India’s anthem is beautiful but the fight over it is getting ugly

Most national anthems are not meant to codify or police our behavior; they are songs of freedom. They are a celebration of what our countries are- or should aspire to be.


I absolutely love India’s national anthem and can be unabashedly maudlin about the hope and pride it triggers when I hear it. Composed by Nobel Laureate (Sir) Rabindranath Tagore, who would later return his knighthood to protest the British Army’s massacre of unarmed Indians in 1919, the anthem was first sung at a convention of the Indian National Congress in pre-independence India. In a multi-religious country that speaks 780 languages, the anthem is a great unifier, which binds the warp and the weft of India’s incomparably colorful tapestry. We learn how to sing it before we can read the alphabet. And we stand ram rod straight as a mark of respect when it plays. Above all else, my country’s anthem reminds me that, unlike so many other parts of the world, I am free in India, even if ours is an untidy and argumentative democracy.

That the anthem is now the subject of petty bickering on TV talk shows is a trivialization of what it stands for. The debate first erupted when a Supreme Court judge (now the chief justice) passed an interim order in November 2016 directing that the anthem be played and the Indian flag be compulsorily displayed before any movie is screened in theaters. This week, the bench appeared to have a rethink, declaring that it was for the government – and not the judiciary – to set the rules. So far, the attorney general has batted in favor of the court’s earlier verdict.

Personally, I am very happy to stand in movie halls for the 52 seconds it asks of me. But I am also terribly uncomfortable with labeling fellow citizens who challenge the court’s original diktat as ‘anti-national.’ If you see the anthem like I do, as the song of our hard-won liberty, that freedom encompasses the right of citizens to disagree and dissent. And some of them are also asking — why only movies? Why not make the anthem mandatory in government offices, parliament, and the courts?

Last year, I was pained to interview Salil Chaturvedi, a paralysis survivor, author and poet who is wheelchair bound. He was beaten in a cinema theater for not jumping to his feet when the anthem played; his assaulters evidently did not know of his spinal injuries since the wheelchair was placed in a corner of the hall. “Do I have to wear a disability badge? – a furious Salil asked me, revealing that he was the son of an air force officer and the brother of a gallantry award-winning army solider. “We know what patriotism is.” There have been other stray examples as well. But more than what the court recognized as the “misuse” of its order, what’s depressing, is using lazy labels like ‘nationalists’ and ‘traitors’. This divisiveness has exposed the all-important distinction between patriotism and nationalism.

In 1945, George Orwell warned that “nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism.” The author of the dystopian novel 1984 that was prescient in its prediction of the “Big Brother” defined nationalism as “. . . the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad.’” And this is exactly the problem — our ‘nationalism’ is being contorted into hashtags and hate. The cruel judgments we make of those who may challenge inherited wisdom undermine the very republic we claim to be defending. This streak of violence — in words, thought and action — is the defiling of patriotism.

In an age of populism, nationalism is being peddled like soap. Nativist television anchors encourage a competitive circus in which jingoists fight over who is more ‘nationalist.’ This banal point-scoring reduces love for nation to a chessboard of one-upmanship.

And this totally overlooks those who are quietly patriotic: the dignified soldier who serves his country in battle, the philanthropists and activists who feed the hungry and fight the corrupt, the honest, hard-working citizen who voluntarily cleans the public beach or the neighborhood park, the high-flying, dollar-earning Wall-Street banker who returns home and never converts the green card into a U.S passport — love for your country is expressed in myriad ways. But when you need to boast about it or look down on others for not matching up, it’s not patriotism; its jingoism.

Most national anthems are not meant to codify or police our behavior; they are songs of freedom. They are a celebration of what our countries are- or should aspire to be. This is why I admire the take-a-knee campaign by NFL players and other athletes in America. Their contentious decision to kneel whilst the anthem is played is a rights-driven activism that demands an end to the discrimination of people of color. This is not an insult to America; it’s a citizenry that is peacefully engaged in wanting better for their people. What could be more patriotic than that? Many anthems around the world are songs of defiance and resistance in their genesis. The French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” written as a war song against foreign invaders but was adapted in modern times to show the power of a united people.

When we start policing patriotism we are in danger of pushing the sublime to the ridiculous. As one of judges on the Supreme Court bench said: “Next thing will be that people should not wear T-shirts and shorts to movies because it will amount to disrespect for the anthem; where do we stop this moral policing?”

© The Washington Post

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