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Jerry Pinto
Jerry Pinto


An anthem we don’t understand

If you read the Constitution of India—take some time off, do, because in dark times, it can be a beacon of light and hope—you will know that we have signed on to respect the national symbols, the flag, the anthem. And so perhaps it was in this spirit that the Most Honourable and Learned Judges of the Supreme Court have ordered that the national anthem be played in every theatre, before every show, and that everyone should get up and stand and the doors should be locked so that they can’t pretend they need a loo break or a ciggy break at the moment when they should be affirming... what precisely?

The National Anthem is in the Bengali language. I have no issues with that. I understand that if the anthem were in Hindi, some people would be excluded. If it were in any language, whether Malayalam or Dogri or Konkani, some people would not understand what it meant and that would mean they would feel it is in another language. Our historical moment, the gift that we received in a great poet and a great thinker like Tagore, meant that our National Anthem is in Bengali. That isn’t the problem.

The problem is: Do we know what we are singing? Do we understand what we are affirming? In order to test this, over the last 20-odd years of my teaching career at the Social Communications Media at the Sophia Polytechnic, Mumbai, I ask my students to write out the National Anthem and then write out the meaning. It is interesting to see how smoothly their hands move as they do the first part of the exercise and then how slowly, how hesitantly, they approach the second, even the Bengalis. This is often their first exercise in translation. This is often their first practical exercise in civics and politics.

86Ananthemwe Illustration: Bhaskaran

So here’s my question, which is not directed at the Most Honourable and Learned Judges of the Supreme Court who, in their wisdom, want the doors of theatres locked and the people standing in reverence. It is not even directed at those who think this is a Very Good Idea and that singing the National Anthem while standing will fill us all with Patriotism and a Great Love of the Nation and will make us Good Citizens. It is directed in general at you, my reader.

Can one stand in reverence of that which one does not know?

Perhaps suo motu, another two-judge bench can make it mandatory for all of us to know what we are saying when we sing the National Anthem.

But hold on a moment. When it was suggested to their Most Honourable and Learned Lordships of Lex et Juris, by Ashwani Kumar, the spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party, that the courts might also do the same, ie, start the day with an invigorating playing of the National Anthem, the justices did not think much of this: “Whether right or wrong, our order should not be overstretched. Bar should show some restraint,” the bench said. (This was widely reported in the national newspapers.)

“Whether right or wrong, our order should not be overstretched,” is an interesting sentence. Does it suggest to you, gentle reader, that the most honourable and venerable judges of the Supreme Court might be having second thoughts? I do not suppose, I do not even dare to suppose that the law of the land might be interested in the social media responses to their judgment. With wonderful restraint, they have not used their powers of contempt of court to haul everyone up and demand apologies or apply the law that allows them to sentence such contemptible persons to a term of six months of simple imprisonment or a fine of two thousand rupees.

Meanwhile, I wonder how their Learned Lordships took the news that a couple took it upon themselves to beat up a wheelchair bound person for not standing up for the National Anthem in a cinema hall?

Jerry Pinto wrote this piece standing up. Just to be sure.

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