The National Anthem – A Debate

Keshav Rau

By the time these words appear in print, the euphoria associated with the country’s Independence Day celebrations would have died down.  Every Independence Day is an occasion for a lot of high-sounding pledges being taken by all to safeguard the long and hard-fought independence achieved through the sweat and toil of our forefathers.  Each Prime Minister, since independence, addresses the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort (nowadays within the confines of a fortified enclosure) announcing freebies and policy proclamations to the downtrodden and poor. 

Flag Hoisting

For the past two decades or so, however, Independence Day is used as an occasion to have a slinging match between two communities. The bone of contention has always been the desire of the BJP to hoist the tricolour at some controversial site or the other – the Idgah maidan at Hubballi (commonly known as Hubli) in Karnataka or some controversial place in Srinagar.

This year something different was tried out, not in Karnataka or Srinagar, but in Uttar Pradesh where, only a few months back, the BJP returned with a resounding victory, demolishing all predictions. The State Government issued a diktat that all Madrasas should celebrate the occasion with not only the National Anthem being sung, but the entire function in each Madrasa be videotaped – obviously for being scrutinized with a critical eye.

Some Muslim clerics in UP raised objections:

  • Islam prohibits videotaping, and
  • National Anthem was composed by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore in praise of King George V; Islam prohibits such praises being sung for a ruler.

Nevertheless, they stated that Madrasa students will stand when the National Anthem is being played, but will not sing the Anthem.

Rather than objecting on religious or historical grounds, the Muslim clerics could have questioned the State Government for singling out only the Madrasas, while no such diktat was issued to other minority institutes, whether government run or otherwise.

Moreover, compulsorily making the Madrasa students sing the National Anthem runs contrary to the Supreme Court judgment which states:

“There is no provision of law which obliges anyone to sing the National Anthem nor is it disrespectful to the National Anthem if a person who stands up respectfully when the National Anthem is sung does not join in the singing.  It will not be right to say that disrespect is shown by not joining in the singing. Standing up respectfully when the National Anthem is sung but not singing oneself clearly does not either prevent the singing of the National Anthem or cause disturbance to an assembly engaged in such singing so as to constitute the offence mentioned in Section 3 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act.”

Surely, the UP State Government was not unaware of this judgment which clearly affirms that no offence is meant by the persons concerned who passively stand without any lip movement during the playing of the National Anthem.  In fact, one has observed government officials and politicians not joining in the singing, but standing respectfully.

National Anthem History and the ensuing controversy

Jana Gana Mana was sung for the first time on December 27, 1911 on the second day of the Convention of the Indian National Congress, and the agenda of that day devoted itself to a welcome to King George V on his visit to India.  The British-owned newspapers of the time – The Statesman, Englishman and Indian had reported that the song was specially composed by Rabindranath Tagore to welcome the Emperor.

However, many historians and others were of the view that the three British-owned newspapers had read too much into the wordings of the song.  On the contrary, a song Badshah Humara written in Hindi by Rambhuj Chaudhary was sung in praise of the Monarch.  This version was endorsed by the Indian-owned newspapers of the time – Amrita Bazar Patrika and Bengalee.

Clearly, the wordings in the song which raised all the controversy were:

You are the ruler; dispenser of India’s fortune; thy name aroused the hearts of ….. we pray for your blessings; the saving of all people waits in thy hand; you are the dispenser of India’s destiny.”

For nearly two decades after the song was sung not too many questions were raised about either the real meaning of the phrases in the song and the composer’s motives and intent.  Perhaps to satisfy the section that still had doubts about the motive behind composing the song, in November 1937, Tagore in a letter to Pulin Bihari Sen writes:

A certain high official in his Majesty’s service, who was also my friend, had requested that I write a song of felicitation towards the Emperor. The request simply amazed me. It caused a great stir in my heart. In response to that great mental turmoil, I pronounced the victory in Jana Gana Mana of that Bhagya Bidhata [ed. God of Destiny] of India who has from age after age held steadfast the reins of India’s chariot through rise and fall, through the straight path and the curved. That Lord of Destiny, that Reader of the Collective Mind of India, that Perennial Guide, could never be George V, George VI, or any other George. Even my official friend understood this about the song. After all, even if his admiration for the crown was excessive, he was not lacking in simple common sense.”

A year-and-a-half later, Tagore assumed a more aggressive posture while responding to the criticism:

I should only insult myself if I cared to answer those who consider me capable of such unbounded stupidity as to sing in praise of George the Fourth or George the Fifth as the Eternal Charioteer leading the pilgrims on their journey through countless ages of the timeless history of mankind.”

Finally, the controversy was set at rest when the Constituent Assembly of India adopted, on January 24, 1950, the song as the National Anthem of the country, even though off and on we hear murmurs that Tagore’s song is not appropriate as the National Anthem; it’s Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram which is the appropriate one.

Sporadic remarks uttered just two years ago by persons like Kalyan Singh that the National Anthem praised the British Rule, could have made the Muslim clerics of UP revive the controversy.  If even after more than 67 years since the song was declared a National Anthem, doubts are being raised about the motives behind its composition, it is people like Kalyan Singh who should be blamed.

Words of Caution

The emphasis on one community alone being made to constantly prove its nationality and patriotism is clearly undesirable and unwarranted. As it is, the chasm between that community and the majority has widened considerably. If a State Government also provides additional fuel to widen the chasm further, and that too through discriminatory and unlawful orders, dangerous and disastrous consequences will ensue. In this context, the parting words of former Vice President Hamid Ansari while demitting office have considerable relevance, even if it was roundly criticized in several quarters, including by his successor.

Mr. Keshav Rau is a retired bank executive and occasional freelance writer.  E-mail:

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