We Indians like taking everything to extremes.

Take our national anthem, for instance. Or rather, national anthems. Emphasis on the plural. Most countries are content with one. They may give their king (or queen) his (or her) own song, but that's not really the same thing. But we, of course, have to be different. We have two, and singing the wrong one can get you arrested in the right (or rather, wrong) parts of the country.

It all started quite innocently. The Indian National Congress was looking for a song to set the tone at their twelfth annual meeting (which was important for a whole lot of other reasons as well, but never mind those). Into the breach stepped Rabindranath Tagore, with a poem from a novel by Bankim Chandra. That poem was called vande mataram, or "Hail, my motherland". The poem was mostly written in Bengali and Bankim Chandra himself was probably thinking about Bengal when he wrote it, but the first verse happened to be in Sanskrit and painted a beautiful picture of an idealised rural environment, with the sun shining on lush green fields, the moonlight glistening on gently rippling rivers, and the winds sighing softly in forests where flowers danced on trees. Add Tagore's stirring music, and you had a combination which was totally in synch with the national romanticism of the mostly urban delegates at the session. The song become an instant hit, and the phrase vande mataram became the slogan of the independence movement.

To the already chokingly patriotic sentiment of the song was added an image of people dressed in khadi, defiantly chanting vande mataram and standing their ground as the colonial police baton charged them. Soon, the song was so popular that the alarmed British hastily put in place a two-pronged policy against the song. One: they banned first the singing of the song, and then the public utterance of the words vande mataram. Two: they began encouraging another song called jana gana mana, written by none less than Tagore, and also extremely national romantic in tone, but still uncontroversial because it was written in honour of the Emperor. After all, they reasoned, there was no problem with Indians feeling proud of their country. It was only those pesky pro-independence sentiments that needed to be dealt with. Of course, none of this stopped vande mataram, but it did mean that jana gana mana became quite well known, because it was sung at all boy scout meetings (amongst other things).

So, when independence finally came, there was no question about what would be the national anthem, right? Well... not quite. The two decades preceding independence saw the sudden growth of a powerful Muslim nationalism, culminating in the Partition of India and the birth of Pakistan. Suddenly, people realised that the novel Anandmath from which Tagore extracted the poem actually had heroic Hindus defending the honour of their homeland against evil Muslim invaders. The later verses of the song (which nobody knew) were subject to intense scrutiny by statesmen who shook their heads sorrowfully over its references to Durga, and over the Sanskrit verb "vanda" which seemed to require Muslims to bow to an entity other than God. The final nail in the song's coffin came when Nehru pointed out that the overtones of classical Indian music in the song would make it difficult for army bands to play. The result: the song selected as the anthem was... (hold your breaths)... jana gana mana, that wonderful song written to extoll the virtues of the emperor. The decision was greated with such howls of protest that the government hastily added a codicil to the effect that vande mataram would have equal status. The other contender - the tarana-e-hindi which, to this day, is sung by homesick expatriates - was unceremoniously dropped because its author had gone on to make himself extremely objectionable by becoming one of the founding fathers of Pakistan.

Over the years, a sort of compromise was reached whereby vande mataram was sung at the start of any ceremony that required the singing of a national song, and jana gana mana was sung at the end. Everyone seemed to be reasonably happy, except Hindu nationalists, who steadfastly refused to accept jana gana mana, Muslim nationalists, who steadfastly refused to accept vande mataram, and Tamil nationalists, who steadfastly refused to accept anything that came from anywhere north of Mysore. End of story? Well... not quite.

In the eighties, a dispute between Hindus and Muslims over a little mosque at Ayodhya came to the boil. Suddenly, everyone became more Hindu or Muslim, as the case may be. All of a sudden, schoolchildren refused to sing vande mataram, while other insisted on its singing. In State legislatures, Muslim legislators walked out when speakers from right-wing parties tried to force the song being sung. And in one local council, Hindu members who tried to sing the song were arrested for disturbing the peace. Thousands of innocent trees died as authors, wannabe public intellectuals, and journalists raced to defend or condemn the antecedents of jana gana mana and vande mataram, depending on their persuasion. Learned professors of history declared that jana gana mana had no references whatsoever to the emperor, or that it cleverly concealed a biting criticism of British imperialism. Vande mataram was reviled as being an obvious expression of chauvenistic Hindu hatred against Islam, praised as being an unambiguous celebration of the common culture of Hindus and Muslims, and exposed as a clear example of Hindus' failure to understand the mind of the common Muslim.

And they say national anthems unite a people...

In the decade or so since then, there's been no real solution to the problem, and the singing of the national anthem continues to generate controversies everywhere from time to time. Well, everywhere except Tamil Nadu. As with most major national issues, they solved the problem a good while ago by happily dumping vande mataram in favour of their own national song, the Hymn of Tamilagam (they would have jettisoned jana gana mana too if they could, but that's a different story).

As I said earlier, India is a complicated place.