Yet again, controversy has erupted over the National Anthem, with a school official being arrested over refusal to sing the song.
According to an NDTV report, the manager of MA Convent School in Allahabad has been arrested as several complaints were filed with the police for his alleged refusal to allow the national anthem to be sung.
The manager Zia ul Haq had told teachers that it was “unacceptable” for Muslim students to sing the words “Bharata bhagyavidhata”, which he reportedly interpreted as “India is the lord of its people”.
He is not the only one to have misunderstood some of the terms in the poem composed by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911.
In July 2015, Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh said during a convocation of the University of Rajasthan, that the term “adhinayaka” in the first line of the anthem should be changed to “mangal” as the former word praised British rule.
The destiny of India
The term “bhagyavidhata” has often been understood to mean the then king of the British Empire, King George V.
There are two reasons why these misconceptions have persisted – one, some media reports of the event where the song was first sung were inaccurate, and second, Tagore’s critique of imperialism is not widely known today.
It is true that the song was first sung during King George and his wife Queen Mary’s visit to India. But it was not sung in their honour.
Tagore was asked to write a song in honour of the visiting royal couple, but instead wrote “Jana Gana Mana” as a response of almost protest to what he called, a stupid request. In a letter to his friend, P B Sen, saying that he was “amazed” to receive such a request. This is what he said, as quoted in The Hindu:
“…A certain high official in His Majesty’s service, who was also my friend, had requested that I write a song of felicitation towards the Emperor. The request simply amazed me. It caused a great stir in my heart. In response to that great mental turmoil, I pronounced the victory in Jana Gana Mana (abbreviated, JGM) of that Bhagyavidhata [god of destiny] of India who has from age after age held steadfast the reins of India's chariot through rise and fall, through the straight path and the curved. 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. Even my official friend understood this about the song. After all, even if his admiration for the crown was excessive, he was not lacking in simple common sense…”
Even though Tagore had, during his lifetime clarified several times that he was actually offended by the request, and that Jana Gana Mana was a response to that disquiet, the perception that the song was written for the British imperialist did not go away.
The Congress had in 1911, decided to felicitate George because he had announced the abrogation of the partition of Bengal. On the day of the Congress’ Calcutta session, two songs were sung – one was Jana Gana Mana, as a prayer to god; and the other was a separate song in honour of the British king, written by Rambhuj Chaudhary. The press had mixed up the two songs.
A user named Anshul writes on the Knowledge Hub website, that English newspapers such as the Statesman and Indian reported that Jana Gana Mana was sung in praise of the British imperialist. But newspapers owned by Indians such as the Amrita Bazar Patrika, The Bengalee reported that Jana Gana Mana was sung on the second day of the Calcutta session and that a song for the “song composed for welcoming King George V and Queen Mary was sung”.
There has been much misunderstanding about the term “bhagyavidhata” also. As the portion of the letter quoted above indicates, Tagore meant the term “bhaygyavidhata” very differently from what is being described today.
Scholars have pointed out that in his anthology of poems “Gitanjali” too, this entity appears as a guiding spirit and the arbiter of India’s destiny.
But there would have been no confusion over what Tagore meant, if at all, anyone had bothered to read his writing – both fiction and non-fiction. He was known to be very critical of both imperialism, as well as nationalism. His ideas on nationhood were more nuanced that the simple binaries that pitted one country against another. He advocated a universal human mind, which is beyond the narrow definitions of religion or country borders.
(An earlier version of this story was published on July 8, 2015, under the headline “This is not the first time the National Anthem was thought to be in praise of the British”)