India and the Indian: At the heart of resistance to Vande Mataram is the context of its writer's opinions, writes Pragya Singh

This essay is part of Firstpost’s ‘India and the Indian’ series, which examines the renewed idea of nationalism in vogue today, and what it means.

Read more from this series.


The English writer George Orwell wrote in his Notes on Nationalism, an essay distinguishing between patriotism and nationalism, that it would be “difficult for an Indian nationalist to enjoy reading Kipling... there is always a temptation to claim that any book whose tendency one disagrees with must be a bad book…”

Seventy five years after Orwell’s essay, these words are still ringing true in India, where an old controversy around the title of a poem has split public opinion. The debate is over why Indian Muslims refuse to chant Vande Mataram, a nationalist slogan that was originally the title of a poem by the Bengali poet and author Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay.

Chattopadhyay wrote ‘Bande Mataram’ in 1875 as a filler for his journal, Bangadarshan. In 1882, he inserted it into his celebrated but controversial novel Anandmath. In 1896, the Bengali Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, set Chattopadhyay’s poem to music.

The Muslim resistance to Vande Mataram is projected today as a religious issue. The argument is that the literal translation of the phrase — ‘I bow to the Motherland’ — amounts to deification of the country, which is personified as Mother in Chattopadhyay’s poem, and is therefore against Islam. This is how the Samajwadi Party Member of Parliament, Shafiqur Rahman Barq, also framed it in Parliament on 18 June, when chants of Vande Mataram reverberated in the House at the time he took oath. Barq said that the chant was “against Islam” and later clarified that he considers the Earth his mother and that nobody can be “bigger than Mother Earth”.

 India and the Indian: At the heart of resistance to Vande Mataram is the context of its writers opinions, writes Pragya Singh

Representational image. Reuters

It would appear that there is a strong connection between Barq’s ‘Mother Earth’ and Chattopadhyay’s ‘Mataram’. The latter, Vande Mataram, was originally a reference to Bengal, where a tradition of mother goddesses prevails. After it became a nationalist slogan, Vande Mataram was pulled into the service of the entire-nation-as-mother. The distinction between these two versions of mother lies in the third and fourth stanzas of Chattopadhyay’s poem, where the goddess Durga and the motherland are seen as one and the same: “You are Durga, Lady and Queen, with hands that strike and sword of sheen”.

This is something commentators forget or ignore when they wonder why Muslims refuse to chant Vande Mataram, or when they insist that Muslims should do so.

More significantly, they forget that even in the contemporary context of this 144-year-old poem, it did not have an easy existence.

In Anandmath and in some of his other writings, Chattopadhyay, in the words of noted historian Tania Sarkar, “bequeathed a set of historical judgments on the nature and consequences of Mughal rule in Bengal.” These judgments, even though they were coming from within the fictional space, carry weight according to Sarkar. This is because Chattopadhyay’s prose was “known for a highly historical thrust”.

For instance, there are repeated references in the novel to ‘Kill the low Muslims’, even though uttered by fictional characters. This is especially so because of the public positions Chattopadhyay had taken with respect to the Mughal rule, which he saw as indistinguishable from Muslim rule. As a character in Anandmath says, ‘How does our Muslim ruler protect us? We have lost our religion, our caste, and now we are about to lose our very lives… How can Hinduism survive unless we drive out these dissolute swine?’

The question is: Can the Vande Mataram slogan be perceived outside the novel and independent of the author’s opinions?

In his last novel, Sitaram, Chattopadhyay creates a goddess Durga-like apparition, who goads another character, a Hindu, to “Kill, kill the enemy of the country, the enemy of the Hindus, my enemy…” This is the kind of material that makes the demand on Muslims to chant Vande Mataram all the more difficult. The further complication is that the novel itself was set in the context of fakirs and ascetics in revolt — and the villains they were fighting were the Muslims.

It is argued that the Muslims were merely placeholders for Chattopadhyay’s real enemy, the British, but this is also not borne out by his other writings. This is why, even in 1937, the year the Congress party adopted a resolution that condoned half this poem while rejecting the rest of it, the move was regarded by many nationalists and writers as unacceptable.

The Congress had decided that the first two stanzas of Chattopadhyay’s poem were not offensive to any religion. It had arrived at this conclusion based on a recommendation from Tagore, who in turn had sought the opinion of freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose. Accordingly, the first part of Vande Mataram was sung at the Congress party’s Calcutta Session by Tagore. In 1938, the Congress discontinued signing the Vande Mataram, having had enough of this controversy.

It is not just Vande Mataram. Even Chattopadhyay’s attitude towards Muslims and his “fictionalised version of the history of Muslim rule” was not shared by many 20th-century notables, as has been pointed out by Sugata Bose, a professor of history at Harvard University and former MP in his 2017 book, The Nation As Mother and Other Visions of Nationhood.

Aurobindo, for example, regarded the Mughal empire as “a great and magnificent construction” involving immense political genius and talent. Bose cites the following passage attributed to Aurobindo in his book. “…the Mughal empire was splendid, powerful and beneficent…and in spite of Aurangzeb’s fanatical zeal, infinitely more liberal and tolerant in religion than any medieval or contemporary European kingdom or empire…’”

Few know that Bengali Muslims have not been averse to the idea of Bengal, or India, as Motherland. “Perhaps the most powerful evocations of the nation as mother were made by the Bengali Muslim revolutionary poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. In one of his most popular nationalist songs he exhorts the leader, imagined as the captain of a ship in peril, to face up to the challenge of saving his nation or religious community and to say unambiguously that those who were drowning were all Mother’s children,” Bose writes.

The song he refers to is Durgama giri kantar maru by Nazrul Islam, and it has the following lines: 'Jatir athaba jater karibe tran, kandari balo bubichhe manush santan mor ma’r'. This roughly translates into, ‘Who will save the nation or community…The saviour knows that we are her children and she, the mother.” The title itself refers to Durgama, or Durga, as mother goddess.

Even recent history is replete with instances of Hindus and Muslims voluntarily adopting slogans from Hinduism and Islam. For instance, in early 2018, the Jats and Muslims of western Uttar Pradesh raised Allahu Akbar (God is great) and Har Har Mahadev (Hail lord Shiva) slogans to mark an end to their conflict which began with the 2013 riots in Muzaffarnagar.

Similarly, during the Anna Hazare movement, “Mumtaz, a 25-year-old social activist from Mewat…works the crowd into a frenzy…as she chants Bharat Mata Ki Jai. Her mentor says, slogans coined in another historical context have been denuded of their earlier meanings. It is simply absurd to advance that the mere sloganeering of ‘Bharat Mata’ makes a Muslim guilty of idol worship.”

The Muslims did not have a problem in chanting Bharat Mata because the context was different — the Anna Hazare movement had no subtext of promoting communalism or rivalry between Hindus and Muslims. This is quite unlike the scenes in Parliament last week, when Muslim Members of Parliament were heckled with Hindu religious slogans raised by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders.

To put the argument differently, think of Orwell writing 75 years ago about how Kipling is unacceptable to Indians. Would India now consider awarding the man who wrote The White Man’s Burden, a poem advocating racial superiority as the justification for colonialism? Unlikely, of course. Demands that they chant Vande Mataram put Indian Muslims in exactly such a position.

Updated Date: Jun 23, 2019 10:18:53 IST