Pakistan and India's cricket games are seldom free of controversy, on or off the pitch. The recent match at Kolkata was no exception. This time the hullabaloo has been about the national anthems of the two nations which were sung before the start of the game. Pakistan's anthem was sung by the renowned classical singer Shafqat Amanat Ali and India's by the iconic actor Amitabh Bachchan.

Shafqat certainly performed poorly. His singing was lacklustre, he looked lost during it and he mispronounced and forgot a few lines. There was an immediate uproar from Pakistanis around the world, I am sure much to the delight of the Pakistani team who for once do not find themselves as the prime target of the wrath of Pakistani public. Demands have been made to strip Shafqat of his Pakistani nationality and he has been thoroughly blasted by press and public.

On the other hand, while Amitabh sang his lines beautifully he was immediately accused of charging Rs 40 million for the performance! And more recently a complaint has been filed against him at Ashok Nagar police station for singing the anthem too slowly and taking 1 minute 22 seconds instead of the stipulated 52 seconds. Well if the big man did take those millions, an allegation now refuted by Ganguly, then he was merely trying to give the sponsors more of their money's worth.

Disregarding these current shenanigans about the anthems both of them have been a source of controversy and debate for a long time. Here I would discuss the chequered history of the anthems highlighting the issues they have had.


Let's start with the Indian anthem. Known as Jana Mana Gana the anthem was officially adopted by the Indian Constituent Assembly as the National Anthem of India on 24 January 1950. Its writer is acknowledged to be the Noble Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore who was the first man of non-European descent to win a Noble prize. In this it is considered as the first Stanza of Tagore's Hymn Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata written in 1911.

And its controversy lies in its birth. The King of United Kingdom George V who was also the emperor of India had been coronated the same year and was visiting India to hold a grand durbar in his dominion. The Congress loyalists wanted to thank him for the decision to reverse the Bengal partition, thus the second day of the 27th session of Indian National Congress, 28th December 1911 was dedicated to welcome and praise the king and Tagor's poem was one of the two that were sung on that day. Incidentally this was also in Kolkata where the king was expected to visit two days later.

The press immediately sized on it as a poem specifically written to praise the emperor and the headlines went:

"The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore sang a song composed by him specially to welcome the Emperor." (Statesman, Dec. 28, 1911)

"The proceedings began with the singing by Rabindranath Tagore of a song specially composed by him in honour of the Emperor." (Englishman, Dec. 28, 1911)

While there is no record at all of Tagore himself singing the poem there is no doubt that it was sung at the convention and Tagore did not deny any of the above claims. Later on in 1930s Tagore vehemently denied he had written it to praise the monarch and wrote:

"I should only insult myself if I cared to answer those who consider me capable of such unbounded stupidity as to sing in praise of George the Fourth or George the Fifth as the Eternal Charioteer leading the pilgrims on their journey through countless ages of the timeless history of mankind."

In any case the song written in Sanskritized Bengali did not gain much nationalist popularity. In meetings of INC Iqbal's Saray Jahan say Acha and Bankim Chanda's Vande Mataram were frequently sung, and with time as communal friction between Hindus and Muslims grew the later replaced the former as the popular chant of INC, so much so that the first Congress ministries after the 1937 elections made it the anthem in the provinces they were in power.

In 1939 the Second World War started. A group of Indian nationalists thought this is a good time to try and get rid of the British Imperialism and in this they found common cause with the Axis powers, their leading figure was Subhas Chandra Bose popularly known as Neetaji (The leader). Bose had moved to Germany early in 1941 to escape arrest and among those who had joined his cause was an Indian student Abid Hasan who became his personal secretary.

Bose gave great importance to music and poetry for inspiring the Indian freedom movement. He was in the process of establishing a free Indian government in exile and wanted an anthem for it. It was Bose who chose Jana Gana Mana as the anthem of Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind (The provisional government of free India). He made this choice due to the pluralistic nature of the song rejecting the more Hindu-specific Vande Mataram.

However, he was not happy with the Bengali language used and asked Abid Hasan to translate it into Hindustani (the common language Urdu-Hindi spoken by Muslims and Hindus) and the result was the song Subh Sukh Chain key Barkha. Subsequently another Indian officer Capt Ram Singh composed the tune and the anthem was first performed with full orchestra On October 31, 1943 at Cathay building Singapore, the headquarters of the Indian National Army.

Although later it became India's national anthem post-Independence there are subtle but real differences between Tagore's original, Abid Hasan's translation and current anthem.

Tagore's poem reads as:

Jono gono mono odhinayoko joyo he,

Bharoto bhaggo bidhata

Punjab Sindh Gujrat Maratha,

Dravid Utkol Bongo

Bindho Himachol Jomuna Gonga,

Uchchholo jolodhitorongo

Tobo shubho naame jage,

Tobo shubho ashish mange

Gahe tobo joyo gatha

Jono gono mongolo dayoko joyo he,

Bharoto bhaggo bidhata

Joyo he joyo he joyo he Joyo joyo joyo joyo he

The poem is entirely composed of nouns and has words common with many Indian regional languages and thus can be understood by many different language speakers.

This was translated by Abid Hasan as:

Subh sukh chain ki barkha barse, Bharat bhaag hai jaaga

Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha, Dravid, Utkal, Banga,

Chanchal sagar, Vindhya, Himalaya, Neela Jamuna, Ganga

Tere nit gun gaayen, Tujh se jivan paayen,

Har tan paaye asha

Suraj ban kar jag par chamke, Bharat naam subhaga,

Jai Ho! Jai Ho! Jai Ho! Jai, Jai, Jai, Jai Ho!

While for the current anthem India reverted to much of original Tagore song but making it in Hindi rather than Bengali and so it reads:

Jana gana mana adhi naayaka jaya hai!

Bhaarat bhaagya vidhaata

Punjab Sindh Gujarat Maraatha,

Dravid Utkala Bangaa.

Vindhya Himachala Yamuna Ganga,

Uchhala jaladhi taranga.

Tava shubh naame jaage,

Tava shubh aashish maage,

Gahe tava jaya-gaatha.

Jana-gana-mangaladayaka jaya hai!

Bharat bhagya vidhata.

Jaya hai! Jaya hai! Jaya hai!

Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya hai!

The meaning of Abid Hasan's version is easy for any Urdu-Hindi speaker and the words by Tagore which form the present anthem mean:

"Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people,

dispenser of India's destiny.

The name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Sind, Gujarat and Maratha,

of the Dravid and Orissa and Bengal;

It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas,

mingles in the music of the Yamuna and Ganga

and is chanted by the waves of the Indian Sea.

They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise.

The salvation of all people is in thy hand,

thou dispenser of India's destiny.

Victory, victory, victory to thee."

Note that the phrase Jay Hind, though coined by Abid Hasan as well, does not form part of any of these versions.

So was the poem really written by Tagore for King George?

Even ignoring Tagore's repeated refusals this looks unlikely for the words of the whole poem clearly look to be addressing a divine entity and are more likely to embarrass rather than please a British sovereign.

What looks more likely is that Tagore under pressure from his friends in Congress to write a poem in praise of the king wrote one in praise of god, and told them in privet that this was the case. However, the friends decided to sing it on the day earmarked to praise George V. Now here, Tagore who at that time was trying to build bridges in the Western/English world, developing friendships with poets like Yeats etc. conveniently kept silent at the reports that he had written a poem to praise the king.

He may not have been pleased at this conclusion but was not that unhappy either to make it into an issue. He was perhaps not that much anti-British either at that time.

Later, however his views changed for we know well that after the Jalianwala massacre Tagore renounced his knighthood in protest.

As to its current position I see no reason why anything in the anthem should be changed, even if it was written in praise of the king the same words can be used to praise god or mother India as it is intended to in present times.

In adopting this as their anthem the Indian statesmen settled on a poem which fitted in with their ideal of pluralism and secularism while at the same time building a bridge with the revolutionary Indian national army which fought for India's freedom and of course it is also written by India's greatest poet as well.

However, if I was an Indian tasked to make the decision about the anthem I would have adopted Iqbal's Saray Jehan say Acha! For not only is it a more India specific national song, with deep links to Gandhi Ji who used to sing it several times per day, but also it becoming India's anthem would have put Pakistan, by 1950 a mortal enemy in a very awkward situation.

In the second part of this article I will discuss Pakistan's anthem which has a shorter history but is rife with controversy.