Controversy appears to be, currently, our national pastime. Controversies thrive on tit for tat. >Asaduddin Owaisi’s taunt (on April 3) to Mohan Bhagwat that he would not chant a particular slogan even if a knife were held to his throat, was his pennyworth to the national repertoire of controversies.
>Mr. Bhagwat saw it as such . Not Ramdev. He got carried away, and >walked straight into the trap , highlighting an issue that merits urgent attention: the civilisational throwback of tit for tat as a response strategy in public life.
Consider, for a moment, Gandhi’s humiliation in Pietermaritzburg on June 7, 1893. A barrister, Gandhi could have reacted differently from the way he did. The aggressor could have been dragged to court, if not resisted by physical might.
Now consider a different, hypothetical illustration. Let us envisage the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India (CJI) travelling to court in the morning. The car stops at a signal point. A young lad, motivated by irrational mischief, sticks out his tongue at the CJI. How is he to respond? By the rule of tit for tat, the CJI must put his tongue out at the urchin. This is the very thing he should not do. The self-denigration grinning from this tit-for-tat model of self-defence far exceeds the insult value of the street urchin’s provocation. If the CJI reacts in terms of tit for tat, he will not only ruin what little respect there could still be in the mind of the naughty boy for him but also (a) justify, to some extent, the hooliganism of the boy, and (b) undermine his own self-respect completely.
The case for self-control The tit-for-tat strategy belongs to a crude, prehistoric stage of human evolution. The curse of this strategy is that it keeps us vulnerable to external control. The essence of human progress through history is the shift from being controlled by external forces (including taunts, threats and provocations) to the human spirit controlling external forces and circumstances. That was how we developed our resources of imagination and inventiveness. In contrast, tit for tat requires no play of imagination or effort of mind or spirit. It is a crude, mechanistic and instinct-driven reaction.
Let us return to our analogy. The CJI putting his tongue out at the street urchin by way of tit for tat puts him, at best, on a par with the offender. He needs no qualities or mind, heart or spirit to react in this manner. Not so, if he were to respond as Gandhi did in Pietermaritzburg. The core issue is still different. So long as the Hon’ble Judge functions in terms of tit for tat, he will be at the mercy and control of the urchin. Tit for tat makes him vulnerable to further provocation from the urchin and the obligation to react even more awkwardly in response — clearly an unthinkable, degrading prospect.
Responses of this kind belong to the mindset of barbarism. The hallmark of barbarism is man’s enslavement to external forces. The savage is a slave of circumstances. Human progress has taken place along the axis of our growing self-control and our gradual mastery of external forces of every kind. This is the point of congruence between physical and spiritual forces.
One of the foremost dangers that modern man faces, wrote G.K. Chesterton a century ago, is the ‘slow return’ to barbarism. This has myriad faces. Whenever and wherever human beings find themselves controlled, enslaved and petrified by external forces, systems and circumstances, they are regressing towards the barbaric scheme of things, rather than a civilised way of life. Coercion is perforce barbaric.
A mindset of inequality So, we need to be ever on our guard against the emergence of coercive mindsets, ideologies and dispensations. Coercion of every kind and in every context — including that of patriotism — does more harm than good to the nation. The agents of coercion may don the garb of patriotism, but their misconceived adventures are sure to undermine the country.
Granted, we need to be patriotic as well as promote the spirit of patriotism. The question is how. This revives the age-old debate on the coherence of means and ends. We have to be inspired patriots to be able to promote patriotism patriotically.
Patriotic slogans are like smiles — outward manifestations of an inner state. You cannot force people to be patriotic, just as you cannot force them to keep smiling for 10 years for reasons they know not. The mindset of coercion is driven by raw, adversarial power. It bristles with hostility towards a person, group or community, not love for the country. The returns from forcing someone to shout a slogan of your choice are psychological, not political or patriotic. What is at work is the imposition of one’s will on the target of coercion.
It is unpatriotic to target individuals and communities. All the more so, if it is done in the name of Bharat Mata. The idea of requiring someone to shout Bharat Mata ki Jai is that Bharat is our common Mother. (Why should I shout Jai for someone else’s mother?) So, we are members of the same family, wherein love rules and coercion has no place.
Given the fact that Bharat is our Mother and we are one vast, extended Family, we belong together under a shared destiny. The first task of true patriotism is, therefore, to propagate a culture of pan-Indian unity, transcending divisive labels and barriers. So long as people are labelled, ghettoised, targeted or traumatised, the compulsion to thrust slogans on them coercively will remain. Coercion is a one-eyed monster. It can see only one side of the equation. That is as good as saying that it cannot see any equation. Equality is innate in equation. It is the mindset of inequality that valorises coercion. But use of force is a recipe that has only worked, all through history, to the corruption and destruction of peoples and nations.
Valson Thampu is the former Principal of St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi.