Home >Mint-lounge >Features >The national anthem’s moment

With its subject line reading ‘Make Tunak Tunak Tun by Daler Mehndi the National Anthem of India’, a post cropped up on my Facebook newsfeed recently. It petitioned the President of India and had over a hundred supporters. It wasn’t a spoof or parody on the issue of the national anthem; the petitioner carefully laid out how the Mehndi chartbuster fulfilled all the criterions required.

Around the same time, moviegoers registered their sentiments on Twitter after having watched the latest Aamir Khan film, Dangal, where the national anthem not just plays mandatorily before the film but also has it embedded as part of the cinematic mise-en-scene. At a crucial crossroads of Dangal’s narrative, members of the audience were suddenly standing up inside the darkened auditorium.

Between the absurdity of petitions, the pull of patriotism and the dread of moral censure, even mob violence, Rabindranath Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana played out largely like a polarizing tune this year instead of the country-wide emotional galvanizer it was when Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu stood on the Olympic podium at Rio 2016. In between this shift, there has been judicial imposition and as many have pointed out, the horror of mass vigilantism.

It is not insignificant that Justice Dipak Mishra, the Supreme Court judge who made the November 30 ruling making it mandatory for theatres in India to play the national anthem before film screenings and for the audience to stand up in respect, also happened to be the judge when a somewhat similar ruling was passed 13 years ago by the Madhya Pradesh High Court. Back then, the judge had ruled that the Karan Johar-directed film, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, which had a scene involving the national anthem, be withdrawn from theatres and could not be screened till the scene is removed. While the Supreme Court overruled the order in 2004, it is also worth mentioning that the petitioner in both the cases of 2003 and 2016 also happened to be the same person.

Post the 2016-ruling, both judge and petitioner have found support from India’s growing cohort of nationalists. In Chennai, eight cinema-goers who did not stand during the anthem were abused and assaulted by the public before police filed cases against them. In Kerala, another twelve were arrested for the same reason, while a Malayalam writer was charged with sedition (later withdrawn after protests) for his Facebook post allegedly insulting the national anthem.

In October, a disabled wheelchair-bound activist was assaulted by cinemagoers for failing to stand during the national anthem at a Goa theatre — a bellicose preamble, if any, to the November SC ruling in a country already rife with the air of hyper-nationalism. Even as #nationalism, #nationalanthem and #JanaGanaMana trended on social media, such incidents indicated a return to regression. It is symptomatic in large number of citizens who easily rise to the anthem, and are as easily offended and violent against contrarian views that hold that patriotism can’t be judicially-enforced or mob-induced.

Going by his opinion on the issue of nationalism, it is quite likely that the creator of India’s national anthem and one of the founders of modern India, Tagore, would have sided with the latter, pulverized set of people and the rise of the nation-state with its attendant nationalism.

“I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the Nation?’ Tagore asks in Nationalism in India, which is part of his book, Nationalism, based on lectures he had given in Japan and the US in 1916-’17. “It is the aspect of a whole people as an organized power. This organization incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient. But this strenuous effort after strength and efficiency drains man’s energy from his higher nature where he is self-sacrificing and creative. For thereby man’s power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organisation, which is mechanical. Yet in this he feels all the satisfaction of moral exultation and therefore becomes supremely dangerous to humanity."

During his lecture tours, Tagore would often openly criticize to local audiences their country’s turn towards aggressive nationalism and militarism, a reason he would often face unbridled condemnation from critics (one American critic mentioned Tagore delivering lectures at ‘$700 per scold’). By then a Nobel Laureate, Tagore remained unfazed and focused. Two weeks into his US tour, Tagore wrote to his son Rathindranath about his vision for his planned school in Bengal’s Santiniketan (Visva-Bharati) being ‘the connecting thread between India and the world. I have to found a world centre for the study of humanity there. The days of petty nationalism are numbered—let the first step towards universal union occur in the fields of Bolpur. I want to make that place somewhere beyond the limits of nation and geography—the first flag of victorious universal humanism will be planted there. To rid the world of the suffocating coils of national pride will be the task of my remaining years."

Tagore, writes historian Ramachandra Guha in the introduction to Nationalism, saw right through euphemisms and delusions. “Yet his criticisms always had a constructive edge. He could denounce the Nation of the West while acclaiming the Spirit of the West. Europe had produced Imperialism and Militarism, but also Liberty and Justice; one must resist the former, but seeks always to retain the latter," Guha writes.

Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore. Photo: Getty images
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Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore. Photo: Getty images

Writing in his book, The Argumentative Indian, author and Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen feels Tagore’s criticism of patriotism is a persistent theme in his writings. Sen writes: ‘Rabindranath rebelled against the strongly nationalist form that the independence movement often took, and this made him refrain from taking a particularly active part in contemporary politics. He wanted to assert India’s right to be independent without denying the importance of what India could learn—freely and profitably—from abroad. He was afraid that a rejection of the West in favour of an indigenous Indian tradition was not only limiting in itself; it could easily turn into hostility to other influences from abroad…." It is fitting, Sen notes, that after independence, India chose a song of Tagore’s as its national anthem.

First sung on 27 December 1911, at the Kolkata session of the Indian National Congress, and just days before the British monarch, King George V’s arrival in the city, Jana Gana Mana, was selected as India’s national anthem in 1950 after decisively edging out Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Bengali composition, Vande Mataram, in the face of Muslim opposition. From its very first rendition, Jana Gana Mana has courted controversy, with the British and Anglo-Indian press in Kolkata reporting the song to be in deference to the British king. Writing in 1939, Tagore rubbished such claims mentioning, “I should only insult myself if I cared for answer those who consider me capable of such unbounded stupidity."

While some felt that the words ‘Adhinayaka’ and ‘Bharata-Bhagya-Vidhata’ alluded to King George V, Tagore scholar, Prabodhchandra Sen, explained in his 1949-published book, India’s National Anthem, that the song is a “hymn in praise of the lord of the universe, the dispenser of human destiny," a rank unachievable for any human being.

Other criticism against the composition have ranged from the lyrics excluding mention of some regions of India, like the Northeast and southern islands, and including parts that are now in Pakistan, like Sindh. In 2005, when faced with a petition at the Supreme Court seeking to replace the word Sindh with Kashmir, India’s Sindhi community opposed claiming the word represented them. The court ruled against the petition saying that a national anthem was “a hymn or song expressing patriotic sentiments or feelings" and “not a chronicle which defines the territory of the nation". Mahatma Gandhi would earlier comment that Jana Gana Mana had found a place in India’s national life.

Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

In an interview given to me for a BBC article on India’s national anthem a couple of months before his death in 2013, historian and noted Tagore scholar, Barun De recounted an anecdote of his mother, a revolutionary opposed to British rule, getting chided by Anglo-Indian ladies when the former refused to stand up for God Save the King—the British national anthem, which would be played at Kolkata theatres prior to film screening. His comments sound prophetic within the current context in India. “Jana Gana Mana represents the broadest ideas of nationalism and there is nothing chauvinistic about it. Tagore loved his country but was against the idea of Indian nationalism," said De. The onus, it can be said, is on the listeners.

Know the anthems

■ The playing time of the full version of the national anthem is approximately 52 seconds. The playing time of the short version, consisting the first and last lines, is approximately 20 seconds

■ While ‘Jana Gana Mana’ is the national anthem, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s ‘Vande Mataram’, written in 1876, is the national song of India. Some Muslim groups have objected to its singing since they consider the Bengali song to be a hymn to goddess Durga.

■ Government rules say whenever the national anthem is played during the course of a newsreel or documentary film, the audience is not expected to stand since standing will be disruptive and would not add to the dignity of the anthem.

■ Other than ‘Jana Gana Mana’, Tagore is also credited for Bangladesh’s national anthem, ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’, possibly the only person to have composed the national anthems of two countries. He is also reported to have inspired the Sri Lankan national anthem, written and composed by his student, Ananda Samarakoon.

■ In popular culture, ‘Jana Gana Mana’ has been performed by the likes of AR Rahman and guitarist Dhruv Ghanekar and have featured controversially on films like ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’.

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