On Wednesday March 16, AIMIM MLA Waris Pathan was suspended from the Maharashtra Assembly for refusing to say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. Earlier, another AIMIM leader, Asaduddin Owaisi voiced similar opinion in the Parliament leading to a strong rebuttal (without naming Owaisi) by Jawed Akhtar.
In a milieu when allegations and allegiances are marked on the basis of slogans shouted or the refusal to chant one, it may be pertinent to note that Waris Pathan was willing to say ‘Jai Hind‘. His refusal was only for ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’.
Both these slogans emerged during India’s freedom struggle. Both are reverential. Yet, both are markedly different. While in the first, the nation is abstract, in the second it is both abstract and an icon, a goddess, a mother. We know that various religions, including Islam, forbid the practice of idol worship and goddess worship.
The slogan, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ is often interchangeably raised with Vande Mataram and shares a common history too. Though it is extremely difficult to pin-point when this slogan first came into existence, the genealogy of the figure of Bharat Mata has been traced to a satirical piece titled Unabimsa Purana (‘The Nineteenth Purana’) by Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay, first published anonymously in 1866. Bharat Mata is identified in this text as Adi-Bharati, the widow of Arya Swami, the embodiment of all that is essentially ‘Aryan’. The image of the dispossessed motherland also found in Kiran Chandra Bandyopadhyay’s play, Bharat Mata, first performed in 1873.
The landmark intervention in the history of this icon was Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Anandamath By 1880 even the song was occasionally rendered in the drawing room of the author in raga Malhar. However, the score set in Desh Ragini (Kawali beat) came to be included only in the third edition of Anandmath in 1886. It was sung in the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress in 1896 by Rabindranath Tagore. Soon translations proliferated. The icon, the song and the slogan acquired an entangled trajectories but also their own identities.
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During the Swadeshi movement in 1905, Abnindranath Tagore painted an image of ‘Banga Mata’ but decided to title it as Bharat Mata. Painted as a beautiful young ascetic, in the eyes of Sister Nivedita, this was a coming together of the abstract ideal of nationalism and art, of human form and the divine spirit. This was ‘the perfect answer’ to her question, ‘how can a man be a painter of nationalism’ and ‘can an abstract idea be given form with flesh and painted?’
The icon of Bharat Mata very quickly acquired a wide ranging visual forms and registers i.e. calendar, lithograph, border of dhoti, match box labels and cartoons. This history reveals a fascinating entanglement of the anthropomorphic body of a divine mother with the map/ the territory of the nation. The overarching frame remains religious having elements drawn from the vocabulary of Hinduism and national struggle together. However, in 1935, when Amrita Sher-Gil chose to paint her own Mother India, her brush rendered Mother India as tribal women. For Jawaharlal Nehru, Bharat Mata ki Jai was not just about land and geography but also about peasants and people themselves.
By 1907, intelligence department reports begin mentioning Vande Mataram and occasionally Bharat Mata ki Jai as a ‘war cry’. It may be worth keeping in mind that unlike her siblings like Jai Hind and Inquilab Zindabad, barring few exceptions as mentioned above, an element of divine presence of a Vaishnav Hindu goddess remains central in the slogan Bharat Mata ki Jai. The objections and controversies were bound to crop up. The late 1930s witnessed some bitter communal politics in this regard. The controversies continued in post Independence phase too.
One such case erupted in Kerala when in early 1980s, three children of the Jehovah sect were expelled from a school for refusing to join other students in singing the national anthem. Instead, they stood in respectful deference during the singing. The sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses does not endorse or believe any sign/symbol of temporal power and only pays obeisance to its God, Jehovah. A case was filed against the children. The Kerala High Court maintained that, “there was no word or thought in the National Anthem, which could offend anyone’s religious susceptibilities; therefore, the plea that singing of the anthem infringed on one’s freedom of religion could not be sustained”. The Supreme Court, however, reversed the order by observing that no disrespect was shown to the national anthem by not joining in the singing.
The court further observed, “Article 25 is an article of faith in the Constitution, incorporated in recognition of the principle that the real test of a true democracy is the ability of even an insignificant minority to find its identity under the country’s Constitution.”
The practices of the Witnesses may appear “strange or even bizarre”, the question was not whether a particular religious belief or practice appeals to the Court’s reason or sentiment but whether the belief is genuinely and conscientiously held as part of the profession or practice of religion.” It is extremely crucial that the court recognised and upheld practices of plurality while dealing with the issue of faith. The court observed, “For the court to take to itself the right to say that the exercises here in question had no religious or devotional significance might well be for the court to deny that very religious freedom which the statute is intended to provide”. To us this recognition distinguishes the legal responses from executive or managerial measures pertaining to the sacredness of the anthem.
What was applied in the case of the national anthem may also be judicious for a sacred national slogan like Bharat Mata ki Jai. Though the court maintained the significance of Article 51 (A) that deals with fundamental duties, it also recognised that the national flag and the national anthem are means to propagate the cause of the nation rather than the nation itself.