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Tuesday, June 02, 2020

All About My Motherland

The evolution of our country's identity from the unifying mother of yore to the strict father of contemporary nationalist times.

Written by Alok Rai | Updated: May 21, 2017 12:00:03 am
Bengal, Bharat mata, Abanindranath Tagore, Motherland, india, Motherland india, Abanindranath Tagore bharat mata, Tagore, tagore bharat mata, india, latest india news, indian express File Photo

By way of methodological throat-clearing, consider this little gem in which Rupert Brooke describes a “Heaven” as imagined by fish:

“…they say they have their Stream and Pond; But is there anything Beyond?…We darkly know, by Faith we cry, The future is not wholly Dry. […But] somewhere, beyond Space and Time, Is wetter water, slimier slime”

So, cut to our raucous present: who are these creatures — fish, fowl or bovine progeny — who are imagining our motherlands and fatherlands, our “wetter water, slimier slime”? And where? And when? And why?

The image of Bharat Mata that crystallised in late 19th century Bengal, even in the context of widespread agricultural distress — opium, indigo, jute — was unmistakably marked by the lush and fertile landscapes of its original location, of sonar Bangla. Abanindranath Tagore’s Bharat Mata was endowed with the soft voluptuousness that is associated with the “magical” women of the East — the jadugarnis of Kamarupa. This image undoubtedly draws on Hindu cultural resources — she is a sort of chaturbhuji Durga — but it is important to assert, particularly in the context of the pitrabhumi that is being sought to be inserted into public consciousness, that Tagore’s Bharat Mata is maternal and not even remotely exclusive in its iconography. And yet, this is no cliched maternal fantasy. Indeed, the power of the icon resides precisely in the fact that it is flexible and can be bent, reimagined for different purposes in different situations. I wish I could translate Sumitranandan Pant’s Bharatmata Graamvaasini — but the image that emerges is very much one of rural poverty — mitti ki pratima udasini. It is another matter that, given the context of its enunciation, Pant’s Bharat Mata is empowered by ahimsa to become a force for transformation: jag janani jeevan vikasini. But, in the run of time, there are other transformations, other appropriations. So, Nargis’s Mother India is yoked to a harsh modernity, which leaves little room for pastoral consolations. And Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Bharat Mata, marked by the 1960s, is a snarling, sardonic witch who devours her own children.

So, other times, other imaginings. But as the cries of Bharat Mata ki jai are getting louder, the once-softly feminine, maternal figure is being recast as a warrior, as Mother Courage, perhaps? But what is rather more alarming is that there is another figure straining to be born. This is the pitra of the pitrabhoomi, the Fatherland — Bharat Pita doesn’t sound quite right, so perhaps we will have to settle for Bharat Bhraata, Big Brother?

The proximate agent of this birthing — the father of this fatherland, or is he only the midwife? — is undoubtedly VD Savarkar. Like the best revolutionaries, Savarkar too learnt his nationalism abroad, in Europe. His is a familiar compound — an abstract anti-imperialist rage, mixed up with a thwarted sense of entitlement that has not a little to do with the fact that his social and cultural capital as a Brahmin counts for little — both in the mother country, and even in the colonised motherland. Savarkar’s delight in his narration of the violence of 1857 is, well, blood-curdling: “The butchers entered Bibigarh with naked swords and sharp knives … [soon] …a sea of white blood spread all over … they butchered one hundred and fifty women and children. A pool of blood collected there, and body parts floated in it.” There is no political understanding here of what he was pleased to call The First War of Independence. But what is on display is the pathology that is an inevitable product of the colonial connection, on all sides — there can be no healthy colonialism. Savarkar’s sick melange of ressentiment and machismo is to be found in a dozen variations on the cusp of modernity. Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger is an invaluable guide to the cesspool of nationalisms.

However, what makes Savarkar distinctive — and the conception of the Savarkarite fatherland making its insidious way into our public consciousness particularly dangerous — has to do with the ideological inflection that he acquired while he was a guest of Some Majesty in the Cellular Jail in Andaman. Or, perhaps, he acquired it only when he, Convict No: 32778, petitioned the colonial government for clemency: “If the government in their manifold benefience and mercy release me, I, for one, cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress…”

Historian Ranajit Guha has written about the manner in which “the Muslim” becomes the preferred villain in early-nationalist writing generally, an intellectual surrogate for focussing proto-nationalist sentiment without transgressing the ground rules of colonial discourse or, in Savarkar’s case, without violating the condition on which he had been granted clemency. Several consequences follow from this substitution: “the Muslim” is simply the nameable cause of current colonial degeneracy, perforce. But this essentially neurotic displacement acquires, not only for Savarkar, a poisonous, escalating autonomy. There is little need here to rehearse all the moves that are necessitated by this strategic substitution: colonialism expands to encompass an entire millennium of Muslim “villainy” in which the British are barely visible. There are desperate strategies of exclusion whereby an entire population that is demonstrably indigenous is sought to be delegitimised — the whole punyabhoomi fiddle, i.e. Muslims can’t be Indian because their holy places are elsewhere. Says who? Burdened with the inescapable, and now unnameable, guilt of that clemency petition, Savarkar invents an elaborate retrospective justification for his silence about colonialism. The whole twisted and strident narrative of Muslim “villainy” is in a sense his desperate claim to moral redemption — rather like the protagonist in a novel by Joseph Conrad or Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

So, saddled with a male, martial and ferociously anti-Muslim ideology of the fatherland, we are a long way from the gentle Bharat Mata of Abanindranath Tagore, but one must resist the urge to psychologise this transformation too much. Obviously, there are elements that belong to a larger bank of “nationalist” ideologies: substitute “Jews” for “Muslims” and we are in familiar fascist territory. But there may also be something specifically Indian about the “masculinity” that is at play in this conception of the pitrabhumi, some deep cultural source which this taps into. Joseph Alter, in Moral Materialism: Sex and Masculinity in Modern India, has written about the peculiarity of the Indian notion of masculinity. This masculinity is not defined in relation to any notion of femininity but is, rather, constructed around the notion of celibacy — specifically, non-relation. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Indian notions of yoga and brahmacharya and the promised rewards of semen-retention — the kundalini rises, no less! — will recognize that Alter is on to something. But what is of immediate concern to us here is what happens when this celibate “masculinity” is sought to be massaged into paternity, pitrabhumi, fatherland. Because this is truly a tragic, inexpressible masculinity. The only “expression” that it can know is violence. And I find it entirely typical of this monkish imagination that the act of making babies is replaced by some bizarre eugenic fantasy in which only ideal and “Aryan” babies will be produced. This “slime”, dear friends, is “slimier” than anyone thinks.

Then again, the shift that seems to be taking place, may also be connected with the particular stage of national development in which we find ourselves. So, the inclusive Bharat Mata that emerges in Abanindranath’s conception corresponds to a particular mobilisational phase of the freedom movement. We are now entering — have entered — a phase of national development in which large numbers of people will inevitably be excluded. Of course they say otherwise — and so they should. And the Supreme Court should rule that everyone must chant sabka saath, sabka vikaas, individually and collectively, five times a day, in the national interest. But, I fear that we are going to need more robust strategies of discontent management also. And that is exactly where a fatherland — stern, disciplinarian, enforcing some rules — would be rather more serviceable than a soft and pliable motherland: Mummy’s good for a cuddle, but it’s Daddy that does the spanking.

This will be, let me state with proper patriotic ardour, no ordinary fatherland — not least, of course, because it started out as a motherland. Indeed, one might even say that there is a particular cultural appropriateness in a fatherland that is also a motherland. After all, our’s is a country which, uniquely, visualises an androgynous divinity, the Ardhanarishvara. Surely our nationalism can match that?

The writer taught in the department of English, Delhi University.

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