Standing up to “Jana-Gana-Mana”

Standing up to “Jana-Gana-Mana”

Let me begin with a simple declaration. I believe that India is a better country when not only the government protects the right of free speech but also the culture values that right. I believe Indians should be tolerant of dissent, even when they believe dissenters are offensive and wrong, and that the best cure for bad speech isn’t censorship but rather better speech.

I absolutely love India’s national anthem and  the hope and pride it triggers when I hear it. Composed by Nobel Laureate (Sir) Rabindranath Tagore, who would later return his knighthood to protest the British Army’s massacre of unarmed Indians in 1919, the anthem was first sung at a convention of the Indian National Congress in pre-independence India. In a multi-religious country that speaks 780 languages, the anthem is a great unifier, which binds the left and the right of India’s incomparably colorful population. We learn how to sing it before we can read the alphabet. And we stand rod straight as a mark of respect when it plays. Above all else, my country’s anthem reminds me that, unlike so many other parts of the world, I am free in India, even if ours is an untidy and argumentative democracy.

That the anthem is now the subject of petty bickering on TV talk shows is a trivialization of what it stands for. The debate first erupted when a Supreme Court judge (now the chief justice) passed an interim order in November 2016 directing that the anthem be played and the Indian flag be compulsorily displayed before any movie is screened in theaters.

Personally, I am very happy to stand in movie halls for the 52 seconds it asks of me. But I am also terribly uncomfortable with labeling fellow citizens who challenge the court’s original diktat as ‘anti-national.’ If you see the anthem like I do, as the song of our hard-won liberty, that freedom encompasses the right of citizens to disagree and dissent. And some of them are also asking — why only  movies?  Why not make the anthem mandatory in government offices, parliament, and the courts?

In 1945, George Orwell warned that “nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism.”   And this is exactly the problem — our ‘nationalism’ is being contorted into hashtags and hate. The cruel judgments we make of those who may challenge inherited wisdom undermine the very republic we claim to be defending.   This streak of violence — in words, thought and action — is the defiling of patriotism.

In an age of populism, nationalism is being peddled like soap. Nativist television anchors encourage a competitive circus in which “experts” fight over who is more ‘nationalist.’ This banal point-scoring reduces love for nation to a chessboard of one-upmanship.

And this totally overlooks those who are quietly patriotic:  the dignified soldier who serves his country in battle, the philanthropists and activists who feed the hungry and fight the corrupt, the honest, hard-working citizen who voluntarily cleans the public beach or the neighborhood park, the high-flying, dollar-earning Wall-Street banker who returns home and never converts the green card into a U.S passport — love for your country is expressed in many ways. But when you need to boast about it or look down on others for not matching up, it’s not patriotism; its jingoism.

Most national anthems are not meant to codify or police our behavior; they are songs of freedom. They are a celebration of what our countries are- or should aspire to be. This is why I admire the take-a-knee campaign by NFL players and other athletes in America. Their contentious decision to kneel whilst the anthem is played is a rights-driven activism that demands an end to the discrimination of people of color. This is not an insult to America; it’s a citizenry that is peacefully engaged in wanting better for their people. What could be more patriotic than that? Many anthems around the world are songs of defiance and resistance in their genesis. The French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” written as a war song against foreign invaders but was adapted in modern times to show the power of a united people.

When we start policing patriotism we are in danger of pushing the sublime to the ridiculous. As one of judges on the Supreme Court bench said: “Next thing will be that people should not wear T-shirts and shorts to movies because it will amount to disrespect for the anthem; where do we stop this moral policing?”

I want to see people stand for the Anthem out of love, not fear, and so long as the fear remains, a decision to stand means nothing but an empty victory in a culture war that will tear this nation apart.

I love my anthem. But I dislike coercion of thought. I think that makes me a patriot.

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