OPINION

National Pride and Prejudice

“Y

ou must stand up for your pride in India, you must stand up for the soldiers on the front protecting you. My eyes well with tears when I see and hear the national anthem playing in a cricket match. And it’s a matter of just 90 seconds. It’s not that you are being pushed into doing something unbelievably bad.

Anupam Kher, film actor

This was Mr. Kher’s response to a question posed by The Hindu following the unfortunate incident where a group of cinemagoers heckled a family in a cinema hall in Mumbai recently when they did not stand to attention as the national anthem played, forcing them to get up and leave. Mr. Kher is not alone when he foregrounds patriotism in national symbols such as the flag, the anthem, the map of India, the Indian cricket team. You could perhaps add the cow to the list too, as increasingly people are called upon to demonstrate their patriotic fervour when these symbols are invoked.

But what if I choose to sit as the national anthem plays at the start of a commercial potboiler? What if I decide that playing the anthem before the film titles roll denigrates the grandeur of the anthem? What if I don’t stand to attention when the national flag is being hoisted before a cricket match, or when the national anthem is played after an Indian wins a medal at a tournament? I mean no disrespect to either the team or the flag or the anthem. What if I choose not to cheer the Indian cricket team and my surname is Khan? Does the solution lie in sending me to Pakistan?

“Playing the national anthem before a film takes away the gravitas. Standing up becomes a tokenism. And why should it be a measure of patriotism?” says Bhaskar Hazarika, director of the recent Assamese film, Kothanodi . Adds acclaimed director Anand Patwardhan: “The national anthem should be played only on very special occasions. By doing this at every show every day, they are robbing it of meaning.”

A reading of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, passed by Parliament after the Bangladesh War and amended in 2005, actually reveals that it was not the person who kept sitting but the man/men heckling him who were creating a law and order problem. Section 3 of the Act says, “Whoever intentionally prevents the singing of the Indian National Anthem or causes disturbance shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.” ( See box on the law )

Government’s stand

The Central government’s stand on the issue was made clear by the General Provision of Order of January 5, 2015 when it said, “Whenever the National Anthem is sung or played, the audience shall stand to attention. However, when in the course of a newsreel or documentary, the Anthem is played as a part of the film, it is not expected of the audience to stand as standing is bound to interrupt the exhibition of the film and would create disorder and confusion rather than add to the dignity of the Anthem.”

The Act aside, courts have weighed in on individual liberty. Yet, what we are now witness to is not just religious stereotyping of people on social media and at public places, but also an increased emphasis on pride being attached to these symbols. It becomes a matter of national pride when it comes to the flag, the anthem and cricket and any transgression is not tolerated. It becomes easy to rusticate young Kashmiri students if they don’t cheer the Indian team or worse, cheer the Pakistan team. When Vice-President Hamid Ansari, mindful of the protocol befitting his office, did not salute the national flag on Republic Day this year, “Why didn’t Hamid Ansari salute the national flag?” started trending on Twitter. Some offensively trolled that the Vice-President was a jihadi sympathiser. More outrage followed and someone even advised Mr. Ansari to join the IS. The Vice-President’s office was forced to issue a statement explaining the position of the Vice-President and the protocol of the office he holds.

It was not lost on anyone that what was under attack was the identity of the Vice-President. Says Supreme Court advocate Rajeev Dhavan: “We are reaching a stage where patriotism is a badge you must wear to which you must adhere to. A greater premium is being placed on nationalism vis-à-vis these symbols and Muslims have to prove their fidelity. Songs and symbols had a role to play when nations were at war but that has eased up and most nations don’t give a damn anymore.”

Before Independence, the flag and the song stirred a country to revolt against a colonial power. Over the years, as Mr. Dhavan says, adherence to them has become sharper.

In the West

While America even tolerates burning the flag and the United Kingdom allows individuals to make a fashion statement of the Union Jack; in India, not hoisting the flag in, say, Jammu and Kashmir becomes a political issue. If a minority-run institution does not fly the flag, all hell breaks loose. There is an uneasiness that has crept into the national discourse, where transgressions are viewed as national slight. It is as if the dignity of the country is under attack.

Says Manjari Katju, who teaches Political Science at University of Hyderabad: “Even in the U.K., the U.S. and Europe, jingoistic nationalism and chauvinism are raising their head, and there is an intense political battle between the national chauvinists and the liberal nationalists. The difference with India is that our institutions are still not strong enough to protect the individual citizen’s fundamental rights from attacks by social forces as well as state actors. Also, many of our laws remain anchored in illiberal colonial contexts in which they were first enacted.”

Prof. Katju points out that middle-class, upper-caste urban India gets stirred by calls of “nation in danger” much more than any other section of Indian society. This, she says, is rooted in an insecurity about education-employment-housing, which get reflected in and magnified as feelings of national insecurity. This expresses itself in the kind of aggressive patriotism seen in the Mumbai cinema hall.

Through a prism

Historians often point out that Indian nationalism is far from settled and has its roots in the challenges faced by the country since Independence. Whether it was Punjab in the 1980s, Kashmir, the agitation over the national language/s in the 1960s, distortions have occurred over the years. So when historian Salil Misra, who teaches at Ambedkar University Delhi, says “to speak in Hindi becomes a test of patriotism and such tests will have to be passed by people in the context of food, language, flag and the anthem”, it is not difficult to see how they come into play and lead to what Mr. Dhavan calls a “tinderbox society”, resulting in tinderbox explosions. Or, as Ram Puniyani, chairman, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai, says, patriotism is being given a jingoistic colour and everything is located in the context of India and Pakistan. So, “any questioning individual can be despatched to Pakistan” is how the argument is framed. Mr. Puniyani, in fact, says Tagore stood for international humanism where he saw nationalism as a passing phase. “I like to stand up for the National Anthem but I will not judge someone who does not stand up.”

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, author of Vande Mataram: The Biography of a Song , says all national symbols acquire a sharp significance in the context that prevails now.

Increasingly, schools in Delhi have started the practice of singing the national song (“Vande Mataram”) and the national anthem. No one has chosen not to sing them yet. As these symbols get entangled in defining and redefining nationalism and as people are increasingly called upon to prove their patriotism, the debate is likely to continue.

anuradha.r@thehindu.co.in