C Y Gopinath: To stand or to rise up?

Apr 17, 2018, 06:13 IST | C Y Gopinath

Are you patriotic because you stand for the anthem or do you stand because you’re patriotic? Thoughts on being told what to feel about my country

Alarmed by rising nationalistic vigilantism and violence towards those deemed disrespectful of the anthem, the Supreme Court reversed its ruling, making the national anthem optional at movie halls once again. Representation pic/AFP
Alarmed by rising nationalistic vigilantism and violence towards those deemed disrespectful of the anthem, the Supreme Court reversed its ruling, making the national anthem optional at movie halls once again. Representation pic/AFP

CY GopinathI rise to my feet in the movie hall's darkness as the music starts. I have heard it several hundred times, almost always in darkness - but my nape still breaks out in goosies at the thrilling chord shifts, and awe at a tune that reveals something new each time.

I wish I could say I had been listening to India's national anthem, but this was Bangkok. And no, it was not the Thai national anthem either (though it used to be till 1932). The song, Sansoen Phra Barami, better known as the King's anthem and routinely played before movies, is Thailand's analogue for our national song, Vande mataram. Lyrics penned in 1913 by Prince Narisaranauvadtivongs, it was composed and arranged by Russian composer Pyotr Shchurovsky.

Like India's Jana-gana-mana, it is an awesome composition, and brings me to my feet in respect for its musical virtuosity alone.

Thailand also has its national anthem, Phleng Chat Thai, a martial tune played at 6 am and 6 pm daily on national TV, and heard in public places like metro stations. For 35 seconds, every Thai comes to a complete and respectful halt, no matter where they happen to be. When I am there, I do, too.

So when India's Supreme Court on November 16, 2016 deemed playing the Jana-gana-mana compulsory in movie halls to "instill committed patriotism and nationalism", I did have a moment. Had I been treasonous to stand for Thailand's anthem? Would a mob have thrashed a foreigner who sat through the Jana-gana-mana in India? Should I have been thrashed in Thailand?

Ryan Farrick, globe-trotter and seven-time visitor to India writing in Quora, calls it 'over-the-top' legislation to make standing for any anthem compulsory. "I didn't like having to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the US flag every morning as a young boy, and I certainly won't be enthused by being required to stand for the Indian national anthem in a movie theatre - even if I'd have stood anyway."

But, at a theatre in Kachiguda, Andhra Pradesh, last year police arrested two moviegoers, Syed Safeer Hussain and Mohammed Ilyas, after complaints that they had refused to stand up for the national anthem. In Guwahati, Arman Ali, a disabled man in a wheelchair, was loudly labelled a "Pakistani" after he sat, though upright, through the national anthem in a movie hall.

Alarmed by rising nationalistic vigilantism and violence towards those deemed disrespectful of the anthem, the Supreme Court reversed its ruling, making the national anthem optional at movie halls once again. For now.

There is a deeper question - are we patriotic because we stand for the anthem or do we stand because we are patriotic? In my childhood, standing when the anthem was played was a fait accompli. It neither filled me with deep respect for our fallen martyrs nor wracked me with nationalistic tears. Even today, it remains a minor interruption en route a movie I've paid to see, like stopping at a red light.

But, of course it's part of our national character to vigorously resist anything laid down as mandatory. The laws of jugad require that any working system be treated as a challenge to be circumvented: queueing at bus stops, stopping at traffic lights, not honking near a hospital, and now, standing for the anthem. Something codified is something unacceptable. How dare anyone tell an Indian to feel patriotic at a particular tune. Right?

Psychology, you argue back, has proven that you don't just smile because you're happy, but that happy feelings come to those who smile. Perhaps standing for the anthem would increase patriotism. But then, those who shouted Seig Heil for Hitler ended up endorsing his horrific genocide.

The 'accused' in the Kachiguda and Guwahati cases were Muslims. Deep down, I fear that mandating certain actions as nationalistic sanctions violence against those deemed not to be really Indian anyway - non-Hindus, dalits, beef eaters and so on. Perhaps people who don't do as they're told. Or who think too much.

BJP leader Anil Vij wants the word adhinayak (ruler of minds) expunged from the anthem because it might mean dictator. Shiv Sena MP Arvind Sawant wants Sindh to go because Sindh is now part of a hostile - and Muslim - nation.

Tagore's lyrical 5-stanza Jana-gana-mana (of which only the first was chosen to be the national anthem) was actually his brilliant response to a British official's request for a song felicitating King George V on his India visit. Tagore, appalled, responded with joyo he, Bharato bhagya vidhata - "victory to the dispenser of the destiny of India".

"That could never be George V, the VI, or any other George," Tagore wrote later. Neither could it ever be today's rabid, machete-wielding Hindu nationalists.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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