Indian hyper-nationalism is a strange two-faced beast. It can spring into ferocious life at the merest hint of an "insult" to our national honour, and it can be complicit in an assault on a proud national emblem.
Consider this. On Tuesday, Ravi Sisodia, one of the accused in the infamous lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh last year, died of respiratory and renal failure. Sisodia, who had been in police custody since his arrest, was being treated at Delhi’s LNJP Hospital. When his body reached his village Bisada in Dadri on Thursday, however, the villagers claimed that he had been killed by his jailers. They said he was a "martyr" and had died protecting Hindu values (read: participated in murderous cow vigilantism). Then they wrapped his coffin in the national flag and refused to cremate him.
It was a bizarre spectacle. Here was a man who was charged with being part of the mob that killed an elderly Muslim man on the suspicion that he had stored and consumed beef. It was an abominable crime that convulsed the nation last year. Sisodia had been denied bail, no doubt because the evidence against him was considerable. His guilt may not have been proven in a court of law as yet, but he was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a national hero. Yet, his coffin was draped with the national flag — an honour we reserve for our national heroes or our martyrs, who give their lives protecting the country.
Given the alacrity with which the guardians of our national pride swing into violent action, this ought to have triggered immediate cries of protest. The tricolour draped on the coffin of a murder accused? Didn’t that bring dishonour to our national flag? Didn’t that merit swift retribution against those who committed such an outrage?
After all, the blood lust of nationalist zealots has been aroused by lesser affronts to the national flag. In 2007, Shiv Sainiks went on a rampage after actress and host Mandira Bedi appeared on the World Cup cricket final telecast wearing a sari that had the tricolour printed at the bottom. That the sari had prints of the flags of all the countries participating in the tournament was ignored. Bajrang Dal activists burnt Bedi’s effigy and Rajeev Kathuria, a leader of the right-wing outfit, demanded that designer Puneet Nanda’s hands be cut off so he could never commit such a terrible crime again. A case was also filed against Bedi and Nanda in Jaipur under the Prevention of Insult to National Honour Act.
In 2008, tennis star Sania Mirza too fell foul of those who keep an eagle eye out for any discredit to our national flag. Mirza had apparently pointed her feet towards the tricolour at a function and hence, was lambasted for having demeaned and denigrated it.
Then what explains the silence over the national flag adorning the coffin of a man charged with killing a fellow Indian for no reason other than what he may or may not have eaten? Why is it that the volatile nationalist mob has not spoken a word about the national flag being besmirched this time? There was heavy police presence in Bisada on Thursday as tension mounted, and Sisodia’s kin demanded that his death be "avenged" and that Jaan Mohammad, the slain Akhlaq’s brother, be arrested in the cow slaughter case. Right wing groups, ever ready to erupt over real and perceived affronts to national pride, were there too. But no one saw it fit to demand that the tricolour be removed from the coffin, because the deceased had neither served the nation nor died for it.
In truth, along with national honour, the idea of heroism itself is getting redefined in this era of hyper-nationalism. In these surreal times, a cow vigilante, who kills in the name of protecting Hindu values, may be hailed as a hero; gonzo journalists whipping up war hysteria on television night after night might be celebrated as icons; heroes of the world of celluloid who want to essay roles of characters belonging to a different religion may be debarred from doing so.
This week the Shiv Sena prevented actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui from participating in a Ram Leela show in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. We may soon see a time when a Shah Rukh or an Aamir will be told to stick to roles of Muslim characters. The days of a Salman Khan doing the role of a hanuman-bhakt Bajrangi Bhaijaan on a mission of love across the border may be over.
That sounds like an extreme scenario. But conflating nationalism with the dictates of a bigoted few could bring forth all manner of travesties of the true spirit of our nation. Thursday’s events at Bisada are a reminder of that.