India’s I-Day: The selfie as visible patriotism

G Sampath

beneficiaries of selfie patriotism are commercial interests and the
coercive legitimacy of the nation-state — not the jawans* in whose name it is being conducted.

A cartoon by the artist Pierre Brignaud was trending on Facebook last
month. It depicted a mass of people floating in the open sea. They all
have their mobiles out, their arms rising from the water like so many
periscopes. All of them are taking selfies. Looming gigantically in the
background is a half-submerged Titanic, on its way to watery oblivion in the Atlantic.

Brignaud’s cartoon won an award for black humour. To be
sure, its temporal displacement of the selfie mania onto an event of a
hundred years ago is extreme; absurd, even. But if it is funny, it’s
because it homes in on a fundamental truth.

People compulsively posting selfies even as their world —
encapsulated in the mammoth ship — is about to end, is a fair metaphor
for the hypnotic allure of digital nirvana that seems to have denizens
of a technophilic civilisation in its thrall, even as their world is
in danger of sinking, literally, and not just from global warming.

Social psychology apart, the selfie has evolved into a
handy technological tool serving various agendas, including the
ideological one of building a national consciousness. It is the latest
in a long line of technological innovations that have aided the
never-ending project of forging a national consciousness.

Take away the modern technologies of communication and
administration, and an individual’s sense of national identity would
wither away, leaving behind a self that would likely derive social
sustenance from lived communitarian relationships rather than abstract

Conspicuous patriotism

In his book, Conspicuous Compassion, the British
journalist Patrick West explains how “dramatic public displays” of
concern do not help the target of the concern in any way. Instead, it
is primarily about “projecting your ego”.

What West says about ‘conspicuous compassion’ is
applicable to the displays of conspicuous patriotism that periodically
overtakes us, especially on occasions like today. One such symbolic
intervention for this Independence Day, aiming for a viral outbreak of
conspicuous patriotism, is the #SaluteSelfie hashtag on social media.

Mooted by a telecommunications company**
— which had announced free Twitter access for a week till August 15 —
it is a patriotic campaign that exhorts everyone to “support our armed
forces” by taking a #SaluteSelfie (a photo of yourself doing the
salute) and either tweeting it or making it your profile picture.

The roster of celebrities who have already ‘supported’
the Indian armed forces by posting their “salute selfies” include
Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Anil Kapoor, Saina Nehwal, and
Virender Sehwag . Having done so they have shown themselves in public
to be patriotic. They have also put others in their network under some
social pressure to similarly self-certify their patriotism.

Refuge of the poor

What these “salute selfies” won’t do for sure is to
change the lives of the Indian jawans . Yet if the empty patriotic
symbolism of #SaluteSelfie is ideologically valuable, it is because it
disavows what is common knowledge: for the vast majority of the jawans,
the army was not so much a patriotic career choice as the best route
out of poverty.

Historically, social elites may have derived prestige
from serving in the upper echelons of the military.But in nearly every
country with a large standing army the bulk of the fighting forces was
drawn from the poor.

This is the reason why countries such as the U.S. and
Australia have opened up their armed forces to economic immigrants,
drawing them with the promise of citizenship. In this context, the
record of the U.S. which has become some sort of a geo-political soul
mate and nationalistic role model for influential hawks in India is

As per the U.S. Department of Defence’s 2008 data,
65,000 immigrants were on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces,
comprising 5 per cent of all active-duty personnel. Every year, 8,000
non-citizens enlist. . It is thus understandable that for political
elites, who typically have intimate links with domestic capital,
patriotism is indispensable.

We can break down the mystifications of selfie patriotism as follows:

  • A selfie-taker is both the producer and the consumer. In the
    process of taking a “salute selfie”, one engineers into existence — or
    performs — a patriotic persona. This patriotic self enjoys
    value-addition by virtue of being validated by the public gaze of
    social media. The selfie-taker takes pleasure in consuming this
    value-added persona, and by tweeting it, enhances her social capital
    via the opportunistic visibility opened up by the circuits of patriotic
  • The #Saluteselfie campaign, by urging individuals “to show
    their gratitude to the jawans who guard the borders of our nation”,
    performs an important ideological operation: in the civilian public
    space of social media, and in peacetime, it mobilises and normalises a
    militaristic conception of patriotism.

What matters for this brand of patriotism is the
territory that needs guarding by the army, not so much the citizens
living in that territory, many of whom may be in urgent need of
assistance of a non-military kind.

This is why there is no contradiction in a patriotic
army being ready to die guarding a territory’s borders, and at the same
time, being ready to shoot its own citizens, if ordered to so. This
was how the Indian army functioned under the British, and it hasn’t
changed with Independence.

In other words, the ‘nation’ of the nationalist ideology
is first and foremost, a property (land), not the people. But the real
content of nationalism would have limited traction among a populace
where the vast majority do not own land — hence the vacuous symbolisms
of patriotism.

The “salute selfie” campaign is a clever — but by no
means unique — marketing ploy that outsources the mass production,
distribution, and consumption of a militaristically patriotic national
identity to the citizens themselves, through the so-called sharing
economy of the Internet.

There is a double irony at work here. Firstly, the real
beneficiaries of this selfie patriotism are the company behind it, the
social media brands of the celebrities, and the coercive legitimacy of
the nation-state — not the jawans in whose name it is being conducted.
Secondly, while such a nationalism might have its uses at a pragmatic
level when dealing with other nation-states, to actually believe in it,
or to invest one’s identity in it, is elementally dumb, given how
national sovereignty is routinely trampled by trans-national finance
capital in FDI-begging nations who think nothing of parcelling out
chunks of their own land as ‘foreign territories’ (also known as
SEZs/EPZs) where their national laws would not apply.

Indeed, it’s interesting how the logic of nationalism
rarely figures in the decision-making of financiers. Perhaps, this
Independence Day, we could all learn some lessons in patriotism from
billionaire investors (many of whom are role models for us already),
who are all resolute, high-minded citizens of the world, unimpressed by
national boundaries or barriers of any kind. Yet that doesn’t mean you
won’t catch them posting a “salute selfie”.

Tlaxcala’s Notes
*Jawan:  junior soldier (especially an infantryman) in
South Asia; the word is of Persian origin, and literally means “young”
in several South Asian languages. Jai Jawan Jai Kisan (“Hail the
Soldier, Hail the Farmer”) was a slogan forged by the Prime Minister of
India Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1965 at a public gathering, to enthuse the
soldiers to defend India (against Pakistan) and encourage farmers to do
their best to increase the production of food grains to reduce
dependence on import. It became a very popular slogan

**The Reliance Group,
a conglomerate, headquartered in Navi Mumbai, India, with net assets
worth ₹1800 billion (US$28 billion). The Reliance Group is present in
many business sectors across India including technology, financial
services, construction, entertainment, media, real estate, energy,
health care, manufacturing, aviation, natural resources, food and
beverages, hospitality, transportation and logistics.