On Tuesday, the Madras High Court declared that it would be mandatory for all schools and colleges in Tamil Nadu to sing Vande Mataram at least once a week; and in private and government offices “at least once a month”. The Court deems this fit in the “interest” of the public, where “a sense of patriotism in each and every citizen of the state” needs to be instilled.
Since its conception, however, Vande Mataram has been a song mired in controversies. For a significant part of history, the Muslim community has voiced its apparent discomfort towards the song. In 2006, the general secretary of Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind (an important Islamic organisation in India), Maulana Mahmood Madani had said, “No Muslim can sing ‘Vande Mataram’ if he considers himself to be a true believer.” Then in 2009, Muslim clerics issued a fatwa against the singing of Vande Mataram in Deoband.
A Brief Tour of History
In 1870, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay meticulously crafted a song which would go on to assume a glorified national stature, but would be communally explosive in its entirety. Written in Bengali, the song titled Vande Mataram would not be introduced into the public sphere until the publishing of the novel, Anandamath in 1882, within the framework of which the song is woven into. But Vande Mataram would soon gain an identity synonymous with the struggle for India’s freedom, becoming an important lynchpin in the history of Indian politics.
Anandamath was written in 19th century India, at a time when the country was still part of the British empire. At that time, there was widespread cultural, religious and intellectual suffocation. In the midst of this, Chattopadhyay, a respected literary figure, conceived Anandamath as a powerful literary instrument to stir nationalistic feelings within the country. But with a twist.
Set in the early 1770s, against the backdrop of the Fakir-Sannyasi Rebellion, Anandamath was established at a time of the Bengal agrarian crisis, when Bengal was hit by three famines one after another. Interestingly though, Chattopadhyay’s novel held the Muslim Nawab responsible for the excruciating circumstances, claiming that it was the Nawab’s quiet acquiescence to The East India Company that debilitated Bengal.
Historian Tanika Sarkar wrote in Birth of a Goddess: Vande Mataram, Anandamath and Hindu Nationhood that, “The East India Company was then calling the shots from behind the facade of a puppet Muslim Nawab. It was rack-renting peasant surplus to augment revenues from which the Company extracted a massive tribute. The drive was so relentless that three successive droughts produced a famine of catastrophic proportions in 1770. Much of the land returned to waste and approximately one-third of the population starved to death.” She wrote that the novel held “the Nawab responsible not just for widespread death and starvation, but also for a deliberate and total destruction of Hindus, of their honour, faith, caste and women. In other words, it forces a split between the agents and victims of the famine: the agents are Muslims and the starving and dying people are always identified as Hindus.”
Since their conception, both the novel as well as Vande Mataram, have been read from a plurality of vantage points. History will provide evidence that Vande Mataram has received a considerable backlash from the Muslim community – many have objected that the song carries anti-Muslim connotations.
Sarkar writes that the book’s fictional protagonists considered the famine as an infliction by the Muslims upon Hindus: “Our faith is ruined,” translated Sarkar, quoting one of them, “our caste and honour are gone, now even our lives are in danger…unless we drive out these drunken Muslim wretches, how can we save the religion of Hindus?” She continues to translate what a Hindu leader in the book Satyananda says: “We do not want power for ourselves. We want to exterminate all the Muslims on this land as they are enemies of God’ Or, ‘Many had resented the end of Hindu power and Hindus had been eager for the restoration of their faith.”
It is against this literary, ideological canvas that Vande Mataram is introduced in the book. In 1896, the song was first sung publicly at the Indian National Congress’ session, by Rabindranath Tagore himself. The song went on to become a war cry during the partition of Bengal in 1905, and soon graduated to become fiercely emblematic of the freedom struggle. But it was at this time that the tension between the Muslims and Hindus began becoming seemingly palpable. Muslim leaders began voicing their concerns: In December 1908, speaking at the Second Session of the All India Muslim League as its President, Syed Ali Imam said, “I cannot say what you think, but when I find the most advanced province of India put forward the sectarian cry of ‘Bande Mataram’ as the national cry, and the sectarian Rakhi-bandhan as a national observance, my heart is filled with despair and disappointment; and the suspicion that, under the cloak of nationalism, Hindu nationalism is preached in India becomes a conviction.”
Decades later, Jinnah echoed his inhibitions. Refusing to embrace Vande Mataram, Jinnah wrote in The New Times of Lahore (dated March 1, 1938): “Muslims all over [India] have refused to accept Vande Mataram or any expurgated edition of the anti-Muslim song as a binding national anthem.”
Jinnah was not alone in recognising the song’s ability to irk the Muslim community. Nehru was equally aware. A year before, in 1937, he had personally written to Tagore, expressing similar concerns that the song, although patriotic in its ambition, had religious leanings favouring the Hindu community. Sarkar writes, “[Nehru] asked Tagore if the translation was accurate: ‘it does seem that the background is likely to irritate the Muslims.’”
But Tagore noted that the first two stanzas (mentioned below) of the written five, had no religious connotations:
“I bow to thee, Mother,
richly watered, richly fruited,
cool with the winds of the south,
dark with the crops of the harvests,
Her nights rejoicing in the glory of
the moonlight, her bands clothed
beautifully with her trees in flowering
bloom, sweet of laughter, sweet of
speech, the Mother, giver of boons,
giver of bliss!”
The third and fourth stanzas are preoccupied with references to Goddess Kali: “Thou art Durga, Lady and Queen, with her hands that strike and her swords of sheen”. Now while a superficial reading of the song may not seem offensive, but the song equates Goddess Durga to the motherland. To the Muslim community that follows the monotheistic religion of Islam and does not worship Hindu goddesses, paying this form of homage to a country through reference to a Hindu deity figured to be problematic.
Historian A.G. Noorani investigated this conundrum in the essay, Vande Mataram: A Historical Lesson. He wrote, “The context only makes it worse. ‘The land of Bengal, and by extension all of India, became identified with the female aspect of Hindu deity, and the result was a concept of divine Motherland.’ How secular is such a song?”
It seems that the first two stanzas were written initially in 1872, representing the motherland in all its beauty, as a bountiful nurturer. The other three stanzas (which take on darker, militant connotations – Durga is described as holding weapons of war) were later additions, which were included when the novel was published. Therefore in 1937, the Indian National Congress, sensitive to the needs of the Muslim community while still wanting the immensely inspiring Vande Mataram to be a part of its tradition, took the decision to drop the last three stanzas, declaring that only the first two, non-controversial stanzas would be sung during its sessions.
Interestingly, in 1915, Mahatma Gandhi had celebrated the fervent patriotism expressed in Vande Mataram. Decades later, however, he recognised Vande Mataram’s propensity to cause communal discomfort. In July 1939, he wrote in Harijan, “No matter what its source was, and how and when it was composed, had become a most powerful battle cry among Hindus and Musalmans of Bengal during the Partition days. It was an anti-imperialist cry. As a lad, when I knew nothing of ‘Anand Math’ or even Bankim, its immortal author, ‘Vande Mataram’ had gripped me, and when I first heard it sung it had enthralled me. I associated the purest national spirit with it. It never occurred to me that it was a Hindu song or meant only for Hindus. Unfortunately now we have fallen on evil days…”
In 1951, in the aftermath of Partition, the Constituent Assembly decided to make Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana as the country’s national anthem, instead of the religiously contentious Vande Mataran, even though the latter was a strong contender. Regardless, however, Vande Mataram went on to be honoured as a national song, even though it had lost its position as the country’s official anthem.