Shashi Tharoor, Congress party Lok Sabha candidate and former UN diplomat, may be taken to court. Tharoor reportedly told an audience of 2,000 in Kochi, Kerala, to sing the Indian national anthem with their right hand on their left chest — just like the Americans do it. The people didn’t like it and slapped a lawsuit on him. All this, even before the rookie candidate gets his feet wet in the cesspool that is Indian politics.
The judicial jargon used by the magistrate issuing summons makes the other party’s displeasure clear. “The alleged directives of the accused, Tharoor “to the dignified audience to adopt the American-style hand-over-heart posture” while singing the national anthem “is literally and prima facie in defiance” of the way it should be done, said Ernakulam additional chief judicial magistrate, Cherian K. Kuriakose. Can there be a more Keralite name? Or a more officious sounding title? Such American-style singing of the Indian national anthem is a “grossly inappropriate gesture” on the part of the accused, according to the summons.
Fine. Whatever. My first instinct was to roll my eyes and tell Messrs Kuriakose et al to take a ‘chill pill’, to use some teenage jargon myself. Disrespecting the national anthem is no small crime, I agree. It is a sensitive subject and it should be. But India’s foundation, its biggest strength is its tolerance. It is our willingness to accept diverse methods of honouring our motherland.
There is even a judicial precedent for this. In the late 80s, a group of Jehovah’s Witness children were expelled from a Kerala school for refusing to sing our national anthem. One of the parents, Bijoe Emmanuel, appealed to the Supreme Court which then overruled the Kerala High Court’s decision and insisted that the school re-admit the children. Emmanuel vs State of Kerala may not have the same resonance as Roe vs Wade.
But the Supreme Court’s decision is a masterful summary of what it means to be Indian.
The last line said in explanation, “Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practises tolerance; let us not dilute it.” Exactly.
You see, when you come right down to it, there is no prescribed method of singing the national anthem, at least in India. The same Supreme Court judgement that I mention above also states, “Proper respect is shown to the National Anthem by standing up when the National Anthem is sung.”
That’s it. No namaste or prayerful gestures; no hand on chest. All you need to do is stand up. The rest is open to interpretation. The way we Indians react to our national anthem is as diverse as the nation we are. The army stands to attention and salutes; school kids try their best to stay still and not pick their noses; movie-goers continue to exit when the anthem is played at the end of a movie. Even the Indian government website states that the shorter version of the national anthem can be used while “drinking toasts in messes”. Doesn’t imbibing spirits show disrespect to our national anthem? That said, Tharoor isn’t your average movie-going citizen. Public figures like him should be held to higher standards than the rest of us. And yet. And yet. When we censure well-meaning public figures over ill-thought-out gestures, are we valuing style over substance?
Tharoor’s instruction to 2,000 Keralites to sing the national anthem in American fashion was foolish. It showed that he wasn’t in touch with the customs and practices of his state. I doubt that Tharoor meant to insult the Indian national anthem. If anything, he probably meant more respect, not disrespect. He probably thought that the hand-over-heart gesture would lend weight to the ceremony. Tharoor’s ‘Americanisation’ of the Indian national anthem wasn’t an insult; it wasn’t even a slight. It was a gaffe. Correct him; poke fun at him if you must. Scoff at him. But hauling him to court? Nah.
Shoba Narayan is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir With Recipes. She writes the column, ‘The Good Life’, for Mint.