Imagine the left, liberal furore if Narendra Modi made the singing of our national anthem a key litmus test of a citizen’s’ patriotism. But not many protested when Rajiv Gandhi wanted to do the same.
There are not many countries in the world that allow their national anthem to become a tool for divisive politics. But in India any and every issue gets to be used for partisan political agendas. Our national anthem has been no exception.
The latest controversy over the national anthem erupted on 29 November 2015, when five members of a family were asked to leave a cinema hall in Mumbai because they rudely rebuffed fellow cine viewers who asked them to stand up as the national anthem was being played before the start of the movie.
A video clip of the event went viral on social media and consequently provoked heated debate in mainstream media, including prime time television, because the concerned family happened to be Muslims. Had the same incident involved a Hindu family, it is not likely to have excited such passion on either side of the political divide.
Even though the collective upset of the audience over deliberate “disrespect” shown towards the national anthem was a spontaneous reaction and not engineered by any political party, the mainstream media at once attributed it to the “rising wave of intolerance” due to BJP’s Hindutva agenda which, in the worldview of Stalinist “left liberals”, is synonymous with “fascism”.
This twist was given despite the fact that no one from the Modi government stepped-in to take a position on that incident one way or the other. In the ensuing Hindutva bashing by the self-styled liberals, little attention was paid to the fact that originally the ill-advised farmaan to make it mandatory for cinema halls to play the national anthem before every movie show was issued by a Congress government in the 1960s after the Indo-China war to restore people’s shaken faith in India’s leadership, thanks to our humiliating defeat at the hands of Nehru’s “Chini bhais.”
Even in the relatively innocent 1960s, most people weren’t impressed with the compulsory dose of patriotism being inflicted on them at such an inappropriate venue. Even those who favoured the singing of our Rashtra Gaan in school assemblies or played at official functions and on select days to mark important national events, found it annoying when they had to compulsorily show respect to it in cinema halls. In those days it used to be played after each movie show and it was a common sight for people to start walking out instead of standing in attention as required by protocol. Seeing signs of mass disobedience, good sense prevailed and the practice was slowly discontinued.
However, for reasons hard to comprehend, the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra reissued in 2003 the failed farmaan of 1960s, perhaps to bolster its sagging image on account of its endless scams and news of senior ministers’ links with the Mumbai underworld. It is doubtful that the audience uniformly showed due respect to the national anthem in Mumbai theatres. But mercifully no major confrontation was reported on its account before the above mentioned 29 November 2015 incident.
However, it was not Maharashtra but in the avante garde state of Kerala where a major controversy erupted around the national anthem. At that time, the Prime Minister of India was none other than the “ultra-liberal” Rajiv Gandhi, intoxicated by a brute majority of 404 MPs in a house of 543.
In July 1985, a member of Kerala’s Legislative Assembly discovered that some children belonging to the Jehovah’s Witness sect of Christianity had refused to sing the national anthem in the school assembly. He thought this act of defiance was “unpatriotic” and so he raised the matter in the Assembly following which a Commission was appointed to inquire and report on the alleged offence. The Commission reported that the children – Bijoe, Binu Mol and Bindu Emmanuel were otherwise well behaved and had always stood respectfully when others sang the national anthem. But as per the tenets of their religious faith, Jehovah’s Witnesses are forbidden from singing the national anthem because they consider it a form of idolatry and, therefore, an act of unfaithfulness to their God Jehovah.
Given the charged atmosphere in the state then under Congress rule, under instructions of the Deputy Inspector of Schools, the Head Mistress expelled the children from the school on 26 July 1985.
The father of the children appealed to the school authorities and education department to revoke the decision. When they refused to pay heed to his appeal, the hapless man approached the Kerala High Court seeking an order restraining the authorities from preventing his kids from attending school. First a single judge bench and then a Division Bench of Kerala High Court rejected the prayer of the children.
Thereafter, the case reached the Supreme Court of India under Article 136 of the Constitution. The judgment in this case was delivered on 11 August 1986 by Justice Chinnappa Reddy J. The Apex court reversed the high court decision and ordered the school to readmit the children taking note of the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not sing national anthem of any country, be it England or Canada, as a matter of conscience and commitment to their faith. The court also observed that “the right of free speech and expression also includes the right to remain silent”, and since the children had only refused to sing the anthem in keeping with the demands of their religion while showing due respect to it by standing up with all other children, the High Court order needed to be reversed. (Bijoe Emmanuel Vs State of Kerala)
Having already enjoyed the heady feeling of having snubbed the Supreme Court in the Shah Bano case, a few months prior to this judgment, Rajiv Gandhi decided to show once again to the judges of the Apex Court that the will of the Gandhi scion like that of his mother stood supreme and was above any court of law. On 12 September 1986 he defiantly declared that his “government would suitably amend the Constitution to make singing of the national anthem compulsory if the Supreme Court did not correct its decision regarding the singing of the national anthem.” (The Times of India, 13 September 1986).
In this contemptuous attitude to court orders, Rajiv was following in his mother’s glorious footsteps. (The context of this jingoistic statement openly challenging the wisdom of the Supreme Court has to be kept in mind. After having become the darling of Muslim Mullahs over the Shah Bano case, Rajiv had tried to also become the Hindu Hriday Samrat by ordering the reopening of the Ram Lalla Mandir in Ayodhya in February 1986. It had been kept locked under court orders following the century-old dispute between Babri Masjid and Ram Janmabhoomi claimants. The row over the national anthem gave Rajiv Gandhi an opportunity to prove his “secular and nationalist” credentials because the Shah Bano Case and the opening of the Ram Lalla Mandir made him vulnerable to the charge of placating both Hindu and Muslim religious extremists.
Not to be left behind, Rajiv Gandhi’s flunkeys joined in a chorus to reverse the Supreme Court verdict. A lifelong Gandhi family loyalist, Mohammad Yunus, arrogantly declared that those who gave the verdict in the national anthem case were “neither Indian nor judges.” This was not only a brazen insult of the Supreme Court but also amounted to smearing legal luminaries like Justice Chinnappa Reddy as anti-national. A contempt of court case was filed against Yunus by some public spirited citizens but they were soon forced to withdraw it.
Mine was among the few voices to challenge this “liberal” audacity by the Rajiv Gandhi government through an article in The Illustrated Weekly of India (8 March 1987 edition). But none among the current guardians of “tolerance” and “liberalism” protested the open declaration of contempt for the Supreme Court despite repeated assertions by Rajiv Gandhi that his government would not accept the apex court order.
This cavalier attitude was in line with the trend started by Indira Gandhi of holding the Constitution of India and Supreme Court judges as virtual hostages and tampering with the basic structure of the Constitution as often as she pleased to provide a legal cover for her illegal and unconstitutional actions. (Sonia Gandhi, as the current self-appointed guardian of our Constitution, needs to be given a lesson or two in what the Constitution looked like before the Nehru-Indira dynasty mauled it over and over and over again for personal ends).
Far from being criticised, Rajiv Gandhi was widely applauded for undermining a key pillar of democracy, namely an independent judiciary whose writ ought not to be arbitrarily trampled over by the political establishment or the executive.
Fortunately, the Rajiv Gandhi government soon got into trouble over the Bofors scam and lost the nerve to go ahead with enacting a new law declaring the refusal to sing the national anthem as an act of sedition and a cognisable offence. Had he done that, the Muslim family that was made to leave the cinema hall, might well have spent the rest of their lives in jail for their “anti-national, seditious” conduct.
Imagine the left, liberal furore if Narendera Modi had unleashed such jingoistic belligerence towards a Supreme Court order or made the singing of the national anthem a key litmus test of a citizen’s’ patriotism or if a BJP minister had made a Mohamad Yunus-type declaration against Supreme Court judges saying they deserved to be neither judges nor do they qualify as Indians!
Likewise, if a BJP government had issued the diktat making it compulsory to play Jana Gana Mana before or after every movie show, the self-styled liberals would have raised hell and declared it as proof of the “anti-minority intent of Hindutva.” We would have then witnessed a well-orchestrated smear campaign in national and international media against imposing “majoritarian” norms or jingoism on religious minorities as they did over the introduction of yoga in schools.
Modi-bashers would have invented 1001 reasons to prove why Jana Gana Mana, with its Sanskrit vocabulary, militates against the religious beliefs of Christians and Muslims, as they did for surya namaskar. “Free Choice Fundamentalists” would have declared it a violation of Constitutional freedoms. By contrast, there was not even a whimper of protest when the Congress government in Maharashtra made the playing of the national anthem mandatory in cinema halls.
Fortunately, this time around no one in BJP bit the bait and avoided responding to the spontaneous outrage against the family that refused to as much as stand up as a mark of respect for the Rashtra Geet. Or else we would have been subjected to another round of award wapsi, along with another wave of hysteria against “growing intolerance” in India.