The news that a complaint has been filed against the Amitabh Bachchan for allegedly singing incorrectly the national anthem before the start of the World T20 cricket match between India and Pakistan, highlights the absurd extent to which our national anthem has become a source of pride and contestation. The complaint alleges that the anthem was sung incorrectly by Bachchan, since his singing of it lasted 1 minute and 22 seconds, as against the 52 seconds’ duration officially sanctioned by the guidelines of the ministry of home affairs.
This may seem ridiculous, but it carries painful echoes for me of a similar case filed against me for placing my hand across my heart American-style while singing the anthem a couple of weeks after 26/11. The complainant alleged that doing so, rather than standing stiffly to attention as required by Indian regulations, showed disrespect to the anthem. The case dragged on for four years and cost me lakhs in lawyers’ fees as well as endless frustration, before it was dismissed by the Kerala High Court, which accepted my contention that placing one’s hand on one’s heart is a sign of respect.
What is it about our national anthem that prompts this kind of litigation? Infosys founder Narayana Murthy was sued for playing an instrumental version of the anthem rather than singing it at an event attended by foreigners who did not know the words (never mind that the instrumental version is routinely played by the official bands at Rashtrapati Bhavan at any event the president of India attends.)
A lawyer, Sanjeev Bhatnagar, filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court asking for the word ‘Sindh’ to be deleted from the national anthem and replaced with the word ‘Kashmir’. The court would have none of it, but that didn’t deter a Shiv Sena MP from repeating the same demand in Parliament.
Also, recently, Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh, a former BJP chief minister of UP, asked for the word ‘Adhinayak’ to be removed from the song since, according to him, it referred to the British emperor, George V, rather than the Divine Lord whom Tagore intended when he wrote ‘Jana Gana Mana’ in December 1911. In this he was echoing the views of judicial gadfly Markandeya Katju, the former Supreme Court judge, who in a blog post in April 2015 denounced Tagore as a “British stooge” (Tagore, who renounced his knighthood in protest at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre!). Katju argued that the “Bharata Bhagya Vidhata” (dispenser of India’s destiny) referred to in the anthem had to be the British emperor. A Bihar JD(U) legislator, Rana Gangeshwar Singh, went even further, denouncing the national anthem as a “symbol of slavery”—and was promptly suspended from his party.
Whatever the circumstances of its composition, ‘Jana Gana Mana’ was chosen as the national anthem on January 24, 1950, two days before the Constitution was formally adopted. It was preferred to two arguably more beloved songs, ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Sare Jahan Se Accha’. As a work that evokes most of the constituent parts of India, is sung to a vigorous beat and ends on a triumphal note (“Jaya He”!), ‘Jana Gana Mana’ is well-suited to be a national anthem. It is so deeply associated with love for India that for the last eight years a fake email has been doing the rounds on the internet claiming that UNESCO had picked ‘Jana Gana Mana’ as the “best national anthem in the world”. UNESCO has no such award.
I suppose that, in a perverse way, we should be happy. There are few national symbols and institutions that evoke universal love and loyalty among all Indians: the flag, the cricket team, and the anthem probably exhaust the list. The cricket team can be criticised, whenever it loses. But the flag and the anthem are beyond desecration, or argument. They embody what we imagine to be the finest we Indians can aspire to. This is why the over-zealous among us are quick to rise to its defence when we imagine it slighted. Even those who want changes in it are only seeking to make it a more perfect embodiment of their national vision.
To them I say: it’s time to ease up, folks. Many national anthems are out of date, reflecting the circumstances of their birth, from the roaring cannons in the US anthem to the rousing battle-cry of the French. But they have been sung that way for more than two centuries and that’s what makes them special. A mangled rendition doesn’t dilute the power of the national anthem. The best service we could do to the anthem is to stop using it as an excuse for frivolous litigation. Let the anthem be. Jaya He!