January 26, 2010. You turn on the television. The remote takes its time to locate the unfamiliar Doordarshan. But the visual that greets you on that fog-filled morning is an all-too-familiar one. The macho military parade. The exoticised tableaux portraying the ‘unity in diversity’ of India. Schoolchildren playing patriot-patriot, or patriot parrots.
The jawans don’t carry placards or photo exhibitions depicting the daily violence they are forced to inflict on Indian citizens in the name of ‘national security’. The Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Orissa tableaux do not portray the struggles of their first people against the ‘national interest’. The dancing children do not ask you uncomfortable questions such as why the national average for malnourished children is 47 per cent, the highest in the world.
The incongruity of the spectacle is best captured by the strains of the National Anthem; a tribute to the universal spirit that has been trapped in the armoury of a nation-state.
As we enter the year of the 150th birth anniversary of its creator, Rabindranath Tagore, the question arises: What would Gurudev have made of all this? Would the man, who in Nationalism (1917) refers to the ‘nation’ as an ‘inhuman machinery of politics and commerce’ and an ‘intrusive agent of exploitation and dominance’, be pleased with his prescience?
Tagore always stood for the supersession of nationalism by internationalism, which ironically was a significant factor in the selection of the Anthem. Recollecting the moment, then Prime Minister Nehru told the Constituent Assembly, on August 23, 1947: “The matter came to a head on the occasion of the general assembly of the United Nations in 1947 in New York…our delegation possessed a record of Jana Gana Mana which they gave the orchestra who practiced it. Apart from the general appreciation with which it was received… there was not much choice for us as there was no musical rendering available of any other national song…”
Pre-emptively pacifying ardent nationalists, who might object to the first official version being played by the London Philharmonic Society, Nehru said an expert Indian musician was guiding them.
Sixty two years later Shashi Tharoor is charged with showing disrespect to the National Anthem when he interrupts its singing to urge the audience to place their palms over their hearts instead of merely standing at attention. The previous year, Infosys chief Narayan Murthy has a case registered against him for justifying his company’s use of an instrumental version to avoid excluding the foreigners present there. Over the years there have been demands for the word ‘Sindh’ to be replaced by ‘Kashmir’, reducing an abstract concept to a geographical formality. Most recently, Ram Gopal Varma’s film Rann ran into trouble with the censor board for a remixed version of the Anthem, depicting India as a broken and bleeding state.
Nationalism has now entered the realm of farce. According to Ashis Nandy, political psychologist and social theorist, this ‘steamrolling’ version of nationalism is a departure from its predecessor, which was based on the idea of a confederation.
In The Political Culture of the Indian State (1988), he refers to the prevalence of two de facto natural anthems, Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Bande Mataram, as a good example of a nationalism that refuses to be fully defined. He says: “Jana Gana Mana, despite being the National Anthem of a postcolonial society, is one of the least nationalist anthems in the world. It celebrates an open-ended, nonchauvinist concept of Indian civilisation.”
Contextualising the current scenario, he adds: “It is an indicator of the changing mood in India that recent attempts have been again made, after a gap of nearly 40 years, to discredit Jana Gana Mana by alleging that it was originally a paean to George V, the British sovereign. Obviously, it is not an Anthem the tough-minded Indian neo-nationalists are enthusiastic about. Some of them, seeking to make up for what theAnthem lacks in toughness, have tried to make the singing of it compulsory. Only a few have seen these attempts as assaults on the spirit of the Anthem.”
But then again, how many of us can claim to understand, let alone do service to, this spirit? Freedom from the British was the clear goal of the earlier nationalists. Freedom for the burgeoning middle class of India, who dictate the terms and conditions of the nation-state, is confined to living a life of passive consumption. A collective is no longer considered cool, fierce individualism is.
The rushed attainment of freedom meant an incomplete process of decolonisation. Vested interests saw the benefits of preserving the Police Act of 1862 as the central piece of legislation governing all acts of policing in India. The Indian Penal Code, drafted in 1860, is full of pruderies long abandoned by Britain, such as Section 497 that deals with adultery and punishes even consensual sex between adults. Creative expression through theatre is still subjected to the Dramatics Performance Act, 1876, which requires each group to submit a script to the police for consent prior to the performance.
Freedom that is still a product of colonised minds could perhaps explain the continuing obsession with fair skin, the incessant migration to the West, the distrust of neighbouring countries still looked upon as competitors rather than comrades and the ceaseless construction of ‘Buckingham Palaces’ in urban India. The country is now defined by a ‘pan-Indian middle-class consciousness, a homogenising nationalism, and a centralising nation state’.
This shift from ‘Jai he’ to ‘Jai ho’ is an aggressive one, with no tolerance for any form of dissent or questioning. National interest, it is understood, shall always override local or regional interests. National security, says Union Home Minister P Chidambaram, with the backing of the elite class, shall override even human rights.
Nation-building by the book, like history, is predominantly the playing ground of the ‘fathers of the nation’. Their commanding voices often drown out the soulful songs of those who have stood up against state suppression. These anthems of resistance that relate to the reality of the country do more justice to the spirit of the National Anthem than the prevalent practiced and performed patriotism.
The composition, the first of five stanzas of a Brahmo Samaj hymn, first sung at the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress on December 27, 1911, was born of rebellion. The Indian National Congress requested Tagore to write a felicitation for King George V on his visit to India. It was meant to be an appeasement gesture in response to the annulment of the Bengal Partition Act. Tagore was said to be both troubled and deeply offended by the request. Jana Gana Mana was written out of protest towards the monarchy, hence the reference to the eternal lord of India’s destiny, bharat bhagya vidhata, far greater than any mortal monarch.
But this was far removed from the foggy fanaticism of today that superimposes a majoritarian divinity onto a political construct. Tagore, said, “To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.”
Ironically, the creator of the national anthem might well have been accused of perfidy in today’s India. “Patriotism,” he said, “cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.”