SOME controversies simply refuse to die down. And thanks to people like Kalyan Singh, former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and now Rajasthan’s Governor. Singh, who was chargesheeted by the CBI in the Babri Masjid case, has re-discovered a colonial element in the century-old national anthem. He used his speech as Chancellor at the convocation ceremony of the Rajasthan University to suggest that ‘Jana Gana Mana Adhinayaka Jaya He’ be replaced by ‘Jana Gana Mana Mangala Jaya He’. Singh’s objection is to the word ‘Adhinayaka’ which he thinks refers to the King of England, making the song unfit to be the national anthem of a free India. Singh’s smear is borne out of ignorance. It is a pity that a chancellor of universities chose to spread a falsehood among new lights of the Rajasthan intelligentsia who were taking degrees.
Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote Jana Gana Mana in 1911, the same year King George V and Queen Mary visited India. At that time, a section of the English press led by ‘The Englishman’ in Calcutta wrongly reported that the song was a paean to the visiting royals. It was not. It happened like this: during the royals’ visit, there was a Congress session to felicitate George V who had just announced his decision to rescind the 1905 Partition of Bengal which was a huge victory for the Swadeshi movement. Two songs were sung at that session. One was a song composed in Hindi by Rambhuj Chaudhary that was sung at the Congress session to felicitate George V. The other was Jana Gana Mana which was composed by Tagore in “Praise of the Dispenser of Human Destiny who appears in every age”.
Tagore had himself gone on record about this. He had said explicitly his “adhinayak” was not “Angrezi shasak” (English ruler) but God. In a letter to Pulin Behari Sen, Tagore wrote: “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.” Tagore also talked of a friend of his who was in His Majesty’s Service who clearly understood the song was not in the Emperor’s praise. His British friend had enough common sense. Unfortunately Kalyan Singh is totally lacking in it. He goes about regurgitating half-baked verbal notions as true meanings. But then Kalyan Singh needs to do that to prove his ‘nationalist’ credentials every now and then. As chief minister of Uttar Pradesh he ordered children at primary schools to begin their day with the worship of Bharat Mata and say ‘Vande Mataram’ instead of “Yes Sir/Madam” during roll call.
Singh’s suggestion is not freakish: for a long time Hindu nationalists have batted for Jana Gana Mana to be replaced by Vande Mataram. The Constituent Assembly began with Vande Mataram and ended with Jana Gana Mana. Hindu nationalists within the Congress lobbied for Vande Mataram as the national anthem. But the Muslim League thought the song required Muslims to bow to Mother Goddess which Islam didn’t permit them. Vande Mataram does have references to Durga and Lakshmi but not in the first two stanzas which are the ones that have been recognized as the national song. Bankim Chandra Chattapadhyay who wrote Vande Mataram had greater credibility among some as a Hindu revivalist while Tagore’s problems with the prevalent ideas of nationalism were well-known. Who knows whether he would have particularly cared for his work to become a “national” anthem?
To see Jana Gana Mana as a paean to the British Crown – even by remotest implication – turns Tagore, who wrote a letter renouncing his knighthood after Jallianwala Bagh, into some kind of servile bootlicker of the Raj. That does him great disservice which Kalyan Singh cannot brush away by merely saying that he has the greatest respect for Tagore.
Let us not forget that Tagore did not foist Jana Gana Mana on us as a national anthem. The Constituent Assembly voted for it in 1950, almost a decade after his death. Tagore never even changed his tune on Jana Gana Mana. Let us at least give Tagore himself the last word on his own creation when he said “(I would only) insult myself if I cared to answer those who consider me capable of such unbounded stupidity.” What does it matter if Kalyan Singh professes great respect for Tagore if he cannot extend to him the simple courtesy of accepting his word about his own song? Kalyan Singh is not just a man on the street. He has been a chief minister; he is a senior politician. He is holding the august office of governor of a state. It is not expected of him to cast aspersions on the patriotism of Tagore. He should be ashamed of himself. The least he can do is to apologise for the gross vilification of Tagore. Such an apology would also prove that he can be large-hearted enough to accept his foolishness about parading a far-fetched idea as a gem of truth.