The Curious Case of The Indian National Anthem

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The Curious Case of The Indian National Anthem

Citizens may love and be proud of the nation and choose to express the same in their own manner, forcing them to accept standardised forms in places designated by the state reeks of an authoritarian mind-set aimed at control, writes Anupam Dhar

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel said Samuel Johnson. Justice Dipak Misra, the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, seems to be one such scoundrel who is making all Indians complicit in his archaic accusation with his decree that the National Anthem be played before every movie. What probably makes this indictment even worse is that it comes with an uppity sense of moral authority – a sense inculcated in the judgement that he and Justice Amitava Roy seem to relish. As academic Ayesha Kidwai pointed out, India’s Constitution, which the justices purport to uphold has no instance of the word ‘patriot’, ‘patriotism’ or ‘constitutional patriotism’, the words ‘sacred obligation’ or ‘inherent national quality’ do not appear anywhere. Placing them at the centre of this judgement has meant redefining the state’s relationship with its subject – placing adherence to a certain notion of nation as a constitutional requirement. The national flag becomes a living and breathing embodiment of this notion – a nation that ‘needs’ to be respected and ‘demands’ certain behaviours to been seen as such.

Dipak Misra has decreed that the Indian National Anthem be played before all movie screenings

Dipak Misra has decreed that the Indian National Anthem be played before all movie screenings

Democracy, fundamentally, claims and reserves the right of those who do not agree with others – disagreement and dissent being central to its very nature. A democratic nation, thus, has to deal with the concurrence of both dissent and consent – paradoxes which highlight the thin line which politics and law has to tread to ensure a seemingly equitable polity. This sense was acutely reflected by US Supreme Court judge Anthony Kennedy: “It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt” – a reference to the very nature of icons and flags which while representative of the nation state, cannot be made to stand for the state itself. Which is why, disagreement with the state can be expressed by refusal to accept its markers – dissent and dissidence isn’t anti-national and may be exemplified by dissension against the very symbols that the nation state presents as representative.

Which then brings us to this unusual judgement, which flagrantly infringes on two essential principles of a democratic society – freedom of speech and expression and the notion of national harm. Both are intricately interlinked, one addresses the very basis of democracy in a nation state and the other violates the thin line that separates the same basis with the very demands of a nation state, one that insists on concurrence to a certain state order for its very existence. India’s constitution treads these d fallacies with a clear and coherent view – the rights of individuals guaranteed supersede that of any supposed national need, so long as it does not interfere with the rights of other individuals or incite violence towards the state. There are things that the state would like of its citizens, but then imposition of the same becomes problematic. It is precisely this tug-of-war between the state and the citizen that the constitution seeks to protect and define, Article 19 and its addendums clearly call out the same. The freedom of speech and expression is fundamental in that sense to the creation, preservation and functioning of any democracy; and democracy needs dissent which extends to the conception of discordance with the same political order that democracy produces. This is very important for any functional multivariate democracy – the essential right of citizens to disagree with the conception of the state is fundamental to the creation of a democratic state. While clearly not desirable from the perspective of the state, it nevertheless has a moral responsibility to provide that space for dissention, so long as the dissent isn’t aimed at inciting violence or overthrowing the state.


Here, the principle question of harm comes in. Does disagreement or disrespect to the state harm it? Is patriotism a necessary precondition to citizenship? The court order raises these but forgets to assess that what damages the notion of the state and disintegrates and eats into its very integrity is the failure its state apparatuses to stand up to its own values and constitutional doctrine, rather than any ignoble action from individual citizenry. The ridiculousness of the Supreme Court order stems from this fallacy – one that seeks to expressly state the nature of harm and conflagrate it with the notion of patriotism and nationalism. The absurd connection between cinema, as played in a movie hall and patriotism and the need to showcase the same in a public space, presents a litany of questions. Does patriotism exist only in a public space? If so, the same should be extended to trains, airports, government offices and any space, where the state has a direct role.

Two ideas emerge from this judgement which are extremely harmful in its conception as well as execution – the fusion of symbol with substance and expression towards the same symbols with a certain ‘duty’ of citizenship. The national symbols – anthem, flag, bird, animal and others, while representative of the state, are not the state per se. Any ‘disrespect’ towards them, while undesirable, is not an act against the state, so long as they are not being physically damaged. Placing national symbols in a movie hall amounts to the state interfering with the rights of citizens to consume a product in a private space and then conflating this interference with the idea of patriotism. The state has no business inside a movie hall – it certifies the film being shown, has adequate laws for safeguarding the rights and safety of citizens inside it and taxes them for their usage and consumption of the medium. It cannot and morally should not add the burden of placing its own symbols into the proceedings – it violates the very principles of private space that it purports to adhere to. Private and public spaces are defined by questions of accessibility as well as ownership, and here, the cinema hall as a private space should not be censored further to further the agendas of the state.


Finally, the court takes upon itself to ‘instil a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism’ in its citizens. While the political wing of the state, directly elected by its people, may have political objectives to make people like and respect it, the judiciary has a moral responsibility to be objective and question the very nature of patriotism and nationalism that the state propagates. Citizens may, love and be proud of the nation and choose to express the same in their own manner. Forcing them to accept standardised forms in places designated by the state reeks of an authoritarian mind-set aimed at control. Obligation to, dignity for and affection towards the state comes from the unique, essential and individual experiences of its citizens and not by tokenistic rituals. The accomplishments and realisations of citizens, establishments, artists, civil society, businesses and initiatives reflect the sense of a nation and instils a common ground through which citizens come together and identifies with the nation. The common sense of achievement is both individual and collective in refracting through all forms of political, cultural, economic and social experiences to inform and augment a citizen’s involvement with the state, creating a superior consciousness that leads to identification with and empathy and affection for the very nation state that makes it possible. The Supreme Court seeks to artificially inject the result into the lives of its citizens, foregoing the work and effort that goes into building the very examinations and achievements that patriotism and nationalism rest on. Relinquishing the innumerable habits and manners in which they screen through a nation’s civic and political life to impact the lives and cognizance of its citizens, in order to advance its glory and ‘instil a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism’.

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