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The national anthem is a poem. Stop trying to turn it into a cartographic document

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A Congress MP has demanded that ‘Sindh’ must be removed from the national anthem and replaced with the northeast. The demand keeps popping up again and again.

When the news about a resolution in the Rajya Sabha seeking an amendment to the national anthem and deleting ‘Sindh’ landed in my inbox, my instinctive reaction was ‘not again’. This time, it was a demand made by Congress MP Ripun Bora.

The feeling was one of tiresomeness at having heard this before. That one might continue to hear this again was evident in another writer’s response, who said to me in Sindhi: “Disa na…rahi rahi uho ii raag.” (The Hindi equivalent would be ‘Dekho to sahi, baar baar wahi raag’, or in English, ‘look, it is the same tune over and over again’).

But ‘rahi rahi’ in Sindhi means both repetition and intermittence, which is to say this demand is made, is forgotten or ignored, and then it comes back again.

Except, this time, it is accompanied by a demand to include the northeast of India in the national anthem.

The logic of Bora’s resolution rests upon an assumption that it must be a cartographic representation of contemporary India. It must match region by region, place by place to what India is today. The resolution also stems, at least in this case, from the desire to be mirrored in the state’s symbolic imagery. Given the history of disaffection that the northeast has experienced from the Indian state, this is also a political assertion. Fair enough.

But why is it not possible to do that without deleting ‘Sindh’? Did Bora worry that ‘Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha..’ would have too many syllabic sounds, and it was prudent to only replace, and not add? Or would some rhythmic nature of the anthem go away by adding too many regions? Or did the absence of the northeast (should that be a homogenous and acceptable category for this purpose) become particularly conspicuous in the face of a territory that now belongs to Pakistan?

Changing words in the national anthem, as if it were a document in need of timely amendment, disregards its existence as a poem by Rabindranath Tagore and an associated ethic that you do not take other people’s poetry and make changes to them. We are told that this provision exists once a poem has been adopted by the Constitution. In effect, this ‘original’ is available for free and frequent translations, never mind whether Tagore would have been happy with it.

The incompleteness of the poem, its imperfection as a cartographic document, and its reality as an artifact of its own historical time must be erased to make it perfect, malleable, and complete for our times. It must become a smooth and suitable translation that does not keep the original tethered to its moment, but one that includes – like a school roster – all emergent realities as and when they take place.

Another politician, Anil Vij, a minister from Haryana, has also said that Sindh must be removed.

On that basis, one may even argue that regions assuming statehood after independence – Haryana, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and many others – may also be included. The gap between the national anthem’s cartography and our own times reminds us that nations evolve and change, boundaries dissolve and form; and that the truth of British India is different from today. In erasing that gap, we make the past obedient to the present, serving all its needs. This spirit, although ensuing from a good place (as I mentioned before), is ominous: It shows impatience with philosophical gaps in its desire for procedural perfection. And, when accompanied with a demand to remove a ‘hostile’ region that is not even ‘a part of India’, it seeks to erase the history of both togetherness and division.

I should perhaps now speak as a Sindhi, whose parents came from the ‘hostile’ region. Unlike Punjab and Bengal, Sindh was not divided at the time of Partition. It went in its entirety to Pakistan, rendering millions of Sindhi refugees stateless and dispersed across different parts of India. Not having a territory in India has created, now almost irrevocably, a fragmented nature of history and language among the Sindhis in India.

Interestingly enough, the Sindh they left behind has its own ambivalent relation with the state of Pakistan. This is the tragic irony of Partition, and the national anthem reminds us of these entanglements of history. It is a poem, and like all poetry, it has philosophical truth rather than historical accuracy. If Bora had paid attention to the anomalies of nation-making, he would have seen this aspect, and perhaps felt bemusement at these ironies. He is right in noticing the contrast, but unphilosophical and humourless in actually pushing for a solution. As to what this message conveys to the Sindhis of India is another matter, as long as their origins in a hostile region are not held against them.

Rita Kothari is professor (English) at Ashoka University.

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  1. Before you enlightened us simple folks we didn’t know that our national anthem was a poem. I always believed it was some hidden treasure map puzzle.
    Instead of telling what we should or should not do, put forward your logic why it shouldn’t be changed or why the question itself is not very important but please stop this patronizing tone !

  2. As a person, whose origin and home state went to the “others”, and even though I personally never been to that homeland of our ancestors, I can understand the double pain Sindhi men and women go through when such deletion demands are made. As if the world conspired against a people and working overtime to wipe them out. Physically already done, now remove even from the collective memory and history. Let’s not do that. The greatest learning from this experience is this, if we cannot take care of our own motherland, someone else will control it, abuse it and destroy it. People of Sindh, we love you, your loss is a continuous reminder to the rest of us, to be careful, to take charge of our own destiny, to protect this remaining piece of Bharatvarsha at any cost. Sindh will always be there in our heart, but to ensure that it remains like that, so that our children will also know and feel it, its name have to there, always with our national anthem. We can do better than this of course, e.g the way we have created Dharmasala in Himachal. Create a mini Sindh somewhere in Bharatvarsha, a state, call is Sindh, just to create an anchor for a people who are about to be extinct.

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