The Pantheon in Paris is a must-visit for all those who wish to see for themselves the manner in which the French people venerate those who have contributed to articulating, narrating and shaping civilisational France. Inspired by the vision and idea of the French civilisation, driven by patriotism to perpetuate and disseminate that idea of France and of French ideals and values, in it rests personalities who instilled the sense of the nation in ordinary minds and hearts. The final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte—one of the first modernisers of France and of Europe as a whole—at Les Invalides also evokes strong emotions; the sign of celebrating patriotism and of generating a certain pride in nationhood as a legitimate act exudes these commemorative corners, symbols and institutions.
As one climbed down to the Crypt, the final resting place of the immortals of France’s cultural and intellectual spirit, an overpowering sense of their contribution, the fierce and yet rich and deep debates that these personalities generated, their ceaseless civilisational quest of articulating and shaping the French ethos and of situating it in the wider world while interpreting other civilisations, all came to the fore.
Voltaire, who was convinced that all knowledge came from India, especially from the banks of Ganga, had his corner in the Crypt and opposite him rested Rousseau, that formidable shaper of political discourse. Emile Zola, Victor Hugo, who perhaps more than anyone else shaped the French mind, Alexandre Dumas, Louis Braille, who through his creation of the Braille gave new light, all find a place of honour. Each of them had an inspiring epitaph summarising the ideas and ideals that they embodied.
One saw how students came in regular batches—the Pantheon is next door to the Université Sorbonne —and were taken around by teachers who explained the contributions, the oeuvres, the life and times of these greats. The manner of preserving the remains of these personalities suggested a concrete realisation of their indispensability in shaping and preserving civilisational France. The remains of some of those activists and leaders who died resisting Nazi occupation of France and were leaders of the iconic French Resistance Movement, were relocated to the Pantheon in 2015, indicating that the process of identifying patriots, nationalists and heroes is an active and ongoing process among the French.
But this could perhaps have been possible because of this habit which, even in the midst of intense political tussle, argues that the idea of France, the idea of her integrity and sovereignty and of her triumph is an idea that is non-negotiable and undisputed. No false debates or callow messiahs, patronised and promoted by vested political groups and interests, have ever promoted the idea of questioning the very idea or raison d’être of France, of La République or the patrie.
In India, however, ever since the founding of the Republic, there has been an intellectual and political class which has worked to generate a negation, denigration and hatred towards the idea of the nation, of civilisation and of inherited wisdom and values. These groups have intensely worked to create Indians who would spite at the very idea of India and revel in announcing its impending demise and in doing so would receive accolade and approbation. They never allowed a true veneration of true heroes in this country.
While Narendra Modi symbolises the urge to celebrate the perennial idea of India and evolve a positive ethos leading to a new national narrative, those making the most noise today are actually the ones who have always viciously laboured to dissolve all that we have stood for, civilisationally.
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Director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation