Playing Politics On The National Song

By Gajanan Khergamker

Bahujan Samaj Party’s 82-year-old MP Shafiqur Rahman Barq’s recent walk out of the Lok Sabha while the national song Vande Mataram was being played has kicked up a controversy, as predictable as the act itself. That some Muslims choose to not sing Vande Mataram isn’t a matter of surprise. That we continue to make an issue over it is.

The act provoked a sharp rebuke from Speaker Meira Kumar and the Bharatiya Janata Party, waiting in the wings, leapt up to compare his act to the Taliban and flayed him even further. Barq seemed to want exactly that. “Do you know how many ulema have come out in support of me today? I have been receiving calls all morning assuring me of their support. Secularists have called and said they are with me. This is a secular country,” he said.

“We Muslims bow and pray only to Allah. We do not bow down or pray or respect or revere any other God or any other being, whatever you may call it. Have you heard Vande Mataram? It talks about bowing, revering, praying to the Motherland. I am not going to do that. It goes against the very grain of Islam,” he maintained.

Now, whether you like it or not, his act does not qualify as an offence under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971 which could have been invoked to pull him up. Barq, who claims that the act of refusing to sing the Vande Mataram was not the first, is fully aware of the legality of his act. His claim of “genuine and conscientious belief” falls well within the ambit of Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.

For reference, Article 25 (1) reads: Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.

(2) Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the State from making any law—(a) regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice.

The Constitution of India protects Barq and all other like-minded Muslims from any legal reprisal or rebuke. That is, till the State decides to make a law, without changing the Constitution’s ‘basic structure’ to regulate “political or other secular activity” and create a new legislation or add the singing of Vande Mataram to the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971.

Now, the question arises: Will the government, in power at the time- the Congress today for all its secular talk or the BJP, if and when in power, have the pluck to stand up for what it so loudly flays when in the opposition? Hardly, I’d say. Because in doing so, they risk thwarting their own ‘secular’ image and the risk-benefit ratio slants hugely in favour of maintaining their ‘secular’ mien however slanted, even at the cost of national integrity.

Barq, like every other sectional leader, draws political mileage out of acts of ‘dissent’ or ‘revolt’ within legal parameters, to support their own motivated agendas. His need to address the media and ensure his views as well as the ‘correct use of his full name’ exposes an agenda that is deeper than mere religion. Hate speeches work on the same logic. Its proponents bay and bellow, in public against their arch foes – whether they are Muslims or Bhaiyyas or Non-Resident outsiders – before laudatory masses. They even offer juicy bytes by the minute to a hungry-for-dope media which literally eats out of their hands.

Legally, Shafiqur Rahman Barq is as much in the clean as the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ children expelled from a Kerala school in July 1985 under the instructions of the Deputy Inspector of Schools for having refused to sing the national anthem, Jana Gana Mana.

In this case, the appellants were three children who belonged to a sect called Jehovah’s Witnesses and “worship only Jehovah-the Creator and none other”. They refused to sing the National Anthem because, according to them, it is against the tenets  of their religious faith.

A Commission, appointed to enquire and report, maintained that the children were “law abiding” and showed no disrespect to the National Anthem. However, under the instructions of the Deputy Inspector of Schools, the Headmistress expelled the appellants from school from July 26, 1985.

The Supreme Court held that: There is no provision of law which obliges anyone to sing the National Anthem nor is it disrespectful to the National Anthem if a person who stands up respectfully when it is sung does not join the singing. Proper respect is shown to the National Anthem by standing up when the National Anthem is sung. It will not be right to say that disrespect is shown by not joining in the singing. Standing up respectfully when the National Anthem is sung but not singing oneself, clearly does not either prevent the singing of the National Anthem or cause disturbance to an assembly engaged in such singing so as to constitute the offence mentioned in S. 3 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act.

It also held that any law which may be made under clauses 2 to 6 of Article 19 to regulate the exercise of the right to the freedoms guaranteed by Article 19 (1) (a) to (e) and (g) must be ‘a law’ having statutory force and not a mere executive or departmental instructions.

In a far-reaching decision, the Supreme Court laid down that “the question is not whether a particular religious belief or practice appeals to our reason or sentiment but whether the belief is genuinely and conscientiously held as part of the profession or practice of religion. Personal views and reactions are irrelevant. If the belief is genuinely and conscientiously held, it attracts the protection of Article 25 but subject, of course, to the inhibitions contained therein. In the instant case, what the petitioners truly and conscientiously believe is not in doubt. They do not hold their beliefs idly and their conduct is not the outcome of any perversity. The petitioners have not asserted those beliefs for the first time or out of any unpatriotic sentiment. Jehovah’s Witnesses, as they call themselves, appear to have always expressed and stood up for such beliefs, all the world over.”

So, with Barq insisting “it wasn’t the first time” that he has objecting to singing the Vande Mataram, he’s bang on track and legally within the ambit of the law affecting religion.

The State needs to devise ways to stop the mileage being drawn in the name of religion particularly from such incidents. Probably an astutely drafted legislation preventing acts likely to incite violence on religious grounds / or communal reasons, could be in order. But then, whichever government initiates a law like that will need to be free of political agendas of appeasement or it will only be shooting itself in the foot.

It probably rests on the judiciary to be creative and evolve the principle by creating a framework with supportive judgments. The media, on its part, will be busy trying to milk controversy.
(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)