The Madras High Court is a court in whose jurisdiction hundreds of thousands of cases of murder, rape, theft, arson, family disputes, property disputes and various other issues pertaining to the real world are pending with no sign of the backlog getting cleared. The said court in its esteemed view has decided that given this state of affairs, the best use of its time is to prioritise issuing orders on making the singing of a song mandatory – while hearing a case that has nothing to do with singing! The Madras High Court has ordered the people of Tamil Nadu, amongst whom Tamils are a huge majority, that they should compulsorily demonstrate their patriotism by singing what was originally a Bangla song Bande Mataram (not “Vande Mataram” as it is erroneously referred to), written by a Bengali addressing the people of what was then Bengal (a majority of which is now a sovereign nation-state called the People’s Republic of Bangladesh).
Let the reader make no mistake: this is not ridiculous. This is not absurd. This is not crossing the limits of one’s powers. None of us would want to be seen as disrespecting the Madras High Court’s order, after all!
In fact, the Madras High Court order makes compulsory the playing and singing of “Vande Mataram”, the corrupted version of Bande Mataram, in a wide range of places at various frequencies. The order states:
“The National Song ‘Vande Mataram’ shall be played and sung in all schools/colleges/Universities and other educational institutions at least once a week (preferably on Monday or Friday). The National Song ‘Vande Mataram’ shall be played and sung in all government offices and institutions / private companies / factories and industries at least once a month. The Director of Public Information is directed to upload and circulate the translated version of ‘Vande Mataram’ in Tamil and English, thereby making it available on government websites and also in social media. Let a copy of this order be marked to the chief secretary of the government of Tamil Nadu, who shall issue appropriate instructions to the concerned authorities. In the event, any person/organisation has difficulty in singing or playing the National Song, he or she shall not be compelled or forced to sing it, provided there are valid reasons for not doing so. [sic] The youth of this country are the future of tomorrow. This court hopes and trusts that this order shall be taken in the right spirit and also implemented in letter and spirit by the citizenry of this great nation.”
Should farmers in drought-hit areas and deserts also sing a song about some “Sujola, Sufola” (water-filled, fruit-filled) motherland, by taking a break from contemplating suicide?
Earlier such mandatory singing of certain songs or taking up certain postures was largely limited to Hindi-belt politicians of the Hindutva ilk. Now the judiciary seem to like what these Hindi-belt Hindutva types have preached for so long. Whether that is purely coincidental after 2014, I cannot say.
It just so happens that Bande Mataram is not at all a song about the Indian Union in any form. It is a song about Bengal and in the song, the author Bankim Chandra is rather explicit about that fact. The full version of the song mentions “7 crore children of the Motherland” (which was approximately undivided Bengal’s population at the time – the total population of British acquisitions in South Asia that were packaged as India had a population of 23 crore or 230 million back then). Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay could imagine Bengalis only hailing Mother Bengal, although of course, there will be people today who would take such an invocation in West Bengal as treasonous. Even the so-called “Bharat Mata” concept is a repackaged and renamed version of Mother Bengal of Abanindranath. Now, all of this can hopefully be erased from public memory via the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in times to come, but as of now these facts still exist in the public domain for verification. To the chagrin of many, both Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Abanindranath Thakur have already made their mark and died, hence they can’t be included in committees or given election tickets so that they can revise what they have already created. It is unfortunate that non-Bengalis have taken as their touchstone of patriotism a song that is not about their motherland but about a land the major part of which is now a foreign country, Bangladesh.
If such a lack of imagination were not enough, now the High Court has decided that Tamils must demonstrate their patriotism and loyalty to the Indian Union by singing paeans to undivided Bengal, and hence Bangladesh. It is indeed a weird test or demonstration of patriotism – especially so when the court, in its judgement, insists that they also sing a Hindi-pronunciation corrupted version of the song written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay.
As is clear from the Madras High Court’s order, it recognises that the song itself is not widely known in Tamil Nadu. And so for the song to be widely known in Tamil Nadu, it has to be in Tamil. Note how when the issue is about actually getting people to know something as opposed to excluding people from it, Hindi become irrelevant in Tamil Nadu! If the Madras High Court recognises this, how come Union government offices and institutions in non-Hindi states insist on Hindi? I do not expect the Madras High Court to pass any order making the dominant non-Hindi language of a non-Hindi state mandatory in Union government offices of a non-Hindi state. Courts are part of a system and do not stand outside the system. The same court that has ordered a Tamil version for Bande Mataram has not shown much inclination to make Tamil the language of the Madras High Court. Neither has the Madras High Court ever directed the Union government to produce an official Tamil version of the Constitution of India, without which there is no concept of a “national song”. The priorities of the Madras High Court are quite clear. Incidentally, the official English translator of Bande Mataram, the revolutionary-turned-ascetic Aurobindo Ghosh, had called this very song to be the “national anthem of Bengal”. Bande Mataram is only national when the nation in question is Bengal. As of now, no one has prosecuted Aurobindo Ghosh posthumously for treason!
Now of course, the court’s job is to give pronouncements according to the laws of the land. So one can’t help but wonder: from which law of the land do these singing frequencies of once a month or Monday/Friday originate from? What is a valid reason for not singing the song? Is the refusal of a Tamil to compulsorily sing praises to Mother Bengal a valid reason? The song is in Bangla. Which article of the constitution states that a Tamil must know a certain Bangla song? If a Tamil doesn’t know a Bangla song (a Bangla song written in Tamil font is still a Bangla song) or refuses to learn it, what article of constitution forces anyone to learn Bangla? None, as far as I know. Now, if this person is prosecuted, is not the person being prosecuted for knowing only Tamil? What about those Tamils who are illiterate in the Tamil script and only know one spoken language – their mother tongue Tamil? Why are such demonstrations of “patriotism” to be limited to schools given the huge drop-out rates of schools? Why only two days, for that matter? Why not every day? Why not every hour or every waking moment? Can constant demonstration of “patriotism” ever be a bad thing? In fact, why don’t all Indian Union citizens sing it all the time?
Why is the site of singing limited to offices? What about work sites? The domestic help’s worksite is the moneyed person’s home. Shouldn’t the domestic help be singing once a month? Should the lady carrying a load of cement doing contract work on real estate projects be singing, once a month, as she unloads her burden? Maybe the court should also pass an order which would direct employers that no salary can be deducted for “national song singing time” given that the most labourers get their salaries cut for peeing for too long or arriving 5 minutes late or being sick. Should farmers in the arid lands of drought-hit areas and deserts also sing a song about some “Sujola, Sufola” (water-filled, fruit-filled) Motherland by taking a break from contemplating suicide? What if West Bengalis start singing this song with the actual meaning of the song in mind? Will they be prosecuted for partial loyalty to Bangladesh? Or will some deeper test of deeper loyalty be devised then? And mind you, the order says nothing about compulsory singing in Courts!
Before 1947, the British wanted natives to compulsorily sing “God Save the King/Queen”. There was compulsion because natives were not citizens, but subjects. The Indian Union is a republic since 1950. How can any man-made constitution force any citizen to be mentally a certain way as long as that is not causing any harm to any other living being? What if a person is not too enamoured by Mother India or Mother Bengal?
Do we not have other names for ‘love’ that one has to perform under duress with external expressions of enjoyment?
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