08 September 2006

Vande Mataram

Who first used the words 'compulsory singing' in the context of Vande Mataram? Was it Arjun Singh? Someone in the Gujarat government? A central government order? Or did the media jump the gun?
It doesn't matter.

Why did BCC first write the song? In praise of Bengal the motherland or India?
It doesn't matter.

Is it un-Islamic to sing Vande Mataram? Does the Quran proscribe the 'worship' of the motherland? Does Vande Mataram contain elements of worship, in addition to 'respect'?
It doesnt matter.

None of these matter because 'compulsory singing' as an idea is antithetical to the Indian constitutional ethos. Compulsory speech abrogates the freedom of speech and expression. Article 19(1)(a) also means that I have a freedom not to speak. More importantly, it strikes at the root of a principle that is basic to our democracy: the freedom of thought. The state cannot compel any person to think in a manner that it desires, and the tendency of 'compulsory speech' is to do exactly that. In Rangarajan v. Jagjivan Ram, the Supreme Court had echoed these sentiments when it said that a healthy democracy required the active and intelligent participation of its citizens.

A parallel may be drawn from the United States. A New Hampshire law compelled the State motto "Live Free or Die", to be embossed on car license plates. A follower of Jehovah's Witnesses objected. The Supreme Court held that the State's requirement invaded First Amendment rights and could not be justified as facilitating the identification of passenger vehicles or as promoting an appreciation of history, individualism, and State pride.

Of course, there may reasonable restrictions. But the reasonableness of a restriction can only be judged in the context of the right invaded, and the purpose of such restriction. And in the case of free speech, any restriction will face the strictest scrutiny. In Union of India v. Motion Pictures Association, provisions of the Cinematograph Act came under scruntiny because it compelled theatre owners to screen selected short films. The law however escaped mostly unhurt because most of these films served the public purpose of extolling laudable goals like adult literacy.

The only purpose of a 'compulsory singing' of Vande Mataram is the display of patriotism. Far from helping the cause of the nation's integrity, it has only made the schisms wider. It cannot be justified.