A doctor I know worked in rural Orissa for a long time. Her patients were some of India's poorest, least healthy and most malnourished citizens. They suffered from rabies, malaria, diarrhoea, gangrene, leprosy and assorted other diseases. Most of them had and still have no access to health care of any kind, except what this doctor and her health workers brought by tramping on foot for kilometres over hills and valleys.
This is the person I wrote about here some months ago (see "Live in truth"), "Priya" who once had to lance a young girl's boil without the help of anaesthesia. As I also wrote then, I marvelled at the strength of the girl, who bore this operation with only a few quiet whimpers. I also marvelled at the strength in Priya, who had to work in these conditions, deal with these situations, month after month, year after year.
An advocate I know has had a long, fruitful career at the courts in Bombay. Like others have, he might have become a judge -- a job many would lunge for without a second thought. Except for the unusual view this man has on being a judge. "I'll lose my independence," he says. "As a judge, you have always to consider both sides of a dispute. But I prefer to argue one side thoroughly, so I don't want to be a judge."
Today, he has a flourishing practice, even though he wants to slow down and take on fewer cases. But he has not forgotten the days of the early '60s, when he was just another young advocate struggling to make a living.
He grew up in Goa. As many others did in those days, he might have chosen Portuguese citizenship and emigrated there. It was possible, it was easy, he knew several Goans who did it. But it was not for him. Instead, he stayed in Goa and fought for independence from Portugal.
That came in 1961. Two years later, there were bomb blasts in Goa, set off by Portuguese sympathizers wanting to spread terror in the state. This young lawyer was asked to be on the team appointed to prosecute the men responsible for the bombs. He remembers that trial well. The way he speaks about it, you know how much it meant to him. Professionally yes, but also personally -- because of his connection with the struggle for independence. You know how all this shaped the kind of man he is today.
Another man I know joined the Indian Administrative Service just before Independence. His years in the service were filled with fascinating, challenging jobs: in Bihar, Punjab, Delhi, small-town Maharashtra, Bombay. Yet fancy titles, official cars and gorgeous Government houses did very little for him. What drove him, all through his illustrious career, were the challenges themselves. "The reward I cherished," he wrote once, "was simply the opportunity to serve effectively."
As a young IAS officer, he was sent to Punjab to help cope with the enormous tragedy of Partition. Once, he and a few policemen were assigned the task of escorting a convoy of refugees. As the long line wandered slowly along a road, he idly crossed to the other side, through the families and carts.
There, terror. A gang of thugs was rushing towards the convoy, swords raised, yelling abuse, intent on murder. Without thinking what he was doing, this still-green IAS man rushed at them, swinging his stick, making believe with his shouts that he had a huge force behind him. Which he did not, for his men were on the other side of the road, oblivious to the goings-on here.
The thugs turned and ran. Hundreds of lives were saved.
Why mention these three ordinary Indians? What do a doctor, a lawyer and a retired IAS officer have in common? Just this: On May 11, 1998, all three became traitors.
That, because all three were disgusted by the Pokhran nuclear tests. Therefore, what a man called Lalji Tandon of the BJP -- to pick one -- said at the time applies to them: "Everybody who opposes or criticizes the nuclear tests conducted by India [is] in fact a traitor."
Yes: a lawyer who fought for Goan freedom is a traitor. A doctor who serves Indians whom India has forgotten is a traitor. A man who did his duty as an officer and human being, and saved lives doing so, is a traitor.
This is where we have come to: where a person's entire life can be flung out like so much anti-national garbage solely because they choose to disagree with the government in power. And such perversity is why I often think that patriotism, or at least what's passed off as patriotism, is one of the most repulsive phenomena mankind has dreamed up, and for several more reasons. Here are a few.
One: The way it seeks to cut short any debate, destroy any dissent. Don't like someone's opinion? Label it anti-national, sit back and watch what happens. People who would otherwise question your assertions simply throw away that scepticism when you call someone anti-national. It's not just that this sort of patriotism stifles opinions expressed by the person accused of being a traitor. It also stifles debate among the accusers, few of whom seem able to make up their own minds on the accusation. What is it about this label that takes away our inherent scepticism?
Two: The way it seeks to reduce complex, intricate problems -- profoundly human problems, that is -- to the simplistic inhumanity of black and white. "Either you're with us or you're with the terrorists": we all heard George Bush's call to arms. Is it possible that a world filled with six billion living, breathing human beings, holding an infinite variety of views, can be neatly divided into two camps? One, saints; the other, therefore, devils? How do people swallow this mindless division?
But it's not just Bush and his warriors against terror who simplify this way. Anyone who decides he is a patriot immediately sheds an appreciation for nuance and complexity, for greys. He sees only one kind of patriotism, his. Anyone who disagrees, even slightly, is a traitor. And this is always single-issue patriotism. Don't like the nukes? You're a traitor. Didn't stand for the national anthem? You're a traitor. Forgot to watch India play the World Cup? You're a traitor. Write articles like these? You're a traitor.
Three: Meaningless mantras like "my country right or wrong", or "Love India or leave it". Are there more vapid inanities than these two? Yet from whom do you hear them most often? Those who are unhappy with independent India's "socialist" track. A gang that, therefore, certainly does not love the India of the last several decades and should, by its own logic, leave India.
Not that we must defend that socialism, not at all. The damage it caused India is incalculable. But was it incumbent on us all to "love" the India of those decades? Is it incumbent on us all now to "love" the India of today, that tries to lurch away from socialism but flounders in hatred and violence?
Four: The horrors perpetrated in the name of patriotism. From genocide in Rwanda to the Holocaust, from the atrocities of Stalin to wars of every kind: when immense suffering is rationalized as an outcome of patriotic acts, there comes a time to question such rationalization. Such patriotism. Enough said.
Five: The way criminals use it to gain legitimacy. By the too-easy means of labelling people traitors, by thus pretending patriotism themselves, they expect and often get respect.
In 2002, the Kashmiri journalist Iftikhar Geelani spent several months in jail on charges of sedition and treason. He was finally released because of the utter lack of substance in those charges; the government's accusations simply couldn't be substantiated in court. But if the release told us some things, Geelani's experience in jail told us more. In an interview, he described how he was beaten and abused by fellow prisoners in Delhi's Tihar jail -- purely because they considered him a traitor.
He was called a traitor, that is, by thieves, rapists and murderers.
And these are the people who are loudest with assertions of patriotism and traitorousness. Yes, the more crooked the leader, the more he trumpets his own patriotism, pronounces who else is patriotic, even leads us in saluting that beloved symbol of patriotism, the Indian tricolour. If an inmate of Tihar did all this, we would scoff at him. (Then again, there's what happened to Geelani). But somehow we are willing to swallow them from men just as venal, but who have turned to politics.
Me, I want no part of this kind of patriotism. If saying so makes me a traitor, I am happy to be one. Happy to be such a traitor.