Hardly a day goes by without us being reminded that we, above all, are Indian. That we love our country. We love our national anthem, our rich culture, our beautiful flag. The recent Bharat Maata ki Jai song from the film Shanghai, which lampooned hollow nationalistic fervour, was derided in the media – someone even filed an injunction in the courts. Nationalism and patriotism have seeped into us, increasingly through news channels that have found it an easy route to garner rating points. Nothing raises the pitch like waving the tricolour. Nothing rouses a nation like an anthem.
Come nine o’clock every night and there’s enough flag-waving and anthem-singing to last a summer and then some. The European football championshipis on and for sports enthusiasts, especially those who see the game of football as a high intensity battle between two nations that share a troubled and bloody history, there is nothing that beats a matchwhere Germany is playing a European nation. ANY European nation.
Cricket lovers would point to an India-Pakistan encounter as unrivalled for its emotional drama and undercurrents of treachery and revenge – and they are correct to an extent. But when two rich nations with a per capita income that is 30 times more than India and Pakistan combined, fight over a piece of puffed-up leather, when they run a hundred kilometres collectively to take possession of it, whenthe looming visions of concentration camps, mass slaughters, and blitzkriegs are gaily recounted in the build-up to these games, there is, for a neutral, no comparison. Nothing comes close. It is as thoughworldwar has been condensed to 90 minutes.
Which is why it came as a surprise when, before the commencement of one such encounter, I noticed that barely half the German team was singing their national anthem Deutschland über alles! (Germany above all else).
Sport is a spectacle, increasingly so, and for the spectators their national anthem reverberating around the stadium is just the tonic they need before going out to battle. The 22 players on the field are just an excuse, a paltry first line of attack, behind which is rolling and rumbling a blood-thirsty army of millions. Players clutch their hearts and scream their throats out and 30,000 people follow suit. Then it’s the turn of the other nation and the other 30,000. It can be terrifying. Without the anthem, it would only be a great football match, an exhibition of who plays better, who has more skill, who possesses the art. But with the anthem, the match becomes much more than a mere sporting encounter, it transforms into war. Only one thing can better it: a rousing battle speech before the referee whistles the start. Imagine the coach pacing his line of men, describing to them in a Full Metal Jacket tone the pain their ancestors had to suffer at the hands of the ancestors of the opposing team. Enough to pump blood in a cadaver!
So when one sees that the only players not singing the German national anthem are those who are not of German descent, it makes you ponder what nationalism really is. For these very silent men are going to fight every inch of the pitch, blade by painful blade, so their country may win in the end. They will run like mad, head the ball fearlessly, get tripped, break an ankle, tear a hamstring – they will do all of this in the next 90 minutes, and if they succeed, they will bring unbridled joy to millions of their countrymen. But here, at this moment, they stand silently, quietly determined, while their mates sing their country’s anthem.
Mesut Özil, the Turkish-born midfielder doesn’t sing it, neither do the Turkish-German İlkay Gündoğan, the half-Ghanaian Jerome Boatengor, the half-Tunisian Sami Khedira. But Bastian Schweinsteiger, the blonde and blue-eyed midfielder sings it with full gusto, so does their Captain Philipp Lahm. Lukas Podolski, a Pole brought up in Germany doesn’t sing it, but Miroslav Klose, a German brought up in Poland does!
At first glance, one may think their refusal to sing the anthem is for that particular match or day – perhaps a bout of nasty laryngitis. But it is every single time, every single match, without exception. Is it because all these immigrants are really mercenaries in disguise -much like recruits of the French Legion – whose only purpose is to play great football – it matters little under which nation’s flag? Or have they, unknown to us, stumbled upon the long-forgotten promise of man to love all menschheit, humanity? Is it we, then, constantly fed on the heady mix of patriotism, flag-waving, and anthem-singing, who are really at fault?
Why does a game become great only when those who play it are identified with a nation? Why bring nationalism and patriotism to a game in order to enrich it? There never used to be a national anthem at the start of a cricket match before the Sharad Pawar-led ICC introduced it a few years ago. All the Indian players were singing it before their semi-final showdown with Pakistan in the World cup last year. They dare not sing! But what if a player didn’t? What would we, as a nation think of him? Worse – what if, having stayed silent during the anthem he went on to drop a couple of catches, bowl five wides on a trot, and run Tendulkar out?
When the landmass cracked, continents formed, and a monkey descended from a tree to become man, were there nations and boundaries? Do animals see themselves as Indian or Japanese or American? But we see ourselves as Indian, not Japanese, not Ghanaian, not even American, even though most things we eat, drive, watch, drink, utilise in a normal day are American inventions. We don’t celebrate American achievement as we do an Indian achievement.
Sadly, we are not alone in this.
The American President is forever reminding us that America is the greatest country in the world. He is wary of Indian and Chinese talent, of their skills which he wants his countrymen to gain quickly so lost jobs may come back to America – the greatest country in the world. The British, polite and welcoming, with a multicultural societyand timeless qualities of self-deprecation and sense of humour, think nothing of spending millions on an unelected monarch’s diamond jubilee. God Save the Queen they chant before they commence on anything. It is a beautiful tune, short and crisp and very stirring – for someone who wants to be a serf all his life. There is even a sentence in there somewhere: Long to reign over us!
When flags are waved, there is trouble. As a newslaundry columnist recently quoted in his article: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. Waving a flag, singing an anthem, makes you love your country, not its countrymen. But the anthems and the flags are everywhere. The thousands who lined the streets to catch a glimpse of their queen waved the union-jack enthusiastically. Little children who didn’t understand the concept of a flag, much less the spectre of a fluttering union-jack as a painful metaphor, were waving it, too. Why?
Britain is no longer as “great” as it once was, but these quirks have passed over through proud generations, and you can see them still whenever the England team is being walloped with European or South American trickery in a football stadium near you. St. George’s flags, with names of little known small-towns and ‘Wembley 1966’ scrawled on them, routinely take over the whole of the upper-or middle-tiers.
The use of a flag is not as simple an act as it sounds. It signifies the “taking over”of a place – finders-keepers – and it matters little whether it is a nation or a football stadium. It is psychologically overwhelming for the opponent, while it comforts your fellow national. Victory or defeat, we were here you sods and we are better!
It wasn’t a small step, let alone a giant leap, when Armstrong planted the American flag on the surface of the harmless and welcoming moon. It was a crime and a sin, plain and simple, and displayed mankind’s pettiness and confused beliefs of superiority.
I may not agree with many of the arguments put forward from time to time by Arundhati Roy, but I wished her all luck and godspeed the day she declared herself to be “an independent, mobile republic”. There can’t be a better purpose, there can’t be a better goal for humanity than that.
Let man climb up that tree once more and become the animal he always was, someone who knew no boundaries, waved no flags, and sang no anthems.