantee to produce more patriotic students to the driver in Vellore
who said that Jana Gana Mana has no religion, we discovered a quality of
distilled and clear reality in the ordinary Indian’s thinking that is
far removed from the unreal and harsh debate of primetime television and
social media. Read on to hear their voices.
‘The bore-well is broken’
Shakuntala Soren (40), Santhali, Purulia, West Bengal
Santhal woman from Shahajuri village, deep inside the Bengal-Jharkhand
border, seeks help from her neighbours when asked about ‘nationalism’.
“Weh ki?” (what is that?) she asks in Santhali.
explanation later, the word still makes no sense to her. So we ask if
she knows the “identity” of her country. She looks around at her
neighbours and then says “Bengal”.
And what about the national anthem? Soren looks restless. “Nolkup bari ekana,” she says. (“The bore-well is broken.”)
We turn to ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ and now the crowd gets restive. Someone shouts, “We don’t have work.”
A middle-aged man, Dhananjay Kisku, says they “barely survive” selling dry timber.
visit the forest too,” Soren says, and leaves to collect timber from
the Ayodhya hills, a Maoist stronghold during the last elections five
- Suvojit Bagchi
‘Wasn’t Bharat a king?’
Mohammad Idrees Choudhary (47) , Dry fruit merchant, Bengaluru, Karnataka
by neat packages of dry fruits imported from across the globe, Mohammad
Idrees Choudhary, a 47-year-old merchant in the nearly 100-year-old
Russel Market, explains what makes him an “Indian”. “At events and
functions, I say: ‘Jai Hind, Jai Karnataka’ as a gratitude to the
country and state that has allowed me to thrive. Now, with all this talk
of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, I am confused. Wasn’t Bharat a king? How can
he suddenly be a mata? If I think ‘Jai Hind’ symbolises my patriotism
better than ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, why should I be forced to say the
With poverty rampant and other pressing issues
still affecting life, citizens do not have the time to repeatedly
display their ‘patriotism’. “It is only politicians who seem to have all
the time in the world to set these rules,” he says.
- Mohit M. Rao
‘Hatred is anti-national’
Drashti Shah (28), Entrepreneur, Ahmedabad, Gujarat
Drashti Shah, patriotism or nationalism is about respect for the
fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. “My definition of
nationalism is to serve a new India that is visibly emerging from the
fold of its many pasts. This new India needs to be seen with new eyes,
free from the baggage of yesterday's political characterisations,” says
Shah who is a designer and runs a café.
“A liberal and
pluralistic democratic nation makes us a progressive and self-confident
country,” she says. Anything that promotes violence or hatred, says
Shah, is anti-national.
- Mahesh Langa
‘My slogan is Jai Bheem'
Premnath Dhingra (52), Sanitation worker, Meerut, UP
a sanitation worker, a Dalit who cleans toilets and streets, and who
has struggled all his or her life for dignity, ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ has
no meaning, says Premnath Dhingra, a sanitation workers’ leader in
Meerut. “In fact, as a group that faced upper caste atrocities for
centuries, I would say that this slogan is an insult for us because the
Hindutva groups that are talking about ‘Bharat Mata’ hail the caste
system and want to continue with the structures of injustice and
untouchability. It was neither a slogan of Bhagat Singh nor Baba sahab
(Ambedkar), nor even Mahatma Gandhi,” he says. For Dhingra,the very idea
of questioning the nationalism of lawful citizens of the country is
“From what I know of history, I can say
that ruling governments and ideologues have raised the issue of
nationalism when they had to do something dangerous. One instance is
“Nationalism,” continues Dhingra, cannot be “a
slogan or an abstract idea or a statue or just one symbol. For me,
nationalism means talking about those living in the nation and working
to ensure equality, liberty, social justice and the absence of
For Dhingra, the suspension of the MLA in
Maharashtra is not only wrong but also illegal. “Not only Waris Pathan,
even I would never say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. Why would I? For me, the
slogan is ‘Jai Bheem’, which stands for the struggle of Dalits. But I
would never advocate forcing ‘Jai Bheem’ on anybody,” says Dhingra.
- Mohammad Ali
‘Corruption is anti-national’
P. Kannadas (42), Toddy shopkeeper, Muthalamada, Kerala
worker at a toddy parlour close to the Govindapuram border checkpost
between Pollachi in Tamil Nadu and Palakkad in Kerala, P. Kannadas is
also an amateur nature photographer and environmental activist. “My area
is a composite of Tamil and Malayalam traditions. Many unskilled
workers from North India, who work in the farms and factories of
Pollachi and Palakkad, visit my shop every day. I don’t feel any
difference based on region or language. I connect with them as a
daily-wage worker who ekes out a living in a toddy shop. For me, the
ability to relate with others is nationalism. Patriotism is not just
jargon but an attempt to consider all Indians as equals irrespective of
their class, community and other affiliations. Patriotism is not an end
in itself. It must be a giant leap forward to achieve global citizen
status.” For Kannadas, corruption and communalism are anti-national.
“They are taking our society backwards to the dark ages. Nationalism is
not about wearing a T-shirt carrying symbol of Bharat Mata. It is
something that must help us broaden our perspective.”
- K.A. Shaji
‘Kadal Mata is my first loyalty'
R. Raju (45), Fisherman, Chennai, Tamil Nadu
Raju is still intently unknotting his fishing net when we begin
talking. “What does desa bhakti (patriotism) mean to me?” he repeats my
question. And then, as if on cue, the 45-year-old resident of
Pattinapakkam, along Chennai’s Marina Beach, responds: “It’s like
But when we come to the question of
Bharat Mata, Raju is more contemplative. He turns around and points to
the sea: “To me, Kadal Mata (ocean mother) is with whom my first loyalty
lies. Everything else follows. Bharat mata, swamis and temples,
whatever, whoever they may be.”
On a day when the catch
is good Raju makes close to Rs. 1,000. “The ocean is the giver. That is
how I have fed and clothed and educated my children, that is how I run
my house.” For Raju, the ocean is clearly bigger than the nation.
- Divya Gandhi
‘Jana Gana Mana must be compulsory in schools’
Suresh Shaw (52), Street vendor, Kolkata, West Bengal
Shaw is not sure about the symbols of patriotism, but he is
particularly fond of ‘Jana Gana Mana,’ which he used to sing at his
local government school. A sports enthusiast, Shaw has played football
in the first division league in Kolkata until poverty and family
pressure forced him to give it up. Now Shaw sells vehicle accessories on
the pavement. “I think the national anthem should be made compulsory in
schools. This makes us more patriotic. We are able to express our love
for the motherland,” he says. Patriotism, says Shaw, is to express
deference to the nation, but being patriotic also means “having
responsibility to stand beside your countrymen”.
- Shiv Sahay Singh
‘Patriotism is dwindling’
P. Ramesh (32),Shopkeeper, Vellore, Tamil Nadu
Ramesh says that patriotism has been dwindling over the years. “Not
many understand what true patriotism is. When compared to earlier
generations, the present generation gives less importance to patriotism.
I am proud to be an Indian. Be Indian, buy Indian is what I believe
Ramesh regrets that people vote for money but show
less interest in being loyal to the nation. He says that singing the
national anthem is a wonderful feeling.
listening to the national anthem or singing it is a chance to feel
patriotism. Students should definitely sing the anthem everyday in
school, as those few minutes are an opportunity to express our love for
The businessman sees nothing wrong in
chanting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. “There is a practice of saying ‘Jai Hind’
and ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ gives a different feeling. There is nothing
wrong in saying it.”
What distresses him is engaging
children in labour, alcoholism, and discrimination against women. “These
are not good for the country. Child labour is an insult to the nation.
Providing education to women is equal to educating the society,” he
- Serena Josephine M.
‘The debate is absurd’
Sheeba Ameer (55), Social worker, Thrissur, Kerala
a social worker engaged in supplying free essential medicines to
institutions housing people with disability, Sheeba Ameer believes the
present debate on nationalism and patriotism involves a high dose of
absurdity. “Those who have any doubt on nationalism must read the Indian
Constitution. It has clearly defined nationalism as pluralistic and
accommodative. The concept of nationalism envisaged in the constitution
involves the right to dissent and the right to remain different,’’ she
“I come from an orthodox Muslim family and life
so far was a relentless fight against fundamentalism of different hues.
Intolerance has no religion. Nationalistic and patriotic feelings must
not involve hate and intolerance. We must not allow obscurantists to
define nationalism,” she says. According to Ameer, nationalism must not
be something imposed on others by a brute majority.
don’t know what prevented the Maharashtra MLA from saying ‘Bharat Mata
ki Jai’, but forcing one person to say something and punishing him for
disobedience would not be ideal for a civilised world. We have to make
our democracy more meaningful by ending hatred based on religion and
narrow perceptions of nationality.”