Patriotism is definitely passé. The national anthem and the Ambassador car evoke more or less similar feelings of vaguely respectful nostalgia. But most modern and mature democracies manage to outgrow the sanctities of childhood. Honouring the national flag or anthem is left by them to individual discretion, while the state busies itself with worthier matters. Hence, a degree of irreverence becomes an inevitable and innocuous part of a healthy polity. So when the Maharashtra government insists on forcing the national anthem on cinema-goers, the whole thing looks more like regression than revival. The state police have also been alerted to the measure, so that they could crack down on “disrespectful” behaviour during the song. The nation suddenly begins to look like an immense schoolroom barely managing to keep mischief and truancy at bay.
Paranoia, pretending to be patriotism, surfaces every now and then within the Indian state, provoking spurts of high-minded tokenism. This mostly takes the form of absurdly fastidious legislation regarding the honouring of the tricolour. Recently, the Madhya Pradesh high court had banned the screening of a Hindi film because it had a sequence in which the national anthem was sung. The scene had to be deleted and a fine paid to the petitioner before the film could be screened again. The Nationalist Congress Party had started a campaign for bringing the national anthem back into cinema-halls from the beginning of this year, supplementing it with footage of film-stars taking turns in holding the tricolour. It is the spirit of enforcement which is so objectionable in these instances. Policing human sentiments never fails to look self-defeating. In Maharashtra, especially in Mumbai, what is particularly sinister is the link between such enforcements and terrorism made by the government. India’s national anthem is addressed to “the captain of the minds of all people”, who is also the “dispenser of Bharat’s destiny”. Forcing the song down the public ear in cinema-halls comes dangerously close to interpreting this “ruler” to be the paranoid Indian state.