Serial Bus

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Let’s Get Offended: Jana Gana Mana Rann

with 2 comments

India’s Censor Board has been known to waver between connivance and censure when it comes to the increasingly liberal show of affection and skin on the silver screen. However, I think they didn’t have to think twice before taking Ram Gopal Varma to task over the recent song ‘Jana Gana Mana Rann’ from his to-be-released film called ‘Rann’. When it comes to protecting national honor, they can be unflinchingly ruthless and remorseless. Even the people are offended, as if on cue. I write this post in the defense of the song and in doing so, I am not just questioning whether the song was unfairly branded as insulting to the national anthem; I go a step further and wonder whether the national anthem needs protection.

Let us address the easier question first. I have heard the song and I do not think the song insults the national anthem deliberately or unknowingly. It is a hortatory wake-up call that leans upon an iconic set of lyrics and music to rouse the people. The accusation of ‘distortion’ is a flimsy one since the attempt is to fuse an adulatory set of words with some ominous ones to create a sense of contrast between the ideals we cherish and our reality. Given the theme of the movie where a set of principled men in the world of journalism fight the forces of evil, the song is pertinent to the storyline. Clearly, the film-makers did not intend any slight for the national anthem as the very premise of using the anthem as the base is the notion that the anthem is eminently respectable.

Next, let’s consider the genesis of the song. There are a couple of theories – some insinuating and some more charitable regarding the circumstances of its composition. The poem was composed in December 1911, precisely at the time of the Coronation Durbar of George V and is considered by some to be a paean in praise of “the overlord of India’s destiny”. The composition was first sung during a convention of the then loyalist Indian National Congress in Kolkata on Dec. 16, 1911. It was sung on the second day of the convention, and the agenda of that day devoted itself to a loyal welcome of George V on his visit to India. The event was reported thus in the Indian press:

“The Bengali poet Babu Rabindranath Tagore sang a song composed by him specially to welcome the Emperor.” (Statesman, Dec. 28, 1911)
“The proceedings began with the singing by Babu Rabindranath Tagore of a song specially composed by him in honour of the Emperor.” (Englishman, Dec. 28, 1911)
“When the proceedings of the Indian National Congress began on Wednesday 27th December 1911, a Bengali song in welcome of the Emperor was sung. A resolution welcoming the Emperor and Empress was also adopted unanimously.” (Indian, Dec. 29, 1911)

While several people have disavowed the above conspiracy theory, it does have some credence to it. That said, if a composition befits both a monarch and a free nation, there is no reason why it can’t be anointed as an anthem. But, to elevate it to such a pedestal when anything said against it is considered sacrilegious, that itself is an irony.

Finally, the fundamental question is whether the state has the right to declare a select group of symbols (anthem, flag etc) as so sacred that any treatment of the symbol in an informal manner would be deemed criminal and subversive. I do not think so. Yes, the state may very well declare some insignia as national symbols that function as visual aids to maintain the idea of a nation but those symbols can not be considered above an individual’s freedom of expression or in this case, poetic license. A law like ‘Prevention of Insult to National Honor Act, 1971′ (PINHA) sounds disturbingly similar to the draconian and much-abused laws of other countries like the severe lese majeste laws of Thailand (a word against the king will land you in jail) and the Article 301 of Turkey’s penal code that criminalizes any ‘insult to Turkishness’. Since PINHA’s statutes limit to national symbols and do not pertain to a person or an institution, the possibility of arbitrary imposition is limited. However, governments are known to exploit nationalism for extending their powers and for curbing anyone that may pose a threat to them. Tomorrow, someone may claim that the President, the Prime Minister and Members of Parliament are representatives of the ‘sacred’ masses and therefore beyond criticism and probe. Suddenly, any media outlet found questioning the government can be lawfully disenfranchised and individuals campaigning for justice may find themselves targeted by the government for high treason.

Secondly, what do the symbols really represent? The nation. Why does a nation exist? It is a collective of the people formed by them for their own protection and progress. At the center of a nation is an individual, who has certain inalienable rights or as they say, birthrights (rights by virtue of just being born). Freedom is one of them. At the end of the day, a nation exists for guaranteeing the rights of the individuals it encompasses and not the other way round. So, why let the lifeless symbols take precedence over individuals? Also consider that the anthems are merely words which may become anachronistic overtime – an inviolable truth of the 19th century may have become an oddity, sometimes an embarrassing history chapter in the 21st century. ‘God Save the Queen’ may evoke nostalgia of its grand history but clearly democracy is a higher ideal than monarchy in today’s UK. ‘Jana Gana Mana’ itself contains a reference to the province of Sindh which is not a part of the post-partition India. If China’s anthem contained glorification of communism, Russia’s named each of the constituents of the Soviet Union, USA’s pronounced denunciation of Indians and blacks, and UK’s talked of the ‘white man’s burden’, would such anthems still be considered irrevocable and absolute?

National symbols may be evocative due to their association with a nation’s history, but why should they be so powerful? In Maharashtra, private cinema halls are mandated to play ‘Jana Gana Mana’ at the beginning of every show and people are asked to stand in its honor. Such forceful observance of patriotism would be farcical, if it weren’t so outrageous. Why can people not decide whether they identify with a set of symbols not chosen by them and that have been handed down the generations? If they don’t identify with them, the anthem or the flag may not carry any significance for them – so why should it be made criminal for them to alter them or use them informally. In government-speak, this would be ‘desecration’ and ‘disrespectful’ – the very entry of religious vocabulary into the penal code of a secular nation is a proof of subversiveness at a very deep level and something to worry about.

Then there is the arbitrary nature of PINHA. Why is altering Vande Mataram okay but Jana Gana Mana remains off-limits? I may find Sare Jahan Se Accha to be more patriotic and moving than the national anthem, yet altering it in any way will not bring me any grief because that somehow is more nuanced. The flag of Emperor Ashoka may represent a more historically vibrant symbol of the Indian nation for me but if I cut it in two in front of a stadium of people, that is somehow fine.

Here is another thought. If you think about it, outwardly respecting the national symbols does not protect the Indian nation from being insulted otherwise. People can insult our national honor by unfairly decrying so many things about India – like criticising our population, villages, customs, religions etc. Instead of policing the symbols, a nation and its state ought to apply its energies to preserve the integrity of  some much more important things like law and order, secularism, honest and efficient government and finally, welfare of its people. If we do well as a nation and people are happy and tolerant, national symbols may themselves cease to be so overly purposeful.


Written by serialbus

June 8, 2009 at 9:42 am

2 Responses

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  1. My song is anyday better than what bankim chandra scribbled

    Rabindranath Tagore

    June 12, 2009 at 10:00 am

  2. Thanks much for post. It’s really imformative stuff.
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    June 19, 2009 at 2:38 am

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