Celebrating Soldier Deaths Isn't Remotely Patriotic

An extract from Sagarika Ghose's 'Why I Am a Liberal' argues for being a liberal patriot rather than a ‘muscular nationalist’ who glorifies war.

Is it an act of ‘nationalism’ to label anyone holding different views ‘anti-national’ or un-Indian?

Does waving the national flag sanitize a crime and imbue the accused person with a sense of higher purpose?

Is it an act of ‘nationalism’ to wave the national flag to defend those accused of crimes?

Is it an act of ‘nationalism’ to assault a disabled person who is unable to stand up for the national anthem?

Is it an act of ‘nationalism’ to be abusive and hostile to religious minorities?

Is it an act of ‘nationalism’ to clamp down on any questioning of the government?


War is always spectacular television. The gory, nasty reality on the ground can so easily be ignored or denied. Naked displays of power are mesmerizing for viewers accustomed to watching larger-than-life Dabanggs and Baahubalis on the big screen. When governments display power to impress not only their own fan base but citizens at large, these displays become easy diversions from the lack of substantive action to deal with the deteriorating situation on the border. The greater the war rhetoric, an illusion is fostered of a ‘strong government’ even though there may be a decline in its real accountability in dealing with genuine crises on the border.

Sagarika Ghose
Why I Am A Liberal: A Manifesto for Indians Who Believe In Individual Freedom
Penguin Viking, 2018

The nationalist warmonger claims the patriotic space against Pakistan. But it is the liberal on both sides of the border who is the greater patriot. Why is this so? Because often, the well-heeled aggressive warmongers who espouse war, know that they or their Ivy League-bound children will never have to face a hail of bullets. In air-conditioned comfort, they want the sons of the poor to stand against their imagined enemy, the blood of jawans an elixir of their cocktail party rage. When young soldiers die, they shrug off responsibility. They demand war in TV studios, yet refuse any accountability for the blood of young jawans, officers and Kashmiri civilians.

On 4 February 2018, Captain Kapil Kundu, four months short of his twenty-third birthday, was killed on the border, hit by Pakistani shelling. Three other Indian soldiers died. The death of captain Kundu became a television event, social media drummed up a martyrs’ cult and soldier-obsessed anchors’ voices pulsated as they ran emotionally charged programmes on how glorious death is when a young man dies for the motherland.

But the death cult of the soldier in a democracy is neither liberal nor progressive, modern or even remotely patriotic. To celebrate the gory death of young men whose precious lives ebb away in a puddle of blood and slush with ritualized bloodthirsty fervour evokes feudal warrior cults and ideological holy wars. When TV glamorizes war it becomes part of a militarist syndrome obscuring the blood, grime, the waste of lives, the tawdry, grinding tragedy of a real war. War does not happen with an orchestra playing in the background. War does not take place in technicolour visuals edited to heart-pumping excitement.

Also read: Why I Am Not Just an Indian

Yes, India’s 1971 Bangladesh war was seen as a pinnacle of national achievement, but a military victory as a country’s moral purpose is only of limited value and shelf life. Only three years after becoming the supreme heroine of Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi plummeted to the nadir of her popularity. India was defeated in the 1962 war with China, but nevertheless, Nehru died a hero. India’s democracy posits civilian institutions over army and citizen over soldier. The repeated loud orchestra of nationalist chest-thumping at the tragic death of a soldier on the India-Pakistan border reveals a gory medievalist war dance over the prone corpse of modern patriotic peacemaking and makes death one of India’s national achievements.

The Kargil war of 1999 was India’s first Primetime War. War at 9 pm. War between the advertisements. War with an orchestral lead-in, its visual impact enhanced by glitzy computer graphics. In 1999, this TV war, bigger and better than ever, created a permanent appetite for the battle on TV channels. War correspondents gushed about soldiers and strategic moves, breathlessly cheering from the sidelines as greater numbers went to their deaths.

Kargil War. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Yet, the hallowed ‘war correspondent’ tradition in the West was not made by hanging on to the coat-tails of the men in uniform. It was made by documenting evidence that scrutinized the role of the military from the citizen’s point of view. The question arises, should TV anchors become drumbeaters for the military? Or is this a carefully tailored packaging of war as entertainment designed to create more ‘nationalist’ voters?

TV reports on the Kargil war showed handsome soldiers sporting smiles, with transistors in their bunkers, ready for a challenge. There were no glimpses of the daily labours and the brutal hardships they must have to endure. TV provided cardboard cut-outs of a collective macho fantasy. TV prevented viewers from seeing the misery of human beings, of men pushed into the army for reasons of unemployment, rural impoverishment or debt. TV does not show the grief of war. The quiet grief which is grey, unglamorous and unending, spending itself in the day-to-day emptiness of ruined lives.

Warmongers fantasize, in a rather exhibitionist way, about war without responsibility. Yet, war isn’t about ceremonial funerals, grave families and smiling, relentlessly brave soldiers. The constitutional morality of the democratic republic of India does not elevate the soldier to superman. This elevation serves two purposes. One, it is intended to be opium for the soldier, who is then expected to forget the grime and pain, to go unquestioningly and blindly into battle, without a clue about why it should be done. Two, the soldier cult is an intoxicant for citizens, just as the citizens of Rome cheered gruesome fights between gladiators centuries ago.

Also read: The Perils of Saffron Nationalism

For the liberal, there is only one superman or superwoman in our system and that is the citizen of India. Creating temples to the soldier dislodges the deity that should sit in every Indian temple, which is the Constitution of India, where civilian patriotism takes a far higher place than militarist braggadocio. Illiberal nationalists, sunk in martial fantasies, as evident from the RSS sarsanghchalak’s recent statement that the RSS can muster an army faster than the armed forces, cannot make the crucial distinction our Constitution makes between political executive and the army. Calls for war tend to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They fuel more violence, leading to even more demands for armed action. In the process, the government escapes all accountability and responsibility, and attention is diverted from the substantive reasons for conflict. India’s biggest victory against Pakistan came in 1971 when a canny prime minister did not, in fact, listen to irresponsible cries for war and instead, on the advice of then army chief Sam Manekshaw, waited patiently for the right moment to actually go into battle.

Yet, calling for peace does not mean asking the military to meekly lay down weapons if the enemy is intent on conflict. Gandhi’s satyagraha was not simply passive resistance, but a reaching for the highest possible values. Gandhi supported the war effort of the Allies provided they gave Indians the same values of freedom and dignity that they claimed to be fighting for.

Instead, calling for peace means reaching out to higher values that go beyond treating war as a bloodstained scoreboard of who killed how many. The liberal patriot believes that peace is not just about the cessation of physical conflict but a hearkening to the underlying values on which India is based. India’s foundation is the courage of satyagraha; not a simplistic laying down of arms in the face of terrorism. Gandhi was hardly a ‘peacemonger’ in the pejorative sense—he supported the Allies in the two World Wars provided they upheld the values of human dignity and individual freedom.

Excerpted with permission from Why I Am a Liberal: A Manifesto for Indians Who Believe in Individual Freedom.