The best way to read Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay is in a Scottish pub. This way, one is far away from those uncomfortable with the Bengali writer’s relative softness against contemporary British imperialism and his viciousness against historical Muslim tyranny in his writings. So last year, lubricated by lager and protected by the vernacular, I spent a week ploughing through my green-covered Collected Works of Bankim, Volume I in a public house in Stirling, the town where Scottish hero William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace walloped the British occupiers in 1297.
Considering that the prose was daunting — 19th century high Bengali — it took me a week to finish his most (in)famous work, Anandamath, the historical romance that its author insisted was "not a historical novel". The novel about militant sannyasis rebelling against British and Muslim forces during the Great Bengal famine in 1770, is as replete with scenes straight out of a ham actor’s manual as it is about the delicate nature of renunciation for a just cause. But its story of recovering the mother(land)’s lost glory and standing up and fighting against invaders clearly struck an immediate chord with people in the late 19th century who had, only a few years before, been described by Thomas Macaulay as the "effete, effeminate, vaporous, swooning Bengali". Particularly electrifying was the ‘Vande Mataram’ crie de guerre-cum-coeur that gained in strength independently of the novel.
Today Vande Mataram retains its iconic status, but like the resounding anti-semitism in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice or in Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, there’s the niggling business of it being anachronistic in an embarrassing way. The poem/song was written purportedly as a ‘page-filler’ for the magazine Bangadarshan in 1875, six years before Anandamath was serialised in the same magazine and seven years before the novel was first published as a book. (Which makes it rather strange that rumpus-meister Arjun Singh wants to ‘celebrate’ the ‘centenary of the song’ on September 7.)
One can’t get around the fact that Anandamath, the receptacle where Vande Mataram found its textual home, is vicious against “these bearded degenerates” and “the baldies”. But it’s not so much the text itself, even with its cult of Shakti used as nationalism used as a nationalistic-religious force that (has) unsettled some Muslims. It’s who has used Bankim and Vande Mataram and Anandamath and to what end that sends people pressing the secular emergency button every now and then.
The fact that Vande Mataram was written in a mixture of Sanskrit and Bengali is a clue to how it was differently ‘read’ by Bengalis and by Indians down the years. Bankim, a deputy magistrate and deputy collector in the Bengal administration, was well aware of the dangers of being overtly critical of colonial rule. Standard historiography during the 19th century (with British encouragement) also successfully portrayed Muslim rule as the ‘dark ages’ sandwiched between the Golden Age of pre-Islamic India and the progress-oriented British era. The ‘buffer’ of Muslim tyranny during the time of Siraj-ud-daula (the period in which Anandamath is set) not only served Bankim to write about the need to write “our [the Bengalis’] own history” but also to (safely) use his imagination as a novelist “to achieve the effects he desires” — that is, to drum up a sense of nationalism in a colonised nation (more Bengal than India).
If there was any immediate catalyst to Vande Mataram and Anandamath, it was the 1873 peasant riots in the Yusufshahi pargana of Pabna-Sirajganj district. Farmers in Muslim-majority Bengal rose against (Hindu) zamindars who increased rent and started evicting them from their land for non-payment. After 43 leading peasant leaders refused to pay the increased rent, the zamindars filed a case. The court decreed in favour of the zamindars in 1872, incensing Bankim. In May 1873, after a civil judge reversed the earlier judgment, a group of peasants declared ‘independence’. What started off as a peaceful agitation turned violent with the British authorities clamping down on the unrest. If that didn’t break the back of the peasantry, the 1873-74 famine did.
Bankim wrote a series of scathing essays, ‘Bengal’s peasantry’, in 1873 to highlight the woes of Bengal’s farmers. The parallels with the sannyasi uprising — both the historical revolt of the peasantry against the East India Company in the 1770s as well as the fictionalised one in Anandamath — are obvious if anyone cares to see them.
The time when Vande Mataram really gained currency was during the agitations against the 1905 Partition of Bengal. This was when the expression was first used as a political slogan. As Julius Lipner notes in his exhaustive introduction to his translation of Bankim’s novel (Anandamath, or The Sacred Brotherhood, OUP), “The chanting [during the August 7, 1905, protest procession against the impending decision in Calcutta] was not confined to Hindus; people of all communities were reported to have been involved.” A violent police assault in Barishal against protestors chanting Vande Mataram in April 14, 1906, cemented the anti-British, Hindu-Muslim movement further.
The overt ‘Hinduisation’ of the anti-Partition movement came about only later with the appearance of the English language revolutionary paper, Bande Mataram, on August 6, 1906. One of its editors, Aurobindo Ghose, was the first in a line of others who started to co-opt Bankim’s nationalistic credo into a dominant Hindu one. By 1921, 10 years after the Bengal Partition was reversed and when many bhadralok started to perceive a Bengali Muslim resentment against the decision, Vande Mataram was being used as a slogan by Hindu rioters against Muslims.
While the rest of India were gleaning the anti-colonial message in Vande Mataram, Bengal’s bhadralok community was discovering the ‘Hindu’-ness of Bankim. Just to highlight how even the leading Bengali (Hindu) intelligentsia was swayed by anti-Muslim fervour, one has to only look at the way it reacted to the 1932 Communal Award. This was part of a British plan to offer ‘greater autonomy’ to the provinces. Seats to the proposed Bengal Legislative Assembly were to be distributed ‘representationally’. Thus, a Muslim-majority (54 per cent) Bengal suddenly found its Muslim populace represented by 47.8 per cent of the total number of seats; with Hindus (44 per cent) getting 32 per cent. The bhadralok class was furious — not at the British, like the rest of India, which found the autonomy plan communally divisive, but at the Muslims for ‘usurping’ seats that were rightfully theirs. A memorandum was sent to the Government of Bengal demanding “the Hindu minority of Bengal... their due weightage of representation” for their ‘cultural and intellectual superiority’ over the ‘backward’ Muslims. This was signed by the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, Prafulla Chandra Ray and other bhadralok luminaries. Similarly, to buttress the Hindu Mahasabha from gaining popularity among the educated classes, the Bengal Congress started to turn increasingly to the Right — increasingly sympathising with ‘Hindu’ causes.
One can only theorise how Bankim would have reacted to such class hostility disguised as communal injustice. But he was vocally against the (largely Hindu) bhadralok in 1869-70 when the latter resisted en masse the British plan to fund more primary educational institutions from increased taxes in higher education, fearing the creation of educated (mainly Muslim) masses. In 1894, a few months before his death and no longer an employee of the British, Bankim was asked why, as a liberal Bengali, he didn’t join the Congress Party. He replied, “Its whole agitation seems temporary and soulless... Keeping the country’s ordinary people in the dark and making it work for only educated people will never make it proud.
Till then, lakhs of people won’t feel the need for it or believe it to serve a great cause.” The million-rupee question is whether the ‘lakhs’ included the majority population of turn-of-the-century Bengal, the Muslims, or just the Hindu under-class.
For the Bengali bhadralok — like the Sangh parivar much later — Vande Mataram, Anandamath and Bankim meant something else from what it meant to the rest of India. This double vision has been confusing in the past and has confused the Congress-led government today. Not that such confusion makes most of us wiser about what malayajasitalam means.