Yesterday I had gone to watch Christopher Nolan’s latest movie Dunkirk at Prothrapur in Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar islands. When the national anthem was played before the movie I did not stand up. The last time the anthem was ordered to be played in movie halls was in 1962 after India’s war with China. The practice was discontinued in the early 70s after moviegoers started ignoring the anthem.
Since the Supreme Court order to play the national anthem before every movie screening was passed on 30th November 2016, I have been to three movies but have never once stood up. It is not that I am protesting something. Unlike say Colin Kaepernick’s protest in the US I do not want to draw attention to anything. But while twice before I had not stood up and nobody in the cinema hall with me seemed to mind or at least outright complain, this time the man sitting next to me minded very much. He and his friends were in fact livid and outraged and after asking me whether I was Pakistani the man slapped me and threatened to drag me to the police. Eventually some staff member of the movie hall calmed him down while reprimanding me for having committed a crime which was punishable by law. While I was being slapped some audience members prompted me to apologize but I refused to do so. I do not think I did anything wrong by not standing up for the national anthem but I was never angry during the whole incident. During the intermission I offered the man not an apology but a chance to explain myself. But the man and his friends angrily refused my offer for dialogue and instead abused me, called me a less than human piece of garbage. I do not intend to stop going to the movies because I love the movies. I do not intend to stand up for the national anthem because I do not love my “country”. I suppose I’d like to get this article published so that I can carry it in my pocket when I go to the movies and use it to explain myself to people who are enraged, perplexed or unsettled by my refusal to stand up for the national anthem.
The Nation State is a cult.
Like I said my refusal to stand up for the national anthem is not an act of protest. Nor do I wish to actively draw attention to something. Put simply I don’t stand up because standing up feels absurd and unnatural to me.
Standing up for the national anthem is a symbolic gesture: a gesture that is supposed to re-affirm your loyalty and subservience to the Nation State. It has nothing to do with a particular flag or a particular song ( if I was born in Japan or Nigeria I would be expected to stand at attention for a different flag and different song) and has everything to do with a particular configuration of power: between the Nation State and its citizens.
The Nation State is a cult. Just like the sign of the cross or the heil are and were symbols of other cults so the flag and the national anthem are symbols of the cult of the Nation State.
It is no coincidence that throughout history and even now and probably for as long as cults exist, the members of cults are the ones who perpetrate violence against non-members. There may have been an odd case here or there but personally I have never heard of any atheist (a non-believer and avowed non-member of a cult) perpetrating violence against anyone whereas history has literally countless examples of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs killing each other. So it stands to reason that it was a nationalist and a believer who slapped me, an anti-nationalist non-believer.
This idea or concept of India is scarcely 70 years old. It is far, far from a natural or self-evident truth.
These days the word anti-national is used as a slur, a term of abuse the way the words gypsy, gay, jew or achoot were/ are used in other regimes of power. Anti-national becomes a slur only because the concept of nation and nationality are so taken for granted as the natural order of things that it becomes beyond questioning. That to me is the very definition of power: a concept that becomes so secure and enshrined that it ceases to be a concept and instead becomes a self-evident truth that seems natural and the only way that things can be so that anything which is it’s opposite seems unnatural and arouses hatred, suspicion and anger. In many countries and places and for many people even today heterosexuality is natural while being gay is unnatural. In many places even today men are naturally believed to be superior to women. This is dangerous. Nothing and especially no human invented concept should be beyond questioning. Because we are not perfect. We make mistakes. This is why I do not think it a good reason at all to do something simply because the law tells you to. At different times and at different places it has been legal to own slaves, burn a man because he is attracted to other men, expect a woman to kill herself because her husband died and she is a widow and cut off the hands of a lower caste because he happened to accidentally touch something that belonged to someone of an upper caste.
This idea or concept of India is scarcely 70 years old. It is far, far from a natural or self-evident truth. Most countries in the world are barely a 100 years old and especially in the so called third world, where countries were created only after the breaking up of colonial empires. The entire process was hasty and muddled. The concept of India like the concept of every other country was completely arbitrarily manufactured.
Today, if I were to cross the border over to Pakistan or Bangladesh, as a person born and brought up in Delhi I would be able to speak the language and understand and be understood much better than if I were to go to say Andhra Pradesh which is technically part of India. For many millenia what we today call India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were all part of the same geographic landmass. For centuries these entities have grown and aged together. They have a composite culture. A committee of a few confused and desperate men arbitrarily scratching lines and drawing borders over maps and other pieces of paper that too just some 70 years ago should not (and really cannot) change millennia of history and cultural exchange.
What does the ideology of nationalism give you at the end of the day? It shrinks your world down to a particular label, a particular flag and a particular song you are supposed to stand at attention to. It makes you forget your basic humanity. It makes you forget that it is very well possible that you speak the same language and eat the same food as a Pakistani or Bangladeshi. Instead nationalism makes you bitterly complain about an infestation of Bangladeshi migrants and perpetually speak of Pakistanis as if they were villains in a Bollywood movie. What does nationalism do for you at the end of the day except draw borders around your world and create enemies on all four sides? (China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka).
I am an anti-national because even if it sounds corny, the only label I’ll accept is that of a human. I do not love “India”. “India” is an abstract concept. It is so big that I haven’t even seen all of it. I cannot possibly love something that I have not yet seen or understood. And so as a human first and last at best I can try to love the people I meet…regardless of whether they are gay, straight, male, female, Chinese or Egyptian. “India” is a made up concept. I cannot very well love a made up concept the same way I do not love unicorns or dragons. I can perhaps love Tamil because it is my mother tongue and I speak it and have watched Tamil movies and heard Tamil songs but it is preposterous to expect me to equally love Oriya when I have never been to Orissa, watched Oriya movies or heard Oriya songs.
I do not love “India”. “India” is an abstract concept. It is so big that I haven’t even seen all of it. I cannot possibly love something that I have not yet seen or understood.
How can I be proud of something I never got to choose nor had any hand in making in the first place? I just arbitrarily happen to have been born here. If I was born in Italy I would have just as arbitrarily been taught to be proud of a different glorious heritage: the Roman Empire, Da Vinci and so on. As things stand I happen to be born in India and so I’m taught to be proud of the Buddha and Aryabhatta and so on. In truth the Buddha, Aryabhatta, the Roman Empire, Da Vinci were all brilliant in their own ways. And so I want no truck with this business of nationalism. I’d rather just be a human and revel in what the human mind is capable of rather than be pettily proud of what an “Indian” or an “Italian” managed to do.
Privately one of my greatest fears is being caught on the wrong side of history. History is full of good men doing bad things because they believed it was for the right cause. Had I been born a hundred years ago I would have probably had to salute British officers and the British Empire. Had I been born a hundred or two hundred years before that I would probably have had to bow and scrape before a feudal lord, nobleman or king. No expression of power is innocent of sin. This is the same India in which following the murder of a Prime Minister, Sikhs were rounded up across the country and butchered. This is the same country in which, in the name of national security and sovereignty, AFSPA has been imposed in eight states and in each of these states the army has tortured, raped and brutally murdered innocent civilians.
And so I will not nor ever will be standing up for the national anthem.
Respect should be earned, not demanded. This is the same country in which while men are free to yank out their penis in broad daylight and piss wherever they please a woman is raped every half hour. Power must be resisted. I am not an activist or anything of that sort but this feels like the least I can do..staying seated while a song plays out. My fear is that standing up for the national anthem not only pledges my allegiance to a system of governance that is imperfect but that like all systems of imperfect governance where the few rule the many (feudalism, colonialism, monarchies) ultimately tacitly secures my consent for barbarous and heinous acts. For many Europeans who were alive in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, white supremacy which is a controversial position to hold today would have seemed the norm..that the white race was superior to others would have seemed the natural order of things. It is only with the passage of time, and the birth of a new regime of power…that of the nation state that that idea which only a short while ago seemed so self-evident now seems ridiculous. Similarly, the idea of a nation state seems so self-evident and so impossible to escape that I am afraid my thinking may have been infected by ideas or concepts which seem self-evident and normal now but may be revealed to be unnatural later, once some new or other regime of power that can properly investigate and critique this one comes into existence. Until such a time though I believe the most prudent thing I can do is avoid committing to any one label by not pledging my allegiance to a country that I anyway don’t believe in.
And so I will not nor ever will be standing up for the national anthem. Respect should be earned, not demanded. When a democratic nation state demands you stand up for the national anthem it becomes as petty as the systems of power that preceded it : kings, czars, imperial officers, fascists who all demanded that the common man bow and scrape before them. Such brazen demands for displays of submission are revolting to me.
I believe that democracies are fundamentally and inherently better than many of the systems of power which preceded it. Above everything else it enshrines the primacy and freedom of the individual and guarantees equal rights to even its most marginal members. A good sign of a healthy democracy would be one that would at least tolerate if not accommodate an anti-national, Pakistan loving, flag hating, beef-pork eating fringe element like me.
The 2016 Supreme Court order which made the National Anthem mandatory before every movie screening said that “too much disrespect of national symbols has been indulged in the name of individually perceived notions of freedom.” I respectfully disagree.