Grade Crossing

Why singing Jana Gana Mana is unpatriotic

What I think is, it is not the word 'adhinayak', but the whole song that needs to undergo a change.

 |  Grade Crossing  |  5-minute read |   12-07-2015
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Ah, the controversy about the national anthem is back among the headlines. One way or the other, controversy has always been tailing the anthem like a shadow, on most occasions closely behind it, and on occasions stretching slightly ahead. Most recently, Kalyan Singh made a tendentious reference to "adhinayak", but not long ago, Shashi Tharoor had landed in trouble for counseling people to place their hands on their chests while the anthem is played. There was another controversy over the playing of the anthem in cinema halls before every show. But during independent India's babyhood, the larger controversy was why another song - Vande Mataram - wasn't given the status of the official anthem since it had a historic role in disseminating nationalistic ideas among all classes of people during our independence movement. True, there was no other song that was sung with more passion and vigour in the days of our freedom struggle. "Vande Mataram" were the last words of many known and unknown freedom fighters. The British loathed it as much as they loathed the revolutionaries.

But several Muslim organisations shrank from singing Vande Mataram, as their belief wouldn't allow them to bow down before anyone but Allah. When it became contentious, our administrators adopted a stripped-down version of Vande Mataram as the national song and placed it at the same level as the national anthem. But everybody knows the song shares an equal status only on paper, even after eliminating all mentions to India as a goddess. Fair enough, India is a secular country, and we don't want anyone to feel bad about a song that is selected as the national anthem. The protests were heard.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose used "Subh Sukh Chain", a Hindustani version of “Jana Gana Mana” with a different meaning, as the official anthem of the Provisional Government of Free India in November, 1941. In January, 1950, the Constituent Assembly of India decided to select Jana Gana Mana as our official anthem. History has it that after signing the Constitution, Rajendra Prasad permitted MA Ayyangar's request to sing the song, and Purnima Banerjee and other members sang it to mark the first official rendition of the anthem. But the controversy slithered back in; the song had a past!

Jana Gana Mana was first sung at the 26th session of the Indian National Congress in Kolkata in December, 1911. In no time, it courted controversy that it was specifically written to welcome King George V to Kolkata, who came with the intention of annulling the partition of Bengal. The media reports of that time also supported this view. The mention of "adhinayak" was the pivot of the controversy. Who could be the "adhinayak"? Most thought it was King George as the event was organised to welcome him. Others thought it was god.

Decades later, the writer Rabindranath Tagore himself dismissed all allegations and stated that the song was not praising the king. Supporters of Gurudev continue to ask: "Should we doubt the words of someone who renounced the knighthood the British had granted him?". No, we shouldn't, even though King George had granted him the knighthood around 1915 and he had repudiated it four years later. But Tagore said something else too, which prima facie doused the controversy, but in a deeper sense, was overlooked by many. He wrote to Pulin Behari Sen that he was addressing the almighty as "adhinayak" and not King George. Well, here is where I find a problem.

One should first understand what a patriotic song is, and how it is different from a devotional song. A patriotic song that says good things about the country and that brings up strong nationalistic emotions is one that makes an ideal national anthem. A song that exalts the god instead of one's motherland is a devotional song and may not be suited as the national anthem of a secular country such as India. The Muslim community in general found Jana Gana Mana not aligning with their beliefs. So, what if I am an atheist and I am made to sing a devotional song passed off as my national anthem?

If "adhinayak" is indeed god, what does the song mean in the final analysis? It sings praises to god, the ruler of the people's minds, the dispenser of goodness. It says the many places, mountains, and rivers in India venerate the god and long for the god's blessings. Excuse me, but where is patriotism in it? All I can visualise from those lines is that the various organs of India - its people and natural assets - are worshipping the god in unison. So if Tagore himself says the song is about the god, should we doubt his words? No, we shouldn't, Jana Gana Mana is a devotional song at best.

There are wheels within wheels in Jana Gana Mana, which aren't fully explained until now. In any case, praising the god or the king, the song may not be fully qualified to become a national anthem as it fails to evoke patriotism in its real lyrical meaning. The song does not praise India, but the dispenser of India's destiny. What I think is, it is not the word "adhinayak", but the whole song that needs to undergo a change. Several years ago, Malayalam cartoonist Sukumar had made a quip that the Indians praised their mother in the morning with Vande Mataram, and perhaps their father in the evening with Jana Gana Mana, with a reference to the "adhinayak" controversy.

The national anthem should work like a winch, it should lift the spirits of not just the Hindus, Muslims, Christians, or Sikhs, but also the atheists! When a group sings it aloud, with their heads high and shoulders steady, there should be no place for confusion or misinterpretation, and only the feeling of oneness should prevail. Can a devotional song achieve that in a country such as ours? I doubt.


Sreejith Panickar Sreejith Panickar @panickars

The writer is a columnist, researcher and social activist. He is the founder-member of Mission Netaji.

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