Some controversies refuse to die down even after a century has passed.

It’s all thanks to people like Kalyan Singh, ex-chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and current governor of Rajasthan.

Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh. Image courtesy: Jan Kranti Party website

Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh. Image courtesy: Jan Kranti Party website

Singh, clearly not content with his role in the fall of the Babri Majid (for which he was chargesheeted by the CBI) has now decided to try and bring about the fall of the national anthem.

He used his bully pulpit as the Governor of Rajasthan to demand at the convocation ceremony of the University of Rajasthan that Jana Gana Mana Adhinayaka Jaya He be replaced by Jana Gana Mana Mangala Jaya He. In legal parlance we could say he wants to read down the national anthem as opposed to repeal it.

Singh’s objection is the century-old objection that has dogged Jana Gana Mana. The idea is the Adhinayaka refers to the King Emperor and thus the song is unfit to be the national anthem of free India. The idea that Singh wants to “rewrite” Tagore’s words to suit his problems with it is preposterous in itself. Not to mention arrogant.

It’s actually all about timing. Rabindranath Tagore wrote the song in 1911, the same year that King George V and Queen Mary visited India. At that time some in the English press, led by The Englishman in Calcutta, reported wrongly that the song was a paean of praise to the visiting royals. There was a Congress session to felicitate George V who had just announced his decision to rescind the 1905 Partition of Bengal which was a huge victory for the Swadeshi movement.

Two songs were sung at that session. One was Jana Gana Mana but that was not written to felicitate the Emperor. There was a Hindi song by Rambhuj Chaudhary that was actually composed for George V, writes Shumon Sengupta in

Jana Gana Mana was published in 1912 at Bharata-vidhata and was described by a Bengali publication, writes Sengupta, as being about the “Praise of the Dispenser of Human Destiny who appears in every age”. Sengupta says “the confusion about the song was stirred up by the ineptness of the pro-British Anglo-Indian press.” But this is a mistake that has been continuously fanned into life by the likes of Kalyan Singh.

Unfortunately for Singh’s conspiracy theory, Tagore himself has gone on the record about this. He has said explicitly his “adhinayak” is not Kalyan Singh’s “Angrezi shasak”, but God. In a letter to Pulin Behari Sen, Tagore wrote “That Lord of Destiny, that Reader of the Collective Mind of India, that Perennial Guide, could never be George V, George VI, or any other George.” He writes that even a friend of his who was in His Majesty’s Service and had requested a song of felicitation towards the Emperor understood what Tagore was saying because “even if his admiration for the crown was excessive, he was not lacking in simple common sense.”

We cannot say the same about Kalyan Singh. Though he is ex-officio the Chancellor of a university, he has no problem regurgitating half-baked conspiracy theories as established fact. Actually this swipe at Jana Gana Mana is not so surprising. When Kalyan Singh was the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh he made news by decreeing that all primary schools should begin their day with the worship of Bharat Mata and instead of “Yes Sir/Madam” during roll call, students should say Vande Mataram.

There has been a long push, especially on the Hindu right, to demote Jana Gana Mana as the national anthem and replace it with Vande Mataram, the national song. The Constituent Assembly convened at the moment of India’s Independence began with Vande Mataram and ended with Jana Gana Mana. Kathakali Chanda writes in Forbes that “historians believe that Hindu nationalists within the Congress lobbied for ‘Vande Mataram’ at the national anthem. But the Muslim League thought it was anti-Islam’.” That’s really the root of the problem between two songs both of which have great resonance. Vande Mataram does have references to Durga and Lakshmi but not in the first two stanzas which are the ones that have been recognized at the national song. Bankim Chandra Chattapadhyay who wrote Vande Mataram has greater credibility among some as a Hindu revivalist while Tagore’s problems with the prevalent ideas of nationalism were well-known. Who knows whether he would have particularly cared for his work to become a “national” anthem?

But it is the national anthem. And to turn Jana Gana Mana into a paean for the British Raj also by implication turns Tagore, who wrote a letter renouncing his knighthood after Jallianwala Bagh, into some kind of servile bootlicker of the Raj. That does him great disservice which Kalyan Singh cannot brush away by merely saying he has the greatest respect for Tagore.

To quote the Law Minister Sadananda Gowda in another context this is a “silly issue” and a “very simple issue”. Tagore did not foist Jana Gana Mana on us as a national anthem. A constituent assembly in 1950 chose it almost a decade after his death. When a minister like Gowda gets into trouble for something he says and then announces the next day what he really meant was something else, we have to take him at his word. Tagore never even changed his tune on Jana Gana Mana. Let’s at least give Tagore himself the last word on his own creation when he said that he would only “insult himself if I cared to answer those who consider me capable of such unbounded stupidity.” What does it matter if Kalyan Singh professes great respect for Tagore if he cannot extend to him the simple courtesy of accepting his word about his own song? While troublemakers will make trouble, Kalyan Singh is not just a man on the street. It does not behoove a governor of a state in India to cast aspersions on the patriotism of India’s national anthem. How patriotic is that?

If Kalyan Singh truly wants to use his bully pulpit to uproot the legacy of the “Angrezi shasak” from India perhaps he might turn his attention to cricket instead.


Flogging Jana Gana Mana: How Kalyan Singh dishonours history in the name of patriotism