Speak, for your lips are free;
Speak, your tongue is still yours,
Your upright body is yours–
Speak, your life is still yours.
See how in the blacksmith’s shop
The flames are hot, the iron is red,
Mouths of locks have begun to open,
Each chain’s skirt has spread wide.
Speak, this little time is plenty
Before the death of body and tongue:
Speak, for truth is still alive–
Speak, say whatever is to be said.
– Faiz Ahmad Faiz
The above immortal lines are my solace in times of peril and conflict, of anger and fear. At the risk of sounding clichéd, I start with them. Yesterday, I was stuck in traffic, and at that moment of exasperation (you can’t do anything about traffic, especially Delhi traffic) I looked from the window and saw the Tricolor (Tiranga) blowing in the wind at the top of Grand Hyatt. This not-so-simple piece of tricolor always has elicited a grin and a salute. Whether at a screen or at the central park in Connaught circle. I have childhood memories of standing up to attention every time the national anthem was played on TV or in school. Nationalism, patriotism, and admiration for the flag weren’t imposed, it came naturally.
Fast-forward 15 years. A glimpse of the tricolor in hands of someone scares me. Shouts of “I bow to thee, Mother” (Vande Mataram) creates alarm in the back of my mind. Orange (the color of valor and piousness) has become more a color of danger. People advise me not to speak against anyone in public, not to share anything controversial on social media, to stay silent. If I don’t stand when the national anthem is played, every atom of my body stays in constant vigilance (Prof. Moody reference, anyone?). In every academic conference, film screening, stage play, musical performance, debate or even a normal lecture, I fear when the door opens loudly. I fear armed men entering from that gate. I fear for my safety, my teacher’s safety as well the safety of my friends. Looking over my shoulder has become a habit.
I’ve friends preparing for the armed forces. Friends in the armed forces. Family members in the armed forces. Friend’s parents in the armed forces. YES, WE GET THE POINT. MOVE ON. Nope. I’m sorry. You don’t get the point. Never before have I ever been inclined to flaunt mine (or the people around me) patriotism. I never needed to prove it to anyone. I have never been compelled to mention this relation, this connection to insulate myself. This statement in itself is a fact, that my dissent, my disagreement, my opinion, is enough to earn me a tag of being an anti-national traitor (there are a variety of adjectives and idioms, take your pick). I’m expected, rather forced to prove my loyalty to the country, every day, every hour. In the street, in the classroom, in the movie theater, in the park, in my house, even in my writings. The Reason? People have confused my loyalty to the country with loyalty to the government.
“Loyalty to the Nation all the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it.”
– Mark Twain
I remember reading once, that the idea of India is different according to every individual. So, in short, there are more than a billion ideas about India. About how it is, how it was and how it should be. And it’s not about which ‘idea of India’ is right or wrong. It is about all those ideas existing together, peacefully. Your idea most likely will be different than mine. Should that mean, I should go and live in Pakistan or you should? Isn’t this wonderful nation large enough for both of us? For both our ideas? Is the idea of ‘dissent’ or disagreement such anathema to you that you’d prefer to beat the shit out of me instead of trying to persuade me by logic, reason, argument (peaceful), discussion, and debate? Just because you see a glass as half full and I see it as half empty isn’t reason enough to break the glass itself. (or each other, just saying) If you don’t understand what dissent is, I’m here to help. Not because I think of myself as superior to you, or because I’m fluent in both Hindi and English. I would love to help you because that’s one of the ethics I was brought up with, ‘help anyone in need’. No terms or conditions applied.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
– Martin Niemöller
People have different ideas about any and everything. It’s a beautiful thing. A child might think of clay as something to eat, I might see it as raw material for a sculpture and you might see it as just clay, nothing more. What’s the harm in letting me think the way I do? And if you think it’s wrong to still, you are free to try and make me see your point. That’s it. You do it every day without even realizing. This is what dissent is all about. Having different opinions. And this applies to all. You can dissent against family, teachers, strangers, leaders, government, society or friends. The only kind of dissent which should not be acceptable is the one with violence involved. Is that really that tough to understand?
What’s happening today around me and you, and what has been happening for a while now isn’t impulsive. It’s not random. It’s not happening in a moment of passion. The day you’re able to connect the dots you’ll not need me to explain anything. Nationalism for millions of everyday Indians involves honoring the national flag and anthem (in their own ways) and being grateful for the country we all live in. It involves helping each other, making it a better place to live for future generations and make it something to be proud of. Because nothing is born great, let’s be clear about that. You have to make it great. That’s all nationalism is all about. BUT the moment your idea of ‘nationalism’ involves beating everyone who doesn’t agree with you, (teachers, students, journalists, elderly, differently-abled, women, transsexuals) hurling abuses, making death threats, molestation, groping and rape threats; you become a danger to the idea of the nation itself. A million chants of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and ‘Vande Mataram’ won’t redeem you.
“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
― Bertolt Brecht
I am not even close to stopping. And none of us should be. The day you stop, there will be no tomorrow. So keep speaking, keep protesting, keep resisting. We can’t let a handful be the ‘contractors of nationalism’. We can’t let our academic spaces shrink to monotonous monologs. Keep the fire and tradition of asking for justice alive. Sing, dance, speak, act, hug, shout, discuss, debate and argue (again, peacefully). There is a song, a very old yet very powerful song which reminds me of what I hold dear to myself. It was banned at the time when it was first released. I believe there is nothing more appropriate to sing today, tonight or tomorrow.
ज़रा इस मुल्क के रहबरों को बुलाओ
ये कूचे ये गलियां ये मंज़र दिखाओ
जिन्हें नाज़ है हिन्द पर उनको लाओ
जिन्हे नाज़ है हिन्द पर वो कहाँ हैं
कहाँ हैं, कहाँ हैं, कहाँ हैं