Supreme Court on National Anthem: Overzealous patriotism has made Jana Gana Mana feel like product placement

Last November, the Supreme Court had ordered that the National Anthem must be played in public theaters across the country before a movie, minus any dramatisation, in an attempt to promote patriotism. This author had respectfully disagreed with the apex court's ruling back then, as forcing citizens to honour the nation is a great insult to India, and this author continues to maintain the same view.

The National Anthem is merely a symbol of our nationhood and symbols, by their very nature, can be changed at any time. It is our nation that is more important; our national values of freedom, liberty and democracy that ought to be protected far more than symbols like the national flag or the anthem.

This afternoon, the Supreme Court has 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. This comes in light of the fact that many people were assaulted for not standing up during a scene in the Aamir Khan starrer Dangal, in which the National Anthem is played, despite a Ministry of Home Affairs notification exempting them from the same.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

But now, things are beginning to border on the absurd as last Sunday, director Atul Kumar's adaptation of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night ran into a spot of trouble at Mumbai's Rangasharda Auditorium. The management of the auditorium insisted that the director begin the performance of the folk adaptation with the national anthem, followed by a public announcement encouraging people to go vote for the upcoming BMC elections in the city. Despite there being no legal requirement to do so.

The poor director tried to explain that the adaptation was done in the nautanki form of Indian Theatre and that playing a CD with a pre-recorded official version of the National Anthem would disrupt the mood of the play, especially if it was followed by an announcement encouraging people to go vote for a local municipal election.

To this, the director was told to somehow work it into the play. Thankfully, the play went on uninterrupted. In a community theatre format, with predefined music, the experience begins the moment the audience walks inside. It's a format that emerges from India's villages, where there are no CD players that play anthems or announcements, and far predates either.

Though the entire incident begs to question, is the National Anthem a can of soft drink that artists now have to 'work' into their productions, even though there is no legal requirement to do so? Is this really how we want to treat this most sacred of national symbols?

One of the flip sides of secularism is the emergence of a civic religion, often built around elements of the state and its history that take on a near religions element. We garland portraits of Gandhi and Nehru; erect statues of Netaji. The National Flag and Anthem obtain near divine significance in civic life.

But to reduce it to the status of a can of soft drink, as the management of Rengasharda did, seems to degrade and denigrate the civic symbol rather than honour it.

Coupled by the fact that there seems to be no legal basis to make this demand of an artist, let alone another human being, this act seems to be nothing more but an act of overzealous patriotism, that results in an act of malice towards the very symbol it aimed to protect.

While this author will respectfully continue to maintain his differing opinions about enforcing patriotism via the judicial diktat, one does feel, that there ought to be a general consensus on calling out what is plainly an absurd attack on artistic freedom.

If the organisers wanted to play the national anthem and make an announcement, they could have done so at the end of the programme or done so outside the hall without interrupting the performance. Attempting to place the national anthem in the performance like product placement in a film does neither the artist nor the national anthem any justice.

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Updated Date: Feb 14, 2017 15:03:28 IST

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