The idea of India is changing. So is the idea of its anthem. Ideas are subject to dynamism – no idea can be locked in the dungeons of the past. At the very same time, to tolerate the willful perversion of an idea to meet certain ends that have proven to be destructive and oppressive is criminal. The idea of India is being perverted, and so is the idea of India’s national anthem.
My assertion finds justification in the arguments of none other than Tagore himself, the author of the song that was embraced as the national anthem, who is mercifully yet to become anti-national in the imagination of our political right.
Tagore was an intellectual, a man of reason. Irrespective of the faith he had in God, his arguments were inspired more by the ways of the living than the dictates of the metaphysical. His reasoning told him, just as some of our reasoning might tell us, that nationalism is inherently destructive.
Tagore saw the organisation of the Nation to be the ‘least human’ and ‘least spiritual’. To him, nationalism was a ‘cruel epidemic of evil’ spreading over the world that he lived in, ‘eating into its moral vitality’ (as was written by him in the book “Nationalism”).
Surely, if Tagore were alive today, he would have been drenched in grief at the excitement with which ‘Bharat Mata’ nationalism is slowly but surely invading the social as well as the political institutions of our country. Tagore perceived the Nation to be a collection of individuals seeking self-interest, seeking greatness. Thus, the Nation is organised with an ulterior motive to achieve greed, whereas the society is organised with no particular motive and hence, is the celebration of the ‘complete man’.
Tagore saw the national identity as merely a political and commercial one. Humans, he felt have a moral identity that the Nation disregards. In saying this, Tagore engages us in a very crucial discussion. It is wrong to impose one single identity on any individual since identity is essentially plural.
I could be a feminist, a non-vegetarian, a supporter of secularism and a lover of music, all at once. The choices I have concerning these identities may get constrained or expanded depending on the context (Sen, 2006).
Nationalism leads the political identity of an individual to establish an overpowering presence in many, if not all contexts. So, the person standing in a line for cash, (thanks to demonetisation) is no longer a poor labourer, or a patient, or an enduring citizen but a nationalist whose act of standing in the queue confirms their nationalism. Similarly, a person demanding the right to free expression for Kashmiris is no longer an honest champion of liberal values, or a person speaking in favour of democracy, but an anti-national. The moral identity of the society in both cases is sacrificed at the expense of the national identity.
The exercise of drilling in this national identity was always an implicit one. The current dispensation and its ideological motivations aren’t unknown to us, the one that wants to ‘teach’ school children ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’. It is here that minds are at their most malleable, and can be exposed to influences that may last a lifetime.
To them, Tagore might have said something like this: “…it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education that teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity”. Tagore himself had conceded having outgrown the teaching that ‘the idolatry of the Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity’.
The modus operandi of nationalism isn’t unknown. Nationalism demands conformity; it demands that the anthem be received in a particular way, that the history of the Nation be told in a particular way.
Nationalism demands homogeneity by making the majority perennially suspicious of the minority (of religions, races, dissenters and non-conformists). The RSS, thus, tells us this: India represents unity in diversity. But the State must endorse a Hindu identity. But Hindi must be used as the national language. But the narratives of those belonging to the lower castes and how they perceive Hinduism, and what atheists think of Hinduism must be done away with.
India is diverse, but there is no room for the LGBTQ community. India is diverse, but the diversity of opinion must be restrained when it challenges the nation, their perception of the nation and their repressive ideals. India is diverse, but its history must be one of perennial greatness. The contradictions in these narratives cannot be starker.
The India, Tagore paints before us in this poem is a ‘Heaven of Freedom’, where the ‘Clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit’. In today’s environment of name-calling and an enforced blend of Hindutva and nation-love, neither is the mind without fear nor is the head held high.
When the Supreme Court, through its judgement imposed the national anthem on the citizenry last week and employed the fear of the ‘nation’ to scare the dissidents than extend to them the freedom that Tagore celebrated, towards a nationalist end that he disapproved of.
Suhas Palshikar, writing in the Indian Express, noted most appropriately, that the decision was a result of the sad choice of nation-love over principle that the Honorable Justices made; the national flag and the national anthem have been now converted to statist signatures of power than subjects of popular affection.
But Tagore’s stern denunciation of nationalism is a fitting reply not limited to the Honorable Justices. His ideas remain as relevant today, especially because of how the society we live in is becoming more nationalist. The “manufacture of half-truths and untruths in history, by persistent misrepresentation of other races and the culture of unfavourable sentiments towards them” has been the established method of the ideologies governing our current government.
The nationalists shall persist in labelling the others who disagree with them as anti-nationals. The institutions of the State, not excluding the Judiciary, shall persist in ‘teaching’ free citizens what choices to make, but we shall persist in bringing forth the inconsistencies of logic and principle in their positions and arguments.
We can be certain that Tagore, the author of the anthem, would have done the same. He would have proceeded further, and reiterated a warning he made in his writings years back; “…Nations who sedulously cultivate moral blindness as the cult of patriotism will end their existence in a sudden and violent death”.