Ranjona Banerji Column: Standing up for the right reasons

My sister is fanatical about standing up when the national anthem is played. She does it even when no one’s watching. She was punished in school as a child when she insisted on standing up even when the national anthem was just being practised in singing class. She was relentless in her principles, however. My father is largely to blame. He trained us rigorously.

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt at the 2012 Olympics, where he made a buzz for all the right reasons after he halted an interview with a Spanish news reporter because the US national anthem was playing. Pic/AFP
Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt at the 2012 Olympics, where he made a buzz for all the right reasons after he halted an interview with a Spanish news reporter because the US national anthem was playing. Pic/AFP

My sister’s son, however, refuses to stand up in movie halls when the national anthem is played. He says it is a meaningless, manipulative gesture at the cinema, trying to create a false sense of patriotism at an inappropriate time.

I always do stand in public, but not if I’m alone at home. At cinema halls, it can be cumbersome when you wear high heels and try not to spill your popcorn, but it is a matter of respect for me. I am not as noble as my sister and I don’t know if I’m as noble as Usain Bolt and the boy in that sports ad, to stand up for someone else’s national anthem. Perhaps I should, or would, in context. I don’t know.

But how far would I go to impose my own views of nationalism on others, as happened to a family in Mumbai recently? Would I be part of a baying crowd, forcing someone else to stand up and creating such a ruckus if they did not, that the staff of the cinema hall was forced to escort the errant family out? I hope not. I saw a movie in Gurgaon recently, where the national anthem was not played. But who would suggest that Haryana is less Indian or less patriotic than Maharashtra, where the national anthem is played? That would be both offensive and idiotic.

We appear to have become a society of symbolism, where the statement is more significant than the substance. Perhaps, we were always like this. But given our collective size and our heft and the reach of the media, our bullying ways are now more visible. We find it so easy to be judgmental, especially about token displays.

But is there anything deeper in our applause of mob justice and vigilantism? Is it possible to argue that since no one trusts our law and order agencies, we have no option but to take on the task ourselves? Have social media and cameras on our phones emboldened us? How long can this last and how far will it take us as a society?

I have a weird notion that we used to be a kinder, gentler people in this country. This may be a function of my advancing years or sheer made-up sentimentality. I also used to have a whacko notion that our long, old and very well-respected civilisation counted for something. That we had the ability to see through tokens and gestures. I wonder at myself now. Perhaps the cynics are right. Perhaps the senseless pap put out by greeting card companies has corrupted us. Perhaps trolls on social media are not just ‘bots’, perhaps they translate into bullies in real life.

And I used to have an even sillier notion, borne out by decades of living in Bombay and then Mumbai: that it was a ‘live and let live’ city, a ‘bindaas’ city. Instead of the stifling, oppressive, watchful atmosphere in the rest of India, Mumbai was where you could be yourself. Clearly, that is not true any longer. Mumbai is now the city where a mob will bully you where earlier it would have left you alone.

I’m not going to go into our many acts of hypocrisy, where we will break the law with impunity and then behave as if standing up for the national anthem makes it all okay. We know that about ourselves because we demonstrate it every day. But I fear for us in small ways.

In the old days, we groaned loudly when the Films Division of India’s many documentaries about coal production in India or something equally sleep-inducing would run before the main feature film started. Now, I suppose, that would have been reason enough to be chucked out?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona

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