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Sing, sing, or else…


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WE’VE often had cause to decry the manner in which unthinking jingoism, clothed as nationalism, has systematically been forced down the citizenry’s collective throat.

From Pakistan Studies and its glaring revisions and omissions of the historical record, to the mythologies that the military has incubated around itself, to grand schemes such as One Unit and the imposition of a national language over a culturally and linguistically diverse population, the problems inherent in top-down über-nationalism are clear.

Yet cynic though I may be in terms of the ‘love thy country’ doctrine, I was nevertheless taken aback when I read a news report that some schools in Karachi had quietly dispensed with the practice of students singing the national anthem.

The majority of the adults educated in Pakistan will have memories of line after line of shiny morning faces assembled together; one barely listened to the principal’s exhortations to be good. But the entire student body usually put its weight into the singing of the national anthem, some using it as an opportunity to raise their voice to full volume as was not otherwise allowed, egging each other on with grins and winks, others mouthing along reflectively.

The last was, indeed, a problem for many. The anthem clearly has the intention of driving home the message that ‘Pakistan is great’. Beyond that, many students were — and even as adults, remain — unsure, for this is an odd country where people speak, variously, upwards of a dozen languages and dialects, the national language is Urdu, the language of officialdom and business is English, but the national anthem is mostly in Persian.

Most students picked up the words by osmosis, learning by rote what they did not understand. Few were taught to understand and analyse Hafeez Jallandhri’s lyrics.

But now, it seems, some schools are breaking the myth surrounding the ritualistic singing. In a news story printed in another paper on Thursday, the vice-principal of such a school said that the anthem is sung only once a week. “It takes too long and wastes time that can be used in class constructively,” he commented, arguing that celebrating Independence Day and teaching history were sufficient.

I was sufficiently taken aback by this report to fire off emails and make telephone calls to find out how widespread this practice was. It seems, thankfully, that it is really not all that widespread at all. Government and public-sector institutions of course continue to uphold the noisy, blow-off-steam shaad baad tradition. In Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, so do many if not most private-sector schools (a couple of times a week if not everyday) if my random survey is to be taken as an indication.

I also asked a number of people whether they felt that there was any benefit in teaching children the national anthem or having them sing it during school assemblies. Most felt that yes, there was benefit. Many referred to the poetry and composition of the song and indeed, I too find a good recording of the ‘official’ drums and brass version quite uplifting.

Many people said that every country needs a symbol, a song, that lifts a citizen out of his individuality and makes him one of millions, a rallying point that cuts through class, caste and gender. England has the monarchy and God Save the Queen, and a standard school activity in the US is having students pledge allegiance to the flag. The message is drummed in so deep that it becomes part of the consciousness and identity, an incubator of pride.

A few people, however, responded that students should not be made to ritualistically sing the anthem, for reasons of the indoctrination and enforced patriotism with which I started this piece. They felt that it should not be turned into merely another piece of meaningless ritual in the edifice of Pakistan’s contrived nationalism.

I didn’t agree, till the Sindh Assembly took note of the issue and went off on a brouhaha that nicely proved the anti-ritual minority’s point for them. On Friday, Senior Education Minister Pir Mazhar-ul-Haq told the assembly that the Directorate of Private Schools had been ordered to take strict action against schools that “considered themselves above the law”. Izhar-ul-Hasan of the MQM suggested that the assembly pass a resolution making the singing of the anthem mandatory.

First, there is no law requiring that the national anthem be sung in schools, and thank goodness for that. Schools keeping the tradition voluntarily and for purposes of continuity is one thing. Making it a requirement would be like the Pak Studies move — coercive, oppressive and dangerous. Is Pakistan Kim Jong-il’s North Korea or Mussolini’s Italy, that we be patriotic not spontaneously but because we’ll be taken to task by the law otherwise?

Schools should indeed retain the tradition of singing the anthem, a couple of times a week or whenever. But those that decide to dispense with it should not face state action.

Parents can always vote with their feet. Codifying the tradition into a requirement would be foolish, foolhardy and pointless.

Postscript: The news reports on this subject add the spin that the schools that have dispensed with the national anthem follow the Cambridge system of examinations. What does that have to do with anything?

The writer is a member of staff.

Comments (5) Closed

kakar May 07, 2012 11:48am
excellent piece, worth appreciation, a good insight into the "monied schools", this has obviously become a tradition not to do the patriotic acts to show that one is western or west minded,in Balochistan national anthem can not be sung due to armed militant miscreants but even then it is not justifiable,we are not in war times of times-of-occupation but this thing happening in Karachi is worth condemnation, we are clandestinely inculcated that all our national image, the national cult and personality and more importantly the national culture are pieces and sagas of waste which is too alarming, this needs to be taken up by the government-if there is one at all!
Asjad Khan May 07, 2012 12:38pm
In my opinion, problem lies not with national anthem but general disillusionment of people to unpleasant circumstances, they suffer from in our home-land. This pang of misery that they encounter every day, estranges them from doing anything, interpreted to be patriotic, psychologically. Anything assuring quality of life is sentimentally attached to the strings of patriotism unless any calamitous situation disrupts the continuity. In Pakistan life is miserable not on account of any natural calamity but our own people which impels many to think: Their Pakistan is not our Pakistan. Strongest escapes the law and weak gets taken down. This scenario is taking its toll on everyone's patriotism and igniting an attitude which de-links our relation to everything, considered patriotic; b that national anthem or whatever. When emotional connection is cut, end national anthem or whatever it stirs no one's though but business as usual.
G.a May 07, 2012 06:44pm
We've already gone from 'Khuda Hafiz' to 'Allah Hafiz'. I say keep singing it lest someone re-write it in Arabic. Long white robes and abaya have already become the new Pakistani national dress for so many.
BRR May 07, 2012 04:21pm
The national anthem is one more way to enforce conformance, a tool to subjugate a thinking mind. If sung voluntarily, it means one thing, if sung due to coercion, it means something else.
Agha Ata May 07, 2012 01:41pm
Singing the National Anthem may not help but the explanation of each word in it, might. they never do that in schools at any stage, yet. Stop ten strangers, at random, in the street and ask: what does the line "tu nishaan e azme alishan" mean and see what he has to say.