& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Tagore, Nationalism and the India Day Parade

A scene from Mani Ratnam's Roja.
Main Ratnam's depiction of ultranationalism is that the year in which Roja was released (1992) is also the year when the Hindutva forces demolished the Babri Masjid.

Does patriotism and nationalism necessarily have to be inimical to the idea of differences in culture, ethnicity, religion? Should it override human rights and the rights of minorities?  

August 7 was Rabindranath Tagore’s death anniversary. It was also the day Indo-Canadians in Greater Toronto Area celebrated the India Day Parade.

To Tagore, nationhood was not territorial, it was ideational.

In his 1917 essay on Nationalism, Tagore said, “India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

Nationalism remains a strong idea. It has been challenged but is unlikely to be defeated.
In India, the idea of nationalism has at least two distinct ideologies. The Nehruvian ideals of secularism and the Hindutva brand nationalism. Both interpret Indian identity differently. While the Nehruvian ideal allows for inclusivism, Hindu nationalism is exclusionary.

In his slim masterpiece Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani, captures the essence of Nehruvian ideals. While describing the impact of Partition, says, “Partition is the unspeakable sadness at the heart of the idea of India: a memento mori that what made India possible also profoundly diminished the integral value of the idea. It conceded something essential in the nationalist vision, the conviction that what defined India was its extraordinary capacity to accumulate and live with differences.”

Nationalism in Canada is quite different from what it is in India but is equally strong. Even though Canada actively propagates multiculturalism and values the distinctive contributions that different ethnicities make to the ever-evolving national identity, there is a strong sense of nationalism that is not just symbolic.

The reverence of the armed forces and the ubiquitous Canadian flag are two prime examples of this phenomenon.

Over the last few decades, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the rise of globalization, and the supremacy of global media and the internet, national boundaries, it had seemed, were becoming redundant.

It wasn’t quite the end of history, but there was clearly a need for a new paradigm to define societies that were increasingly becoming similar culturally.

Then, of course, the Syrian refugee crisis imploded, and Europe decided that having the great unwashed masses at its doorstep was a heavy price to pay for the intangible and chimerical gains of globalization. So, physical boundaries are back in fashion with a vengeance.

For a person who votes with her feet to leave her homeland and immigrate to an adopted homeland, nationalism cannot be the same as it is for the one who stays put. For the immigrant, nationalism often acquires a garb of nostalgia, it is the absence of what was and the loss of what could have been. That is the case with most immigrants, who are forever in the in-between world of two homes.

Every year, when I go to the India Day Parade at the Yonge and Dundas Square, this conflict is palpable within me, and I would imagine also within many of hundreds of Indo-Canadians who are gathered at the square. 

I don’t believe nationalism is either a necessity or a virtue. And yet, every year, when I hear Jana Gana Mana I have a lump in my throat. Nationalism or nostalgia – it’s hard to decide. This year, for the first time, I could also sing along with others the Canadian national anthem O Canada.

This year India enters the 70th year of its Independence. Thanks largely due to the new Counsel General of India in Toronto, Dinesh Bhatia, and Panorama India’s indefatigable chair Anu Srivastava, the program and the parade were substantially better than ever before.

The parade had participation from a cross-section of Indian diversity – from Kashmir to Kerala and from the Northeast to Maharashtra. Expectedly, there was film and television glamour. Shabbir Ahluwalia and Neetu Chandra. I hadn’t heard of any of the stars who were participating from India.

Neetu was a surprise – she is an articulate young woman, poised and confident; she is a taekwondo champion.

I sat with Imam Abdul Hai Patel, a great supporter of interfaith dialogue, and with Toronto’s Police Chief Mark Saunders. At the podium, the inimitable Jake Dheer emceed the show and invited all the dignitaries to address the audience that had grown to a few thousand by afternoon.

Toronto’s India Day Parade is second only to New York’s in size and popularity. Indo-Canadians from all corners of India were present, wearing colours only seen in India.

Across Yonge Street, outside the Eaton Centre, there were the protestors. A group of people, who gather every year, waving anti-India banners and proclaiming their unalienable right to Khalistan, were also present and shouted slogans against India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his government’s anti-minorities actions.

Thanks to Anu Srivastava and Arun Srivastava, I was invited to the VIP reception at the Hard Rock Café prior to the flag hoisting. It was a great experience. I met some good friends and many acquaintances after a long time, including the new Counsel General Bhatia.

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