Why Amit Shah's Versions of 'Patriotism' and 'Development' Are So Troubling

We need an educated and sincere tolerance of debate, an ideational contest which only a genuine democracy may furnish, not ministerial diktats. 

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The honourable home minister of India, Shri Amit Shah, has made a touching statement.

Addressing young Indians of today, he said that those who did not have the good fortune to “die for the country” during the freedom struggle should strive now to live for the  “country.”

And living for the “country” in his view means to contribute to “development”, particularly as envisaged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Such a path alone, he has observed, constitutes “patriotism”.

Surfing through notable events in world history, the problematic nature of these formulations comes to the fore.

First, the notion of “development”.

Germany’s infamous Third Reich built the incredible autobahns, setting a model of a form of “development”. But, not long after, Hitler ended up destroying Germany itself.

Joseph Stalin pulled a backward Soviet Union to a point of “development” where the Red Army became the chief vanquisher of Nazi Germany, and the country sacrificed some 28 million citizens, including 8 million soldiers, to the cause. Yet, the Soviet centralised model of big “development” became so untenable that the USSR itself crashed in 1989.

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Thus, a question that begs itself is this: what is “development”?

Put another way, who should develop what, for whom, and in what way, and with what goal in mind? This is a question that was the subject of an article I wrote in the same momentous year of 1989. In today’s context, I would ask: Can the current Indian model of “development” – which enables a Gautam Adani to garner Rs 1,000 crore a day while making it impossible for millions of Indians to find wherewithal to refill  their Ujjwala Gas cylinders – be construed an ideal?

Then there is the category of “country”.

There have been occasions when citizens of one country have died for causes affecting other countries. Individuals, some famous ones, went in droves to participate in the Spanish Civil War of 1936.

Clearly, the nomenclature of “patriotism” as defined by Amit Shah does not define their course of action. Nor does if define the mobilisation of many countries during the Second World War to defeat Nazi Germany.

These were people and disparate countries clearly fighting a cause larger than one that pertained only to their own land. They were fighting  on behalf of values that  they thought universal, rather than country-specific. So, were they not patriots of a much larger definition?

Furthermore, what does it mean to die for or live for one’s “country”? What is “country” – the territory or the people?

If both, who are the “people”? The money-spinners, or the vast masses who live from hand to mouth, even as they make the most contribution to producing the nation’s wealth, and to dying for it at the borders? The United States of America is by far the richest country in the world; yet some 15% of its people live on food stamps.

Can that be a model of “development” worth emulating?

Thus, if different thinking people have differing notions of what a “country” means or ought to mean, and of what development means, how are these questions best resolved – by fiat, or by pressing democracy to its true ideals of political and economic  equality to the farthest point achievable?

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Alas, “country” and “development” do not allow for easy definitions.

And whatever in life or knowledge is complex requires a humane and equitable way forward. We need an educated and sincere tolerance of debate, an ideational contest which only a genuine democracy may furnish, not ministerial diktats.

It is only when we first achieve the goal of such a democracy that we can talk of allegiance to acceptable models of patriotism and humanism. Obviously, such democracy cannot be achieved only through electoral victories. It needs a felt commitment to egalitarian ideals.

Badri Raina taught English at Delhi University