Politics behind the recurrent controversy over the national anthem is bereft of facts
The debate on our national anthem, Jana Gana Mana, has started once again. Controversial BJP leader Subramanian Swamy in December wrote to prime minister Narendra Modi urging him to replace the wordings of the anthem with what Subhas Chandra Bose had incorporated in the Indian National Army anthem. According to Swamy, the national anthem was originally composed to praise the British king – words like ‘Bharata bhagya vidhata’ (the dispenser of India’s destiny) and ‘adhinayaka’ (the ruler) were for King George V, who had visited India in December 1911.
Earlier, in July 2015, Rajasthan governor Kalyan Singh had also questioned the meaning of the national anthem. While addressing students at a convocation of the Rajasthan University, he demanded the removal of ‘adhinayak’ since it ‘praises the English rule’ in India. “Jana gana mana adhinayaka jaya hey... ‘adhinayaka’ for whom? It praises ‘angreji shasak’, the British ruler. It should be amended and replaced by words ‘jana gana mana mangal gaye’,” he said.
But what is the reality? Did Rabindranath Tagore really praise the British ruler through Jana Gana Mana? Tagore himself made a clarification on this controversy. In a letter to Pulin Behari Sen on November 10, 1937, he wrote, “A certain high official in His Majesty’s service, who was also my friend, had requested that I write a song of felicitation towards the Emperor. The request simply amazed me. It caused a great stir in my heart. In response to that great mental turmoil, I pronounced the victory in Jana Gana Mana of that Bhagya Vidhata (God of Destiny) of India who has from age after age held steadfast the reins of India’s chariot through rise and fall, through the straight path and the curved. That Lord of Destiny, that Reader of the Collective Mind of India, that Perennial Guide, could never be George V, George VI, or any other George. Even my official friend understood this about the song. After all, even if his admiration for the crown was excessive, he was not lacking in simple common sense.”
Later, on March 13, 1939, Tagore once again wrote: “I should only insult myself if I cared to answer those who consider me capable of such unbounded stupidity as to sing in praise of George the Fourth or George the Fifth as the Eternal Charioteer leading the pilgrims on their journey through countless ages of the timeless history of mankind.”
Noble laureate Tagore was a great poet and while reading his full poem, all five stanzas (only the first stanza was adopted as the national anthem), with a little literary sense, one could easily understand how baseless the charges are. The third stanza of the poem is remarkable in this regard. In English translation, it reads, “The way of life is sombre as it moves through ups and downs, but we, the pilgrims, have followed it through ages. Oh! Eternal Charioteer, the wheels of your chariot echo day and night in the path In the midst of fierce revolution, your conch shell sounds. You save us from fear and misery. Oh! You who guide the people through torturous path, victory be to you, dispenser of the destiny of India! Victory, victory, victory to you!”
King George could have never been the eternal charioteer of India. So, how did this controversy arise? Actually, the composition was first sung during the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress, inaugurated on December 26, 1911. The national anthem was sung on the second day of the convention. As welcoming King George V was in that day’s agenda, a section of the English press made the misinterpretation that Tagore wrote the song for the emperor. The next day, on December 28, The Statesman reported: “The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore sang a song composed by him specially to welcome the Emperor.” No doubt, a song was sung in praise of the emperor but that was not Jana Gana Mana. It was ‘badshah humara’ written in Hindi by Rambhuj Chaudhary. Amrita Bazar Patrika stated the order of events clearly. On December 28, 1911, it reported: “The proceedings of the Congress party session started with a prayer in Bengali to praise God (song of benediction). This was followed by a resolution expressing loyalty to King George V. Then another song was sung welcoming King George V.”
The annual session report of the Indian National Congress of December 1911 too is clear on this account: “On the first day of 28th annual session of the Congress, proceedings started after singing Vande Mataram. On the second day the work began after singing a patriotic song by Babu Ravindranath Tagore. Messages from well wishers were then read and a resolution was passed expressing loyalty to King George V. Afterwards the song composed for welcoming King George V and Queen Mary was sung.”
Yet, there was a controversy when it came to making a choice of the national anthem. Right-wingers were in favour of ‘Vande Mataram’ written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, and many Muslim leaders raised serious objections. They perceive this song as a hymn to Goddess Durga which was unacceptable to them, whereas ‘Jana Gana Mana’ was acceptable to all. Tagore had written it in Sanskritised Bengali but most of the words of the song could be found in all major languages in India. While singing the song, one could easily visualise the map of India. And people of that time had no doubt about Tagore’s integrity and they knew the poetic meaning of ‘adhinayaka’ as well.
The founding fathers of our nation were wise enough to avoid any controversy on this issue. The resolution regarding the national anthem had never been placed in the constituent assembly. On November 26, 1949, the assembly adopted the constitution without the national anthem. On January 24, 1950, the constituent assembly met again and its president Dr Rajendra Prasad made a statement, after which ‘Jana Gana Mana’ became the national anthem and ‘Vande Mataram’ was given an equal status.
However, the attacks on ‘Jana Gana Mana’ have never stopped. The right-wing politics has always put ‘Vande Mataram’ above ‘Jana gana mana’. Objections from the Muslim community have always given the Hindu right-wing a chance to portray them as less patriotic. Because of such propaganda, many people now believe that ‘adhinayaka’ in the national anthem is none other than the British emperor.
In his letter to Pulin Behari Sen, Tagore had raised the question about the ‘common sense’ among the people indulged in the controversy. Nowadays too, the common sense becomes most uncommon when a political agenda lies behind. n
(The column appears in the January 16-31, 2016 issue)