Ramachandra Guha on plurality of Indian 'cultures', and how a true patriot feels shame at their country's failure
'The ability to say my language, my religion, my nation is not perfect, and the desire to correct the failures and fault lines and oppressive features of your religion or your language or your tradition are vital to patriotism. A true patriot is someone who feels shame at the crimes that his or her country commits,' said Ramachandra Guha in his lecture ‘In Defense of India’s Pluralism’
Just a day before he was detained in Bengaluru for participating in an anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) demonstration on 19 December 2019, historian and biographer Ramachandra Guha had delivered a lecture titled ‘In Defense of India’s Pluralism’ at the East Cultural Association Club in Bengaluru.
Following is an excerpt from his speech which also forms one of the chapters of the latest book Inquilab: A Decade of Protest by Various Contributors; it has been reproduced on Firstpost with due permission of the publisher HarperCollins India.
... We are an inherently diverse people. We have inherited this diversity, we should glory in it, we should celebrate it. And I’m going to give you two quotes that celebrate this diversity. The first is from someone who is arguably the greatest Indian writer of the twentieth century – Rabindranath Tagore.
This is what Tagore said: ‘No one knows at whose call so many streams of men (and we would say women) flowed in restless tides from places unknown and were lost in one sea: here (i.e., in India) Aryan and non-Aryan, Dravidian, Chinese, Huns and Pathans and Moguls, have become combined in one body.’
The second quote is from the great Kannada writer Shivarama Karanth. It’s longer, but it may be even more relevant to what we are witnessing today. Karanth was once asked to define Indian culture and Aryan culture. He said, ‘There is no such thing as Indian culture. Indian culture is so varied as to be called cultures (in the plural). The roots of this diversity go back to ancient times, and it has developed through contact with many races and many people. Hence, among the many ingredients of our culture, it is impossible to say what is native and what is alien, what is borrowed out of love and what has been imposed by force. If we view Indian culture thus, we realise there is no place for chauvinism.’
No language is superior, no religion is superior, no cuisine is superior, no form of music is superior, no form of dress is superior. This is the first feature of our founding constitutional values. Namely, no type of Indian is superior or special by language or by faith. Indianness is affirmed by allegiance to the values of the Constitution, not by birth or blood. It doesn’t matter what faith you practise, what clothes you wear, the question is whether you subscribe to the values of non-violence, pluralism, social equality and economic dignity.
That’s the first aspect of the Indian heritage of patriotism, that no Indian is superior by virtue of her language, or faith or gender, or caste. The second feature is the recognition of the multiple levels at which you must be patriotic. Your allegiance to the values of your country, the ideals of your country, does not operate only by worshipping a jhanda flown over the Parliament in Delhi. Patriotism, like charity, begins at home. Love your village, love your street, love your taluk, love your district, love your state, love your country.
You know, I am one of the people who strongly advocates that every state should have its own state flag. I’m delighted when, on 1 November, the day Karnataka was founded back in 1956, it’s normally working-class Kannadigas like auto drivers fly the state flag, which is, as you know, yellow and red. Now, a paranoid nationalist would say that this is anti-national as there’s only one flag, the tiranga jhanda. I disagree, because patriotism operates at every level. You must show your civic pride, your civic loyalty or nationalism at every level, beginning from your street, your village, your city, your district, your taluk and so on. So, that’s the second aspect of Indian nationalism as conceived by our founders, that there are multiple, overlapping levels at which patriotism operates. And each level feeds into and deepens the other.
The third feature, and this is very, very important today, is the recognition that no nation, no state (by state, I mean, Kerala, Karnataka, etc.), no religion, is perfect or flawless. All of them are works in progress. And no leader is flawless either. Mahatma Gandhi once famously acknowledged that he made a Himalayan blunder. Now, this is in a striking contrast to our leaders today, who never admit to having made a mistake. A week after the disaster of demonetisation, our prime minister said, ‘Give me fifty days to correct it.’ It’s 1,000 days and counting! … He won’t give a press interview. If he does, and a journalist is brave enough to ask him a question about demonetisation he would move to something else. I don’t want to pin the blame on Mr Modi personally. This is symptomatic of a general tendency today, where no one acknowledges mistakes. India is perfect. Only other countries are to blame. Hindus are perfect. Only other religions are to blame.
A true patriot is someone who feels shame at the failure of his or her country, who feels depressed by his or her religion practising discrimination on their own people. As an upper-caste Hindu, I must feel shame at how some upper-caste Hindus ill-treat Dalits. Were I a Muslim man, I must feel shame at how some Muslim clerics still treat their women. The ability to say my language, my religion, my nation is not perfect, and the desire to correct the failures and fault lines and oppressive features of your religion or your language or your tradition are vital to patriotism. A true patriot is someone who feels shame at the crimes that his or her country commits. A true Hindu or a Muslim or a true Christian is one who feels aghast at the extraordinary oppression and discrimination practised in the name of their faith.
And the last aspect of patriotism, as defined by people like Gandhi and Ambedkar, was that while you are rooted in your own country, your own culture, you must be willing to learn from other cultures and other countries. Again, let me give you a quote from Tagore and a quote from Gandhi.
Tagore said that we must glory in the illumination of a lamp lit anywhere in the world. As long as it is a lamp, it illuminates, it enlightens, it educates. It shows some basic principles of humanity. It doesn’t matter where it was lit. And Gandhi said in 1938, ‘In this age, when distances have been obliterated, no nation can afford to imitate the frog in the well. It is refreshing to see ourselves as others see us.’ You must be open to criticism, to dialogue, to learning. Not just from your neighbour – from your neighbouring state and from your neighbouring country. The idea that a country or a leader or a religion is perfect, immutable and flawless, is completely antithetical to true patriotism.
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