How the Anthem Diktat Turns Participating Citizens Into Docile Subjects

Nationalism on wheels. Credit: Shome Basu

Nationalism on wheels. Credit: Shome Basu

In 1950, soon after India became a republic, a question was raised in Parliament: “Will the minister of home affairs be pleased to share what are the national anthems of India?”

In the wake of independence with the process of nation building just having begun, the phrasing of this question, articulated by a casual use of the plural form, indicates the broad dimensions of how the concept of the nation was imagined in its nascence. There was no assumption that there had to be just one national anthem – there could be two, a few or many anthems to celebrate the nation’s lands and its peoples. Rabindranath Tagore, who authored Jana Gana Mana, shared this pluralism in vision. However, this pluralism has gradually been eroded.

In the 66 years of India existing as a republic, the national flag has been raised and the national anthem sung countless times every day across the nation-state..

The recent order issued by the Supreme Court of India making it mandatory for the national anthem to be played in all cinema halls in the country before the screening of a film and for all present in the hall to stand up as a mark of respect, will add to this. By declaring that the anthem “does not allow any different notion or the perception of individual rights that have individually thought of have no space(sic)”, the order seeks to restrictively choreograph the bodies and minds of people and turn participating citizens into docile subjects.

Bodies disciplined to the anthems tunes

The citizen cannot be a mere spectator but is required to perform and act in the production of the nation. By influencing and controlling the behaviour of the citizen’s body and thereby disciplining their political thought through various practices, the state ultimately curbs the possibilities of any new or alternative conceptions of nationhood and citizenship.

Defined in the dictionary as “a patriotic song or hymn especially one adopted officially or played or sung in formal occasions as a mark of loyalty to the nation”, the national anthem is a fairly recent convention, originating in 19t century Europe. Yet all nation-states today have a national anthem that is used ceremonially to mark symbolic moments, such as at the time of flag hoisting on Independence Day celebrations in India. Anthems are used by the state to forge a bond among its citizens by attempting to invoke the memory of a collective past, motivate patriotic fervour and grant or acquire legitimacy and authority for itself.

Over the years, the codes of participation in the national anthem in India that have been prescribed by the constitution and law have become normative behaviour and part of the body’s habitual response to the anthem for many citizen-subjects. Through several years of discipline induced in schools or public functions, as soon as one hears the national anthem, most people immediately stand in a militaristic attention position: hands on the side, feet together, chin up, gaze straight ahead. Years of repeated social conditioning, as well as potential reproach from others, often make it difficult to be sitting down while the anthem is being played. When such bodily codes are not followed, the anomaly becomes glaring and visible. There have been several cases and incidents when an individual or a group, not standing up for the national anthem, has faced legal implications or stirred controversy.

Now, with the present court ruling, the anthem will be sung en masse in cinema theatres, once again drawing the debate on nationalism into a space for entertainment. Since 2003, cinemas in Maharashtra have been ordered to play the anthem before every film screening, leading to several altercations over the years. If one does not stand up in the required attention posture, the punishment for this is swift and immediate – not meted out by any official governing body but by the governing public itself. One particular incident when a Muslim family was thrown out of a Mumbai cinema theatre for the same reason, and the highlighting of their Muslim identity in the media, further reminded one of how the minority body carries an additional burden of repeatedly proving its Indian-ness and loyalty to the nation.

Colonial imitation to constitutional enforcement

The national anthem and the body posture associated with it began as a colonial militaristic practice and has now become an unquestioned more in everyday practice. This idea of Indian-ness, associated with notions of continuing tradition and culture of a dominant section of society requires the citizen to be a single ideal. This ideal is a patriotic subject, having moulded the rhythms of her body to the tunes of an imaginary unified national character which is created by the nation-state, but maintained by the panoptic vision and attitude of society.

Importantly, Article 51A of the Constitution of India (inserted by the 42nd Amendment), declared it a citizen’s ‘fundamental duty’ to respect the national flag and the national anthem. It is noteworthy that this amendment was made in 1976, during the Emergency. The decree regarding the national anthem, first in 1976 and now once again in 2016, another undeclared Emergency, is significant in how it was formulated to curb voices of dissent within the nation-state.

The orders relating to the national anthem of India issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs furnish further details regarding the occasions when ‘Jana Gana Mana’ should be sung. It vaguely states that a citizen should accord ‘due respect’ and maintain ‘proper decorum’, and calls on the“good sense of the people not to indulge in indiscriminate singing or playing of the anthem”. Phrases and terms such as ‘due respect’, ‘proper decorum’ and ‘good sense’ are still vague in their usage as well as context, where some questions are considered relevant, and the answers to others are not considered worth defining, such as – how much respect is due? What would be ‘proper’ decorum and more importantly, what would be improper? Who has the right to claim the position of ‘good sense’? The latest news is the government has told the Supreme Court that it will issue guidelines for persons with disability – who are unable to stand in a cinema hall – to show respect for the national anthem.

Emotional integration of the nation

A second major development in the way we perceive the anthem today was triggered in 1960, with the education ministry forming the Committee on Emotional Integration, which was tasked with addressing the perceived absence of oneness across the nation. Aiming to “emotionally integrate” future generations and make them feel part of one common nation, the state decided to address the issue through institutional measures. The national anthem was one of the mandates of this committee that enforced the making of a uniform rendition for a homogenous state. Stating that “singing the anthem is something which admits to no variation in method”, the 1962 committee report further suggested that recordings by All India Radio should provide guidance to how the anthem should be played and sung, “to ensure complete uniformity.” The report also recommended daily mass singing of the national anthem in schools and regional broadcasts of the anthem twice a day at fixed times. Schools used gramophone players to ensure that ‘Jana Gana Mana’ was sung at the right tempo and pitch.

These strictures augmented the sanctity placed upon what is after all just a song, transforming it into an anthem and something almost inviolable. As poet and linguist Rukmini Bhaya Nair aptly points out, “National anthems are psychological dynamos which routinely succeed in getting whole countries to rise to their feet… The national anthem, once established, seems to enjoy a sort of magical immunity. It ensconces itself as an indelible part of the cultural repertoire – resistant to mockery, to erasure and to contradictory impulses.”

Alternative territorial imaginations, alternative anthems

However, the idea of a homogenous Indian state does get ruptured by contradictory impulses or alternative imaginaries of region and land. In the case of Tamil Nadu, an enhanced pride in the Tamil language and culture that was generated through the political movements within the state, led to demands for a separate Tamil nation and of the state declaring a state anthem of its own in 1970. The corporeal practice and affective tremor of this anthem called Tamilttay Vazhthu, sung every day in schools and in occasions such as state legislature functions in Tamil Nadu, is unique and seen as distinct from that of Jana Gana Mana in the southern state.

The few other states in India that have their own state anthem are Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala, Assam and Orissa. Although these state anthems mirror the popular Bharat mata imagery, there is still a well-developed consciousness of an alternative identity asserted through them. With an understanding that none of these alternative nationalisms are less valid than that of a homogenising Indian nationalism, these assertions and ruptures demand questions about the layered nature of ‘Indian-ness’. Who is Indian and how is Indian-ness to be expressed? Is standing up for the anthem the only way to display one’s relationship with the nation?

While the complete repercussions of the latest SC ruling are yet to manifest themselves, one can say that the ruling solidifies normative conceptions of how patriotism is to be performed, suffocating the several performative ‘others’. In this scenario, while one may be chanting “...jaya jaya jaya jaya he, Tagore’s song will remain a requiem for a dream.

Parvathi Ramanathan is a research scholar in the department of theatre and performance studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.