Does It Really Matteram?

Seldom in a nation’s history does a single event simultaneously expose the shallow and cynical vote-seeking machinations of the ruling party as well as its chief opponent. 

The recent “Vande Mataram” controversy is one such example. Future historians will note with varying degrees of amazement and astonishment that at the end of a month-long ding-dong battle of venom-tipped words between the UPA coalition government (read: Indian National Congress Party) at the Center and the opposition NDA front (read: Bharatiya Janata Party), both political groups stood with their pants around their ankles and egg on their faces as the controversy itself sputtered to a ridiculously anti-climatic end. And all this at a time when dozens of farmer-suicides should shame India’s rulers into rethinking the country’s agricultural policy, and when hundreds of terrorist-blast casualties should stir them into decisive military action against terrorists. But that would be putting humanism over hubris, principles over politics.

Here’s what happened over “Vande Mataram.” Mindful that he was beginning to be perceived as anti-Hindu on account of his attempts as Human Resource Development minister to undo the saffronization of Indian history textbooks, Congress honcho Arjun Singh proposed through his ministerial channels to observe Sept. 7, 2006 as the 125th anniversary of the creation of the “Vande Mataram” song. The celebration involved the song’s recitation in schools, with the caveat that it was not binding on anyone and that madrasaas (schools imparting Islamic education) were exempted from the ceremonies.

Sniffing an unprecedented golden opportunity offered on a platter, Hindutva rabble-rousers of the BJP jumped into the fray. The Chief Ministers of three BJP-ruled states declared that singing the “Vande Mataram” would be mandatory on that day, leading to strong protests from Muslim leaders and secularists and counter-protests from BJP workers. Fundamentalists revel in an atmosphere of strife and disharmony. The Congress Party – straining to stay “centrist” – found itself marginalized and isolated in the ensuing ruckus.

Although Sept. 7 passed with a mixed response to the recitation diktat, but without any major untoward incident, the party could not afford to let the BJP have the advantage of the last say. Sonia Gandhi, by pointedly staying away from the celebrations, had sent a signal to her partymen that she was not interested in aligning herself with what had become Arjun Singh’s faux pas. Worse, her absence had raised the BJP’s fever-pitch. The subtext of the slogan “Agar Is Desh Mein Rehna Hoga, To Vande Mataram Gana Hoga” changed overnight from being anti-Muslim to being anti-Sonia: Look, she ignored the anniversary of our national song! What better proof that the lady from Italy is not really Indian at heart?

Desperately seeking a damage-control ploy, the Congress decided to steal the thunder from the BJP’s campaign by pulling the plug on the whole controversy. The party spokesperson made a most ludicrous announcement: the Congress party had in fact got the date all wrong, and so all the noise and fury was – in effect – null and void. A non-descript former Congress parliamentarian was hand-picked as the fall guy, for allegedly slipping on the research. 

The Indian National Congress, which never fails to pat itself on the back at every available opportunity for its 120-year-old history of pre-Independence liberation struggle and post-Independence governance, gets the date of the creation of the inspirational “Vande Mataram” all wrong! Can you imagine a more ridiculous and shameful denigration of a national song, a song that for long vied with the “Jana Gana Mana” for the status of national anthem? Can you imagine a Democratic or Republican administration in the United States of America goofing up on the origins or timetable of the “Star-Spangled Banner” in a nationwide anniversary campaign?

And if there has indeed been a genuine error in researching the date, can we have the correct date now? Sorry, no way. There is no word on the matter any more. Not from the Congress Party. Not even from the BJP, whose rabble-rousers, realizing that the average Indian has refused to be aroused by this transparent exploitation of a national song, have been curiously silent in the aftermath of the controversy. And that silence, as the saying goes, is deafening.

It is clear from the very origin of the latest furore over “Vande Mataram” that the Congress Party has woken up to the costs of minority appeasement. Someone high up in the hierarchy of the party think-tank must probably have pointed to the dangers of alienating the Hindu majority while pursuing policies that favor the Muslim minority. If the Indian state is indeed secular (meaning it will neither favor nor discriminate against any religion) then what, one might ask, is the rationale for subsidizing the Haj trips of millions of Indian Muslims and then excluding Indian Hindus on the Amarnath Yatra from a similar subsidy?

But if the centrist Congress made a pathetic attempt to score a minor brownie point in the calculus of the country’s electoral politics, the right-wing BJP embarrassed the saner section of its voters by beating an old off-key drum. Arm-twisting a minority community into singing a Sanskritized and religiously oriented – albeit inspirational – song is no way to integrate it into the national mainstream. Worse, to make its mandatory recitation a crude litmus test of Indian nationalism is to vitiate the very concept of a modern and secular nation-state.

The parallel that springs most readily to mind is Nazi Germany. (Several leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent, have been ardent admirers of Adolf Hitler.) Readers who lived in President Reagan’s America will recall a similar attempt to get prayer into U.S. schools. In 1982, Reagan, by then firmly established in presidential office, fulfilled an election campaign promise by proposing an amendment that, in essence, read: “Nothing in the Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions.” Appealing to the basic American ideal of individual freedom, Reagan had cleverly tried to subvert and bypass the First Amendment’s admonition against legislature making “any law respecting an establishment of religion.” Much like the Hindutva-inspired promise to take India to the Ram-Rajya era, Reagan’s considerable communication skills were focused on “returning” American society to an era of “values and virtue.” It is perhaps a measure of the deep-rooted secular sensitivity of the American polity, dangerously eroded thereafter, that the school-prayer amendment lost in the U.S. Senate.

True, the “Vande Mataram” controversy is dead and buried – at least for now. True, the more moderate Indian Muslims prevailed over the extremist fringe by the simple expedient of holding their nerve. Some, who saw nothing really wrong in reciting a national song together with their fellow-citizens, sent their kids to school on Sept. 7. Others, who did, but wanting no trouble nevertheless, advised theirs to absent themselves from school for that day.

But what is it about “Vande Mataram” – which is the second most requested song by listeners on BBC’s World Service Radio after an Irish folk song that also served as a call for its national independence – that inflames communal passions like no other ditty?

The answer lies in history. The song was written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in 1876 as a retort to “God Save The Queen,” whose singing the British made mandatory.  Six years later “Vande Mataram” (“Bande Mataram” for a Bengali) was included in Chatterjee’s novel Anandmath. The novel, depicting the struggle of Hindu subjects against Mughal domination and consequent atrocities, came to be seen as being anti-Muslim. By association, “Vande Mataram” itself became tainted for Muslims. Further, the very concept of bowing before anyone but Allah is anathema and forbidden (haraam) for practising Muslims. And “Saraswati Vandana” or “Vande Mataram” (“Hail Mother”) demands just that. “We cannot equate the country with a goddess,” they assert.

For Hindus, as well as many Muslims who fought with them for Indian Independence, “Vande Mataram” was a common rallying cry against the British. Unfortunately however, the line between religion and patriotism was blurred during communal riots: while rioting Muslims in post-Independence India had an “Allah-o-Akbar” on their lips, rioting Hindus countered with “Vande Mataram.” The taint grew darker.

In the midst of communal madness and political chicanery, India’s judiciary and its Constitution have so far stood firm and resolute. The latter is unambiguous about the delicate nexus between religion and education. Article 28(1) prohibits religious instruction in any educational institution wholly maintained out of state funds, whereas Article 28(3) states: “No person attending any educational institution recognised by the State or receiving aid out of State funds shall be required to take part in any religious instruction that may be imparted in such institution or to attend any religious worship that may be conducted in such institution or in any premises attached thereto unless such person or, if such person is a minor, his guardian has given his consent thereto.”

Reflecting the traditional Indian ethos of tolerance toward all religious faiths, the country’s Supreme Court in a 1987 judgment (Bijoe Emmanuel v State of Kerala) set aside the expulsion from school of children faithful to Jehovah’s Witnesses for not singing the national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana,” because of their conscientious objection based on religious faith, even though they stood respectfully when it was sung by others. The expulsion was held to violate the children’s fundamental rights to freedom of speech and expression and to freedom of religion under Articles 19(1)(a) and 25(1) of the Constitution. The judgment concludes with this observation: “Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practices tolerance. Let us not dilute it.


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