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BRP Bhaskar: Patriotism made to order
December 20, 2016
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Are Indians so lacking in patriotism that the Judiciary has to step in and instruct them on how to honour national symbols like the Flag and the Anthem? Two Supreme Court judges think they are, and invoked their judicial power recently to set things right.

Justices Dipak Misra and Amitava Roy ordered that all cinema halls shut their doors and play the national anthem before the feature film starts. At that time the image of the national flag should be on the screen and all present should stand up to show respect. This would instil in them a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism, they said.

India’s Constituent Assembly adopted a modified version of the Tricolour, the standard of the freedom struggle, as the national flag on attainment of freedom in 1947. In 1950 it chose Jana GanaMana, the opening lines of a 1911 poem by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, as the national anthem.

Some leaders wanted Vande Mataram, which had served as a battle cry during the freedom struggle, to be the anthem. Orthodox Muslims opposed it on the ground it was in the nature of worship of Mother India, and Islam forbade worship of anyone but Allah.

With Jawaharlal Nehru’s stout support Jana GanaMana won the day but it too was not acceptable to all. Some pointed out that when Tagore sang it at a durbar during George V’s visit to the subcontinent British newspapers had said he was the one whom it hailed as the “dispenser of India’s destiny”. However, the poet’s choice of words suggests the reference is to the Almighty.

Some others pointed out that the poem mentions Sind, which is now part of Pakistan. Supporters of the anthem justified its retention, saying India is home to many people of Sindhi origin.

With myriad forces fuelled by regional and even religious sentiments competing for loyalty, fostering a sense of nationalism during the colonial period was no easy task. But the leaders of the freedom movement achieved remarkable success, guided by the ideals of democracy and secularism. They had faced the fiercest opposition from the proponents of Hindu nationalism, as distinct from Indian nationalism. Chief among them was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, ideological mentor of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which now heads the central government.

The RSS wanted the saffron banner of Hinduism to be the national flag and Vande Mataram to be the anthem. Explicit acceptance of the Tricolour as the national flag was one of the conditions imposed by the government to lift the ban imposed on the RSS following Gandhi’s assassination.

Early this year RSS General Secretary Bhayyaji Joshi declared that Vande Mataram was India’s real national anthem, though Jana GanaMana was the constitutionally mandated one. He also claimed the saffron flag could be honoured as the national flag as the Tricolour was no different from it. It was a palpable attempt to blur the distinction between Hindu nationalism and the Indian nationalism fostered by the freedom movement, of which the RSS was not a part.

As Joshi’s statement attracted criticism, the RSS clarified that he had not demanded any change in the national flag or national anthem.

Ironically, RSS cadres, who are half-hearted converts to Indian nationalism, are the loudest champions of the judicial order, which has restored a practice the government had tried and given up on practical considerations.

From time to time the government has issued guidelines outlining when the anthem can be played or sung. Schools generally begin the day with collective singing of the anthem.

In the 1960s, after the disastrous China war, the government ordered that the anthem be played in theatres after the film show to strengthen national sentiments. The order was scrapped later to avoid disrespect to the anthem by movie-goers who were in a hurry to leave. The judges have ordered closure of doors to prevent people from leaving. This direction runs against the government’s stipulation that the anthem should not be played in a closed room.

Justice Misra first held forth on the national flag in a judgment he delivered as a judge of the Madhya Pradesh high court, which the Supreme Court overruled. Thirteen years later, as a judge of the apex court, he has in effect revalidated the views his predecessors had rejected.

Egged on by Hindu nationalists, the police have arrested about 20 persons in two states for not standing up when the anthem was played in theatres. Their conduct appears to be more a protest against what they consider an arbitrary court order than wilful display of disrespect to national symbols.
 
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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning
 

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