The Supreme Court has ruled that India’s National Anthem, ‘Jana Gana Mana’, must be played in all movie theatres before the screening of films; that the audience should stand during the anthem; and, that the doors should be closed so that people do not walk in or walk out during these 58 seconds.
We may quibble over whether it’s a good idea to play the National Anthem in cinema halls, but frankly this is a concern that bothers a minute section of the country’s population. For the vast, overwhelming majority, it’s a good idea for a public congregation to be used for inculcating a sense of what Justice Deepak Mishra has described as ‘constitutional patriotism’.
Let us not forget that those who are acutely conscious, even if ever so vaguely, of the fundamental rights protected by the Constitution, are ignorant that the same Constitution also mandates a set of fundamental duties for the citizens which are followed more in the breach than in their practice. One of them is to not merely pay lip service to the Constitution but also respect the National Flag and the National Anthem.
In recent years wilful disrespect for these sacred symbols of Indian nationhood has become a fashion; a fad for the mocking generation of our deracinated urban elite. Freedom and liberty are now construed to mean the right to repudiate the defining markers of the Indian nation by those who also insist that access to the Indian passport is their irrefutable right, regardless of the fact that this document formalises an individual’s national identity.
Seen in this context, the judge cannot be faulted for pointing out that “citizens of the country must realise that they live in a nation”, and reiterating that the idea of individual rights prevailing over national identity is “constitutionally impermissible”.
We can’t be selective in endorsing this perception at a time when the Supreme Court is hearing a slew of petitions supporting and opposing the view that a community’s personal laws are above the Constitution and beyond the jurisdiction of a secular republic’s judiciary. Those in support of personal laws are arguing from the position that individual rights are supreme, not the nation and its ideals.
While there is no data to back this up, anecdotal evidence would suggest that most Indians have no issues about singing ‘Jana Gana Mana’ or being respectful towards the National Anthem. It gives them a sense of belonging to what is often described in deracinated circles as the “idea of India”.
Like the oft-quoted Samuel Johnson statement, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” this borrowed use of Rabindranath Tagore’s phrase, the “idea of India” to claim there is no Indian nationhood but an amorphous and imagined entity, is also misplaced. Just as glibly quoting Tagore’s views on nationalism without mentioning the context or situation that framed those views makes little or no sense.
Tagore’s ‘Jana Gana Mana’ was not penned as an ode to India as we know it today. It was composed as a five-stanza veneration of Para Brahma, the formless supreme being who protects this land and its people. It was later included in the liturgy of the Brahmo Samaj as a Brahmo sangeet, or psalm.
The opening stanza was adopted as the National Anthem because it lends itself to defining the nation of India — spiritually, politically and culturally. That few Indians are aware of the full story of their National Anthem is a measure of how shoddily it has been treated by those in power and those who benefit from the use of that power — by no means the majority of Indians.
The Supreme Court has done well to take a first corrective step in the right direction. It merits to be welcomed, not critiqued.
(The author is commissioning editor, ABP News, and blogger)