India’s national anthem is not a tax that requires compliance
Respect is one thing, obedience another; devotion is one thing, compliance another; commitment is one thing, submission another.
I respect my nation’s anthem, I am devoted to Tagore’s great vision in it. I am committed to the integrity of my nation as it stands visualised, region by region, river by river, in its image of India conjured by its diverse people — “jana”.
No one needs to make me respect that song, be devoted to it, and committed to it. The national anthem is not a traffic signal that has to be respected. It is not a tax that requires compliance. It is not a test that has to be submitted to. It is the poetic equivalent of collective pride, the lyrical expression of a nation’s resolve to advance from ancient primitivisms and medieval bigotries to a future in dignity and justice. If songs are sung because one wants to sing them, heard because one wants to hear them and not under orders, anthems are sung or played when the occasion and the moment for it is right, when the sound of it saturates one’s sense of belonging to the greatness of India, and the greatness of India belonging to oneself.
India is all Indians and all Indians are India.
This is the essence of Tagore’s great vision in the anthem. It also happens to be the core of our Constitution’s sense of its goal. They are testaments, both.
One does not make an affidavit of an anthem. One does not make a contract of a Constitution. Those are written by visionaries, not notaries.
There has never been an occasion, not one, when I have not stood instinctively as the national anthem is announced. Not with ritual reflexiveness but with the surge of pride in my nation, my Bharat, suffusing my heart and mind. Let me recall two such.
On August 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of our Independence was marked in Cape Town, South Africa’s part-capital city at a historic event. Nelson Mandela was president. He did not as a matter of routine attend receptions organised by different embassies on their national days. But India was India and this was no ordinary national day; it was India’s 50th. He needed no persuasion. Departing from standard protocol, he came with a spring in his gait, a smile of infinite warmth on his face. India and South Africa represented two struggles, one freedom. All of us present stood to the Jana Gana Mana and to Nkosi Sikelel’i Africa not because we had to but because we were privileged to, inspired to, stirred from within our souls, to do so. Our anthem, that evening, was no song; it was a sensation. It was no verse, it was a voltage.
On August 15, 2007, the 60th anniversary of Independence, Kolkata marked the date like the rest of India. That city was where on that day, 60 years earlier, the last British governor of Bengal, Frederick Burrows left. But Calcutta, as it then was called, tensed into communal warfare. Gandhi, shunning the celebrations in Delhi, positioned himself at the heart of Calcutta’s fire to quench it. His extraordinary intervention, made dynamic by a fast, brought the flames down and showed the power of India’s secular choice over sectarian madness. If on that day, Jana Gana Mana had been declared the national anthem and played, would Gandhi have stood for it? Of course he would have.
Gandhi recognised its power and pulsation years before it was even considered as a future anthem. It was included in the Bhajanavali that his ashram in Sabarmati compiled. Gandhi knew his Jana Gana Mana as he did Bankim’s Vande Mataram (written in 1882, first sung in a political setting in Calcutta in 1896) and Iqbal’s Sare Jahan Se Achha (written in 1904, sung by the poet the following year in Lahore). But would he have said the anthem should be made compulsory? “Compulsory?” he may have asked. “Have we substituted ‘God Save The King’ by Gurudeva’s great song?” And we would have heard a pained laugh from the 78-year-old. Sixty years on, on August 15, 2007, the veteran Communist Jyoti Basu and Siddharth Shankar Ray, the vintage Congressman stood with chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, “Tava subha asis maage”, and with some of us, eyes misted over, not because they were required to but because it could not be otherwise. The anthem was us, we were the anthem.
Standing for the national anthem is a “sign” of respect. But more importantly, it is the mark of a relationship. The anthem starts with “jana”, the people. And it talks of the jana’s mana, that is, the people’s minds. It does not talk of the nation-State, the government, its laws and rules. The adhinayak and Bharat bhagya vidhata in the song have been the subject of endless discussion. Who or what did Tagore have in mind with those phrases? And that discussion, in a democracy, is to the good. But now that the song is the anthem of a Republic, those phrases should be contextualised afresh and seen to represent the collective ethos of the jana, their mana, their moral integer. Our anthem and our flag have a relationship with us, and we with them, which is not is a matter of the regulated mind but the kindled soul.
The full, unexpurgated “jana gana mana” song has a passage which, understandably, is not part of the official text: “ghora timira ghana nibida nishithe, pidita, murchita deshe, dushapne, atanke, rakha karile, snehamayi tumi mata”. Translated roughly the words mean” “from darkness deep and dense, from the ink-black of night, from its pained, suffering, unconscious, nightmared, terrorised state, save my land, kind-hearted Mother”.
Those who want to make love of India a matter of obedience, respect for the motherland subject to verification, inspection and certification, should ponder the excised words of the song that brood over its official version.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University
The views expressed by the author are personal