www.sacw.net | September 8, 2004

[India's National Anthem] Are we still singing for the Empire?

by Pradip Kumar Datta *

One of the many targets of Sadhvi Rithambara's infamous hate cassette -- which did so much to provoke feelings of resentment against Muslims -- was the national anthem. She described it as an act of 'gaddari' (treachery). Hindutva allegations against the Jana Gana Mana are not new. But they have begun to circulate anew with fresh intensity with the growth of the Hindutva brigade in the 80's. And have entered the conversational common sense which has begun to treat these as if they were established evidence. Quite recently a friend of mine abroad alerted me to pro-Hindutva websites such as www.freeindia.org that had convinced his otherwise secular students that the anthem had been originally composed for Emperor George V. Even more recently, another friend reported that she found herself isolated in a ladies party in Kolkata when she tried to defend the anthem from these charges.

The jingoism of the anti-Jana Gana Mana campaign is based on an appropriate irony. The charge actually rests on false evidence given by the pro-British press. The song was first sung in a session of the Congress in 1911. This session had decided to felicitate George V since he had announced the abrogation of the partition of Bengal, thereby conceding the success of the Swadeshi agitation, the first modern anti-colonial movement that had started in 1905. The day after the session the nationalist Indian papers normally -- and accurately -- reported that a Tagore composition had been sung. The Bengalee -- along with other Indian newspapers as well as the report of the Indian National Congress - reported that it was a "patriotic song". The following year the song was published as "Bharat -- Vidatha". A contemporary commentator in the vernacular Bharati described the song as one in "Praise of the Dispenser of human Destiny, whoÖappears in every age." He probably came closest to capturing its spirit. This song was to later become known as Jana Gana Mana.

The confusion about the song was stirred up by the ineptness of the pro-British Anglo-Indian press. Their inefficiency was not surprising (The Sunday Times once ascribed the authorship of Bande Mataram to Tagore and described Jana Gana Mana as a Hindi song!) On this occasion the Anglo-Indian press -- led by The Englishman - almost uniformly reported that a Tagore song had been sung to commemorate George V's visit to India. The reports were based on understandable ignorance since the Anglo-Indian press had neither the linguistic abilities nor the interest to be accurate. Actually, two songs that had been sung that day. The Jana Gana Mana had been followed by a Hindi song composed specially for George V by Rambhuj Chaudhary. There was no real connection between the composition of the Jana Gana Mana and George V, except that the song was sung -- not written - at an event which also felicitated the king. The Anglo-Indian press [luckily for Hindutva enthusiasts and unfortunately for secularists!] heard Indian songs much in the way they looked at foreign faces: they were all the same!

Initially the controversy seemed a non-starter. Contemporaries obviously found it hard to associate Tagore with servility. Tagore was known for this opposition to the government. Indeed, shortly after the Congress session the government passed a circular that declared Shantiniketan to be a "place altogether unsuitable for the education of Government officers" and threatened punitive measures against officers who sent their children there to study. Undoubtedly helped by these measures which shored up Tagore's nationalist reputation, the song steadily acquired wide acceptability among nationalists in all parts of the country - especially after its translation into English as "The morning song of India" by the poet in Madras. In a survey made just before the poetís death in 1941 at Mumbai, respondents felt Jana Gana Mana to have the strongest "national characteristics" although Bande Mataram was found superior on some other criteria. The dirt thrown by the pro-British press seemed to have been completely wrung out when Netaji Bose's Indian National Army adopted it as the National Anthem; this was followed by Gandhiís declaration in 1946 that "the song has found a place in our national life": that it was "also like a devotional hymn".

But it was not as if it was all smooth sailing for the story of Jana Gana Mana's popularity. The first round of controversy -- this time by the Indians themselves - had been stoked in 1937. But it became a much more general one from the late 1940's when a debate broke out over what was to be the National Anthem. A section within the Congress wanted the Bande Mataram, a song that was popularly associated with the national movement. But Bande Mataram was controversial since its invocation of the nation as a Goddess went against Islamic theology which forbade the worship of any God other than Allah. Also the Bande Mataram had been successfully converted into a sign of communal antagonism by Hindu communalists (with the enthusiastic participation of their Muslim counterparts who regarded the song as a horrible provocation) and even chanted it as a slogan in riots.

In the 1930's, a Congress sub-committee had short-listed some "national" songs that could be sung together with or instead of Bande Mataram. It was then proposed (on Tagore's initiative) that the first two stanzas of Bande Mataram could be sung. But this catholicity was not felt to be feasible after independence. Occasions involving foreign diplomatic missions or the Defence forces required that a single "National Anthem" be played by a band as a signature of the country. The Constituent Assembly was deputed to select the anthem. It was in the ensuing lobbying to knock Jana Gana Mana out of reckoning, that outworn and salacious bits of colonial misinformation about the song began to be recirculated.

Jana Gana Mana was chosen as anthem in 1950 over Bande Mataram as well as Iqbal's Sare Jahan Se Accha - although Bande Mataram was given "equal status". An important reason was that Bande Mataram could not be played by bands. Additionally Jana Gana Mana enjoyed an international reputation. It had been greatly appreciated in the United Nations at New York where it was first played as an orchestral arrangement in 1947. Many said that it was superior to most national anthems in the world. Within the country the overwhelming majority of the provinces supported its nomination.

But there is also an underlying reason that is really responsible for the controversy popping up at regular intervals. The words of Bande Mataram feature India as a homogeneous Hindu nation. Jana Gana Mana evokes the country as composed of a multiplicity of regions and communities united in a prayer to a universal lord. After all, Bande Mataram was composed by a colonial administrator who could only visualize the nation in Hindu terms: religious identity was the only available idiom for conceptualizing the nation then. In contrast, Tagore had seen the riots that broke up the Swadeshi movement and had divined the obvious: religious nationalism easily divided anti-colonial struggles. Jana Gana Mana can be seen as one of the fruits of Tagore's search to find an alternate inclusivist definition for the nation. Incidentally, it was one of the harbingers of a decade that was to see Hindu and Muslim politicians draw together. In short, the two songs embody different ideas, histories and aspirations of the country.

In fairness, the last word on the affair should really be given to the poet himself (incidentally he had composed the music for Bande Mataram). Answering a friend's query about the origins of the Jana Gana Mana in 1937, Tagore said that a loyalist friend had requested him to write a song in praise of the King. He had felt anger at his friends presumption about his loyalism. It was this anger that led him to compose Jana Gana Mana. He had written a song to a superior authority, the "Dispenser of India's destiny". Tagore concluded. "That great Charioteer of man's destiny in age after age could not by any means be George V or George VI or any George. Even my 'loyal' friend realized this; because, however powerful his loyalty to the King, he was not wanting in intelligence." I may add here that we normally sing the first verse alone: the third verse of the song refers explicitly to the eternal lord.

Tagore said that he felt too pained by the unjustness of the charge to come out with a public refutation. Perhaps he was wrong. He could have considered the issue of survival. Not just of his public reputation. But also the survival of self-confidence in some of his future citizens who believe that they venerate their masters fifty years after independence. And that they can sing songs to a King, dead for an even longer period.

(Readers interested in more information may look at P.Sen's India's National Anthem)

* Pradip Kumar Datta teaches at Delhi University.

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