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Published in the 1-15 May 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

The history and politics of Vande Mataram

Anandmath is replete with glorification of incidents of “cleansing” of Muslims like the following one: "The rural people ran out to kill the Muslims...they torched their houses and looted their everything. 

By Shamsul Islam

The song Vande Mataram is in news once again, though for wrong reasons. The current controversy started with a meeting organized by the minority cell of the BJP in the city of Taj Mahal, Agra on February 25. This meeting, organized in order to mobilize Muslims for the forthcoming parliamentary elections, ended up with about 50 of Muslim invitees singing Vande Mataram. Interestingly, singing of Vande Mataram in this meeting was an exception as the BJP meetings in general do not have singing of this song on agenda. The controversy started when a local Muslim cleric (see MG, 1-15 April 2004) came out with a “fatwa” decreeing that all the Muslim singers of the Vande Mataram by singing it indulged in polytheism and as a consequence ceased to be Muslims. The mufti also decreed that their marriages stood annulled and they should re-solemnise their marriages. 

Vande Mataram
Translation by Aurobindo

Mother, I bow to thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
Bright with thy orchard gleams,
Cool with thy winds of delight, Dark fields waving, Mother of might,
Mother free.
Glory of moonlight dreams,
Over thy branches and lordly streams,
Clad in thy blossoming trees,
Mother, giver of ease,
Laughing low and sweet!
Mother I kiss thy feet,
Speaker sweet and low!
Mother to thee I bow.

Who hath said thou art weak in thy lands,
When the swords flash out in twice seventy million hands,
And seventy million voices roar,
Thy dreadful name from shore to shore?
With many strengths who are mighty and stored,
To thee I call, Mother and Lord!
Though who savest, arise and save!
To her I cry who ever her foemen drive,
Back from plain and sea,
And shook herself free.
Thou art wisdom, thou art law,
Thou our heart, our soul, our breath,
Thou the love divine, thou the awe,
In our hearts that conquer death.
Thine the strength that nerves the arm,
Thine the beauty, thine the charm,
Every image made divine,
In our temples is but thine.

Thou art Durga, Lady and Queen,
With her hands that strike and her swords of sheen,
Thou art Lakshmi lotus-throned,
And the Muse a hundred-toned,
Pure and perfect without peer,
Mother, lend thine ear.

Rich with thy hurrying streams,
Bright with thy orchard gleams,
Dark of hue, O candid-fair,
In thy soul, with jeweled hair,
And thy glorious smile divine,
Loveliest of all earthly lands,
Showering wealth from well-stored hands!
Mother, mother mine!
Mother sweet, I bow to thee,
Mother great and free!

'Vande Mataram' translated by Sri Aurobindo. This note of his about this translation is very significant: "It is difficult to translate the National Anthem of Bengal into verse in another language owing to its unique union of sweetness, simple directness and high poetic force." 
[Quoted in Bhabatosh Chatterjee (ed.), Bankim Chandra Chatterjee: Essays in Perspective, Sahitya Akademi, Delhi, 1994, p. 601.]

Interestingly, the Hindutva gang has been raking up this issue periodically as part of Muslim-bashing since Independence, especially on the eve of elections. As part of anti-Muslim propaganda they coined the slogan "Iss desh maen rehna hae to Vande Mataram kehna hoga" (If you want to live in this country, you will have to sing Vande Mataram).

The fundamental problem with Indian nationalist symbols like Vande Mataram is that by simply adding Muslim/minority angle to these, one can thwart any serious scrutiny and worthwhile debate about the pre-Independence controversies over these symbols. The Hindutva gang, especially the RSS which played absolutely no role in the anti-colonial freedom struggle, now wants to cover up its betrayal by posing as the sole guardian of nationalist symbols like Vande Mataram.

A thorough scanning (undertaken by this author) of the pre-Independence literature/documents published by the RSS shows that there is absolutely no reference there to Vande Mataram, what to talk of singing it. Startlingly, Vande Mataram as a term does not appear in the writings of KB Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar either. And after Independence the same gang wants to use this song to beat Muslims with.

The protagonists of a democratic-secular India have failed in exposing the Hindutva stalwarts who have been pitting Vande Matram against the National Anthem, Jana Gana Mana and denounce Muslim and Sikh fundamentalists for their non-allegiance to the Tricolour and the National Anthem, the two symbols of Indian nationalism. The secular India has miserably failed to corner the Hindutva gang which itself wants to replace the secular National Anthem by Vande Mataram and the Tricolour by saffron flag. This is abundantly clear from the practice of the RSS shakhas, and the RSS vision of replacing the Indian democratic-secular state with a Hindu rashtra.

A section of the so-called Muslim leadership, devoid of common sense and ignorant of nationalist heritage, reacted to the Hindutva game plan along expected lines. Playing into the hands of Hindutva brigade 'Muslim leaders' like the Agra Mufti simply provided legitimacy to its strategy of Muslim-bashing. Unfortunately, even a section of secular Muslims have shown panic reaction by declaring that Muslims should not object to the singing of this song. They innocently believe that Muslims by not singing this song are inviting wrath of Hindutva. They overlook the fact that even Dalits, Christians, Buddhists and other minorities, who have not raised objections against Vande Mataram, have not been spared by the Hindutva gang. 

The need of the hour is that we should not run away from a serious debate on the issue of the Vande Mataram under one pretext or the other. In order to know the truth and understand the whole controversy over Vande Mataram it is important to be familiar with the following facts which have been gathered from wide pre-Independence sources.

Vande Mataram was dogged by one controversy or another from the day it was first printed in Banga Darshan (edited by Bankimchandra Chatterjee) in 1875. It was a strange composition in the sense that it was written in two languages. The song consisted of 4 stanzas, the first two in Sanskrit and the rest in Bengali. Poet Navin Chandra Sen, a close friend, told Bankim after reading the song: "You see, it is all good, but the whole thing is spoilt by your potpourri of half Bengali and half Sanskrit. It reminds me of Govind Adhikari's Jatra songs. People do not like it."1 In fact, this song was not known by many despite the fact that Jadu Bhatt, a renowned singer of those days and a contemporary of Bankim, liked the song and set it to an attractive tune. The situation did not change even in 1882 when Bankim included this song in his controversial novel Anandmath. Rabindranath Tagore composed a new tune for this song in 1885 but despite its rendering by a very popular Bengali poet it did not attract much attention.

Interestingly, Vande Mataram which came to be known as the “national song” was composed by Bankim as a “Bengal anthem”, nothing more. The imagery of the countryside and references to Durga were certainly confined to Bengal. In this song he is seen concerned about Bengal only aloof from any emotional attachment to India. Even Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose), propounder of Hindu nationalism in India, translated it as the "National Anthem of Bengal".2 
Bankim, as we will see in the translation done by Aurobindo, referred to “seven crores” [70 million] of people worshipping motherland. This was the population of the then Bengal Province (which, besides what is now Bangladesh, included Bihar and Orissa too). So the crucial fact should not be missed that Vande Mataram touted as symbolizing “Mother India” was in fact meant to glorify Bengal only, a rather narrow and regional perspective.

Many are not aware that this song was scantly known during the lifetime of Bankim himself. In his lifetime it did not capture popular imagination though it was sung at all Congress sessions by people who identified Indian nationalism with Hindu ethos. It remained confined to a fringe group. 

In 1905 came Curzon's announcement of the partition of Bengal, and suddenly Vande Mataram turned into a national mantra, renting the skies with the protest against the partition of Bengal. Reacting quickly, the British government banned the song or even raising it as a slogan. People of Barisal in Bengal bore the brunt of police brutality for singing this song. Peasant leader Abdul Rasul, was presiding over the Bengal Congress provincial conference session of 1906 when hundreds were struck down and grievously injured for singing Vande Mataram. This brutality at Barisal popularized the song overnight. According to Bengalee of May 23, 1906, "an unprecedented procession of Hindus and Muslims singing national songs and crying Vande Mataram and Allah-o-Akbar passed through all the principal streets of the town. Both Hindus and Mussalmans carried Vande Mataram flags."3 It is interesting to know that while Vande Mataram was banned in Bengal, the British government allowed the Bengali Regiment to attack German trenches during the first world war with Vande Mataram on their lips.

Soon Vande Mataram became the opening note of all the Congress gatherings. And the two, Congress and Vande Mataram, became inseparable, until the early 1930s, when a new controversy about the song broke out within the ranks of the party. Sections of Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Christians, South Indians, secular groups and even Arya Samajis, objected when the Congress decided to finalize it as the “national song”. Vande Mataram glorified idol worship, they argued, as it referred to only Hindu deities (it must be shocking for the present-day Hindutva brigade that the song does not even once refer to Ram), and that it expressed only a regional aspiration (it is partly in Bengali and allegorically talks of “Bengal” as India).

Another objection raised by Muslims and secular Indians said that Vande Mataram was part of the novel Anandmath, which glorified the annihilation of Muslims and not the British rule in India. This objection was very relevant, as even a cursory glance of the novel will prove. The novel was replete with glorification of incidents of “cleansing” of Muslims like the following one: "The rural people ran out to kill the Muslims while coming across them. In the night, some ones were organized in groups and going to the Muslim locality, they torched their houses and looted their everything. Many Muslims were killed; many of them shaved their beards, smeared their bodies with soil and started singing the name of Hari. When asked, they said, we were Hindus. The frightened Muslims rushed towards the town in group after group. The Muslims said, Allah, Allah! Is the Kortn Sareef (sic) (holy Koran) proved entirely wrong after so many days? We pray namaz five times but couldn't finish the sandal-pasted Hindus. All the universe is false."4

Bankim's novel simultaneously glorified the colonial British rule. It portrayed the British masters as saviours of Hindus. This love for the British masters and exploiters was clearly visible in the last few lines of Anandmath. When the Hindu army (Santan rebels) was able to defeat Muslim rulers and move on to fight the British too, a mystic leader (Satyananda) appeared and told them: "Your mission has been successful. You have performed the well-being of the Mother. The English reign has been established. You give up the war and enmity-mood. There is no more enemy. The Englishman is our ally King. Moreover, none possesses such power who can win the war with the Englishmen ultimately."5 Thus the great leader of Hindu rebellion was finally able to convince Santans about the historic utility of the British Raj for the resurrection of the Hindu kingdom and many of them went to Himalayas renouncing this world. Anandmath, which heralded the Hindu nationalist movement, is full of such perceptions.

The Congress, which under Jawaharlal Nehru's leadership wanted an all-inclusive nationalism with special stress on Hindu-Muslim unity, responded positively to these objections. The Congress Working Committee (CWC) after long deliberations at Wardha and Bombay appointed a committee consisting of Jawaharlal Nehru (president of the Congress), MK Gandhi, Abul Kalam Azad and Subhashchander Bose in its Calcutta meeting (Oct 26-November 1, 1937). 
This high profile committee on Vande Mataram issued a historic statement on October 28, 1937 with the aim to resolve the controversy. The statement made it clear at the outset that the first two stanzas of the song had no religious allusions and only these were commonly sung even in Bengal. It went on to observe that "the use of the first two stanzas of the song [which] spread to other provinces and a certain national significance began to attach to them. The rest of the song was very seldom used and is even now known by few persons. These two stanzas described in tender language the beauty of the motherland and the abundance of her gifts. There was absolutely nothing in them to which objection could be taken from the religious or any other point of view."6
The CWC went on to emphasize that "the other stanzas of the song are little known and hardly ever sung. They contain certain allusions and a religious ideology which may not be in keeping with the ideology of other religious groups in India. The Committee while recognizing the validity of objections raised by Muslim friends to certain parts of the song... recommend that “wherever the Bande Matraram is sung at national gatherings only the first two stanzas should be sung, with perfect freedom to the organizers to sing any other song of an unobjectionable character, in addition to, or in the place of, the Bande Matraram song."7

With this judgment the controversy should have been over. But it didn't. It seems ironical that the present-day champions of Vande Mataram did not figure anywhere in the struggle against the British. They cannot name a single martyr for freedom, and their slogans for Hindu Rashtra only helped the British masters’ divide-and-rule policy and supplemented the services of persons like Jinnah. The propping up of an old controversy thus seems to be only for playing the same old game of dividing the Indian people. The truth of the matter is that Vande Mataram is just another move in the dangerous game the fundamentalists are involved in: confusing and dividing people.

1. Cited in P. Thankappan Nair, Indian National Songs and Symbols, Firma, Calcutta, 1987, p. 32.
2.Cited in Bhabatosh Chatterjee (ed.), Bankimchandra Chatterjee: Essays in Perspective, Sahitya Akademi, Delhi, 1994, p. 601.
3. Cited in P. Thankappan Nair, p. 38.
4. Arabinda Das, Abbey of Delight (English translation of Bankimchander Chatterjee's Anandmath in Bengali), Bandna Das, Kolkata, 2000, pp. 161-162.
5. Ibid, pp. 191-194.
6. AICC Papers on microfilms, Accession No. 8612 [Roll No. 51], Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, pp. 0852-0854.
7. Ibid.

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