Selling the Nation for a Song

An HRD Ministry circular or dering an official celebration in state-run schools of the centenary of the Vande Mataram on September 7, predictably offered the agenda-hungry BJP a congenial issue on a platter. Historians have pointed out that September 7, 2006 does not mark the centenary of the writing of the song (1876) or its first publication in Bankim Chandra's novel Anandamath (1882), or even its adoption by the Congress as a national song (since Congress sessions were as a rule held in December, not September).

When the expected controversy followed the circular, the HRD Minister backtracked by saying it was not ‘compulsory' to sing the song. This was the cue for the BJP to turn Vande Mataram into a test of Indian nationalism, declaring ‘ Is desh mein rehna hai to Vande Mataram kehna hoga '. Eventually, the Congress tried to distance itself from the controversy by claiming that the decision to observe September 7 as a ‘centenary' was a mistake – and various leaders of the Congress have tried to pass the buck onto each other for the ‘blunder'.

Political controversies over the Vande Mataram are nothing new – in 1998, when the BJP's Basic Education Minister in UP declared the recitation of Vande Mataram as compulsory in schools, he was removed from his post, and even L K Advani, as Home Minister, had said that the song “should not be imposed.” Knowing such precedents, why did the UPA Government choose to highlight the non-existent centenary of Vande Mataram , rather than the approaching centenaries of Bhagat Singh's birth and the 1857 War of Independence? The Congress' clumsy efforts (with an eye to approaching UP polls) to harness a soft-Hindutva agenda has, once more, given the BJP a chance to pose at being patriotic.

The BJP's and Sangh's effort is to make it appear that only orthodox Muslims find Vande Mataram unsuited as an anthem, on the grounds that Islam forbids worship of an image, even that of the ‘motherland'. While this objection has indeed been voiced, this is not the main source of discomfort with the song. The lack of consensus over the song emerges partly from the fact that it equates the nation itself with the Hindu goddess Durga, worshipped in temples. Further, the fact that Vande Mataram, in addition to being a powerful slogan of the nationalist movement, was also deployed as a slogan in communal riots – a function inspired no doubt by the song's initial location in the violent communal imagination of Anandamath – is a source of misgivings not just for Muslim believers but for any secular citizen. Such misgivings were by no means voiced by Muslims alone; Rabindranath Tagore, in a letter to Subhash Bose in 1937, pointed out, “The core of ‘Vande Mataram' is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankim does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh'.”

The antecedents of the song, however, are less significant than the antecedents and motives of the BJP and Sangh Parivar who evoke it as a supreme symbol of nationalism today. The fact is that as long as this song had any association with the Indian freedom struggle against the British, the RSS had no use for it – not a single one of their documents prior to Independence even mentions the phrase ‘Vande Mataram'. One commentator points out that for the Sangh, the freedom struggle itself was ‘optional' – yet they impose the singing of a song as a ‘compulsory' test of patriotism! Post-independence, they value this song only for its communal associations and divisive potential, arising from its context in the novel Anandamath . Written in the aftermath of the 1857 War of Independence, the novel deliberately recast nationalism as a bloody battle against Muslims rather than the British, and graphically described scenes of organised pogroms against Muslims as acts of patriotic fervour. The BJP evokes Vande Mataram , not as the slogan on the lips of the anti-colonial freedom fighters, but rather the Vande Mataram of Anandamath – theme song and slogan of devotee-warriors who cry out longingly, “When shall we raze mosques to the ground and erect Radhamadhav's temple in their place?”

Tanika Sarkar points out that the power and charge of the Hindutva project are often trivialized by assuming that its stridency and violence are a break from the ‘gentle quietism' supposed to characterize Hinduism. She notes that the Vande Mataram moves swiftly from the sensuous sibilance of the initial passages describing the Mother's benign abundance and beauty, to the harsh, jagged sounds evoking the image of the militant Durga and Kali. This ability to fuse together “peaceful, traditional Hinduism and violent Hindutva” makes the song “a powerful imaginative resource for the Hindutva project”. (Tanika Sarkar, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism , p 180).

The BJP's agenda of linking the song with its ‘Hindu Rashtra' vision is clear: BJP President has declared that the party would like to make the song compusory in its entirety. The liberal/official response has been to declare that singing of the song will not be ‘compulsory'. But this is a highly inadequate and defensive position. The decision to stand aside and dissent from a public display of nationalist fervour is a difficult one for anyone – and for a child in a school where conformity and uniformity is the norm, such an ‘option' is cruelly insensitive. For the communalists, the ‘option' provides a perfect test of patriotism - those who choose not to sing stand out as the anti-nationals.

The Sangh, which repudiated anti-colonial nationalism, nevertheless staked a claim to patriotism with its notion of ‘cultural' nationalism. Such cultural nationalism draws its power from the fact that mainstream nationalism in India had itself evolved a cultural nationalist ‘common sense' which was a source of much of its imagery and imagination. This common sense was often inflected with assumptions and myths that were at least majoritarian, if not, at times, actually communal. The Vande Mataram slogan and song are a prime instance of such a cultural nationalist strand within the national movement. The inability of ruling class political formations to interrogate such strands will leave them forever vulnerable to communal fascism. The Congress brand of official nationalism in independent India has never challenged the jingoist/cultural nationalist ‘tests' set by the Sangh Parivar, but has rather incorporated such strands within its own framework.

Even the CPI and CPI(M) have displayed a lamentable defensiveness in the face of strident jingoism. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, in his book on Vande Mataram, recounts how an opposition legislator in the West Bengal Assembly in 1983, moved a resolution demanding that the LF Government take steps to propagate the Anandamath. The ruling LF refused to vote against the motion (only a section of their MLAs did so). “There was much dithering in their ranks while the Opposition triumphantly shouted ‘Vande Mataram' in the Assembly.” Commenting on this event, Partha Chatterjee remarked:

“Why should there be such hesitation in ‘progressive' circles about taking a clear position on Anandamath ? …the Left has once more stepped into that familiar nationalist trap. Instead of asserting its historical right to criticize our own heritage, it has only connived at perpetuating a cultural attitude which sacralizes every item of that heritage, transforms them into icons that must be worshipped from a distance, an attitude which treats criticism as tantamount to desecration. This is scarcely consistent with the ‘revolutionary' cultural role of a ‘progressive' political leadership.” ( Vande Mataram: The Biography of a Song , Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, 2003, p 5-6)

Surely the spectre of communally prescribed and officially enforced patriotism will strangle the true spirit of freedom, democracy, and patriotism? How much is such officially dictated and scripted patriotism, frozen in time, worth – if it stifles and muzzles the natural development of national feeling through the lived reality of contradictions, debates, and dissent? The silencing of such debates has implications for real live people – not just religious minorities, but women too. The icon of the Mother rousing her patriotic sons to do battle with the enemy was forged in a historical context – and it was not an empowering image for women. Must every Indian woman bear the burden of having their bodies represent the nation; so that any freedom or transgression of traditional norms is viewed as a violation of ‘Indian culture'?

The Vande Mataram , and for that matter, even the Jana Gana Mana , have both been subjected to interrogation by various sections of Indian citizens. It has been pointed out that in the nation mapped out by the official anthem, there is no room for the peoples of the North East. Neither the Vande Mataram nor the Jana Gana Mana were, in a true sense, products of the freedom struggle; the Sare Jahan Se Accha , in some ways more evocative and popular, was officially rejected since its author Iqbal subsequently mooted the idea of Pakistan. But neighbouring Bangladesh , for its own national anthem, chose a song penned by Tagore – one that, incidentally, invokes the ‘motherland' several times. The history of the sub-continent, and the symbols of its nations, is replete with historical ironies and tragedies. With the substance of Indian nationalism and freedom itself scarred by communal violence, partition, and chauvinistic exclusions, it is to be expected that its symbols too would show the scars. In a way, India 's true national song – a spontaneous expression of national feeling born in the crucible of anti-imperialist resistance, is yet to be written. And it is the Indian people, inspired by the legacy of the anti-colonial struggle and committed to defeat US imperialism today, who will script it – not the Sangh Parivar with its history of collaboration with the British and sellout to US imperialism; nor the Congress which insults national memory by hailing the British Raj as ‘Good Governance', while forging a client relationship with Bush Raj.

- Kavita Krishnan