Here is a thought experiment.
Say, the powers that be who govern India have decided that we, the people, are in need of a new national anthem. More importantly, you, the reader of this page, have been asked to write the words. The conditions proposed are simple but open-ended: the words must be jargon- and euphemism-free, the lines must arouse a feeling of the collective but also be spacious enough for our private imaginations to wander, and ultimately, the words must neither coerce identities nor elevate one group of people over another. And yes, it must be short.
This now, when you think about it, is a mighty difficult task: to write words that can soar and yet remain grounded. More than the melody and gravitas, the real challenge is to speak to a diversity in a country without being treacly and melodramatic. In essence, while acts of patriotism are probably easier to identify, finding the right kind of language to describe patriotism is hard. Conversely, harder still is knowing what exactly is this ‘patriotism’ that our language seeks to describe?
Even Rabindranath Tagore, who was suspicious of false gods (including Mahatma Gandhi) and whose lines are now deemed as part of our “sacred obligation” by the Supreme Court no less, was suspicious of patriotism from above. In his now little-read collection of essays on nationalism, Tagore writes that “neither the colorless vagueness of cosmopolitanism, nor the fierce self-idolatory of nation-worship is the goal of human history”. Man, he thought, is not born to worship his nation, far less offer an uncritical fealty to the symbols that exalt the idea of that nationhood. Yet one of the great mysteries of our lives in the 21st century is how the idea of a nation, or of a bureaucratic state, becomes the carapace inside which our adult emotional lives are spent. Most of us can’t imagine our lives without a nationality to anchor ourselves to. Man may not be an island, but he is an islet in an archipelago of affiliations — connected yet separate. Even refugees, who sometimes save themselves at the expense of their peers, insist on a membership in the very same collective that now lies in fragments. Patriotism, or a form of commitment to the nation, in essence, howsoever disfigured its patrimonial legacies have often been, is here to stay.
These questions of patriotism burble up yet again now because the Attorney General, Mukul Rohatgi, has deemed that a debate on mandatory anthem singing in schools is necessary. Further, he proposes to review, and perhaps re-litigate, the 30-year-old exception from singing the anthem granted to the adherents of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This plan is in spite of an overburdened judicial system, ostensibly because according to Mr. Rohatgi, it is “extremely important to instil a sense of nationalism from childhood”. For an officer of the state — a post-colonial state, no less, surrounded by inimical neighbors and marked by inflexible citizens citing transcendental claims — it is understandable that sacralising the nation seems natural, even attractive.
But this attitude forgets that nations don’t grow fonder in our hearts, far less elicit sacrifices or foster cohesion from citizens because of state-mandated daily ounces of patriotism in our schools. On the contrary, what we see world over is that strong states are marked by norms of collegiality and traditions of respect and dissent towards symbols of our collective union, not legally enforceable mandates with the threat of punishment. Dismissing a West Virginia state law that also demanded (like in the Indian case) that Jehovah’s Witnesses recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Justice Robert Jackson of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in 1943 that “to believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”
This is something our democratic government must also remember. Worse yet, coercing the singing of the national anthem, a song of our collective freedoms, a testimony to the affirmations of gratitude and joy by our ancestors will paradoxically be associated by our children with an unfreedom no different than the tedium of multiplication tables and the tyranny of eating vegetables. We don’t, after all, legally mandate either of those two in the name of welfare.
This is the first of my columns (called 'Serendipities') for The Hindu. This was published originally on February 26th '2017.
Accompanying photo from Andre Malraux's 'Anti-Memoirs'