|by Ramchandra Guha
(The Telegraph, August 19,2017)
Balraj Puri (1928-2014)
I have been thinking a great deal recently about the difference between patriotism and jingoism. The provocation – or inspiration rather – was a visit to Jammu to speak in memory of Balraj Puri – writer, social reformer and political activist – who embodied Indian democracy at its best.
There are a great many hyper-patriots active in India today who spend their days and nights abusing either Pakistan or China, and, sometimes, both. Balraj Puri expressed his love for his country in an altogether different manner. Over the course of a long life, he fought for independence from the British, for freedom from the autocratic rule of the Kashmir maharaja, for the human rights of Kashmiris and for regional autonomy for Jammu and Ladakh as well.
Balraj Puri’s life as an Indian patriot started early, at the age of fourteen, when he started an Urdu weekly inspired by the Quit India movement. He was an active journalist for many decades thereafter, and also wrote many books in English, among them an important study of Indian Muslims, an analysis of the complicated relations between Jammu province and the Kashmir Valley, and an authoritative analysis of the origins of the insurgency in Kashmir.
Balraj Puri was admired for his writings, and for his probity and personal courage. In the 1980s and 1990s, Jammu was prone to bouts of communal violence, provoked on the one side by Hindu militants of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and on the other by the persecution of the Pandits by Islamists in the Valley. Contemporaries carry vivid memories of Puri, then well into his sixties, moving around his home town on a battered old scooter, seeking to calm tempers and prevent anger being converted into violence.
In a state riven by suspicion and discord, Balraj Puri was trusted in all regions and by all communities. When he died in August 2014, one obituarist wrote that “Jammu has lost the champion of its regional identity, Kashmir has lost a crusader for democracy and human rights, the State as a whole has lost a peace activist, and the nation has lost a liberal and progressive voice.” Another compared Puri to India’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri; both men whose small and slight frame “concealed a human dynamo with boundless energy for all constructive causes…”
A large crowd of mourners accompanied Balraj Puri’s body to the crematorium in Jammu. Among them was an elderly man crying loudly while muttering, ‘This person was not up for sale,’ ‘This person was not up for sale.’ Puri’s family and friends had never before seen this grieving Jammu-ite, whose spontaneous tribute was as moving, and as just, as any offered later in print.
Within Jammu and Kashmir, Balraj Puri remains a greatly respected figure. However, outside his home state, his work remains less known than it should be. That is a pity. For now, more than ever, India needs patriots like Balraj Puri. It needs men and women whose patriotism is expressed not in the continuous vilification of some other country, but in words and actions aimed at making our own country more tolerant, more prosperous, less unhappy, and less conflict-ridden. For perhaps the most important form of patriotism is that which seeks to give dignity to oppressed groups such as Dalits and women while simultaneously seeking to promote tolerance and mutual respect among citizens otherwise divided by language, caste or religion.
Unlike the hyper-ventilating hyper-patriots of the present time, Balraj Puri was not consumed by the desire to make India more powerful than its neighbours. Rather, he wanted to make India itself a better and safer place for its citizens. That was the first lesson of Puri’s life. A second lesson is that there is no one singular patriotism; rather, there are multiple and overlapping forms of patriotism.
There is a famous saying, ‘Charity begins at home.’ Patriotism also begins at home. Balraj Puri loved his town and his district, but he loved his state and his country too. He was a Jammu city patriot, a Jammu province patriot, a Jammu and Kashmir patriot and an Indian patriot – all at the same time. He demonstrated by example that love for your locality and for your province could be perfectly consistent with love for your country.
Notably, Balraj Puri devoted a great deal of energy to promoting peace and self-respect in the neighbouring state of Punjab. Among the half-a-dozen languages he himself spoke fluently was Punjabi. He urged the Hindus of Punjab to honour the mother tongue they shared with the Sikhs, rather than succumb to sangh parivar chauvinists who wanted them to promote Hindi instead. At the same time, he unequivocally opposed Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his band of gun-toting Sikh extremists. He was one of the first from outside the state to visit Punjab after Operation Bluestar, speaking out against violence and in favour of reconciliation.
Some would like to reduce patriotism to the worshipping of symbols. However, offering puja to the tiranga jhanda ten times a day may or may not make you a better patriot. A more lasting, more constructive, form of patriotism is to endeavour to make your locality, your town, your district, your province and country a more tolerant, inclusive and democratic place.
Balraj Puri’s own patriotism was substantive rather than symbolic. He did not exhibit his love for the motherland by shouting ‘ Mera Bharat Mahan‘ every now and then, interspersing this with shouts of ‘Pakistan murdabad’. Rather, in how he behaved, what he wrote, and what he struggled about, he tried to make our country more worthy of the ideals of the Indian Constitution by promoting respect, honour, dignity, equality and justice in everyday life.
Balraj Puri was admirable and exemplary, but not, of course, unique. There are many such patriots active in our land, who promote the values of the Constitution while working in village, town, district, state or country. Some of these patriots are written about occasionally in the press. Others remain unknown. Not that they mind. For publicity, or at least an excess of it, can be antithetical to true patriotism and nation-building. The more you crave publicity, the less time you can actually devote to social reform or constructive work.
Balraj Puri was a patriot, not a jingoist. Making his own country a better place was far more important to him than demonizing other countries. He recognized that patriotism begins at home, with the place one is in, yet also understood that one must have a wider view of how one’s locality related to one’s state and one’s nation. In presenting his views, he never resorted to violence, not even to violence in language. And he worked out of passion and conviction, not for honour or reward.
There is one last aspect of Balraj Puri’s life that I would like to recall. Seventy years after Independence, India remains a deeply divided society, this divisiveness stoked and encouraged by power-obsessed politicians and by a TRP-obsessed media. In this atmosphere, one of the hardest jobs in India is reconciliation. But also perhaps one of the most necessary. For India can stay united and democratic only when respect and recognition replace suspicion and animosity in relations among castes, regions, languages and religions. This reconciliation is what Balraj Puri strove for all his life, admirably following in the footsteps of that other great patriot and reconciler, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
This article is published courtesy of The Telegraph.