How My Father Taught Me Patriotism

In the Twilight Zone…

“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 First Love: Art, Literature and Music.

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.

Corruption is the Most Profitable Industry in India.

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.

My first lesson in patriotism. Left it. It wasn’t me.

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.

The Revolutionary Monk…an Electrifying Inspiration!

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”

Mukunda Das, the rural bard of Bengal.

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.

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

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11 thoughts on “How My Father Taught Me Patriotism

  1. A beautiful piece of writing Partha-da….Couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate our independence in true sense of the term

  2. Celebrating 66th Independebce Day. Got to know what India has achieved during the 65 years: Corruption through Socialism and record 6 medals in the Olympics 2012.

    1. Your relentless anti-socialist tirade misses the point. India became exponentially more corrupt since it had a major departure with nationalized economy. You probably don’t remember that since Rajiv Gandhi and Manmohan Singh took over power, India spiraled into this catastrophic corruption, inequality, inefficiency and violence. Plus, India never really adopted socialism; Nehru’s socialism was half-hearted. Please don’t distort history to prove your point. Most importantly, my story here is not about socialism or capitalism. It’s a tribute to my father and his dedicated, selfless patriotism.

  3. With the due respect to your father as a human being I have fundamental questions around nationalism. Nationalism from the ancient era has come in response to insecurity instigated by the leaders in masses. It was always based on reactionary politics.
    I fail to have a pride in being an Indian or Punjabi because it was mere penetration of a sperm in an ovum and their unity in the land of Punjab and India which gave me my state, my religion and conditioned me to feel proud or angry over things.

    The point which you made about the ultra nationalist or even say nationalist being self-less. I see selflessness in the ones who fought against Indian occupation in Kashmir and even those who were inside Akal Takht when Indian Army attacked Golden Temple. Bhindrawala was as Nationalist as Vivekananda or Hegdewar was. Let me clear why this analogy of Bhindrawala and Vivekanada both differ in their space and time, even beliefs. What makes them similar? First and foremost selflessness. Then while going deeper one find stark similarities. Vivekananda’s Nationalism condemned Islam and other Abrahamic faiths for barbarianism and materialism similarly Bhindrawale called Brahminism inhuman and impure evolution of thought. They both used the idea of universalism and calling mankind one but with the emphasis on the supremacy of their own faith. One used the reference of Vedic and Upanishadic quotes other preferred Adi Granth. The only difference between them is that one was hijacked by political hawks for their individual benefit and took arms against the state while the other went on to preach in different parts of India and outside at large.
    Bringing Jesus in the fold and giving him the status similar to Krishna and ensuring that Christianity also has roots in India which is disputable as whether Jesus died in Pehalgam or in Judea in order to avoid opposition from those who ruled India and who came to listen to him.

    Vivekanada saw his nation well advanced in science-spirituality and had a pride or supremacy of being a part of it. But he failed to remember that there were many Arabs (Jews, Muslims & Eastern Christians) who were not barbarian at all and actually helped in advancement of sciences. Chinese and Europeans were also going deeper in spirituality and all was not moved by materialism. There were mystical movements including the ones which were founded by “Desert Fathers” in Eastern Christianity who were not very different from Indian monks in their conduct but were based in Palestinian and Egyptian lands. In order to appease and make his nationalism a little more inclusive later he gave statements like “Advaita should be the mind of India, Islam the arms”- as if Islam had no brain or Advaita is physically handicap. At one point he even said “Islam was savior of lower castes in India, it gave them freedom”. But that statement is not available in all his collection of essays. By stating this my purpose is not falsify Vivekanada’s selflessness but to go for deeper questions and inquiries which are rational and try to find whether Vivekananda’s Nationalism was inclusive or exclusive.

    And the word selfishness and selflessness don’t hold any meaning to me. As there are some inherent human characteristics which are common to every one. Some desire no money, no fame. But there is a motive behind every act. Till the time those fed by motive I am not sure how selfless they will be. Motives can be abstract.

    Nationalism always flow out against something. It gives a sense of insecurity to mob to act. There is no individual consciousness but a collective instinct which can go wild. Once I was having conversation with some one from Aurobindo society. His statement left a remarkable influence over some of my thoughts. He said there are layers and layers of Nationalism. Some going in extreme while few stay moderate or feeble.

    I inferred from it that Nationalism has been harming and is always against something, why to follow its path whether it is moderate or extreme.

    Similarly I did question my own identity which didn’t connect me with a narrow nation but a vast range of evolution of thought in human beings. Nationalism has a boundary. You will say so has Individualism. But my journey of individualism did teach me that I am selfish and still connected larger web of our collective consciousness and through my individual rational I feel compel to do something to make the space better.

    One of the major flaw in those who are patriotic or Nationalist is their failure to engage in a debate or discourse. Either one has to agree with or it is the end point of conversation according to them.
    Is it not very similar to the Bush doctrine of either you are with us or against us?

    1. Thank you for your comments. You have failed to understand and analyze history and interpreted it the way a particular school of left wing has always done it, with complete detachment from spirituality and traditional values of the moderate middle majority.

      I have given up my so-called “rising star” status in RSS and BJP long time ago, only because I realized the doctrine and politics was isolationist and exclusive; my upbringing in Bengal and identification with the land’s ecumenical history, traditions and cultures have prevented me to be a part of any fundamentalist belief system.

      At the same time, after being both in the right and left for many years — both in India and U.S., I have come to realize how isolationist the so-called left and secular philosophies are too — philosophies that reject nationalism and pride in man’s roots, in the name of internationalism.

      Internationalism is abstract if it’s not primarily rooted in nationalism or identity; in fact, it’s like denying your own language or your name, or your mother’s name. That abstraction is one of the main reason Marx or Mao-variety left has failed in India. Unfortunately, right wing and now global corporate capitalism have taken full advantage of the hard left’s stupidity.

      I have had major disagreement with my father’s political and social beliefs — causing serious, personal strife. Yet, I cannot ignore the total honesty, dedication and sacrifice he made all his life for the love and devotion for his country. It’s precious, and we can learn a lot from it — without being dogmatic left or right.

      Finding middle ground with the moderate majority is where the ultimate hope is.

  4. Partha it is interesting how you inferred from my statement that I detached my argument from the aspect of spirituality. By questioning Vivekananda doesn’t mean that I moved away from the spiritual realm. The very foundation of spirituality is science, question and empirical inquiry. When Buddha left his house. He had questions. And when he found the way he still kept on conducting the inquiry.
    In few of his documented sayings by the Sangha he emphasize on the search of rationale at every corner.

    I am not repeating any left summer school lessons here. But ensuring that such figures who kept talking about universal love, freedom, spirituality should not be blindly believed. Selflessness in their conduct should not make them reverend figures. They have to be examined for their political and spiritual visions.

    Similarly when history has to be studied and culture has to be penetrated. Question should govern not mere faith or pride.

    Internationalism or Nationalism does it matter? For nationalism I have seen it dividing and instigating violence. I am yet to come to the terms with the meaning of “internationalism”.

    Mao or Marx they are too far way from me. To read their works is a tedious task. Sorry to say but my lazy mind prefers the leisure of seeing the seed sprouting and watering the plants, ensuring the public transportation works better, opposing what is unjust. Marx or Mao they can wait!

  5. thank you, Partha, for sharing so much about your father, and your life. It enlightened me about you, your family, and your countries (India, the U.S., and, to an extent, Bangladesh). It also made me think about my father, and what I learned from him and his generation with regard to politics and human suffering and the importance, or lack of it, of material riches. I realized that in many ways my own father taught me many of the same lessons (perhaps explaining why you and I seem to agree in so many basic ways). My father did not chase th.e dollar, though he could have: he did his part to work and get his parents and brothers and sisters through the depression, and get a college degree. Many from his neighborhood used political connections to get good jobs, where corruption was a poorly-kept secret, and was expected, but he chose not to. He was not a communist, or socialist, and he was a navy officer in the Pacific in WWII, but, like your father, he did not consider independence day celebrations to be a time for jingoism or anything other than a family get-together because it was a day off of work.
    I best can describe his attitude toward economics by relating his reference to pleasure boats in the city’s rivers: the boats cost a lot of money to buy and maintain, and he said that to own a boat while poor were starving was immoral. And my mother, knowing about the corruption of politicians, made me promise her that I would never run for office, and my father never did, though he worked with a few very moral academics who did. but Dad always was loyal to the country in which he was born and raised.

    While we had a one-country experience, most of my ancestors came immigrated her from Ireland to avoid starvation and British brutality. One undercurrent in my family was to always remind us of that experience, to the point where I still struggle with an instinctive dislike and distrust of anything British. In that one sense, we have always held a deep connection with Ireland, true Irish culture and history. That background, I am sure, colored my father’s attitude regarding distributive justice and strong sense of justice in general.

    BTW, your narration in your blog was and is a work of art. Beatiful descriptions that contain deep meaning and thought provoking ideas leading to dialogue.

    Thank you again.

    Bill Manion

  6. Partha, I apologize for some typos in my comments, they must seem to you, as a professor, like nails on a chalkboard. I must have been tired and did not review my work. the only substantive change needed is to replace the words “moral academics” with the words “less moral acquaintances.”

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