Parliament is divided over the BJP’s demand that
Vande Mataram be played at the beginning of each session.
It is a controversy that would have cheered the hearts of the country’s erstwhile British rulers. Once a powerful weapon against colonial exploitation, the national song, Vande Mataram (salutation to the mother), has ironically begun to divide religious communities in free India. And only a few seem happy about it.
Last fortnight, the patriotic song composed by the 19th century Bengali novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay became the subject of yet another unseemly debate when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) insisted that the current parliamentary session begin with the recital of Vande Mataram. (At present, Parliament meets to the tune of the national anthem, Jana Gana Mana) The demand sparked off a row in the House, with some members opposing the move.
On the face of it, of course, the BJP had only demanded that parliament implement a decision taken by one of its own committees-that parliamentary sessions should begin with a recital of the national song and end with Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana, the national anthem. This would be in keeping with what had been agreed upon by all the parties in the general-purpose committee, the BJP argued. But other MPs couldn’t help seeing it in the light of the climatic developments on Ayodhya : the song would only provide the BJP with yet another opportunity to play its divisive tune.
As a matter of fact, the Janata Dal and the left parties had no objection to the recital of the national song, but they argued that the national anthem should not lose its pride of place. The Congress(I) remained willy-nilly in the debate. And some Muslim MPs, including the Independent member, Syed Shahabuddin, and Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait of the Muslim League objected to Vande Mataram being sung at all. As a result, the current parliament session started with the national anthem and the decision on Vande Mataram had to be postponed.
Annoyed by this, the BJP leader, L.K.Advani, accused his adversaries of indulging in pseudo-secularism for political gains. The BJP president, Murli Manohar Joshi, went further: He alleged that those who were opposed to the singing of Vande Mataram were “encouraging secessionism and separatism”.
But why were some members opposed to Vande Mataram? Many Muslim MPs repeated the old objection to the national song voiced by the Muslim League in pre-Partition days. The singing of Vande Mataram was one of the instances cited by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, to prove the Congress’ Hindu bias. Jinnah based his accusation on the fact that the song had references o Durga and other Hindu deities in the fourth and fifth stanzas.
But this is not the first time that Vande Mataram has aroused fire and passion for more reasons than more one. In 1935, Muslim League members made a bonfire of AnandaMath ( the song appears in this novel) in Calcutta. And in 1937, the Muslim League had in a resolution described the song as “idolatrous”. In 1938, Jinnah once again demanded that Congress members stop singing the song. In fact, it was mainly because of Muslim opposition to Vande Mataram that the Indian National Congress set up a committee to review all national songs and to seek the advice of Robindranath Tagore in selecting one that could be the National Anthem. The committee members included such Congress stalwarts as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subbash Chandra Bose and Acharya Narendra Dev.
A resolution was drafted by Jawaharlal Nehru. It noted the innumerable instances of sacrifice and suffering associated with Vande Mataram. Men and women, it argued, did not hesitate to face death with the words Vande Mataram on their lips. It went on to suggest that it was actually the first two stanzas of Vande Mataram only, which had become the song of struggle. He said that since these first two stanzas described in tender language the beauty of the motherland, there was nothing objectionable in them from religious or any other point of view.
Nehru later accepted the opinion of Rabindranath Tagore to whom the committee had referred the matter. Tagore wrote in a note to Nehru: “To me the spirit of tenderness and devotion expressed in its (the song’s) first portion, the emphasis it gave to the beautiful and beneficent aspects of our motherland made special so much so that I found no difficulty in disassociating it from the rest of the poem, and from those portions of the book of which it is a part.”
The CWC then recommended that the first two stanzas of the song be accepted as the national anthem. It was another matter that 13 years later, when the Constituent Assembly met on 24 January 1950, and decided to adopt Jana Gana Mana as the national anthem and Vande Mataram as the national song. Rajendra Prasad, the then President, noted in his address to the Assembly:”â€¦. The song Vande Mataram, which played a historic part in the struggle for India’s freedom, shall be honoured equally with Jana Gana Mana and shall have equal status with it.”
But there were reasons for discontent among the minorities over the song. Ever since it was written, many have regarded Vande Mataram as a song of Hindu revivalism. Such a view derives from the fact that is author, Bankim Chandra, created several Muslim characters in his novels, whom he presented as inferior to the Hindus; he condemned Arungzeb as “cruel, crafty, proud and selfish”; he criticized the Muslim administration in the 18th century Bengal; he used pejorative terms against the Muslims in his novel Ananda Math; and in one of his novels, Sitaram, he dreamt of the revival of a Hindu empire.
This prompted a Muslim by the name of Idris Ali in the 1930s to write a book called Bankim Duhita (The daughters of Bankim), criticism his attitude towards Muslims. Similarly, Sayyid Abual-Hussain, a homeopathic practitioner, wrote at least four books which ridiculed Bankim Chandr’s novels.
But modern-day historians would like to contest the claim that Bankim Chandra was a Muslim hater. The eminent historians, Sishir Kumar Das, professor of Bengali literature at the Delhi University and author of a book on Bankim Chandra, firmly denies such a charge: “While one has to concede that Bankim’s writings may have hurt Muslim susceptibilities, it will be wrong to say that Bankim Chandra was in any way a Muslim-baiter. His writings were often judged, not by literary standards, but by ethical norms. If a bad character in his novel happended to be a Muslim, it was interpreted as an attempt to vilify Muslims. Similarly, his comments about the Muslim rule in 18th century Bengal were harsh, but it was not examined whether it was true or not.” Professor das added: This is not to say that Bankim’s comments on the Muslims were always just and fair. But one must examine all evidence before giving him the verdict of guilty.”
It all boils down to the question of interpretation, says Bhagwan Singh Josh, professor of Modern history at Jawaharlal Nehru University: “As for the reference to Goddess Durga in the fifth stanza of the song, the parallel that comes to mind is the breaking of a coconut on an auspicious occasion. Will you call that a Hindu Tradition? And what if the Muslims object? Will the ceremony, which is carried out by all the leading political personalities, stop?”
But not all are convinced by these arguments. Raising the issue of the song at this juncture is politically irresponsible, even provocative, many say. Charged Chitta Basu of the Forward bloc:” If they are so concerned about the song, what were BJP leaders doing for the last 40 years? We are not against the singing of Vande Mataram provided it comes after the national anthem.” What he suspects are the BJP’s real intentions. Counter’s K.R. Malkani, the BJP’s eloquent vice-president: “We could not raise it earlier because our strength in Parliament was inadequate. Now we have a strong voice.”
But even if it now has a voice firm and loud enough to sing the Vande Mataram, the BJP will have to remain content hearing the national anthem in Parliament till the controversy is laid to rest.
Ketan Narottam Tanna/New Delhi