Anything that moves

What a one-man Oxbridge protest reveals about the national anthem debate in India

Neither in Britain nor in the US are people bullied for sitting through renditions of the anthem.

In the single-screen era, we had to endure tacky Films Division documentaries before the start of feature films. Now, we wait outside the auditorium past screening time for janitors to finish hoovering up popcorn indiscriminately spilled on the carpet by previous occupants. We watch gruesome shorts about the dangers of tobacco. We listen for the nth time to the annoying Turkish Airlines jingle. We are subjected to occasional propaganda for Narendra Modi. We are informed that smoking kills each time someone lights up on screen. We have our view obscured by waiters delivering food mid-show to people in mid-row. In Maharashtra, we also have to bear with the national anthem being played before each screening, a rule instituted in a fit of patriotism a decade ago by the Nationalist Congress Party.

Since then, members of the public have periodically been evicted for not standing up when the anthem plays, although Indians have no legal obligation to do so, and foreigners have neither legal nor moral cause. A few days ago, a family was asked to leave a PVR auditorium for this reason, after other customers got belligerent. Instead of taking on the people threatening violence, PVR staff showed the door to those at whom the threats were directed.

The incident illustrates the point I made in last week’s column, that Indian culture respects religious customs but demonstrates little concern for individual rights. In that article, I spoke of England having a wider respect for rights than India. The anthem controversy reminded me of a small protest I initiated as a graduate student, which makes explicit what I meant.

Formal hall protest

The college I attended in England served unusually good food in hall, and offered students a free formal meal every Tuesday evening in term. A brief ritual accompanied the dinner. Once all scholars were in the room, the dons (a word that refers to professors rather than mafiosi) filed in and took their place at high table. We all stood, the principal said two Latin words, “Benedictus Benedicat”, and banged a gavel, after which everyone sat and dinner service commenced.

After my first experience of this rite, I expressed reservations about Christian grace being said in a community that included students and teachers of many faiths, as also atheists like myself. Few of my fellow graduates were interested in the issue. The ritual lasted about ten seconds, and it was no skin off their nose to stand in silence for that period of time. Among those who did join the debate, some stated we had a contract with the college that obliged us to accept certain conditions, and standing at formal hall could be construed as one of them. Others suggested it was unclear if we were being asked to stand for grace or as a mark of respect for our teachers. Yet others questioned whether those two Latin words, translated by the classicists among us as meaning, “May the Blessed bless”, could even be categorised as Christian, especially given that many Oxbridge colleges had far more elaborate renditions of grace. Finally, two or three colleagues agreed with my position, but felt (correctly no doubt) that there were weightier battles to fight.

My plan to petition the authorities quickly fell apart, but I decided I would do what I could personally to express my disagreement. And so, for eight weeks a term, three terms a year, for three years, I sat through the Benedictus Bendicat incantation. Occasionally I was joined by one or two sympathisers, but on most occasions I was the lone person seated in the high-ceilinged, wood-panelled hall. The action may have been quixotic, but proved instructive for the response it received. A few dirty looks was as bad as it ever got in those three years. No student, kitchen staff or lecturer ever berated me, or asked me to reconsider in a tone that was anything but polite.

Would anybody dare to protest in this fashion in India, given the ever-incipient wrath of the mob, and the protection throngs usually receive from authorities less interested in the law than in maintaining public order? Salman Mohammed tried in Thiruvananthapuram, refusing to stand for the anthem as a way of rejecting nationalism. He was arrested, charged with sedition, and denied bail for 35 days.

Revering national symbols

It might seem like an apples and oranges comparison to juxtapose Jana Gana Mana and Benedictus Benedicat, but the liberal attitude I described in relation to standing for grace extends to God Save the Queen. Have you heard of Brits threatening those who sit through the anthem at football matches? Do people write angry letters to newspapers about Lewis Hamilton resetting his helmet hair on the podium and waving to fans even as the anthem plays?

If you think the United Kingdom is the wrong country to compare ourselves with, consider a nation every bit as enthusiastic about national symbols as we are: the United States of America. The Star Spangled Banner plays at most major sporting events and everybody stands hand on heart facing the band. Well, not quite everybody. A small minority chooses to sit through renditions of the anthem, and faces no eviction from stadia. Whether one remains seated as a conscientious objector or through sheer laziness, it is a constitutionally protected form of free expression. Even mocking the national anthem, as the Englishman Sacha Baron Cohen did so marvellously in his film Borat receives far less public censure than Aamir Khan faced merely for expressing his discomfort with incidents of intolerance in India.

After I finished my studies and returned to India, I was often asked if I’d been a second class citizen in England. I took to replying that I hadn’t been a citizen at all, of any class, thus evading the issue. If I had to answer, I’d say I encountered plenty of ignorance, prejudice, and even straightforward racism. But my experience in formal hall is more typical of the attitude of the people I met than any of those unpleasant occurrences.

I’m also happy to have discovered, in Googling Benedictus Benedicat to make sure I had the spelling right, that Newnham College in Cambridge has eliminated Christian grace from its dining room protocol, replacing it with a clunky but secular alternative.

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