Editorial: Up to the occasion


Last week, the state government declared Tamil Thai Vaazhthu, which was written by ‘Manonmaniam’ Sundaranar, as the state song of Tamil Nadu. It was also announced that when the song is sung at public functions, educational institutions and government offices, everyone should stand up except pregnant women and people with disabilities. The development comes after Judge GR Swaminathan of Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court observed that Tamil Thai… is a song of prayer and not a hymn and that there is no legal obligation for participants to stand up during its recitation. Swaminathan’s sighting was in response to a 2018 incident that involved Kanchi’s seer sitting while the summoning song was played at a function in Chennai chaired by then-governor Banwarilal Purohit. A group of protesters expressed their outrage by storming the Kanchi Mutt in Rameswaram and intimidating its director.

According to the latest government version, the song of invocation is now obligatory to be sung at the start of events organized in the aforementioned places and it has been prescribed that during public functions, the interpretation of this song with musical instruments or via recording should be avoided and trained singers should be employed to sing the prayer song within the 55 second time limit for Mohana Raagam. We can remember that it was in 1970, under the leadership of the then Chief Minister, Mr. Karunanidhi, that a GO was adopted making the return of Tamil Thai… establishments compulsory. This time around, the government encouraged private actors to also sing the song at the start of their duties, in an attempt to spread the richness of Tamil among young people.

Conversation regarding the prayer song had gathered pace over the past month after a well-known educational institution in the city performed a performance of a Sanskrit song on the occasion of its convocation, instead of the Tamil Thai … The issue snowballed into a political controversy as the state’s higher education minister, K Ponmudi wrote to the director of IIT-Madras, requesting that the song of invocation of the State is sung at all events of the institution, including invitations. He added that the centrally funded institution, established in 1959, had received 250 acres of land from Tamil Nadu, which continued to support the institution’s growth through various means.

Regional and patriotic leanings aside, prayer songs and hymns have often found themselves in the midst of misunderstandings of all kinds, which have turned into food for political rhetoric. A few years ago, the fury around the national anthem played in multiplexes before the films were shown had aroused strong reactions from citizens. Many wondered if a movie theater was a suitable place to show the patriotism of an individual. While several people have been arrested in Chennai, as well as in towns in Kerala, the Supreme Court has recognized that the law is being used to characterize people as anti-nationals. Subsequently, in a reversal of its 2016 verdict, the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that it was no longer mandatory to play the anthem in theaters before the films were shown.

But here’s the question: Do concepts like patriotism for one’s own nation or state require the drafting of laws to ensure respect for citizens? What do we say about a nation when the fear of sanctions from the police is the only motor of respect for a national or regional feeling? In an ideal scenario, our elected officials should strive to build a state and a country where we do not need to be told to stand up when the opportunity calls for it – rather it should be the default answer. ‘a people who truly value their homeland and their citizens.

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