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Lessons of Vande Mataram

Patriotism must come from within and not be imposed by law, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Sep 03, 2006 03:10 IST

The most obvious consequence of the Vande Mataram controversy is that a whole new generation now realises that there is more to the song than a version by AR Rahman and a video by Bharat Bala.

Each day, the papers are full of new developments in the Vande Mataram saga. Is it really the centenary of the song? Does Arjun Singh believe that children should be forced to sing it? Has Rajnath Singh made a mistake in urging BJP states to ensure that the maulanas and the madrasas treat the singing of Vande Mataram as a patriotic duty?

So why, when you’ve read so much about Vande Mataram already — lots of it in the pages of this paper — am I inflicting yet another column about the controversy on you?

Well, it’s because I think the manner in which this controversy has been manufactured and manipulated offers us some lessons for the future.

But first, a little bit about the song. Like most people, I believed that the controversy was a recent invention. In fact, it has a long and complicated history. Even Rabindranath Tagore, who sang Vande Mataram in 1896 at the Calcutta Congress session, was later to write: “The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to the Goddess Durga; this is so plain that there can be no debate about it… no Muslim can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as Swadesh.”

Taking note of Muslim objections to the song, the Congress decided in 1937 that only the first two stanzas of Vande Mataram — which are short on references to Hindu goddesses — would be sung in public. Despite this decision, some Muslims have always objected to Vande Mataram. In 1977-78, Muslim corporators in Bombay objected to singing the song and the Congress government in Maharashtra went so far as to rule that forcing anyone to sing all verses of Vande Mataram would be treated as a constitutional violation, punishable under the IPC. Predictably, this led to a massive Hindu backlash and the Shiv Sena won the next election to the corporation.

So, the controversy is not new. But this outbreak is pointless and needlessly divisive.

Which leads us to the first lesson of this saga. Contrary to what the Congress is now claiming, it was not the BJP’s hunger for Hindu votes that led to this episode. It was the foolishness of this government. Responding to a letter forwarded by the culture ministry asking for celebrations to mark the centenary of Vande Mataram, the HRD ministry ordered that it should be sung in all schools on 7 September.

Problem: this is not the centenary of Vande Mataram. The song was probably written in the early 1870s. Another problem: whoever ordered that this bogus centenary should be celebrated not only had no sense of history but also had no political instincts. Any sensible politician could see that, given the background, an order forcing students to sing Vande Mataram would provoke some controversy. But the HRD ministry went ahead anyway. When the issue exploded in its face, Arjun Singh quickly backtracked and said that nobody was being forced to sing the song: we could all warble it voluntarily. Which is nice, but frankly, we don’t need Arjun Singh’s permission to sing songs. The whole point of the ministry’s order was that schools were supposed to organise institutional sing-alongs.

So, the first lesson: put a politician in charge of culture and he will find some way of screwing it up.

The second lesson has to do with religious politics in India. I get told off by my politically-correct friends every time I say this, but one of the problems faced by the Muslim community in India is that its leaders ignore its genuine economic and social grievances and focus, again and again, on religious issues that are guaranteed to make all Muslims sound like unreasonable fanatics. So, they will be less voluble about unemployment and discrimination and much more vocal about the right to refuse to pay maintenance to wives, to protest cartoons in faraway Denmark and to kill Salman Rushdie.

The Vande Mataram controversy is yet another instance of this crowd-pleasing foolishness. Yes, all right, we all know that there is a historical background. But is the biggest problem faced by Indian Muslims the terrible plight of Muslim children in government schools who might have to sing the first two stanzas of Vande Mataram on 7 September?

Clearly not. But listening to Muslim leaders going on and on about the un-Islamic nature of the song, you begin to fear for the political future of India’s Muslims. Each time their grievances are expressed in purely religious terms, not only do the more serious issues get swept under the carpet but confirms the RSS caricature that Muslims are fanatical fundamentalists.

Equally, national political parties do not come off well in this saga. It was AB Vajpayee who opposed plans to make the singing of Vande Mataram compulsory. But under Rajnath Singh, the BJP has seized on Muslim objections to the song to make the singing of Vande Mataram a simplistic test of Indian patriotism: if they don’t sing it, then they must be traitors. It is like one of those communal riots, where they stop cars and force their occupants to demonstrate which religion they belong to. No doubt, the next time there is a riot, they will pull Muslims out of cars and force them to sing Vande Mataram to prove their loyalty to the Indian state.

And what of the Congress, whose foolishness led to this instalment in the controversy? Now that it’s become a Hindu-Muslim issue, the party is contorting itself trying to reassure Muslims while still retaining the support of the Hindus: all this to win votes at the next election.

That’s the second lesson: there is no religious issue that an Indian politician will not stoop to exploit for his own advancement.

The third lesson has more to do with us than it does with politicians. We are now so consumed by political correctness that we have lost sight of the meanings of secularism and patriotism.

The Muslim objection to the first two stanzas is that they refer to bowing before the mother, whereas Muslims only bow before Allah. As MP chief minister, Shivraj S Chauhan, pointed out in an article in the HT, Indian Muslims have forgotten that the national anthems of many Islamic states do not conform to this criterion. For instance, the national anthem of Jordan venerates the King in a manner that far exceeds Vande Mataram’s bowing before a symbolic mother. And the national anthem of Bangladesh uses the word mother four times.

But even if we regard the Muslim objections as being substantial, this leads to a situation where we treat secularism as a sort of pasteurisation process where all religious symbolism is destroyed before we package culture for national consumption. This is silly. Culture reflects all aspects of society including religion. If we are to sterilise all culture to deny the historical importance of religion then we might as well destroy culture itself.

It is nobody’s case that Muslims should be forced to recite the Gayatri Mantra. But equally, we cannot comb through all culture deleting every religious reference on the grounds that this might offend one minority or the other. To define secularism in this rigid and narrow manner is to rob the term of all meaning.

And what of patriotism and liberalism? Anthems and inspirational songs have a place in all societies. But only authoritarian or totalitarian states use the law to enforce their singing. It was okay for the Nazis to goose-step to Deutschland Uber Alles but today’s Germans are much less keen on singing it at torch-lit rallies. Few Americans know the words to the Stars and Stripes Forever and in the UK God save the Queen is seen as a quaint reminder of a bygone era. (And as for France, can anyone hear the opening bars of The Marseilles without thinking of All You Need Is Love?)

The whole point of a liberal society is that you don’t force people to sing anything, whether it is Vande Mataram or Jana Gana Mana. Speaking for myself, I’m the sort of chap who enjoys singing along to Jana Gana Mana and who feels the hairs rising on my arm when I hear the first notes of our national anthem. But does that mean that you could put me in jail if I felt differently? Surely not. The point of living in free India is that patriotism must come from within and not be imposed by law. I am angered by people who talk when the national anthem is being played. But I would be much angrier if they were arrested for talking during the song.

I find it bizarre that the unspoken assumption in this debate is that if Muslims can be persuaded that Vande Mataram is not anti-Islamic, then it is entirely okay to force them to sing it. My position is: the moment you force people to be patriotic, you devalue patriotism.

And that is the third and final lesson from this saga: we have become so imprisoned in our petty politics and our pointless little debates that we have lost sight of the big picture. Secularism does not mean sterilisation. And patriotism is not a section of the Indian Penal Code.

First Published: Sep 03, 2006 03:10 IST