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VIEW: The National Anthem Conundrum

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, May 26, 2012

By Afrah Jamal

The headline in a local daily about alleged disdain of Karachi’s elite schools for the national anthem was framed to trigger a firestorm of protests. The outrage came right on cue. A small group of enlightened souls recently gathered to mull over the national anthem controversy over tea and cookies did not look too worried about this blatant attempt to reinterpret the patriotism handbook.

Some educational institutions may have already bidden adieu to an established tradition but the latest fracas over the disappearing practice of singing the anthem could be an opportunity, for some, to reassess a tired, old arrangement. No one denies the importance of the Qaumi Tarana ; no one would dare, in such an emotionally charged environment. However, they are conflicted over the exact manner it can best serve the nation in its present day crisis mode.

The anthem may be non-negotiable. And in a land split across cultural, ethnic, religious lines, its unifying call holds deep significance. But there is also a resentment at the lack of decorum seen at anthem recitals. There is despair at having grown up on a diet heavy on patriotism only to hold requiem for common values, justice, integrity and honour. And following close on the heels of these tragic sentiments comes determination to not fritter away the core message in our haste to conform to some projected ideal of patriotism.

According to some unofficial research, anthems are not necessarily required singing in morning assemblies in other parts of the world; anthems or anthem pledges however, are part of daily life in many. Pride should be instilled from an early age for it to take root. That being said that day the suggested overhaul plans had a more circuitous route to achieve patriotism in mind. People at the discussion felt strongly that teaching morality 101 was as important as bursting into a cheery song at the crack of dawn. They wanted the meaning of the anthem to be part of the curriculum. They agreed that the lyrics of Blessed be the Sacred Land are more than words to be recited on a daily basis or music that should be blared at the start or end of every movie.

Many schools reportedly have no assemblies and therefore no anthems. An identity crisis is brewing. A nation plotted with a certain vision in mind that finds the fabric of its secular design altered and its benign ideology slowly crushed under the weight of a terrifying new order cannot afford to jettison the surviving symbols of national cohesion. But it also cannot keep pretending that the surrounding rifts can be fixed by activating a few well placed symbols every now and then. The practice of a flag hoisted days before August 14 and taken down the next year in tatters does not exactly scream patriotism. Such a wedge cannot be miraculously cured by holding record-breaking titles for the most number of people singing anthems in Karachi. But it is nice to see them try for the Guinness Book.

According to Ahmed Rashid’s new book Pakistan on the Brink, “the absence of a shared national identity that transcends ethnicity, tribe, religion and language is a lingering problem for Pakistan.” There are those that view the anthem as a handy little gauge for patriotism and those that point out the futility of singing verses every morning without connecting with its essence. Some perfectly patriotic specimens admitted to never having sung the words in their childhood. Those that did cannot deny the indelible mark left on them. And many believe their children, like them can survive without their daily dose of patriotism. Others cannot imagine compromising on the one thing that keeps them forever tethered to 180 million of their kind. The idea of losing this connection altogether may not be acceptable but singing is just one part of the equation.

The authorities brimming with indignation at the slight to the ‘national identity’ recommended taking action against the villains of the piece, and they must be back in their cubbyholes by now, pleased at having averted a major national crisis. Since then schools deemed challenging the established order have been served with notices. The anthem got clemency. But celebrations are premature. The anthem has become mandatory in a place where education system is, for all intent and purposes, optional. The anthem debate rages in the backdrop of some frightening statistics. The same book dedicated to laying down Pakistan’s mounting problems also cites a survey claiming that half the school going children do not go to school and Pakistan has the lowest literacy rate in South Asia. It is 57 percent. Compare that to the figure cited from 1947, which was 52 percent.

An entire generation is growing up without having witnessed inspiring spectacles like defence day festivities to commemorate the 1965 heroes and Republic Day parades held on 23rd of March. Barricades and barbed wires are their reality. At the end of the day, they might need something more substantial and more lasting to hold on in a land where assassinating precious ideals is the norm.

The anthem is not an anachronism that can be dispensed with over time. The flag is not a pretty symbol of state dusted off once a year; these are constants that make those sacrifices made in the name of God and country worthwhile. And relying on simple minded decrees to churn out the perfect patriot is naïve, without attending to the neglected building blocks. And while it would be unwise to judge patriotism by anthem count alone, finding ways to incorporate these iconic symbols of national identity in the curriculum along with a weekly recital could help foster pride in future generations.

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