June 13, 2006Public Policy

In defence of the right not to sing Vande Mataram

Organised religion should leave it to individuals to decide on organised patriotism

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

It is undoubtable that the fatwa against the singing of Vande Mataram (via DesiPundit) by Muslim clerics in Hyderabad is motivated by, and is a manifestation of, the phenomenon of competitive intolerance that has found purchase in contemporary India. It is inexplicable why now, almost a century after it first became an icon of Indian nationalism, Hyderabad’s religious establishment felt that it was aggravating enough to call for a religous injunction. Their action may be fairly criticised for its attempt to divide society through the communalisation of a well-regarded national icon. But it is equally important to recognise that citizens have the right to opt out of organised patriotism as much as they have a right to opt out of organised religion.

If, on account of personal beliefs, a citizen decides not to respect symbols or observe certain rites of patriotism, it should not automatically follow that the citizen is demonstrating a lack of patriotism. But this should come as a result of an individual’s free choice. National symbols are intended to be secular, but it need not be incumbent on each and every citizen to accept this interpretation. Acceptance of say, the Vande Mataram as a secular expression of patriotism has waxed and waned with general levels of tolerance, broad-mindedness and unity of purpose in Indian society. Regardless of perception, or even actual fact, individual citizens have a right to interpret the hymn in the light of their personal beliefs. So those Muslims who feel that the hymn is against the teachings of Islam should be free not to sing it. It is, however, a totally different matter for one or more of them to enforce their interpretation on their co-religionists, or for that matter, on anyone else. The decision not to sing Vande Mataram is defensible only on the grounds of individual freedom.

There are important caveats though — personal beliefs cannot condone breaking public law or private rules. They also cannot justify wilful disrespect of national symbols. If a school or an organisation that an individual has voluntarily joined requires certain songs sung or certain invocations made, then it is incumbent on the individual to respect those rules or part ways. Again this is a decision for individuals to make. Organised religion, in most of its forms, purports to place restrictions on individual freedoms. The Hyderabad fatwas must be condemned as much for their attempt to encroach on individual freedoms as for their insidious use of a national icon to further their political agenda.

Related Link: Americans are contending with similar issues too — Dan Drezner covers the US Senate’s move to make burning their flag illegal.

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