Raag Desh in the Time of Hyper-nationalism

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Raag Desh in the Time of Hyper-nationalism

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

I

n Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Raag Desh that chronicles the landmark Red Fort treason trials of three officers from Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA), the idea of “deshbhakti” is celebrated, revered, and proudly defended despite the weight of its consequences. During different points through the film, the three patriots, Maj Gen Shah Nawaz Khan (Kunal Kapoor), Lt Col Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon (Amit Sadh), and Col Prem Sahgal (Mohit Marwah) refuse to cow down despite the charges against them. And despite the acute realisation that their fate pivoted on the possibility of a compromise.

Shah Nawaz rejects an offer of allegiance and a possible defence from the Muslim League. A hot-headed Gurbaksh refuses to apologise to the British for daring to dream of an India free from their shackles. Prem wrestles with familial longing and the promise of going back to a normal life instead of being wrongly tried for conspiring to wage a war.

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For these three men back in the 1940s, at the brink of India’s Independence, the idea of freedom is intertwined with the fate of the nation. It is understood, that for all their efforts, their freedom will count for nothing if it doesn’t come with the end of the British Raj. Even in prison, they revel in their unity – be it in their collective decision to be represented by Congress’s Bhulabhai Desai (Kenneth Desai) or their unmissable pride at aiding Bose in his fight for the country’s liberation shining as bright as their INA badges during the trial.

Naturally, it was a period of terrific nationalistic fervour. A time when India was slowly waking up to the cruel permanency of living under the shadow of the British, and channelling their deshbhakti in rebellion. Every Indian had a common and identifiable enemy. There were protests, marches, and widespread collective outrage against the orchestration of the Red Fort trials, which eventually led to the acquittal of the chosen three.

The burden of nationalism has crippled the exuberance of a nation that our ancestors fought bloody battles for. It is also used to insist on a divide between Indians, based on their religion, caste, and ideology.

And yet, this deshbhakti was remarkably never manipulatively enforced, neither on the soldiers who inexplicably found themselves fighting under the British Indian Army, erring against their own Indian brothers battling for the INA, nor on the people, who considered members of the Azad Hind Fauj as traitors.

The readiness of a Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim soldier to put his life on the line was proof that even at a time of immense turbulence, national identity superseded religion. Each of their sacrifices, loyalty, and grief toward their country was considered equal. India, then, boasted of more men like Shah Nawaz, Prem and Gurbaksh, unhindered by religion, caste, or ideological differences, toiling, languishing, and battling to push it toward the glorious finish line. Back then deshbhakti was a shared idea that could coexist, in varying broad definitions, whether it was in Mahatma Gandhi’s ahimsa or Bose’s cry for “khoon”.

Over 70 years after the trials gripped the consciousness of the entire nation, a lot has changed in the evolved India we live in now. It’s no longer hemmed in by the Raj, and is instead the world’s largest democracy. While watching Raag Desh now, you can’t help but draw parallels between the nationalistic fervour that gripped the nation in the ’40s, and the one that we are currently in the throes of, in 2017. Except the updated version of nationalism insists on keeping a score of our loyalty through our political and religious leanings, what we decide to put on our plate, and most importantly, the ideology we happen to subscribe to.

Raag Desh

Back then, every Indian had a common and identifiable enemy. There were protests, marches, and widespread collective outrage against the orchestration of the Red Fort trials, which eventually led to the acquittal of the chosen three.

Image Credit / Tigmanshu Dhulia Films

Nationalism now is a weapon used to prod everyone toward an “acceptable” way of life. We are now in a world where cows and their rakshaks reign supreme, Narendra Modi features on every UNESCO list of “Best Prime Minister Ever”, and dissent to either, is solved by “nationalistic” lynchings or a one-way ticket to Pakistan.

The burden of nationalism has crippled the exuberance of a nation that our ancestors fought bloody battles for. It is also used to insist on a divide between Indians, based on their religion, caste, and ideology. The forces of our new nationalism are mobilised against our ability to dissent.

In his book Azaadi: Stories and Histories of the Indian Subcontinent After Independence, its author, Reginald Massey, recounts an afternoon meeting he witnessed with the three acquitted INA soldiers in Lahore in 1945, where the high-caste Hindu Prem, the Muslim Shah Nawaz, and the Sikh Gurbaksh were sitting on a table on which there was a jug of water, but only one glass tumbler. Massey notes that the three drank from the same glass, erasing the differences between them with one gesture.

Would the burden of our new nationalism permit for a similar erasure? I highly doubt it.

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