Many may not be aware but there was a time when the Coffee House on the top floor of Mohan Singh Place on Baba Khadak Singh Marg near Connaught Place in New Delhi was the place where one could overhear a wide range of revolutionary and radical ideas. There were known and unknown writers, struggling actors, unshaven poets, hawk-eyed journalists, and even a smattering of social activists and politicians there busy in conversations where, despite seeming subversive words being bandied around, the final aim was development of the nation. And harmony. Over the years, this venue shifted from there to the café next to the open-air amphitheater in Triveni Kala Sangam… and now we have multiple spots spread all over the capital. Sometimes even the kerb-side is the right place to say things fearlessly. Freedom of speech has never been a prickly issue in India despite what a handful of naysayers may keep repeating.
It is better to have a clear idea about freedom of speech before anyone decides to drag nationalism or patriotism to any civilian battlefield. Let us say we are in China or North Korea where absence of free speech has been under a global spotlight for long now. The way I see things is that even in these two countries an individual is free to lock himself up in a room and hurl the choicest abuses on pictures of Xi Jinping or Kim Jong-un hung on the wall… and for more transcendental benefits he may even throw eggs, shoes, and over-ripe tomatoes on them. No one will be bothered as no one notices and no one else is affected negatively. However, if this individual chooses to go ahead and shoot a video of himself doing all this and then throws open his views to the world, things may be vastly different. This is because his personal views are now in a position to influence others and if this effect is isn’t conducive to the interests of the nation, the fellow has a lot of explanation to look forward to. We are talking about countries where the list of prohibitions is longer than one can imagine being an Indian and freedom of speech in those countries is definitely a concern.
What about freedom of speech in a democracy? Democracies never attempt to shackle freedom unless one is talking about those countries where some or the other general’s prime job is to live the life of a super-rich behind-the-scenes-prompter. However, it must also be said that freedom retains its desirability so long as reasonable restrictions have the freedom to co-exist. If certain fiscal policies are to be implemented, the war-cry of KYC has to be endured. If GST has to evolve into a productive tool, scuffles and protests from those who need to relearn processes as well as those who have been arm-twisting the earlier ones are going to be there. The policy of reasonable restrictions comes into force. This doesn’t really mean that freedom of expression is being compromised. If traffic challans are now poised to be really massive, will they be taken as an unprecedented attack on freedom to drive drunk? If so, what about those who get killed because of law-defying, drunk or errant drivers? Even in the case of the abrogation of Article 370 we find that a certain section of people is continuing with their protests… and some others define them as over-zealous people on the social media using the word ‘draconian’ for reasons that have no reason to exist. There are times when the mind concocts stories of persecution and believes so much in them that those stories start appearing to be the only truth. Hence I believe one must read different perspectives because sometimes a single line or a lone paragraph behaves like a sign board that has lost all sense of direction.
Freedom isn’t and must not be a victim in any democracy. However, the concept of beneficiary co-exists with equally vital concepts of responsibility and accountability. For instance, if the auto-wallahs in India just hanker for increase in fares but are unwilling to change their attitude towards commuters, they are the ones who need reasonable restrictions. Will anyone appreciate rail-roko andolans, kaam-roko in hospitals, no-teaching in schools and colleges, or work disruption of any sort? The nation needs to keep on marching forward… and reasonable restrictions help it do so.
When we talk of patriotism and nationalism, it is always the nation versus any other nation or force in play. Patrick O’Brian called patriotism a word ‘that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile.’ Most people tend to believe that patriotism is an overwhelming surge of emotions and is somewhat like a war-cry in a battle or what one sees at cricket matches between India and Pakistan or at the Atari-Wagah border. Patriotism is more than all this and is all about creating an ambience that encourages the nation to move forward in a given situation and create a vantage point from where the next step happens.
Nationalism, on the other hand, has been defined as ‘an infantile thing’, the ‘measles of mankind’, ‘madness’, and is said to wear ‘the dress of egocentric’ and a bucketful of epithets exist that will make anyone think again before uttering the word. However, nationalism is again about faith and belief in the fact that its leaders will guide the policies in ways that will enrich the lives of people. Nationalism doesn’t need any patriotic fervor to prop it. Nationalism isn’t about incited hordes swearing by religion, caste, qualifications, demographic or psychographic segments, and any other equally irrelevant facet. It is about transformations and participation in transformations that are aimed to take the nation forward.
Someone on the social media asked someone else: ‘What happens when boundaries dissolve? How will nationalism survive?’ All I can say is to quote these words written by John Lennon:
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.
So yes, even if the world is one, there will still be space for faith and belief in the leaders and their policies to be capable enough to enrich people’s lives… and nationalism would still be there.
21 August 2019