At its recent meeting, the national executive of the Bharatiya Janata Party passed a political resolution, a passage of which read: ‘Our Constitution describes India as Bharat also, [hence] refusal to chant victory to Bharat is tantamount to disrespect to our Constitution itself. Bharat Mata ki Jai is not merely a slogan. It was a mantra of inspiration to countless freedom fighters during the independence struggle. It is the heartbeat of a billion people today. It is the reiteration of our constitutional obligations as citizens to uphold its primacy.’
The BJP has many senior lawyers in its ranks, who doubtless have read the Constitution. So have I. As I understand it, the Constitution of India does not prescribe any slogan to be shouted or whispered, whether individually or collectively. Nor does it proscribe any slogan. I checked with two colleagues who have published scholarly books on the Constitution, and they confirmed my interpretation. As one scholar put it, ‘Under the Constitution, no particular slogan is required to be uttered by a citizen of India, nor is any particular slogan prohibited.’
Schedule 3 of the Constitution lists the oaths that legislators, ministers, and judges take on assuming their posts. Legislators are asked to ‘uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India’, while ministers and judges are asked, in addition, to ‘uphold the Constitution and its laws’, and to perform the duties of their office to the best of their ‘ability, knowledge and judgment’, and ‘without fear, favour, or ill-will’. There is no, repeat no, mention of Bharat, Mata, or Bharat Mata.
The core ideals of our Constitution include multi-party democracy; equality of citizens regardless of age, sex, caste, gender, or religion; and the eschewing of violence in settling social or political disputes. Thus, if an MLA or MP of any party shouts or whispers, I will overthrow the state through violence!, or India should be broken up into 29 nations!, he or she is certainly disrespecting the Constitution.
The same charge can be levelled against a minister of judge who shouts or whispers those two slogans, or indeed any of these three others: Men are superior to women!; Brahmins are superior to other castes!; and dictatorship is superior to democracy!
That said, neither MLA, MP, judge nor minister, nor indeed any ordinary aadmi or aurat among the billion plus citizens of this land, is guilty of dishonouring the Constitution if he or she refuses to shout or whisper Bharat Mata Ki Jai!
The BJP national executive’s claim is legally untenable. It is also historically incomplete. It is true that ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ was a slogan shouted by many freedom fighters. But there were others too. A popular slogan, especially among atheistic socialists such as Bhagat Singh and his comrades, was ‘Inquilab Zindabad’. A third was ‘Jai Hind’, which was used by Subhas Bose and his Indian National Army.
Mahatma Gandhi, whom I trust the BJP will accept was a nationalist, did not lay much stress on slogans. His emphasis was on social change on the ground, on ending caste and gender discrimination, on promoting religious harmony, on cultivating an ethic of non-violence and of self-reliance.
Gandhi never used or advocated the slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad’, since he opposed the shedding of blood to further political aims. Nor did he ever shout Bharat Mata ki jai. He did once visit a Bharat Mata shrine in Varanasi, where he urged the temple’s trustees to promote ‘religious unity, peace and love’.
Unlike the BJP’s national executive, Gandhi’s focus was on substance rather than rhetoric. However, in speaking to former members of the Indian National Army in Calcutta in 1946, he warmly endorsed the adoption of the INA’s slogan Jai Hind. Just because it had once been used in war, remarked Gandhi, it need not ‘be eschewed in non-violent action’. Of the three nationalist slogans, Gandhi therefore showed a decided preference for Jai Hind over Bharat Mata ki jai or Inquilab Zindabad.
Why then is the BJP laying such stress on the slogan ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’? Why is it seeking to make the public affirmation of these words a test of citizenship itself? There could be two reasons. The first is tactical. The ruling party knows that in close to two years in power at the Centre, it has implemented few of the promises it made during the campaign for the general election. Seeking to divert attention from agrarian distress, caste and gender violence, and the lack of jobs for the young, it demands that citizens shout certain slogans, and that they eschew certain others.
This move towards sloganeering is also very likely tied to the Uttar Pradesh elections. The BJP’s top leaders seem to have decided that the patriotic, or more accurately jingoistic, card will intimidate its opponents and polarise opinion. The Ayodhya movement led to the BJP’s rise in UP in the 1990s; now, 20 years later, it seeks to revive its fortunes under the ‘Bharat Mata’ banner.
Patriotic slogans made much sense when India was a colony. Invoking Jai Hind or Bharat Mata ki jai when we were ruled by the British, and struggling for freedom, was one thing; forcing it down people’s throats 70 years after independence, quite another. Given the range of social and economic problems that this country and its citizens face, to make politics and governance so dependent on the shouting of certain slogans reflects a truly perverted sense of priorities.
Speaking of 18th century England, Samuel Johnson famously said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. In 21st century India, it seems to be the first refuge of the incompetent and malevolent.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is
Gandhi Before India
The views expressed are personal