“All can be sacrificed for ideology, but ideology can never be sacrificed.” — My father Jitendra Nath Banerjee, quoted from my book In the Belly of the Beast: Hindu Supremacist RSS and BJP of India. Ajanta Books International, New Delhi, 1998.
This is a very personal story.
Today, I want to tell you how my father taught me patriotism. I want to tell you how he taught me how to love your own country — selflessly.
Today is 15th of August: India’s Independence Day. This is a special moment to remember some of the lessons my father left with me — with much hope and expectation.
He taught me that patriotism is not just about the so-called Independence Day. He never had any special emotions on the 15th of August. I have followed some of his lessons, and also carefully, selectively rejected some others. But I have accepted his seminal lesson that these specially designated days have no special meaning. I have never found any special reasons to celebrate either 15th of August for India, or the 4th of July here in America. I always found them to be all about hype for the “haves” (or those who believe they will soon be have’s), and nothing about the “have-nots.” And no, I am not a communist. I never was. My father was staunchly anti-communist.
Even though I am now primarily an American citizen and secondarily an Indian overseas citizen, and even though I have been living in the U.S. for twenty-five years with a rarely-found high and honest, sincere involvement with the American society, economics and politics, deep inside, I feel very strongly about India, the country where I spent over twenty-five years of my life — a place where I was born, grew up and first learned how to live and love.
India is the land and Bengal is the special land where my senses developed and matured: senses to appreciate art, literature, music, poetry and politics. My Calcutta school teachers gave me my first history and geography lessons. I developed my first people skills and public oration in Calcutta. My first falling in love and first hurting in love were in Bengal.
My mother and my grandmother, two women who left deep impressions on me, lived and died there. They did not know any other places. In its fullest sense, therefore, I can call India and Bengal my motherland. I owe a lot to those places. At the same time, I have a special sense of righteousness and wrongfulness for those places.
My father who is now eighty-eight years old and in poor health, wanted to instill some of his hard-earned values in me. One of the values he inculcated on me was his love and pride for his motherland. India was not just a geographical mass of land for him. It was his entire existence: his way of life. It’s a belief system.
Today, a socioeconomic devastation is engulfing India like wildfire. In spite of the unbelievable material progress for the top one percent of India’s people, and some trickle-down progress for the next five to ten percent of India’s upper middle class — thanks to a globalized economy India adopted post-Soviet era — India’s vast eighty percent poor who live in both rural and urban areas, keep sliding fast into a quicksand of poverty and hopelessness. Nowhere in the history of India, the rich-poor disparity and income inequality have been so extremely wide.
But the most catastrophic devastation has taken place in India’s social, moral and ethical values. In just two decades, India has transformed from a country of collective care and compassion to a country of extreme individualism, a disintegrating society and horrific corruption.
My father was a poor man compared to today’s standards. But he didn’t have to be this way. He was born in a more-or-less well-to-do family where his father migrated from poet’s Bengal to pious Benaras and married a woman from a rich family. He had bought a big house in an uppity neighborhood in Benaras, and when he died, his family was doing well where his widow — my father’s mother — as well as my uncles and aunts didn’t have to worry about their economic well being.
But my father chose to sacrifice it all. At a young age, a bright student, he became involved with an ultranationalist organization and gave up his college education and essentially, his career, to work full-time as a grassroots activist for the group. He lived from village to village, small town to small town all over North India, and put his organizational priorities much above his personal priorities. In fact, he never had a personal priority of his own. I have never seen him buying a shirt for himself or spending any money on himself. He spent his paltry factory-staff salary for us and some other poor relatives. My mother saved a few rupees here and there to help her mother and fatherless siblings who were miserably poor and often starved.
Gandhi was assassinated immediately after India’s 1947 independence from the British and a violent, bloody partition of the country in three, arbitrary pieces, uprooting millions of Bengalis and Punjabis. My father’s organization RSS was implicated in the assassination and later exonerated by India’s court. However, Indian government in the interim put all the top activists in jail, and my father spent a few years in free India’s jail. When he came out, his leaders sent him away to Bengal to work for its political wing — a party which is now India’s biggest opposition party. In Calcutta, he met my mother, a beautiful woman from a very poor Brahmin family, and they got married. I was born two years later.
My first lesson in patriotism was through the Hindu right wing organization’s paramilitary exercises on one hand as well as its patriotic songs many of which included Tagore and D. L. Ray’s nationalistic songs; yet at home, my father and my mother both taught me how to love the language of Bengali with its vast art, music and literature. Father taught me about Tagore, Swami Vivekananda and ancient Hindu scriptures in Bengali, Hindi and Sanskrit; my mother’s family and my maternal uncles and aunts all taught me more Bengali-liberalism-oriented people patriotism. There was a subtle balance between my mother’s version of patriotism and my father’s: there was never any serious conflict. I was never force-fed.
But the most important patriotism that my father taught me was about a deep pride for the heritage, history and traditions of the ancient land of Bharatvarsha (the Land of King Bharat) and its continuous stream of legendary personalities and their contributions in every possible aspect of life — for thousands of years. The pride gave me a strong, moral and spiritual backbone to stand on. We had no money and we had absolutely no pedigree; in fact, both my father and myself were subjects of many major and minor humiliations and ridicules by “friends,” “relatives” and neighbors alike — because of our economic status. But they could never unnerve my father’s steel-strong resolve and confidence; they could also never humiliate my mother because of her golden-glow character and modest-but-strong poise.
My father taught me that patriotism was never about material richness or personal prosperity.
I always knew that patriotism was about the people, and mainly about the suffering people — irrespective of their caste. My father and his organization were quite extreme on their rejection of internationalism; the organization was, I repeat, staunchly anti-socialist and pro-Hindu. They had deep anathema for Christian missionaries, Muslims and communists.But their love for their Hindu-heartland country, complete dedication, selfless sacrifice and absolute renunciation of greed — for all intensive purposes like those of saints and yogis — were exemplary. I grew up in that tradition. I am very happy that I did.
One result: money and material could never lure me. Ever. (People say that’s an excuse for my inability to be a rich immigrant here in the U.S.)
Yet, I have seen some others in the same organization — ones who used and exploited my father and dedicated, selfless activists like him. But to me, my father has always been a symbol of moral uprightness, honesty, integrity and selfless devotion for the country. I have rejected their religious dogma-based politics once and for all, and left the organization long ago — once and for all. But I can never forget either the love and affection I received from those numerous ex-colleagues I worked with, nor their complete dedication for the cause. I have used those attributes in a different way: in my grassroots and advocacy work here in America.
India is going downhill. The old-wine-in-new-bottle rulers have destroyed the country’s people-oriented society and economy and replaced it with a trickle-down, profit-oriented system, with active support from IMF, World Bank and multinational corporations. India has now the highest level of corruption both at government and private institutions; corrupt and unethical practices have become so rampant that nobody considers them unusual or extraordinary anymore.
There is a new kind of internationalism in vogue — a globally connected class of rulers with money, military and media. This class has brought the land of Sri Chaitanya, Tagore, Gandhi, Vivekananda, Ambedkar, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Mirabai and Vidyasagar to the brink of doom. History and heritage conversations are now outdated; pride in the ancient land’s thousands of years of glory is now ridiculed by the country’s new elite and their young, modern, “global” followers.
To be rich is now independent India’s only purpose to live. It does not matter how you become rich. The society and the vast eighty percent poor, who keep languishing in total hopelessness and despair, do not matter. In fact, you use and exploit them — mercilessly. Ayn Rand must be laughing her heads off, down there!
My father, on the other hand, taught me how to reject individualistic, selfish prosperity and greed — in his own way. Much later, I heard a Bengali song composed by a rural, wandering poet named Mukunda Das. I cite it here. If there is one lesson of patriotism I learned from my father, I’d cite this song.
“hasite khelite asi ni e jagate
karite habe moder mayer’i sadhana”
We did not come to this world only to play and have fun
The call of the day is to invoke and worship the Mother.
Old-fashioned patriotism? Too nationalistic? Too sentimental?
I’d rather be old-fashioned, nationalistic and sentimental patriot with zero selfishness and zero greed, than a so-called modern, global and pragmatic materialist who lives for himself or herself only. I never wanted that kind of life. My father never lived that kind of life. My mother never did, either.
That’s my patriotism. I am happy with it — whether I am in USA or India.
I hope you think about it too.
Brooklyn, New York