Standing Up For Sitting Down

In a country as diverse as the Republic of India, it is expected that the national identity represented by the national emblems like the flag or the anthem would not get much air of importance or attention.

Standing Up For Sitting Down

by Pratik Deb for

Salman M has made it to the headlines recently as the 25 year old student from Kerala is facing life imprisonment following his refusal to stand up during the national anthem in a theatre. His arrest and subsequent denial of bail garnered a lot of controversy as he was charged with sedition for, reportedly, ‘sitting and disrespecting’ the national anthem. Beyond the bizarre and disturbing decision by the lower courts, this is a story that is being interpreted by many as an ominous omen of politicisation of the surge of nationalistic fervour throughout the country. Only time will tell us if it is but a discrete story of some over-zealous lower court officials or an indication of an emerging trend, but suffice it to say that the issue deserves more than a sensational headline, it warrants a national conversation.

In a country as diverse as the Republic of India, it is expected that the national identity represented by the national emblems like the flag or the anthem would not get much air of importance or attention. If we be honest to ourselves, the reality of nationalist identity seems somewhat propped up and imposed in the midst of the multilingual multicultural vibrant plurality. With the constant struggle between the centre and the provinces on the issue of federalism, how come, then, the question of national identity found its ground? How is that in the state of Kerala, which has always been famous for being left-centrist in its politics and the land of farthest religious and cultural diversity, we suddenly find this case that remains outlier to every preconception about our nation?

During the famous Texas vs. Johnson (1989) hearing, the Supreme Court of the United States passed one of the most controversial rulings which can be summarised as follows: the constitution ought to provide its citizens the right to free-speech that includes desecration of national emblems such as the national flag. The underlying idea of the ruling is inherent in the idea of modern secular democracy where the character of state is defined as an essential compromise between the citizenry and governance mechanism. The state, deprived of its original ‘divine rights on the men and women’, remains only to protect its citizens, not only from each other or from outside onslaught, but more importantly from itself. The democracy distances itself from totalitarian instincts by not taking itself as sacrosanct, by not becoming an idea so sacred that it becomes immune to free inquiry and dissent. Whenever a constitutional democracy attempts to trot on these features, whenever it appears to make an effort to sanitize the dissidents and contrarians, it starts to show the first symptoms of losing its founding principles.

But the case of Salman is not just a case of democracy slipping from its pedestal. There is an overt undertone of ill-conceived nationalism in the story that can hardly be overlooked. Even if we do overlook the birth-religion of the accused (which would be a gross mistake since the case would probably he handled very differently if the accused was an upper-caste Hindu), the ‘crime’ itself raises the question of intent on the part of the law as well as the ones who are imparting it. One cannot forget that in order for Salman to be indicted, complaints were lodged by his fellow movie-goers who felt ‘insulted’ on behalf of their nation when the accused allegedly declined to stand up to show ‘proper respect’ the anthem. The fact that a few Indian middle-class happy-go-lucky movie goer would be insulted enough to lodge a complaint and would get entangled with the messy law and order system that they always prefer to avoid, tells us more than we desire to inquire.

The bud of any totalitarian ideology blooms in the heart of majoritarianism so much so that it remains impossible to distinguish them from each other at the inception. The new identity of nationalism that is being written as the political doctrine for the country has to be written at the expense of all its nuances and heterogeneity and with the insidious and barely visible ink of majoritarianism. And that is how the already wobbly democracy of the developing nation goes on to the slippery slope of losing its ground, when everyone not ready to pledge the allegiance to certain vapid symbols become suspected incendiary; when the constant confirmation of loyalty becomes the norm especially for the minority who with the slightest drop of the hat becomes suspected terrorist. This is how, historically, any new identity soaked with nationalist ardour has been created and perpetrated, “not with a bang but a whimper”.

Before we trudge along the path too far, before we give away too much of what we take for granted, we as a nation needs an introspection. The largest democracy on the planet not only survives but thrives on its unparalleled heterogeneity. A centralist state aspiring to be overbearing and homogenising would mean not only the devastation of current delicate balance of unity and diversity, but also false constructs of identity over the multiple arrays of personhoods and nationhoods. We better not wait too long to introspect.

About the author: The author is a medical doctor and former independent student activist of Kolkata, currently a doctoral researcher at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

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