To sing or not to sing Vande Mataram

The controversy about the compulsory singing of Vande Mataram misses the real point. This song has inspired our countrymen over the years. The majority do not find anything objectionable in it. However there is a body of persons who believe that singing this song because of some words in it would be contrary to the tenets of their religion as they interpret it. If this belief is genuinely and conscientiously held by a section of our people as a dictate of their religion, tolerance and broadmindedness require that no obligation should be imposed on them which goes counter to their religious belief. At the same time there should be no fatwa banning the rendition of this patriotic song. A similar issue arose in Kerala. Students belonging to the Jehovah's Witnesses religious denomination were expelled by school authorities for their refusal to sing on religious grounds the national anthem although they stood up respectfully when the anthem was sung. The Kerala High Court after considering in minute detail each and every word and thought of the national anthem concluded that there was nothing in it which could offend anyone's religious susceptibilities, and upheld their expulsion. The Supreme Court reversed the High Court and ruled that the High Court had misdirected itself because the question is not whether a particular religious belief or practice appeals to our reason or sentiment but whether the belief is genuinely and conscientiously held as part of the profession or practice of a religion. ''Our personal views and reactions are irrelevant.'' The Supreme Court affirmed the principle that it is not for a secular judge to sit in judgment on the correctness of a religious belief. Of course the belief and its practice must not be ex facie contrary to public order, morality and health.

It is implicit in the judgement of the Supreme Court that freedom of speech also comprehends the right not to speak. The essence of the judgement lies in its message of tolerance articulated in the ringing words of Justice Chinnappa Reddy—''Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practises tolerance; let us not dilute it.'' If some persons do not wish to sing let them sulk in silence whilst others joyfully raise their voices and thrill to the stanzas of our Vande Mataram.

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