The Supreme Court of India has declared that it will not be mandatory for people to stand up for the Indian Union’s national anthem if it appears in the film itself as a song. However, the mandatory playing of the national anthem before film shows in cinema hall stands. And so does the mandatory standing up for that – an act that is assumed to be the outward expression of inner respect. What also stands is the shameful notification of the Union Home Ministry that had issued guidelines about how disabled people should behave when the song is played before a film starts. What the advisory betrays is the deep anxiety that the Deep State has about what thoughts the public might have about the holy totems of the Indian Union. Worse still, for such elements, would be indifference, for the pompous one can take opposition and live with those who speak ill of him. But he dreads indifference. Indifference exposes the fact that the Emperor has no clothes.
The Union Home Ministry‘s job is to ensure the internal security of the Indian Union. The Union Ministry must think that if it does not control the attitude and posture of individuals with locomotor or movement disabilities during the playing of Jonogonomono (for that is how Rabindranath Tagore, the author of the song, pronounced it – not ‘Jana gana mana’), the internal security or some grave aspect of the Indian Union is threatened. Thus, it has issued the notification that when the song is played, “the persons with locomotor disabilities and other wheelchair users, shall position themselves to the extent of maximum attentiveness and alertness, with or without the help of appropriate aids and appliances.” Just reread that advisory for a moment and imagine the sickness of mind and the ideology from where such notifications spring forth. It is plainly inhumane and obscene. As if the idea of forcing people to do ritual displays of respect for symbols of the Indian Union wasn’t bad enough, the paranoia now has extended to persons with locomotor disabilities.
The attitude of the present government towards persons with disability can be termed as obscenely patronising
The attitude of the present government towards persons with disability can be termed as obscenely patronising. Take for example the new ‘word’ it has come up with to refer to such people: “Divyangjan”, which vaguely translates as “divine organ/part holder”. It is again one of those neologisms that probably make some sense in Hindi but is a completely unknown word for non-Hindi people. And of course even for something like the naming of people with specific disabilities, the Union government doesn’t desist from its Hindi imposition agenda. I pass by the erstwhile National Institute of Orthopaedically Handicapped (NIOH) at Bonhooghly, Kolkata, which has now been renamed as the National Institute for Locomotor Disabilities Divyangjan. This “Divyangjan”, a term that no Bengali is familiar with has also been forcefully inserted into the Bengali name of the institute. And the term itself is patronising to the core. Disability is a reality and alleviating the limitations and pains caused by it should be the aim, not the crooked and patronising formulation where the disability is packaged as some sort of a divine blessing. What is divine about disability? By ‘divinity’ is anything positive being meant here? Persons with disability might face some fundamental challenges but they are not infants. This infantilising of a whole group of our fellow citizens – marking them out as divinely ‘special’ in the most insensitive way and then coming out with guidelines about how they should behave when the Indian Union’s national anthem is being played – shows what happens when insensitivity and anxiety team up. This Divyangjan term is not too different from the other patronising Hindi term “Harijan” (people of God) which Mr. Mohandas K. Gandhi almost imposed on Dalits. That patronising name generally stands rejected by Dalits themselves, of course.
The original order of the Supreme Court, which mandates all this standing-up business, states that the “time has come when citizens must realise they live in a nation and are duty-bound to show respect to National Anthem, which is a symbol of constitutional patriotism and inherent national quality.”
Let us subject this statement to further scrutiny, for there are multiple levels at which the assumptions involved here can be questioned. First of all, a nation is not a home. People or citizens don’t “live in a nation”. People with commonalities form a nation. It is a laterally imagined group. So, yes, people constitute a nation and this nation is based on commonalities that are ‘inherent’. Here ‘inherent’ means that this is almost a characteristic one that is an automatic part of one’s particular kind of human-ness. If people are part of a group (let’s say ‘nation’) by dint of inherent qualities, then it does not need any realisation. It is a definitional truth. So for instance, if I am a Tamil because of my Tamil mother tongue, it does not require realisation. It is part of the definition of being Tamil. So, who exactly are people “duty-bound” towards? If my inherent qualities make me part of a group, who am I duty-bound to display or prove it to? Who is this higher scrutiniser of my inherent quality? If some quality is inherent, who gets to decide the grade of it or what constitutes the scale of this grading, especially given that a nation is constituted by the people and people are not constituted by nations. How does one person with an inherent quality get to ask others to prove that they have certain qualities, especially those which are of inherent nature? What does it mean when the term ‘inherent’ is evoked with respect to a nation? The effect of it all is to make this inherent-ness a natural category, almost as if it were a fact of life. This projection of nature is important, because it allows for a make-believe test of what this ‘inherent national quality’ is and as a result classifies as “unnatural” all differences. How is it that when no one but the people is sovereign and each person is as equally sovereign as the other, that some sovereign members get to define random tests of some inherent quality? Are the sovereign powers of some members of a nation more than those of others? Is it then not a nation of equal members? Since a nation is defined by commonality – equally shared characteristics – how then does such inequality exist? If this inequality originates from other characteristics like class, access to power and so on, how come they affect the hierarchical scale of a community that is technically made up of equal members?
The point in raising all these questions is to ask: How is all of this any different from “might is right”? Things like a ‘nation’ are not divine. They are very human. What is the fear that drives such paranoia? How can someone be forced to display what are ‘inherent’ qualities? What if one doesn’t have a certain ‘inherent’ quality? Is it a crime? Is it a crime if one’s reality of birth and social upbringing does not result in the development of such qualities but some other qualities? Isn’t it the case that the basis of such differences also in society itself and such different qualities are also as inherent as any other? Is it a question of numbers or who has more guns to enforce ideas of national quality? Doesn’t this straitjacketing hit at basic human dignity for it disallows humans from having any quality that is not midwived and vetted by the dominant state apparatus? What kind of state apparatus lives in such dread of pluralism in inherent qualities – a pluralism that is a basic human characteristic? What kind of a state apparatus is fearful of human diversity? Would it be wrong to term it sociopathic and paranoid? What does it fear it will lose by acknowledging the reality of human diversity?
What is the fear that drives such paranoia? How can someone be forced to display what are ‘inherent’ qualities?
If only constitutional patriotism had been invoked, one would have understood for there is no inherent human quality to it. But to give invoke a legal-political treaty and ‘inherent’ quality in the same breadth puts them at an equal footing. They are not! Inherent qualities are varied. And if citizens of the Indian Union looked beyond themselves, they would see that largely ethno-linguistic groups form the basis of nationality, worldwide. This does not have to necessarily be the only basis of coming together as equal citizens, but as far as inherent national qualities go, inter-related social relationships overlaid on linguistic identity is by far the most common basis for nationality. While the idea of India lacks this and due to the inherent-ness of such things, they cant simply be ‘made up’ without various sorts of imposed discriminations and hierarchies between identities, can fellow citizens not simply get on with their daily lives without being told by those backed by the full force of the state apparatus as to what they ought to be like?
But let’s try to bring our focus back to what makes a Union Home Ministry issue directives of this nature for people with locomotor disabilities and what does that tell us about the wider concerns from where such notifications arise. What the Union Home Ministry seeks is completeness. For a lack of completeness assumes that there is an ‘outside’. How pathetic and pitiful must the state of anxiety of an entity be that lives in fear of the fact that there may be an ‘outside’! The apex court, in its earlier judgment, had said that “love and respect for the motherland is reflected when one shows respect to the National Anthem as well as to the National Flag”. Does it expect this ‘love and respect’ to be present in the members of the Jarwa tribe in Andaman? Do they have a stake in Siachen and Sir Creek, given that what happens there is done in their name too? Do they believe in ‘unity in diversity – given that their numbers have sharply dwindled ever since they were ‘claimed’ as ‘Indians’? Is their inherent humanity and their sense of who they are not enough? Do they have to respect Gandhi, whose name means nothing to them, stand up during a certain song that they may not understand to be a song? Are Jarwas weird if things like ‘constitutional patriotism’ do not exist in many of their members? Are they lesser or abnormal human beings for that reason? Are they anti-nationals? Are Jarwas seditious?
Jarwas represent an outside which is not really outside. It is one stark end of a multi-axis continuum that we are all part of. The crucial part of such schemes is that they are all-pervasive. The intense focus of resources and energy by modern nation-states on maintaining and defining territorial limits is not accidental. Within that zone, it is supreme. This is precisely why territories where such monarchic supremacy is not established are sources of unending paranoia for the powerful. The smokescreen of people’s welfare is used to unleash the non-pretentious forces of a nation-state – money and military. In places where people don’t live, powers dangle the notion of ‘strategic importance’. We are born from our mother’s womb. We are born where our mother lay pregnant with us. When we are born, we are as human anyone else. This is before there is any consciousness of the state, constitution, Gandhi, Nehru, tricolour, New Delhi, etc. Is it a pre-condition of being human that these notions have to be built up within our heads for an individual to be considered fully human? Clearly not. Our bloodlines and human consciousness predate all flags and constitutions and gods willing, will outlive them too. So does one not have a right to be fully human and not be impinged upon, counted, exercised power upon, demanded loyalty from external institutions as long as one doesn’t harm other human beings? Surely one has a right to exist in the land where one was born, to mingle in the society into which one is born or welcomed, live a glorious life among one’s kin and so on?
Institutions that place themselves as mediators of these rights, without being called to mediate, are inhuman and anti-social in a very fundamental sense. They may well be legal, depending on how many guns back up the self-imposed mediator. Legality is different from justice – only the people can create the latter!
It is from the perspective of the Jarwa people of the Andamans that the all pervasive state starts looking not so pervasive – a hint that there is an outside, even when high resolution maps and detailed anthropological surveys have been done. There is an outside and there will always be an outside. It comes with every child who is born. Hence there is a persistent and dangerous glimmer. To live without certain indoctrinations makes a dynamite of a people, even if they don’t ‘know’ it. The distance from birth-rights to full-citizenship is a journey that requires surrender of rights, without consent or with indoctrination that there is no outside. People with disability thus need to be forced into postures and alert states to project this sense of all pervasiveness. It is plane old power projection. At the level of ideology, it is not different than Kim Jong Il’s mass synchronized performances in North Korea.
We must never forget that only the people are sovereign. By definition, they created the constitution – an obvious reflection of relative power negotiations with a bias towards structural power relations of the pre-1950 period. The constitution didn’t create the people. No judge, no anthem, no song, no flag is. Only the people are sovereign. Everything else follows.
Garga Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based commentator on South Asian politics and culture. He received his PhD from Harvard and is a member of faculty at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. He blogs at hajarduari.wordpress.com