Anthem Fiasco: ‘Why Must You Force Your Chest-Thumping Nationalism Down My Throat?’

Posted by joshua karunakaran in Politics, Society
December 3, 2016

A few days ago, India was introduced to a certain Shyam Narayan Chouskey, when the Supreme court heard his petition and declared that the national anthem be played in cinema halls before every movie screening. “I didn’t expect the Supreme Court to issue directives so quickly,” said Chouskey. Neither did I. I thought the court had more important things to do, like overseeing the disposal of 2.6 crore pending cases in lower courts.

Chouskey was heckled by fellow cinemagoers in 2001 for standing up when the national anthem played before “Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham“. He then embarked on a 15 year journey because he felt “troubled and very hurt” and now he has his 52 seconds of fame.

The Supreme Court has said that the directive will instill “a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism” and that “everyone must show honour and respect.”

I would have expected this childish view of ‘Standing = Respect = Patriotism = True Indian’ from extreme nationalists but not from the Supreme Court of India. This interim directive and the aggressive support it has mustered, is an indication of the depths of irrationality, jingoism and frenzy we have sunk to as a nation.

In normal times, I might have been shocked, but after beef bans, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai‘ chanting matches and other farcical misadventures in the name of nationalism, this seemed like the next logical step in the quest to make every Indian swallow identical pills stamped ‘patriotism’.

Consider one important question – What do you feel proud about when you hear the national anthem? Think about it really hard. Take your time. Chew it down to the bone. What exactly makes your heart swell with pride when the anthem is played? I respect every view (even if I may vehemently disagree with some of them) but the minute you beat up someone in anger for not standing up, I have a problem.

“But standing up for the anthem is your Fundamental Duty.” For the misinformed nationalists out there – standing up for the national anthem is not mandated by the constitution. Respecting the country is a fundamental duty (that is non-enforceable) but the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971 does not mandate compulsory standing. It is peculiar that the same Supreme Court said that standing for the national anthem is not compulsory (Bijoe Emmanuel and Ors vs. The State of Kerala) in 1987.

Taking the law into your hands and assaulting another person, however, violates fundamental rights. Recently a couple beat up a wheelchair-bound activist at a cinema hall in Goa because he didn’t stand up for the anthem. I wonder why the couple fled the scene if they were so convinced of their patriotic actions.

Chest-thumping nationalism stems from an insecure mindset. From hegemonic leaders who believed in homogeneous societies – they fought wars, established colonies, marked their territories the way tigers do and roared nationalism at anyone who challenged their position.

I have nothing against those who stand for the national anthem. It is their choice. However, the view that everyone else must stand up or face consequences is illogical.

“Can’t you stand for just 52 seconds?” yelled a red-faced media anchor on television yesterday, at someone who questioned the diktat. Since when did it becomes someone else’s business how you must spend your 52 seconds? He then played the national anthem on live television and stood in attention with a stoic expression on his face. I found this behaviour churlish and hilarious.

It is this new, brazen confidence that is disturbing – the belief that if someone disagrees with your idea of patriotism, you have the permission to hit/abuse/troll/yell or browbeat them into submission. The Supreme Court has in a way legitimised this dangerous trend, created a divide and missed a wonderful opportunity to tell the country what patriotism really is. Sad.

I have seen Indian tourists at the Wagah border relieve themselves near a BSF post just minutes after screaming chants of “Vande Mataram.” We have all seen government officials openly take bribes in rooms where framed pictures of Mahatma Gandhi adorn the walls. One August 15, I saw a kurta-clad motorist with a tiny paper flag pinned to his chest jump a traffic signal and speed towards the parade area (perhaps he was in a hurry to sing the national anthem). But all these people are respectful Indian citizens by the Supreme Court’s standards because they stand up for the national anthem.

“But all these everyday instances are nothing compared to our nation’s greatness,” some might argue.

Define ‘greatness’. We have a rich culture, amazing diversity and have made enviable contributions to world civilisation, sure. But what is the point of boasting about culture if it does not reflect in everyday life?

I think a nation’s greatness is reflected in the way it treats its women, minorities and the underprivileged every day and how citizens treat each other. If you take offence at people not standing up for “Jana Gana Mana“, you better be equally livid about the fact that 92 women are raped every day in India, our caste system, dowry or the fact that we are the 76th most corrupt nation in the world. It is worthy to note that in 1908, Rabindranath Tagore who wrote the national anthem, said that nationalism is “dangerous” and that “No country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

A tricolour, a lotus and some poetic lyrics isn’t going to unite 1.2 billion people. They are just man-made symbols that are meaningless without equality, respect, human rights, dignity and honest leadership. How long will we believe that rhetoric alone is enough to take this nation forward?

I wish the Supreme Court would turn people’s attention to serious issues instead of attempting to build tolerance this way. In fact, the opposite might happen (as may be reflected in the reactions to this article).

If you are a nationalist grinding your teeth and clenching your fist right now, remember that it is none of your damn business what people do or don’t do in cinema theatres, or anywhere. It never was. If you really want to make this country a better place, please start with the things that really matter.