National Anthem row: In times of jingoistic paranoia, 'inherent nationalism' can even overcome physical disability

The Supreme Court of India on Tuesday clarified that Indian citizens will no longer be required to stand in cases where the National Anthem is played in the middle of a film, as part of the storyline or as part of a newsreel or a documentary. However, the order for the mandatory playing of the anthem before films shown in cinema halls stands, and so does the mandatory standing up – an act that is assumed to be the outward expression of inner respect for the country.

What also stands is the shameful notification by the Union Home Ministry, dictating guidelines on how the disabled should behave when the anthem is being played. What the advisory betrays, however, is the deep anxiety of the state about what thoughts the public might harbour about the holy totems of the Indian Union.

The 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 persons with locomotor or movement disabilities during the playing of Jonogonomono (that’s how Rabindranath Tagore, the author of the song pronounced it, not ‘Janaganamana’), the internal security or some grave aspect of the India is threatened.

Thus, it issued the notification that when the song is played, “persons with locomotor disabilities and other wheel chair 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 ideology from where such notifications spring forth. This is plainly inhuman and obscene. As if the idea of forcing people to do ritual displays of respect of symbols of the Indian Union wasn’t bad enough, the paranoia now has extended to persons with locomotor disabilities.

The Union Home Ministry recently released guidelines on how the disabled should behave when the National Anthem is being played. AP

The Union Home Ministry recently released guidelines on how the disabled should behave when the National Anthem is being played. AP

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 to “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 naming of people with specific disabilities, the government doesn’t desist from its Hindi imposition agenda.

The erstwhile National Institute of Orthopaedically Handicapped (NIOH) at Bonhooghly, Kolkata – that has now been renamed as the National Institute for Locomotor Disabilities Divyangjan. This “divyangjan” name, 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 crookish 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 may have disabilities but they are not infants.

This infantilising of a whole group of our co-citizens, marking them out as divinely special in the most insensitive way and then coming out with guidelines about how they should behave during the National Anthem tells us 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 Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had almost imposed on the Dalits. That patronising name generally stands rejected by Dalits themselves.

The original order of the Supreme Court that mandates all this standing up business states “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.”

There are multiple levels at which the assumptions inherent in this statement can be questioned. First of all, 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 based on commonalities that are ‘inherent’.

This ‘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. 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 to? 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, people are not constituted by nations. How does one person with inherent quality get to ask for proving qualities from other people, especially those which are of inherent nature? What does it meant, when the term inherent is evoked with respect to a nation?

What it does is that it makes this inherentness a natural category, almost as if it were a fact of life. This projection of naturalness is important, because it sets up a make believe test of what this ‘inherent national quality’ is and as a result classifies as “unnatural” all differences.

How come when no one but the people are sovereign and each person 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 others? Is it then not a nation of equal members? Since a nation is defined by commonality which are equally shared characters, how come then this inequality exists?

If this inequality originates from other characteristics like class, access to power and so on, how come they affect the hierarchy scale of a community that is technically made up of equal members? How is this any different from might is right? Why does it matter that people who are by definition members of a nation not show certain randomly determined non-divine characteristic, for such unquestioning display of loyalty can only be expected of divinely ordained things and things like ‘nation’ aren’t divine. They are very human.

What is the fear? Is it that if people don’t show signs of this ‘inherent national quality’, then that calls into question the inherent-ness, or worse still, the nation-ness of this ‘inherent national quality’? 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 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 straight-jacketing hit at basic human dignity for it disallows humans to have no quality that is not mid-wived 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 be wrong to term it sociopathic and paranoid? What does it fear it will lose by acknowledging the reality of human diversity?

If only constitutional patriotism was invoked, one would have understood for it is not an inherent human quality, but does invoking a legal-political treaty and inherent quality in the same breadth put them at an equal footing. No, inherent qualities are varied. And if citizens of the India 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 overlayed on linguistic identity is by far the commonest basis for nationality. While the idea of India lacks this, and due to the inherentness of such things, they can’t simply be ‘made up’ without various sorts of imposed discriminations and hierarchies between identities; can co-citizens not simply get on with their daily lives without being told by those backed by the full force of the state apparatus what they ought to be like?

But let’s try to bring our focus back on what makes the 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 home ministry seeks is completeness. For 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 judgement 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 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 humanness 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’ does 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 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. Which is precisely why territories where such monarchic supremacy is not established are sources of unending paranoia for the powers-to-be. 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 as anyone else. This is before there is 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 predates all flags and constitutions, and god willing, will outlive them too. So does one has a right to be fully human and not be impinged upon, counted, exercised power upon, demanded loyalty from external institutions as long as they don’t harm other human beings?

One has a right to exist in the land one was born upon, to mingle in the society into which one is born or welcomed, live a glorious life among one’s kins 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 justness – 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 plain old power projection. At the level of ideology, it is not different than Kim Jong-Il’s mass synchronised 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 more important. Only the people are sovereign. Everything else follows.

Published Date: Feb 15, 2017 01:05 pm | Updated Date: Feb 15, 2017 01:07 pm