Patriot Next Door
The thought came to me when reading a letter I got a few years ago.
This was after the Shiv Sena leader Anand Dighe died in Thane's Singhania hospital. The mob of his followers that had gathered there decided to "spontaneously" express their "grief" at his passing. So they destroyed the ground floor of the hospital. They looted and burned a showroom nearby, then burned a godown opposite. They stole petrol from several ambulances, overturned them and set them on fire. They smashed over 30 cars in the hospital compound, and three buses outside. They assaulted several journalists; two from Aaj Tak escaped death only by falling to the ground and feigning it.
Expressions of grief, didn't you know.
Worst of all, they chased patients all over the building, trying to batter down the doors some hid fearfully behind. One patient who had to run for his life was suffering from renal failure and had actually been in the bed adjacent to Dighe in the ICU. (The ICU!)
"I had given up hope," his son told MidDay. "I thought I would lose my father."
No, there's one possibly worse facet of this episode. This "spontaneous" expression of "grief" cost the city of Thane an entire hospital, because the Singhanias decided not to rebuild it.
Imagine Jaslok, or AIIMS, or Mass General in Boston, shutting down.
So I wrote an article about this moment of Indian shame. It brought me several dozen letters in response. One, more than the others, stuck in my mind. Stuck in my craw. For it had these intriguing sentences: "Yes, this was goondaism. But these were patriotic goondas. Why can't you keep that in mind? A patriotic goonda is any day preferable to a terrorist!"
As I said, that's when the thought came to me. This thought: if we are at a point where vandals are called "patriotic" and their vandalism thus explained away, where thugs know that merely calling themselves patriots means they won't be asked about their thuggery, where the phrase "patriotic goonda" doesn't strike us as the obscene oxymoron it is -- if this is where we are, this is a perverted patriotism indeed. It's one that calls into question the very meaning of patriotism.
People who destroy hospitals, who assault old and sick Indians, do serious damage to India. Period. Time we saw them in that clear light.
So who are the patriots, then? If you ignore -- as they should be ignored -- the fellows who loudly proclaim themselves patriots, or indeed the "patriotic goondas", the straightforward answer you will likely get from most people is: our soldiers. The brave men who stand at our borders, putting their lives on the line to protect us, ready to die for the country.
Admire the dedication of these exemplary Indians. Yet I sometimes think: surely we can find patriots closer to our homes. Quiet ones. Everyday Indians who live their everyday Indian lives and in so doing, sometimes make a small difference to others' lives.
There's the 70-year-old who shows up on the nearby seaside promenade early every morning, without fail. He gives his time to teach kids from the local municipal school that has a total of two teachers on its rolls: yes, two, of whom one has an alarming felicity with a rod and her students' limbs. But out on the promenade, this man lays out mats for the kids, plonks himself on one of the benches, and they go at it for an hour or more. No publicity, no reward. Unless you count the bright young faces looking eagerly up at him, hanging on his words, absorbing ideas instead of lashes. (I would count the faces).
There's the friend who, instead of whiling the day away playing cricket like the rest of us, walked to work the last time we had an enforced bandh in this city. Then she wrote to tell us why:
- I walked because I know that in the face of all this violence and hate, the humanity of the ordinary Indian is still alive, maybe hidden like a tuber but very much alive. I walked along with hundreds of others -- ordinary people who refused to be intimidated, and who know that a future for our country, our people and our children lies in health, jobs, education and conserving our environment. In justice and equality, not in wars, arms or yatras.
The fascinating thing about this vast country is this: wherever you travel, you'll find people like this. Now I have no idea whether they are willing to die for India. Nor do I particularly care, because it hardly matters. For these people seem willing to live for the country, for its people, every day. And because they are, I know this is a better India every day.
In my book, these ordinary Indians -- they could be your neighbours or friends, as they are mine -- are patriots. When we recognize that, we'll know just how to react to perversity like "patriotic goondas." But what's more important, we'll understand and celebrate patriotism -- not just in the remote and frigid wastes of Siachen, but around us each day.