In 2016, I remember feeling really pissed off when the national anthem was made mandatory in movie halls across the country. It was done apparently to make us “feel this is my country and this is my motherland”. “People should feel that they live in a nation and show respect to the national anthem and the national flag,” the Supreme Court said while doling out the directive.
But who are they to tell me when and where to show respect to my country? I thought to myself. In my own social echo chamber too, we would rant about the authoritarian tone of the ruling. Isn’t wearing your patriotism on your sleeve the stuff of ultranationalism? Enforcement of such acts just felt superficial in such contemporary times, perhaps even against the grain of our personal right to freedom of speech and expression. Was this enforced patriotism and nationalism the new mainstream? We were young and furious.
Like most millennial youth living in urban pockets of India, I would not describe myself as patriotic while growing up. Yes, we did study the preamble and the Constitution in our school courses. We did recite the National Anthem everyday as part of our assembly, and some of our morning prayers did have a lot to do with national unity and equality (even though “All Indians are my brothers and sisters” did elicit collective sneaky giggles).
But in the world’s largest—and notoriously flawed—democracy, these texts and symbols of patriotism could rarely be applied in real life. Like showering and brushing my teeth, these recitations became monotonous, everyday routines that everyone around me did but no one thought much about. This obviously meant that the self-presumed responsibility of preaching nationalism and patriotism fell in the hands of a select, albeit hyper-nationalist, few.
The implementation of the national anthem in movie halls was just one tiny instance that felt like tyranny—of course, those little moments have led us to what many call a fascist state of affairs. But one knew standing up for the anthem is more than just that. Suddenly, it became about forcing one’s ideas of nationalism upon others. “Our soldiers are fighting for us in Kashmir and you guys are sitting here and don’t even stand for the national anthem. Get out of this place,” one man in a movie hall reportedly heckled four people who didn’t stand up last year.
Initially, I refused to stand up. And then I read reports of people being beaten up and having FIRs filed against them for doing exactly that. I definitely did not see the merit in getting whacked for the sake of watching a mediocre Bollywood film, all because I was too defiant to stand for 52 seconds. And so, I started standing up, even though the act was filled with resentment for being intimidated into doing so.
Cut to January, 2020, when I visited New Delhi’s Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in the country that has now become one of the prominent sites for the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). While the nationwide protests have bridged a massive schism between the youth and ideas of patriotism and nationalism, it has done so by using the very tools that a young Indian like me had just started to resent. People hosting sabhas (meetings) to read out the Preamble and the Constitution, waving the Indian flag, and yes, standing up for the national anthem. This time though, it didn’t feel oppressive. This was the first time that I actually felt patriotic.
Many around me, along with academics, journalists and cultural commentators, have noticed this radical shift. On New Year’s Eve, when most in the country spent their night partying away, a major chunk of Delhi’s population was at the protest site of Shaheen Bagh. They all sang the national anthem. Even mass readings of the Constitution, which turns 70 years today—which honestly had never travelled beyond classrooms for common citizens until now since it contains a terrifying 450 Articles and 12 Schedules—have now become an act of dissent, whereby people use the very document that created this democracy to crush the blank arguments of bigots. And you kind of have to take Constitution-reading seriously when the Supreme Court’s own lawyers do the same.
So why is this happening? Perhaps it’s got to do with how certain hyper-nationalist groups brandished various acts of dissent as “anti-national”, and it has become necessary to reclaim distorted ideas of what makes one patriotic. Perhaps it’s people (like me) who want to really understand what constitutes freedom in India, and not be manipulated by a select few who claim to hold power. Or perhaps we all just want to add more nuance to the idea of resistance and make sure that our national symbols—from the flag to the national anthem, to the Constitution—are no longer abstract, theoretical tropes of democracy. Perhaps we are all just fed up with being fed up with our country.
Four years after I reluctantly stood up for the national anthem in a movie hall in Delhi, I stood up for the national anthem several times in Shaheen Bagh, which has also been called India’s Tahrir Square. It was neither dramatic, nor did it feel hollow. Along with a few thousand others on several cold winter nights—with the national flag all around me and slogans from the Indian independence movement being chanted at every hour—I stood as people shed their religious and class identities and sang a song of one identity: Indian. And better still, it lacked the horrid auto-tune of the movie hall-version, reverberating instead with warm, glowing energy of a thousand impassioned choruses. I could get used to this.
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