A recent controversy over who the Indian national anthem was written for has obscured something far more vital and precious. India’s anthem, like those of its neighbors, is a lyrical celebration of attachment to a homeland and a culture rather than a nation in competition with other nations.
South Asia is one of the few clusters of countries where all the national anthems are non-militaristic. It is no accident that three of these anthems – Indian, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan – are written by the same poet, Rabindranath Tagore.
National anthems are often sung out of habit – rather than with special thought and reflection. Yet the anthems of our region highlight a legacy of patriotism as a joy untainted by preoccupation with either enemies, wars or conflicts with some ‘other’. The anthems of this region also bring alive the distinction between ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’.
By contrast, many of the world’s national anthems are about triumph over enemies. The anthem of the United States of America derives from its war of Independence and is thus about the American flag, the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’, staying aloft ‘through the perilous fight’ and ‘the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air’.
United Kingdom’s anthem, ‘God Save the Queen’, calls on God to:
“Scatter her enemies,
And make them fall:
Confound their politics”.
Neigbouring Ireland’s anthem, ‘A Soilder’s Song’, is a one-time rebel song that exhorted the Irish to rise against the hegemony of the English “…some have come from a land beyond the wave.” The anthem is a pledge:
“…come woe or weal,
‘Mid cannon’s roar and rifles’ peal,
We’ll chant a solider’s song.”
Likewise, ‘La Marseillaise’, the national anthem of France, is a revolutionary call to arms:
“Now, now, the dangerous storm is rolling, Which treacherous kings confederate raise!
The dogs of war, let loose, are howling, And lo! our fields and cities blaze!
…..To arms, to arms, ye brave!…”
Italy’s ‘Il Canto degli Italiani’ is also a call to arms with the following chorus:
“Let us join in a cohort,
We are ready to die.
We are ready to die,
Italy has called….”
Algeria’s anthem, “Kassaman”, is also a call to arms which ends with this stanza:
“Shouts home from the battlefield .
Listen and answered them a call !
Let it be written with the blood of fighters And be read to future generations .
Oh , Glory , we hold out our hand to you , We are determined that Algeria shall live – Be our witness -Be -Be our witness our witness!”
Over the years some countries have toned down the militaristic or jingoistic element in their anthem in favor of values like brotherhood and freedom. After World War II Germany excised verses from its earlier anthem, which had the chorus “Germany, Germany above all things”. Now “Deutschlandlied”, Germany’s anthem, is an ode to freedom:
“Unity and justice and freedom
For the German fatherland!
Let us all strive for this purpose
Brotherly with heart and hand!
Unity and justice and freedom
Are the pledge of happiness;
Bloom in the glow of happiness,
Bloom, German fatherland!|”
Japan’s “Kimigayo”, originally an ode to the Japense emperor who symbolized the unity of the nation, is closer to nature than war:
“Thousands of years of happy reign be thine; Rule on, my lord, until what are pebbles now By ages united to mighty rocks shall grow Whose venerable sides the moss doth line.”
Among the European anthem’s Spain’s Marcha Real, seems closest to the South Asian variety for it is a celebration of the beauty of the homeland:
“Long live Spain! Let’s sing together, with different voices, and only one heart.
Long live Spain! From the green valleys, to the immense sea, a hymn of brotherhood.
Love the Fatherland, which knows how to embrace, below the blue sky, people in freedom.
Glory to the sons, who have given to history, justice and greatness, democracy and peace.”
But it is on the Indian sub-continent that anthem’s old and new express a love of the homeland’s beauty with no reference to any foes.
Perhaps the most lyrical of these is the Sayaun Thunga Phool Ka, which Nepal adopted as its national anthem in 2007, after overthrowing the monarchy:
“Woven from hundreds of flowers, we are one garland that’s Nepali Spread sovereign from Mechi to Mahakali A playground for nature’s wealth unending Out of the sacrifice of our braves, a nation free and unyielding A land of knowledge, of peace, the plains, hills and mountains tall Indivisible, this beloved land of ours, our motherland Nepal Of many races, languages, religions, and cultures of incredible sprawl This progressive nation of ours, all hail Nepal”
Almost four decades earlier when East Pakistan became Bangladesh the new nation chose Tagore’s “Amar Sonar Bangla” as its anthem:
“My golden Bengal,
I love you.
Forever your skies,
Your air set my heart in tune
As if it were a flute.
In spring, O mother
The fragrance from your mango groves
Makes me wild with joy,
Ah, what a thrill!…”
Interestingly Pakistan’s anthem, Qaumi Taranah , though dedicated to “this sacred land” makes no reference to it being an Islamic nation but instead lauds “the might of the brotherhood of the people” and invokes the “Shade of God, the Glorious and Mighty” to secure a future of progress and perfection.
‘Jana gana man’, as a celebration of divinity in nature “echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas, mingles in the music of Yamuna and Ganges” – carries the seeds of a future world community free of narrow nationalism.
If national anthem’s were the basis of cross border relations South Asia might well be the most peaceful region in the world. This may still be possible, if patriotism becomes more powerful than nationalism.
Ashis Nandy, the eminent sociologist, has defined patriotism is an emotional state of bonding – akin to the non-ideological territoriality seen in many species of non-human mammals and even in some species of birds and insects. By contrast, Nandy argues, nationalism is an ideology that concentrates State power, and is ever preoccupied with real or imagined enemies.
The anthems of South Asia certainly speak for those who seek harmony and cooperation of a kind that would convert borders from walls of barbed wire with armed guards to friendly easily traversed fences.
Rajni Bakshi is Senior Gandhi Peace Fellow, Gateway House.
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