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Rise of the virtual patriotism

Saturday, 31 December 2011 - 10:30am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

My think I am not a patriot like them since I contribute little to the fight against corruption because I do not follow Anna virtually.

Who is the bigger patriot? Someone who is critically acquainted with the nuances of the whole Lokpal debate; who questions the government’s intentions in bringing a Lokpal Bill but is also not uncritical of Team Anna’s Orwellian Jan Lokpal Bill that aims to create a behemoth that no one has any control over? Or someone who posts pro-Anna messages on Facebook and Twitter?

If my friends are to be believed, it’s the latter. They think I am not a patriot like them since I contribute little to the fight against corruption because I do not follow Anna virtually.

But when I recently asked an IT professional friend — an Anna supporter — whether he would join the jail bharo andolan, he promptly said: NO. His explanation was that it would put at risk his chances of going abroad for job or studies. A hard truth. In fact, the jail chalo website only asks for your willingness to participate in the movement without even mentioning when or where such an event would take place. Fill in your name, email id and other details and you are one of a few patriots in the country. Even after Anna cancelled the campaign, the website invited people to register.

Virtual patriotism is not new. For a few years a news website has been offering a virtual Tricolour to be downloaded on Republic Day and Independence Day. But this year, this phenomenon has taken a new dimension. It began when the dictators-ruled Arab countries started to simmer. People, or rather online profiles/avatars, started talking about the need for a similar revolution in India, oblivious of the fact the current government was elected and can be thrown out soon by us. How many in the age group of 25-40 years (if we exclude the zealous first-time voters) vote?

Immediately after the cricket world cup, when almost every youngster was desperate to express his or her patriotism, inspired by the Indian team’s acts of courage, Anna gave them a great opportunity: Join my fight against corruption. But since any fight with an idea begins from within — and it is difficult here because of the benefits corruption brings to the upwardly mobile middle class — the virtual world directed its energy towards politicians.

And such a struggle is also easy: The moment you step into office, post a message on the anti-corruption or Anna Hazare page in Facebook, and you have done your part for the day. Repeat it whenever you are free. The online agitation soon gained momentum and peaked around August when Hazare went on an indefinite fast.

But just like Team Anna, the virtual patriots also kept to their briefs. What was the reaction to the Planning Commission’s new definition of the poor? What was the reaction to the economic blockade in the Northeast? The fight by rural people against a nuclear reactor?

Why bother about the poor and others; they do not exist in cyberspace! Here everyone is equal — social networking sites are the greatest levellers next only to death — and if there is some differentiation, it is based on ideas — nation, principles, etc — or to put it in simple words, it is Us vs Them.

But, kudos to the cyber nationalists, even the government reacted. The government, which long ago lost its touch with ground reality, seems to have started living in the virtual world and hence started having problems with what is posted and discussed online. Kapil Sibal came out with a diktat to social networking sites to remove ‘objectionable content.’

After the Assange experience, one wonders how any democratic country could think it would be able to control information flow and content online.

Like a colleague pointed out, the government should be happy about the dissent in cyberspace, as frustrated people vent their anger online instead of hitting the streets in the real world against politicians.

The Indian with a computer and Internet access, it seems, believes that joining an online group to protest against social maladies is enough to bring change. It gives him or her the satisfaction of having played a role in any change that may come about. Taking leave for such causes is something people avoid.

Let the Gandhians, professional social activists and even the poor fight the system and the college students bunk classes and attend their rallies. The virtual patriots would click online to support the cause.

And this seems to be the biggest game-changer in urban India this year, as a majority of the young and educated middle class turns its eye away from reality instead of preferring to be lost in the web of cyberspace. Will there be an about turn?  Will the middle class return to the ground or continue to be caught in the world of its own? The answer is blowing in the wind...

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