There are two issues concerning the latest harrumphfest being conducted over India’s national song, Vande Mataram. One, is Vande Mataram a ‘religious’ song pertaining to Hindu nationalism? Two, should nation-building exercises include the mandatory singing of the song? Vande Mataram was written in 1875 by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay in response to the prevailing pressures of the administration to impose God Save the King as British India’s national anthem. The depiction of India as a Mother Goddess — in his novel, Anandamath, in which the ‘poem’ was incorporated in 1882, clearly linked her to Kali — was, in historian RC Majumdar’s words, the conversion of “patriotism into religion and religion into patriotism”.
Considering that Indian society blurs its cultural references with those of faith, the personification of a ‘religious’ Mother India (whether in calendar art or in rousing songs) isn’t as shockingly un-secular as it may seem to outsiders (or to those who’d rather highlight the ‘communal’ element in it). Mahatma Gandhi, a secular man if there was one, wanted Vande Mataram to be the national anthem of free India. In the Indian National Congress convention in 1896, Rabindranath Tagore sang Vande Mataram when the British banned it. It is true that Chattopadhyay’s Anandamath was a historical novel that glorified Hindu rebellion against ‘tyrannical’ Muslim rule in the 18th century. But by the 1905 Partition of Bengal, the song had taken on nationalistic, anti-British colours. In 1937, the Congress Working Committee, after Muslims objected to certain parts of the song, decided that only the first two stanzas (leaving out references to Durga and Lakshmi) would be sung — not unlike the excision of contentious lines from Iqbal’s Sare Jahan Se Acchha. So even if Vande Mataram stems from a ‘Hindu’ ancestry, it is no longer anything but a pan-Indian song and should be seen as that — as underlined by the tremendous popularity of its 1997 version by AR Rahman.
So for critics to trawl out Article 28(1) — “no religious instructions shall be provided in any educational institution...” — to oppose the singing of Vande Mataram in schools is ‘blinkering’ the issue and the song. As for making the singing of the national song mandatory in schools, one is yet to meet a child who is scandalised by singing them — or, for that matter, by not singing them. It’s the grown-ups, after all, who seem to have the least spontaneous understanding of what it is to be patriotic.