National Anthem: Can Compulsions Elicit Respect?

The Supreme Court Order on the national anthem has asked theatres to play the national anthem before a film show begins “for the love of the motherland”. This has yet again started the debate over the personal freedoms and legal obligations in present times. This is in the backdrop of growing intolerance.

The point is whether nationalistic pride can be injected by such legal dictates. Some commentators are arguing that this compulsion is undermining civil liberties. Let’s recall that a few decades ago, in many places the national anthem used to be played at the end of the film screening. The observation was that many in the audience would leave the hall during the anthem. Now at many places, like in Maharashtra, the playing of anthem has been started in the beginning of the film screening. The Supreme Court order of the two judge-bench makes it mandatory for this singing to be done all over the country and this order also asks for closing of the doors during this period.

There are laws to ensure the protection of national symbols like the national flag. There are some landmark cases which have shown the conflict between the state norms and individual liberties. In the well-known Jehovahs witness case, students belonging to Jehovah faith had refused to sing the anthem, their argument being that it would be tantamount to idolatry which is not permitted by their faith. The children were expelled by the principal of the school. The matter went up to the Supreme Court which ruled in favour of the students and their expulsion from school was revoked. 

In democracy, there is a balance between the individual rights and the duties towards the State. The whole Constitution is an attempt to bring in ‘rights of citizens’ and ‘freedom of expression’ to the fore. While a decade ago courts could rule in favour of the individual liberty, now it seems the trend is just the opposite as ‘love for motherland, nationalism, patriotism’ are being flaunted at the drop of the hat. All those not agreeing with the policies of the ruling government are being dubbed anti-nationals, it is being said that they are ‘not patriots’. Even standing in queue for withdrawing cash from ATM or bank is being glorified as an act of patriotism, for the sake of the country. This is in the wake of the painful demonetisation brought in by Narendra Modi. The present court order comes in the backdrop of the times when the words patriotism and nationalism are dominating the scene under the BJP Government.

We also recall that since Modi Government has come to power the patriotism of those who are dissenting from the ruling Government’s policies is being challenged by the ruling dispensation. In the case of Rohith Vemula the activities of the Ambedkar Student Association were dubbed as ‘anti-national’ and so the whole pressure of the MHRD minister on the complying Vice Chancellor was to expel him from hostel and stop his fellowship which led to Rohith’s suicide. In an attempt to close down JNU, the Government resorted to the nationalism ploy and a doctored CD was played on some TV channels to demonize Kanhaiya Kumar and his friends. He was labeled as deshdrohi (anti-national). It is another matter that Kanhaiaya Kumar had not shouted those ‘slogans’ and that even the Constitutional position is that mere shouting of slogans is not tantamount to anti-national activity. In the present charged-up atmosphere, the hysteria around patriotism and nationalism, in Goa a wheel chair-boundperson was beaten up for not standing during the singing of the national anthem. In Mumbai, a young script writer was heckled out of the cinema hall for not standing during the anthem.

Such growing atmosphere of intimidation and imposition around the issue of nationalism is a matter of concern. A certain political culture is being built up in the country. As such in India the whole concept of patriotism begins in a very strange fashion. During kingdoms, the kings were eliciting and demanding absolute loyalty from their subjects. The punishment for not complying with such patriotism-loyalty was severe like cutting off hands, meting out of death punishment etc. During the colonial period, we had two types of nationalism which came up simultaneously. On one hand, were the rising classes of industrialists, workers and educated classes veering around the anti-colonial movement in search of a secular, democratic India. They opposed the British rule. They were not patriots. The nationalism in the name of religion began with the princely rulers and landlords coming together and pledging their loyalty to the British. They were patriots of the British Queen. Their organisation, United India Patriotic Association, was the progenitor of nationalism in the name of religion: Muslim Nationalism and Hindu Nationalism. These formations remaine dloyal and patriotic to the British till the end.

The anti-colonial nationalism was comprehensive, inclusive and not merely ethnic. The nationalism of the Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha-RSS was built around their religious identity. The nationalism built around democratic values and secularism, the one led by Mahatma Gandhi, had inherent liberalism in it. Post-Independence, the nationalism of the communal organisation as such has the feudal mindset of unquestioning loyalty to the State with no scope for differences from the ruling State. That is what the kings demanded of their subjects. That’s what dictators demand in present times. The present atmosphere created by the RSS-BJP smacks of the mindset of the norms of authoritarian systems. In these systems, like kingdoms, kings were supreme and people were mere subjects. In dictatorships, the rights of citizens are undermined. As per RSS-BJP politics, State is supreme and the citizen should be loaded with duties alone. It seems the present judgment has the overbearing influence of such a mindset.

Ultra nationalism, while operating in the broad democratic setup, is an attempt to instill the values of dictatorial State. Hope such a realisation will prompt the Supreme Court to revisit the judgment with a larger bench.  (18 December, 2016)