“Bharat Mata was always the fairest and prettiest girl in class. She would be there in all our school skits — in a white silk or cotton sari with a red border, a red bindi, a golden crown with a trishul in her hand. She would glisten under the lights,” says 27-year-old Harleen Kaur.
Ever since the arrest of JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, ‘Bharat Mata’, this loaded anthropomorphic form of the nation, has dominated headlines, made its way into the mouths of lawyers spewing venom and raining blows, and has virtually been the starting point for vile abuse on social media platforms. While justifying the government crackdown on JNU over alleged “anti-national” slogans raised in the campus, Union minister Smriti Irani had said, “The nation can never tolerate any insult to Bharat Mata”.
So who, indeed, is Bharat Mata? “It has been nine years since I left school (Holy Child School in West Delhi’s Tagore Garden) but for me Mother India will always be synonymous with January 26 and August 15,” says Harleen, a systems accountant with Hays, the British consulting firm that has an office in Noida. So did she ever make the cut? “No! Not even once,” she laughs as she walks away from Rajiv Chowk Metro station and melts into a crowd of shoppers heading towards Connaught Place.
“Nargis Dutt,” says Dilip Kumar, 52, whose family has been running a chaat stall outside UPSC Bhawan in Central Delhi since 1935. The iconic poster of the movie Mother India, with Nargis carrying the plough, framed for posterity this image of a mother as the ‘ideal Indian woman’. But for Kumar, Mother India the movie evokes nostalgia of a “much simpler time”. “The movie was released before I was born (in 1957) but those were much simpler times. People were kinder, happier and more content. There were fewer worries and you got a real education — if you ever made it to school or college. Look at the students of today and what they learn from their education,” says Kumar, whose chaat stall caters to a number of civil servants and aspirants.
At Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the provenance of the latest rumblings in the country, things are a little more serious. “The term Bharat Mata is patriarchal and deeply offensive,” says 23-year-old Salonee Sheetal, a second-year student at the School of International Studies in the university. “The image that comes to mind is of a demure, hapless woman who needs protection. Bharat Mata is personified to manipulate people into thinking that she is a vulnerable woman whose ‘honour’ is in danger. Look at the way ‘Bharat Mata’ is being used in the Kanhaiya case,” she says, sitting cross-legged at the university’s Chandrabhaga hostel.
Sheetal has personal reasons for her “strong dislike” of the term. “I did my schooling at Saraswati Vidya Mandir in Patna, which is run by the RSS. I come from a family of RSS supporters. While my elder sisters went to more affluent schools (Mount Carmel and Krishna Niketan in Patna), I was put in this school as my father thought I was too rebellious,” she says. “In school, this myth of Bharat Mata was internalised through songs, folklore, paintings, music and a very communal history,” she says.
Her view is vehemently contested by Saket Bahuguna, a 27-year-old Central Working Committee member of the ABVP. “Bharat Mata is the mother who provides shelter and nurtures her children. In return, you show love, respect and service. It’s funny that people tend to see patriarchy in this concept. The image also signifies plurality, which is an important aspect of our county,” he says.
For members of the theatre group Abhivyakti, all students of Maitreyi College in South Delhi, Bharat Mata is all about poems, movies and deities. The girls are huddled around a granite bench at a stall in Dilli Haat.
“It depends on whether you say Bharat Mata or Mother India,” says Priyali Dhingra, 19, a first-year BA History student. “Mother India will always be Nargis Dutt and the movie. But Bharat Mata for me is the image of Durga and those jagratas (the all-night pujas),” she adds.
Chaitali Pant says it reminds her of her Hindi textbooks in school. “The back pages of these textbooks would have two children holding hands and praying before an image of Bharat Mata,” she says.
Back in JNU, Nandakumar Shekhar, 24, a first-year MA political science student at the university, says, “To me, Mother India is a mother and that means compassion and kindness. But those using the term use it loosely.” Shekhar, who is from Kanchipuram town in Tamil Nadu and has been in Delhi for six months, says, “I didn’t vote for Kanhaiya; I don’t even understand half of what he says. But why would you arrest a poor student whose mother earns just Rs 3,000 a month?”
The search for Bharat Mata continues.