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Singing The Nation

By Nasreen Rehman

Himal Magazine
17 May, 2003

The old imperial tune: God Save the Queen.
Literature and music have long been a means of celebrating the cults of gods, kings and nations. In South Asia, the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharat and the Ramayan are early examples of this, from the Sanskrit tradition. There are of course, variations upon the general themes in different regional languages, and also local songs of praise and adulation for kings and deities. When the Turks, Persians and Afghans came to settle in India, they brought with them their own traditions of glorifying the king, such as, Firdausi’s Shahnama (1010 CE). Additionally, they too, had carried with them traditions from Arabic of singing, hamd and na’t and tarana in praise of their God, Prophet and saints, respectively.

Through the ages, there is ample textual, pictorial and iconographic evidence of thriving traditions of courtiers, painters, musicians and poets retained by rajas and badshahs. Their main purpose was to entertain their patrons, by eulogising them whilst heralding births, celebrating marriages and proclaiming victories. This often had little bearing on reality, as the artist would exaggerate the king’s good looks, valour and generosity, no matter that the monarch was no looker, busy losing battles and taxing his subjects into penury; the painter would paint a picture of exaggerated grandeur and beauty and the poet would write in similar, inflated language.

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Anyone who has attended an official function in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh will confirm the resilience of this tradition of sycophancy, as long speeches are delivered praising prime ministers and presidents, ministers, governors, petty functionaries and sundry dignitaries, while much of the state infrastructure crumbles, or extolling the virtues of artists, authors and celebrities or some literary work, painting or musical performance, regardless of the artistic or literary merit of the works in question.

The national anthems of India, Pakistan and, to a much lesser extent, that of Bangladesh are rooted in this tradition of eulogising and mythologising. However, they have to be viewed in the context of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, which saw the emergence of Indian nationalism and Hindu and Muslim nationalisms in British India, culminating in 1947, with independence and partition, resulting in the creation of Pakistan; and just 24 years later, another partition and the creation of Bangladesh.

South Asian nationalisms in the 20th cen-tury draw on the experiences of more than a century and a half of earlier models of nationalism. Early Indian nationalism had modelled itself on the European nationalisms of the 19th century. Beginning with the 1848 revolutions, the end of the 19th century saw the nation-state emerge in Europe. It was a time when much of the current map of Europe was conjured. Writing about this time, the left historian Eric Hobsbawm tells us,

It is clear that plenty of political institutions, ideological movements and groups – not least in nationalism – were so unprecedented that even historic continuity had to be invented, for example by creating an ancient past beyond effective historical continuity either by semi-fiction (Boadicea, Vecingetorix, Arminius the Cheruscan) or by forgery (Ossian, the Czech medieval manuscripts). It is also clear that entirely new symbols and devices come into existence… such as the national anthem… the national flag… or the personification of ‘the nation’ in symbol or image.

The idea that nations are imagined finds a place in Hobsbawm’s The Invention of Tradition. Anybody who has seen the prescribed history text books in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh can see the manner in which nationhood, history and truth are constructed and contested: the national anthems are important manifestations of the construction of ‘nationhood’, simultaneously the perpetuators and reinforcements of feverish nationalism.

Prototype sentiment

The institutional uses of the fictions and myths of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and their anthems, have to be seen in two stages. First, the anti-colonial struggle and later the nation-centeredness of the postcolonial world in which hegemonic ideas of nationhood were packaged and offered as the authentic version of being. In the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, these concepts had a great impact at a time when there were already large populations living in cities where concepts of mass culture and the packaging of ideas had taken root. The association between productive relations and the technology of communication was an important factor in the propagation of these ideas – print languages created unified fields of communication. Newspapers, periodicals and novels all contributed to creating mass and nationalist trends.

When the Indian National Congress adopted Vande Mataram as its anthem in 1896, there were several models that were before it. Perhaps, the first song celebrating a nation-state was Marseillaise (1792). Composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, the French national anthem asks the sons of France to awake to the glory of the fatherland. The obvious gendered nature of the song notwithstanding, the general theme of the anthem is to fight for liberty, to use freedom as a sword and shield.

The British national anthem, God save the Queen (tune credited to Englishman Henry Carey, contentiously to Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lully, and left ‘anonymous’ as preferred by Buckingham, adopted 1800), was also the national anthem of India for a time, as it was part of the British empire. Today, it sounds utterly ridiculous in a democratic country, for citizens to pray that God bestow riches on the monarch, while entrusting everything to him or her. However, there is a redeeming clause, at the end:

May she defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing with heart and voice, God save the queen!

There could be a positive construction that singing the praise of the monarch is contingent upon her or him being subservient to the rule of law.

The other anthem that would have been accessible to the Indians because it was in English was The Star Spangled Banner (lyrics by Francis Scott Key 1814, adopted 1831), a paean to the American flag. In the current state of the world, where the United States seems poised to be the sole world power, it sends a chilling message. And so, as bombs dropped on Baghdad:

And the rockets’ red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there

And the sinister significance in the context of the Rumsfeld-Bush worldview, where the US is quite openly comfortable with bombing other nations of:

Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust”
And the star-spangled banner forever shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Both the United Kingdom and the United States of America are avowedly secular countries. However, in singing their nation, God is invoked time and again, for protection, justification and glorification of the country. But these were not the only models available to the Indians. The Internationale, written by Eugene Pottier at the fall of the Paris Commune, in 1871, translated into hundreds of languages, was the rallying cry for the oppressed and exploited of the world to rise and overthrow their masters. It has offered inspiration to social and political activists for over a century now. It was sung by anti-fascist groups during the Spanish civil war; conducted by Arturo Toscanini at the La Scala at the end of the second world war to celebrate the fall of the fascists in Italy. In 1989, it was sung by Chinese students at Tienanmen Square before the massacre.

Arise, ye prisoners of starvation,
Arise, ye wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation,
A better world’s in birth
No more tradition’s chain shall bind us,
Arise, ye slaves, no more in thrall!
The earth shall rise on new foundation,
We have been none, we shall be all

Calling upon the wretched of the earth to unite against oppression, this anthem subverts the idea of the nation-state; yet, it was adopted by the Soviet Union as its national anthem. It was also available to the Communist Party of India, in its English and Hindustani translations. However, the first anthem that the Indian nationalists chose to sing in praise of their nation, came from the tradition of mythologising a fictive imagined nation personified as a goddess, was Vande Mataram, which appears in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s 1882 novel, Anand Math. It was recited at the 1896 session of the Indian National Congress. The fact that the novel and the context of the anthem were overtly anti-Muslim and treated them as a separate nation, and that the invocation of the deities, Durga, Kali and Lakshmi ran counter to the secular credentials of Congress obviously did not bother the leaders who selected it.

Thou art Durga
Lady and Queen,
With her hands that strike and her
Swords of sheen…

Vande Mataram or ‘hail motherland’
became the rallying call of freedom fighters through the freedom struggle. Many chose to either forget or overlook the fact that the first song celebrating the cult of the Indian nation was rooted in suspicion and hatred by one imagined Indian community of Hin-dus against another imagined community of Muslims that it viewed as outsiders. The writer Nirad C Choudhuri described the atmosphere of the times in which the song was written.

The historical romances of Bankim Chatterjee and Ramesh Chandra Dutt glorified Hindu rebellion against Muslim rule and showed the Muslims in correspondingly poor light. Chatterjee was positively and fiercely anti-Muslim. We were eager readers of these romances and we readily absorbed their spirit.

Muslims and Hindus in the Congress, as well as the Muslim League, reacted sharply to the choice; within the Congress, in a cosmetic move, it was decided that only the first two stanzas of the poem would be sung (the stanza quoted above was excluded). Surprisingly, however, nobody inside the Congress or outside pointed out that Hindus and Muslims were not two separate nations. There was no significant debate on ‘nationhood’; in the discussions, there seemed to be an acceptance that Hindus and Muslims were two distinct communities.

Anthem DNA

In 1911, Jana Gana Mana was used for the first time at the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress, where much of the activity was geared to preparations for the visit of the British monarch. Caressing the terrain of the ‘nation’s’ geography, this ballad, which was adopted as the Indian anthem, marks its narrative with references to nine regions and two rivers – Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha, Dravida, Utkal, Banga, Vindhya, Himachal, Yamuna, Ganga. It was written by Rabindranath Tagore, for the 1911 visit of King George V, who is described reverentially as Bharat bhagya vidhata or ‘the lord of India’s fate’. (A controversy brews over the composer of Jana Gana Mana, with most believing that Tagore was the composer while Captain Ram Singh, a Gurkha in the Indian National army and close associate of Subhas Bose, is also credited.)

After partition, there was some controversy about the choice of a national anthem for India. Finally, after a parliamentary
debate, it was settled that Jana Gana Mana would be the national anthem and that Vande Mataram would have “equal status”. On 25 August 1948, in a statement to the Constituent Assembly, Jawaharlal Nehru described his position on the national

The question of having a national anthem tune, to be played by orchestras and bands, became an urgent one for us immediately after 15 August 1947. It was as important as that of having a national flag. The Jana Gana Mana tune, slightly varied had been adopted as a national anthem by the Indian National Army in South East Asia and had subsequently a degree of popularity in India also. I wrote to all the provincial governors and asked their views about adopting Jana Gana Mana or any other song as the national anthem. I asked them to consult their Premiers...

Jana Gana Mana was retained, ironically, even though half of Punjab and all of Sindh went to Pakistan, while currently, more than half of Bengal is the independent country of Bangladesh. In highly Sanskritised Bengali, the national anthem is in a language that is largely incomprehensible to the majority of the population of northern India and completely incomprehensible to the people of southern India. But it has the advantage of being very short and largely a litany of names of various regions. India is called Bharat in it – does this in anyway inform the Indian right wing’s dreams of the mythical “akhand (undivided) Bharat”?

Another very popular anthem in India, which is almost as popular if not more than the national anthem is the tarana by Iqbal, Sare jahan se accha Hindositan hamara, hum bulbulein hain iski, yeh gulsitan hamara. Set to music by Pandit Ravi Shankar, it became the anthem for the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in the mid-1940s. All the professionals associated with IPTA were progressive, radical and anti-communal. Ironically, Iqbal, who wrote in this poem, “mazhab nahin sikhata apas mein bair rakhna” (religion does not teach us to fight amongst ourselves) in 1930, dreamt of a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. Iqbal died in 1935, after conceiving the idea of Pakistan but before he could see its creation. No doubt, if he had been alive, he would have written the national anthem for Pakistan.

As it was, the choice of language and poet for ‘singing Pakistan’ was in itself an indication of how the country would develop. A majority of the population lived in East Pakistan with Bangla as its mother tongue; in the provinces of West Pakistan, Pashto, Balochi, Punjabi and Sindhi were first languages. Urdu had been prominent in the Punjab, and the British had used it for administrative purposes. It was also the tongue of the mohajirs from present day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Quite arbitrarily, Urdu was declared the national language of Pakistan and became the language of the national song. Tragically, a beautiful, rich and lyrical language came to be associated with a repressive state, out of touch with itself and its people.

At a time when Faiz Ahmed Faiz was already acclaimed as the greatest living Urdu poet, lyricist and litterateur Hafeez Jullandhri was given the task of writing the song. Not surprising, since Faiz, a revolutionary poet, had written a lament after independence, mourning the bitter dawn of bloodshed and partition. The new state of Pakistan saw itself free, not just from the fetters of imperial Britain, but free from the feared domination of ‘Hindu India’. In defining the nation, Hafeez looked to the Persian tradition for inspiration. This, when the great masters of Urdu poetry, such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Miraji, had already altered the Urdu canon by departing from the traditional usage of classical Persian to explicitly local and indigenous imagery and language. There are no more than two indigenous words in the song, and one of them is ‘ka’ – the preposition ‘of’.

Hafeez could be congratulated for the phrase, “Pak sarzameen ka nizaam, quaat-e-axuat-e-awam”, which asserts that the primary concern in the pure land should be the strength and benefit of the populace. But he digs a deep hole with “qaum, mulk, sultanat, painda tabinda bad, shadbad manzil-e-murad”. Which ‘qaum’ or nation is he referring to? In using the word ‘sultanat’, is he harkening back to the days of empires, falsely represented as Muslim empires in India? Quaat-e-axuat-e-awam – the order of this sacred land is the might of the brotherhood of the people – says the anthem of a country where, almost as if defying those words, Muslims have bled and killed each other since its creation.

While the Pakistani anthem ceded a lot of linguistic ground, Bangladesh seceded from (West) Pakistan largely on the grounds of language. In Pakistan, people still wonder why a Tagore song was chosen for Bangladesh, yet to come to terms with the fact that Bangladesh was about language and not about religion. Language was at the core of the resentment that East Pakistanis felt against West Pakistan. The partition of Pakistan into the independent state of Bangladesh gave a lie to the belief that South Asia had two nations: the Hindus and the Muslims. The Bangladeshis chose their anthem in the light of their struggle, therefore, Rabindranath Tagore, a Hindu Bengali, was chosen, when in fact they could have chosen the more revolutionary Nazrul Islam. The Bangladeshis chose to highlight the Bengali aspect of their identity. Tagore is therefore the creator of two national anthems in the region. Amar Shonar Bangla, ami tamaye bhalo bhashi – was writ-ten in 1906, in the context of the partition of Bengal. Its words and tune, based on a Baul song by Gagan Horkora, in their simplicity are immediately accessible to any Bangla speaker. Invoking the mother goddess and mother earth, Tagore praises the rivers, the breeze and the seasons: it seems that his Bengal has eternal autumn and spring. There is, of course, no mention of the cyclones and storms that wreak havoc in the lives of millions annually. [See ‘In search of shonar Bangla’, page 33.]

False notes

The Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi national anthems are very much in the tradition of their Western counterparts, glorifying a make-believe land where the landmass becomes an end in itself – a way of identifying the individual citizen, who is bound and defined by unreal geography and who sings the praise of an unreal nation. Singing the concept of an akhand Bharat in the Indian anthem or of a Persianised sultanat in the Pakistani or of a shonar Bangla when part of Bengal is in India takes these three countries right into Saadat Hasan Manto’s imagination.

In Manto’s 1948 play, someone asks about the fictional Punjabi village, Toba Tek Singh. In reply, he is told, “If it was in India yesterday and is in Pakistan today, how do I know where it will be tomorrow?” If, many years later, the question had been about Dhaka, he could have been told that Dhaka had been in India, then it was in Pakistan and now it is in Bangladesh. Who knows where it will be years from now. There is a need to explode the myths of akhand Bharat, Pakistan, the pure land of the Muslim ummah or the exotic beautiful Bengal of sweet breezes.

The nation, hiding behind terms such as authenticity, tradition, folklore, community, obscuring its origins in what Benedict Anderson has called “the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time”, uses its national anthem to perpetrate its myth. The singing of national anthems at school assemblies and after the screening of films is no longer mandatory. However, who can overlook the hypocrisy inherent in a moment of glory at some international sporting event – the flag is hoisted, and people weep as the national anthem is played for the victorious country, and members of marginalised and victimised communities go forward to collect accolades for their nations?

Where there are common threads of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, illiteracy, filth and squalor, here is a suggestion for the peoples of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh: zard patton ka ban jo mera des hai, dard ki anjuman jo mera des hai by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The majority of our populations live in appalling conditions of deprivation – somebody could add a few lines for the communal and ethnic strife that tears us apart. Perhaps, this will remind us more of our realities and might actually shame us into some action instead of standing and singing and celebrating non-existent nations. Like most other national anthems, the national anthems of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have no bearing on the reality and existence of the majority of their populations. The national anthems are as false as the nations they celebrate.