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Sing, sing, or else…

May 06, 2012

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.