Writer and disability activist, Chorao-based Salil Chaturvedi is one
of the gentlest souls you could ever encounter. He was part of the
original cast of the beloved children’s television programme ‘Galli
Galli Sim Sim’ (the Indian version of Sesame Street). He compiled the
first Konkani audiobook specifically for the blind, and (along with
Goa Bird Conservation Network) likes to take blind children
bird-watching. His best-known poem (described by the great novelist
Amitav Ghosh as “a favourite” is pure pleasurable whimsy. Its subject
is a tree frog.

Like almost every Indian, Chaturvedi loves going to the movies. Though
Panaji’s multiplex halls remain inaccessible to wheelchair users,
helpful ushers carry him to a decent seat. But those fun visits seem
over forever now. When the peaceful poet settled in to watch
Rajnikanth’s latest blockbuster, he was viciously assaulted from
behind during the national anthem. The patriotic husband-and-wife duo
standing – and ostentatiously singing – in the aisle above took
offence that the spinal injury victim could not rise to his feet to
parade similarly belligerent nationalism. So the man hit, and the
woman shouted, “why can’t he get up?!”

Chaturvedi is the son of a career military officer, but he’s still not
the kind to lash back with violence. Though extremely shaken – and
physically hurt - by the unprovoked attack, he simply turned around
after the anthem, and asked, “why don’t you just relax? Why do you
have to get into people’s faces? You don’t know the story here. You
will never know”. The bellicose couple again shouted at him about
standing up during the anthem, then slowly realized their error. No
doubt fearing a police case, they slunk out and left.

The aftermath of this ugly, absurd incident is that Chaturvedi has not
gone back to the movies. “I can’t go,” he says, “I’m afraid someone
will hit me even harder, and worsen my spinal injury. I just don’t
understand why it seems impossible for so many people to express
patriotism in a non-aggressive manner.” Thinking hard in the aftermath
of the cowardly blow, he says, “I now believe that even if I could
stand up during the national anthem, I would rather not, simply
because I am being forced to do so. My father is an Air Force veteran.
I represented the nation in wheelchair tennis at the Australian Open.
Look at my life choices! Who are you to judge how much I love India?”

Crude, virulent jingoism has spread widely in India due to a
combination of factors: deeply cynical politicians; a baying
television media that routinely defaults to craven or hysterical; but
also very real anxieties stirred up by unprecedented social churn and
runaway globalization. The end result is, just like the USA after the
2001 World Trade Centre attacks, it has recently become a requirement
for Indians to clamorously declare fealty and allegiance to a highly
dubious concept of nationalism, which very few people actually believe
in. Here it should be noted George W Bush, of “with us, or against us”
fame, is the most disgraced US president in modern history, his
ostensibly patriotic preening thoroughly repudiated.

The Chaturvedi outrage in Panaji is usefully contrasted to what is
happening in the USA after quarterback (the critical position in
American Football, akin to strikers in soccer) Colin Kaepernick of the
San Francisco 49ers began to protest the national anthem by kneeling
when it is performed before games. He explained, “I am not going to
show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people, and
people of colour. To me this is bigger than football.”

Soon after he began this silent, solitary protest, Kaepernick’s team
supported his right to dissent. Then many US military veterans did the
same. The women’s professional soccer player, Megan Rapinoe, began to
“take a knee,” followed by the entire Indiana Fever team of the WNBA.
Currently, Kaepernick’s replica uniform is the highest seller in the
league’s official shop, and a fairly complex nationwide national
conversation is under way about the underlying causes of his actions.
President Obama said, “I don’t doubt his sincerity. I think he cares
about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about.”

Now imagine a cricket player in India attempting any similar protest,
for any of the myriad horrific and systemic injustices that both state
and society perpetuate. Consider how Goa’s true pride, defence
minister Manohar Parrikar would react, considering he termed the
chants of mere students “not freedom of speech, but treachery”, and
told army veterans their legitimate protests were “unlike a soldier”.
When Bollywood star Aamir Khan made some mild, thoughtful comments
about the rise of intolerance in India leading to “a sense of
insecurity” for his family, Parrikar threatened, “if anyone speaks
like this, he has to be taught a lesson of his life.”

Salil Chaturvedi has the sanest analysis. He says, “Is this why we
fought the colonialists? Did we get our freedom only to become sheep,
and that too led by the most sinister, manipulative brutes among us? I
will not participate in this sham.”

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