In its emphasis on nationalism as the overriding theme, the political resolution adopted at the BJP national executive makes a new assertion, draws a new connection: “Our Constitution describes India as Bharat also, refusal to chant victory to Bharat is tantamount to disrespect to our Constitution itself”. “Bharat Mata ki Jai,” it says, is not merely a slogan, but the “reiteration of our constitutional obligations as citizens to uphold its primacy”. This linking of the patriotic slogan to the Constitution must be read in a context: Over the nearly two years of his tenure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly said that he considers the Constitution to be the “holy book” for his government; the last few weeks have seen attempts to force-feed a particular version of nationalism, symbolised by the suspension from the Maharashtra assembly of AIMIM legislator Waris Pathan last Wednesday, for refusing to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. There is a question here and it is this: Is chanting “Bharat Mata ki Jai” a constitutional obligation, as the BJP’s political resolution projects it to be? Or is the party trying to (mis)appropriate the Constitution to legitimise a brand of exclusionary politics being propagated in the name of nationalism?
Article 51(A) of the Constitution says that “it shall be the duty of every citizen of India — (a) to abide by the Constitution and respect the ideals of the national flag and the national anthem”. The “Fundamental Duties” appear alongside the “Directive Principles of State Policy” in Part IV A, a non-justiciable part of the Constitution — and that is not the only indication that the makers of the Constitution intended that markers of respect to the nation and its symbols would be offered by the citizen from a place of choice and freedom, not enforced by state diktat or extracted through legal compulsion. For a fuller sense of the constitutional intent, consider a judgment of the Supreme Court, Bijoe Emmanuel & Others vs State of Kerala & Others, in August 1986, which invoked Article 51(A). For the bench of Justice O. Chinappa Reddy and Justice M.M. Dutt, the question was: Did the refusal of three children, belonging to a sect called Jehovah’s Witnesses, to sing the national anthem during the morning assembly — because according to them, its singing is against the tenets of their religious faith — justify their expulsion from school? Calling the expulsion a “violation of the fundamental right to freedom of conscience and freely to profess, practise and propagate religion”, the apex court said 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 the national anthem is sung does not join the singing.” The court concluded: “Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practises tolerance; let us not dilute it”.
On nationalism then, the BJP and the government it leads at the Centre would do well to read the Constitution and heed its interpretation by the apex court. According to both, it is a spacious belief that unites, not oppresses or divides, a people.