Friday, Dec 09, 2022

What Our Anthems Say

South Asia’s national anthems are patriotic rather than nationalistic.

independence day, august 15, india, jana gana mana, indian national anthem, national anthem, happy independence day, independence day images, india flag, independence day 2015, independence day speech, independence day quotes, independence day india, flag of india National anthems are often sung out of habit, rather than with thought or reflection.

A recent controversy over whom the Indian national anthem was written for has obscured something more vital: India’s anthem, like those of its neighbours, is a lyrical celebration of attachment to a homeland and a culture rather than a nation in competition with other nations. South Asia is one of the few clusters of countries where all the national anthems are non-militaristic. It is no accident that three of these anthems — India’s, Bangladesh’s and Sri Lanka’s — are written by the same poet, Rabindranath Tagore.

National anthems are often sung out of habit, rather than with thought or reflection. Yet the anthems of our region highlight a legacy of patriotism as a joy untainted by preoccupation with either enemies or wars and conflicts. They bring alive the distinction between patriotism and nationalism.

By contrast, many of the world’s national anthems are about triumph over enemies. The UK’s anthem, “God Save the Queen”, calls on god to “Scatter her enemies/ And make them fall:/ Confound their politics”. Ireland’s anthem, “A Soldier’s Song”, is a one-time rebel song that exhorted the Irish to rise against the hegemony of the English: “… some have come from a land beyond the wave.” Likewise, “La Marseillaise”, the national anthem of France, is a revolutionary call to arms: “Now, now, the dangerous storm is rolling/ Which treacherous kings confederate raise!/ The dogs of war, let loose, are howling/ And lo! Our fields and cities blaze!/ …To arms, to arms, ye brave!”

Some countries have toned down the militaristic or jingoistic elements in their anthems in favour of values like brotherhood and freedom. After World War II, Germany excised verses from its earlier anthem, which had the chorus: “Germany, Germany above all things”. Now “Deutschlandlied”, Germany’s anthem, is an ode to freedom: “Unity and justice and freedom/ For the German fatherland!/ Let us all strive for this purpose/ Brotherly with heart and hand!/ Unity and justice and freedom/ Are the pledge of happiness.”

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Spain’s “Marcha Real” seems close to the South Asian variety: “Long live Spain! Let’s sing together, with different voices, and only one heart/ Long live Spain! From the green valleys, to the immense sea, a hymn of brotherhood/ Love the Fatherland, which knows how to embrace, below the blue sky, people in freedom”.

But it is on the Indian subcontinent that anthems old and new express a love of the homeland’s beauty with no reference to any foes. Perhaps the most lyrical of these is the “Sayaun Thunga Phool Ka”, which Nepal adopted as its national anthem in 2007: “Woven from hundreds of flowers, we are one garland that’s Nepali/ Spread sovereign from Mechi to Mahakali/ A playground for nature’s wealth unending”.

Pakistan’s anthem, “Qaumi Tarana”, though dedicated to “this sacred land” makes no reference to it being an Islamic nation but instead lauds “the might of the brotherhood of the people” and invokes the “Shade of god, the glorious and mighty” to secure a future of progress. “Jana Gana Mana”, as a celebration of divinity in nature “echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas, mingles in the music of the Yamuna and Ganga”. It carries the seeds of a future world community free of narrow nationalism.


If national anthems were the basis of crossborder relations, South Asia might well have been the most peaceful region in the world. This may still be possible, if patriotism becomes more powerful than nationalism. Ashis Nandy has defined patriotism as an emotional state of bonding — like the non-ideological territoriality seen in many non-human mammals. By contrast, Nandy argues, nationalism is an ideology that focuses on state power and is preoccupied with real or imagined enemies. South Asia’s anthems speak for those who seek harmony and cooperation of a kind that would convert borders from walls of barbed wire to friendly fences.

The writer is Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House.

First published on: 15-08-2015 at 12:00:20 am
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