I vividly remember the last time I saw her. She was fighting a losing battle with cancer and was confined to a wheelchair. It was the school’s annual day and I was attending as an alumna. At the end of the function everyone stood up for the national anthem. She was too weak to rise. But as we reached the second stanza she struggled to an erect stance and stood in attention well after the last strains of ‘jaya he’ died. She passed away peacefully a few days later. This is my favourite image of patriotic fervour. Of my frail school Principal respectfully standing in honour of our national anthem, small beads of perspiration shining on her brow.
Some may wonder how her gesture helped the nation and this is what she would have said, “By respecting the national anthem we honour what it stands for. A small payback gesture for the decades of anguish and struggle our ancestors underwent to realise the dream of an Indian Republic and the hardship our soldiers face to protect its sovereignty and integrity.”
And although I respect Didi, as we fondly called her, and her respect for our national anthem, I feel it is perfectly alright if it does not stir someone else in the same way. In a highly globalised world where national identity can be confusing many rational people don’t feel patriotic. The fact remains, though, that we all reap benefits from people who do. For it is hard to believe that a soldier risks his life for the remuneration alone. It is his love for the motherland and sacrifice which makes it possible for us to debate the relevance of nationalism in our living rooms.
Like any educated, free thinking Indian I too have had my doubts about the origin and validity of our national anthem. Whether indeed, Tagore wrote it in honour of King George V and not our country? Whether Bankim Chandra’s Vandematram with it’s lyrics eulogising the motherland would have been a better choice? Whether we should force others to sing it? Whether it should be a compulsory part of the school assembly? And lastly whether knowing it should be a measure of loyalty towards the country ?
From the time it was chosen our anthem has been shrouded in controversy. Its language, which is the ‘regional’ Bengali has been a contentious issue. There have been repeated calls to replace the word Sindh, which is now in Pakistan, with Kashmir, Andhra, Kamrup or Madhya and Adhinayak, which some believe refers to King George V with Mangal. Recently, a legal battle was fought in Kerala where students of the Jehovah’s Witness sect were expelled from school for refusing to sing it. This decision was upheld by the high court, but reversed by the Supreme Court. A judgment which did not go down too well with many. National anthems deliberately aim to co-opt the emotive powers of music towards nationalistic ends. So it is understandable, but not acceptable when emotions are riled by such issues.
Other nations have faced worse problems. Our neighbours did not have an anthem for several years because East and West Pakistan could not decide between Bengali or Urdu as the language. Spain couldn’t agree on lyrics that could satisfy all political elements, so settled for a wordless Royal March. South Africa’s anthem is a mishmash of Xhosa, Zulu and Sesotho languages, then reverts to the old anthem of the apartheid state before ending with an English verse!
Perhaps it is the intuition of our forefathers or the melody of Tagore’s lyrics that as we march into the seventieth year of independence our diverse and fractured country can still, almost all and in unison sing the praise of the charioteer of our destiny. Hopefully, the rest will join in once they understand what Vimla Raheja Didi tried to teach, to forget our differences and salute what the song represents. Jaya he to that.
( published in the Hindustan Times on 20/9/2016)